Buffalo Bills open training camp with one thought: Last year is a thing of the past
ORCHARD PARK – If there was one thing that was made abundantly clear on the first day of training camp, it’s that the Buffalo Bills have put their breakout 2020 season in the rearview mirror.
No one really cares to talk about a year in which the Bills ended their AFC East division title drought at 25 years, made their first AFC Championship Game appearance in 27 years, and saw their quarterback, Josh Allen, put together the greatest passing season in team history.
It’s old news to them.
“I think our guys understand, and we’ve stressed that all offseason, is that what we did last year was really good but it means nothing,” general manager Brandon Beane said before the 2021 edition took the field at its One Bills Drive facility.
“One of the coaches,” Beane continued, “I heard him talking to a couple players yesterday talking about re-climbing the mountain. We don’t get to start up here, we’re starting at the bottom. Everything we did, all the success we had, it doesn’t mean anything. Everybody’s 0-0, everybody’s at the start line and we have to re-establish the things that we did well last year.”
Not surprisingly, head coach Sean McDermott shared the exact same sentiment.
“Every year is different, every team is different, but you have to start at square one every year,” he said. “You have to start over and have to, mindset wise, be as humble and hungry as you can be. I’ve found over the years that that humble and hungry approach goes a long way inside the building and outside the building, and life in general. That’s what we subscribe to and that’s what I expect to see from our team.”
This is uncharted territory for the 21st-century Bills. This is the first time they are being looked at as legitimate Super Bowl contenders after a season in which they went 13-3 and then won two home playoff games before getting whipped by the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC title game.
Now they are the hunted, they will get everyone’s best shot, and after setting the bar remarkably high, they will be hard-pressed to clear it and take the next step: Getting back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 28 years and hey, maybe even winning it.
“I know it’s a talking point,” Allen said of the expectations the Bills are facing, not only from their passionate fan base but from the local and national media. “Everybody understands it’s a brand-new season. Whatever we did doesn’t translate to what we’re going to do this year. It’s a new team.”
Actually, it’s really not a new team. There are plenty of new faces, but the vast majority of them won’t be making the roster because the Bills are returning almost their entire starting units on offense and defense, their three main specialists, plus a large number of key reserves.
Still, you get Allen’s point. This group has to come together the way the 2020 team did, only this time it must do so with a glaring spotlight shining on Highmark Stadium. There will be no sneaking up on opponents in 2021.
“People have tape, they’re going to watch how we did some of the things that we did offensively,” said Beane. “We put up some really good numbers ... don’t think that teams have not studied that and are going to have game plans to stop that. And then what can we do better? What are the things that we struggled with that maybe didn’t help us get over the hump in that AFC Championship Game or an earlier game that season?
“High expectations,” Beane continued, “but it starts here. We’ve got to put the work in. And that’s the great thing about Sean, he’s well-grounded and he keeps the coaches well-grounded. These guys all understand that 2021 is a new year, and nothing that we did in 2020 will affect what we do this year.”
Here are some other observations I had after day one of camp:
Josh Allen’s contract extension in dry dock
There had been speculation that the Bills would get their rising superstar signed to a massive, long-term deal before the start of camp, but that did not happen, though neither Allen nor Beane seem all that concerned about it.
“I’m just trying to be the best quarterback I can be for this team,” Allen said, clearly anxious to get off the topic. “Whether it happens or it doesn’t happen, it’s not going to change my approach to be the best teammate, the best leader I can be for this team and this organization. My focus is on football. It’s honestly the least of my worries whether it gets done or not. We’re here to win a Super Bowl.”
Like Allen, Beane offered nothing of substance on the matter.
“I don’t think there’s momentum; it’s hard for me to really gauge it,” he said of the contract negotiations. “None of this has anything to do with Josh, but there’s no momentum or anything like that. He and I have had great conversations since we’ve been back here and he’s focused out here. Like I said, if something were to get done, we’d be excited but if not, we both know that we’ll work hard next year to get it done.”
Three players sidelined at start
Beane announced that two players, offensive linemen Dion Dawkins and Ike Boettger, are on the COVID-19 list and won’t be practicing for a little while. Beane said one of the players is asymptomatic, the other is not, but he did not say which was which.
Also, defensive end Jerry Hughes did not pass his physical because he suffered a strained calf while training on his own before the start of camp. Hughes was at practice and he was seen riding a stationary bike, but he starts the year on the Non-Football Injury list. “But everyone else, clear and should be ready to roll for us,” Beane said.
Regarding the COVID players, Beane said, “They’ll go through the standard procedure protocols. As we’re seeing in this country, vaccinated or unvaccinated, sometimes guys that are vaccinated are also getting these breakthrough cases and we’ve had a couple of those, counting these guys in that mix. So, again, we’re still dealing with this, we’re still learning it. It’s been a tough situation for our country and it’s no different here.”
Beane said that around 80% of the players have received at least one COVID-19 shot, so that’s a positive sign, and he hopes more players will come around.
“We’ve been trying to educate our guys, all through back in May and June,” he said. “Our guys have done a really good job of listening and trying to educate themselves. Are we 100%? No, but a lot of guys have made that decision. We’ve had an uptick of guys that have at least gotten one shot. At the end of the day we’re not going to force it on any of our players or any of our staff. That’s a personal decision. And that’s how the organization will handle it going forward.”
Among the players who donned masks at the end of practice were Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis, Matt Breida, Star Lotulelei, A.J. Epenesa, Ed Oliver, Jacob Hollister, Duke Williams, Jake Fromm, Tyrell Adams, Taiwan Jones, Jon Feliciano, and Emmanuel Sanders.
However, that does not mean they haven’t been vaccinated. It could be that they are just taking the extra precaution, or maybe only have one shot. For what it’s worth, Allen, who refused to say whether he is or isn’t vaccinated, was not wearing a mask and he has been spotted around town without a mask.
Beasley downplayed social media spat
Beasley, who we know is not vaccinated and has been one of the most outspoken players regarding the vaccine, was asked about the Twitter back and forth he had with Hughes last week, and he said it was merely a conversation between two teammates.
“I know me and Jerry had a conversation on social media which, yeah, a lot of people don’t think that’s the best way to do things,” Beasley said. “But look, me and Jerry are brothers. We had a conversation on the phone immediately after, we talked it through, and we weren’t mad at each other, we’re just talking to each other.”
Hughes is on the opposite side of Beasley regarding the vaccine. From afar, it looked like the exchange was the type of thing that could divide the locker room, but Beasley said that wasn’t the case at all.
“Jerry’s one of the guys that I’ll run through a wall for,” Beasley said. “Brothers have debates, not everybody agrees on everything. I don’t understand why we don’t understand that, but that doesn’t mean you don’t like somebody or you have to hate them, or whatever the narrative that we create in society.
“I love all my teammates no matter what they want to do. I’m pro-choice, whatever they choose to do, that’s cool with me. As long as you come out here and do what you got to do to help us be great, then I’m cool.”
Sal Maiorana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.