Inside the Bills' turnaround: Culture-first approach fuels progress, yields wins

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Mounds of snow surrounded the Buffalo Bills' two practice fields after a particularly heavy November snowfall this week. It was cold, with temperatures somewhere in the mid-20s, but the sporadic periods of sunshine and a lack of wind made conditions tolerable enough to practice outdoors.

As the players broke into position groups on the only field that was plowed, offensive line coach Bobby Johnson's voice rang out.

"I said, 'Hey, when you signed the contract, you knew what Buffalo was,'" Johnson said. "'You knew what you were signing up for. You knew what the weather was going to be, so let's go. Where else would you rather be? You had your choices, and you chose here.' That's the attitude we try to take."

The Bills, who host the Denver Broncos on Sunday (1 p.m. ET , CBS), are in the third season of a multiyear rebuild under general manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott, which, unlike several attempts by their predecessors, appears to be working. At 7-3, the Bills are the front-runners for one of the AFC's two wild-card spots, which would mark their second playoff berth in three seasons after they spent 17 straight Januarys on the couch during the postseason.

The Bills have done this by completely revamping the roster, cycling out bad contracts while adding starting-caliber talent and quality depth through the NFL draft and free agency. More specifically, Beane and McDermott added players who fit the culture they were implementing. Often, that meant bringing in players who had been overlooked or discarded.

"Some people like strawberry ice cream, some people like banana ice cream -- it's all based on the flavor," McDermott said in October. "Sometimes, what we look for is different from other teams."

Almost all of the players who have come to Buffalo to play for McDermott share common traits. For the free agents and waiver claims, those traits generally stem from a desire to prove wrong the teams that didn't think they were good enough. For the draftees, it is a realization that the Bills need them to become leaders quickly.

Combined, the Bills have curated a locker room full of "misfits" -- or banana ice cream, as McDermott put it. However this assembly is described, it's working for Buffalo.

No choice but to love it

Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips was happy to be released by the Dolphins in October 2018, but the grass isn't always greener -- and in Phillips' case, it was hard to even see the grass underneath the snow.

He was claimed by the Bills the day after his release and didn't immediately embrace the change of scenery.

"I didn’t get a choice to come to Buffalo. They claimed me. When I got here, I was more on the outside looking in, like, 'I hate it here. I didn't want to be here,'" he said. "I came in with a bad attitude ... but you don't have a choice but to love the guys in this locker room. The culture that they're building here makes you buy in so quick and realize that it's not all about what you do -- it's more about what the team does.

"As soon as you buy into that, that's when the success starts coming."

Phillips signed a one-year, $4.5 million extension this offseason and is on pace for a career-high 11 sacks. He didn't want to leave (and still doesn't) after experiencing the brotherhood the Bills' locker room provided.

He equates the experience to his time at Oklahoma.

"It's like college here," Phillips said. "Everybody has no choice but to be close because there's nothing really to do, so everyone hangs out together. When you go to a big city, there's so much to do. People don't know your name -- you're just another guy in a big market like that. It's not what I thought my NFL dream would be. Here, it's more like [my dream]."

'Like a foster home'

The 2019 free-agent class proved vital for Beane and McDermott, who signed 18 players between March 12 and late April. Buffalo had major needs to fill following a 6-10 season, and its roster lacked the necessary "edge" outside of a handful of players.

But the locker room had to be carefully curated -- diverse but similar. The Bills needed strong personalities to set the tone and even-keeled personalities for balance. For every outspoken player such as Jon Feliciano and Lee Smith came a softer-spoken counterpart such as John Brown and Cole Beasley.

Feliciano, especially, has helped set the tone for a rebuilt offensive line that features one starter from the 2018 season. He has been in Buffalo for months, but the veteran has made his passion clear on several occasions, including the unnecessary roughness penalty he drew in Week 8, when he shoved Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins to the ground after an extra point -- a retaliation for Jenkins' late hit on quarterback Josh Allen earlier in the game.

"They know they brought in people that care, and the amount that we care sometimes leads to us doing too much," Feliciano said. "They knew what they got with the people they brought in. They wanted a physical, mean team, and they brought in people that play that way.

"Win, lose, draw -- we're going to come at [you]."

You'll also find some Bills players boisterously challenging one another at table tennis, others hosting small concerts and some silently keeping to themselves at their lockers.

"It's a bunch of misfits -- it's like a foster home, you know what I’m saying?" receiver Isaiah McKenzie said. "But everybody's got their own personality. Nobody's the same. That's why it works. They always say opposites attract. Like with me, I'm more outgoing, but another receiver in the room, Smoke [John Brown] is quiet. He doesn't say much, but it works for us. We like each other. The whole locker room is like that."

McKenzie was claimed off waivers in November 2018, when the Broncos released their 2017 fifth-round pick. He's everywhere around One Bills Drive and is just as likely to joke around with more reserved quarterback Matt Barkley as he is to loudly debate with the more vocal Phillips.

"Every team is different, but in our locker room, I know for a fact that everybody gets along," he said.

Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, a 13-year veteran with stops in Washington, Arizona and Oakland, agreed that the Bills' roster is unique to winning teams -- not just because of how the players get along but also because of how they conduct themselves.

Alexander says you wouldn't be able to separate star players from reserves based on their behavior.

"[Beane and McDermott] have done a great job of identifying guys that have talent but are great dudes, too," he said. "I think people become [obsessed with] talent, like, 'If you have great talent, I'm going to be in love with you. You're going to have a long leash.' But if they're not great people and don't work hard, that can tear down a locker room, too.

"We don't have guys that take advantage of the power they have on the team. If they're highly paid or have been put into [a] leadership role, you don't have men in our room that take advantage. They don't abuse it. They're still working hard and trying to bring guys along and be part of the group."

"It is unique to teams that I've been on that have won. I've been on some teams that have a lot of talent but aren't good."

Breaking the 'millennial' mold

Beyond free agency, Buffalo has hit on several draft picks since 2017. Of its 22 selections in that span, only five are no longer on Buffalo's 53-man roster.

Alexander, the second-longest tenured player on the Bills' roster, credited the team's front office for finding leaders.

"Brandon and Sean have done a great job of identifying guys who have innate leadership ability. It may not be like they've got to get up and speak in front of everyone, but they know how to be pros," Alexander said. "They've really drafted well ... you think about Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, Tre'Davious White -- just the guys they identify are humble and different."

It all began with White, whom McDermott selected in the first round in 2017. Now in his third year as a starter, he has established himself as one of the league's best cornerbacks and one of the team's most recognizable and marketable figures. The LSU product understood the pressure he was under as the first pick of a new regime, and he has not disappointed.

"They just wanted me to come in and help build the culture here," White said. "From the day I got drafted to when I got here and met everybody, they just told me I'm the first pick to changing this organization. I didn't take that lightly, and it's something I took to my rookie year, and I feel like I did pretty good."

Even the Bills' youngest player has emerged as one of its most respected leaders. The 2018 first-round pick Edmunds, who is five months younger (at 21) than the team's first-rounder in 2019, Ed Oliver, delivered an impassioned speech to the team before the Bills' 37-20 win against Miami in Week 11.

Edmunds challenged the team to play up to the dominant level it is capable of reaching. His speech impressed teammates and bolstered the 36-year-old Alexander's belief that the Bills' young cornerstones are built differently than average players their age.

"They kind of break the mold of what you think about millennials," Alexander said. "When you start collecting a group of men who have those traits, it's easy to respect a guy and get along with guys like that. You know the type of work they're putting in. Even an older guy like me, I see young guys come into this locker room who have that, aren't entitled and are workers and listen."

A reflection of the city

The Bills are not a finished product, but they're closer to it than they were two years ago. That's a testament to not only Beane and McDermott, who managed to build a functioning machine out of spare parts, but also the players who united over their desire to never again be seen as spare parts.

Here they are, a collection of misfits who together form a team built in the image of the city it represents.

"It definitely is [a reflection] of Buffalo -- overlooked. A lot of guys in this locker room have been overlooked, so they can relate to the city," safety Micah Hyde said. "I tell people all the time what a great city this is. Guys on the team understand that, but people on the outside don't really understand how Buffalo is.

"Everybody has a chip on their shoulder, even the coaches. They've been fired before. Everybody wants to get better. Everybody wants to improve and try to get to that common goal."