After their up and down, 8-8 regular season, the Buffalo Bills should be inspired by watching one of this weekend's Super Bowl combatants.
The NFC champion Carolina Panthers slogged to a 7-8-1 record last year, before finding magic this year. The Panthers won their last four games of the 2014 regular season to squeak into the postseason. Then they rocketed out of the gate in 2015, winning their first 14 games of the regular season en route to the Super Bowl.
What do the 2014 Panthers and the 2015 Bills have in common?
They can both point to having important pieces in place on the roster, even though they produced mediocre results. For the Panthers, those pieces came together the following year in a Super Bowl run. The Bills hope they can replicate that formula in 2016.
That hope is actually belief, as far as Bills QB Tyrod Taylor is concerned.
"To get onto the playoffs is something we can definitely do next year," Taylor said this week, in an appearance on the NFL Network at the Super Bowl.
Just by scanning around the Buffalo locker room, Taylor can easily identify the building blocks for the Bills future success. He's got a Pro Bowl running back in LeSean McCoy, who battled through injuries to help make Buffalo the number one rushing attack in the NFL.
"His vision, his skill set is one of a kind," Taylor says about McCoy. "With a healthy Shady we could go a long way."
McCoy runs behind a talented offensive line in Buffalo, one that had two veterans, Richie Incognito and Eric Wood, playing in the Pro Bowl in Hawaii last week. The Bills have young veteran tight end Charles Clay, who missed three games due to injury, and still finished second on the team with 51 catches. And of course, Buffalo has dynamic wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who flashed his potential as the 2015 season went along, and he recovered from nagging early injuries. In the last nine weeks of the 2015 season, Watkins led the NFL with a 20.1 yards per reception average, ranked third with 764 receiving yards and tied for fifth with seven touchdown receptions.
Taylor thinks, he, McCoy, and Watkins can help Buffalo's talent-laden roster take the next step through their leadership.
"We have a young team," Taylor says, "and it's going to take leaders like Shady, leaders like myself, even Sammy may have to grow up faster than he wants to, as far as leadership. That's something that comes naturally to him, so it shouldn't be a problem. It's definitely going to take leadership to bring everybody together."
Leadership, and some tweaks in personnel on the defensive side of the ball. After spending heavily last offseason to add McCoy, Clay and WR Percy Harvin, GM Doug Whaley says his focus now is on spending wisely to improve the defense.
"I think we were heavy on the offensive side of the ball last year in terms of additions," Whaley said at the Senior Bowl last week. "I think we'll probably lean toward the defensive side (this year)."
The Bills have some important pieces in place on defense already. Buffalo has one of the best young tandems in the game at cornerback, with Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby. Up front, Marcell Dareus is in the prime of his career, and the Bills are looking for steady veteran Kyle Williams to be healthy and return to form in 2016. Edge rusher Jerry Hughes has played at a high level for three straight years, with 25 sacks in his three seasons in Buffalo.
The challenge for Whaley will be to keep some key players on the roster (Incognito, Cordy Glenn, Nigel Bradham) and find salary cap room to make improvements. And that won't be easy.
"The strengths are we have a solid team with some depth," according to the GM. "The problem is going to be we have a lot of guys coming up and we're going to have to do a good job of keeping as many as possible. And the way the NFL is set up today, we're not going to be able to keep everybody. It's prudent for us to make the right decisions and keep the right guys."
Those decisions are being formulated this winter, as the Bills personnel department regroups. And they're being made with an eye on immediate improvement and building a contender quickly.
If the Bills are looking for a model – look at Carolina. 7-8-1 one season improving to 15-1 and the Super Bowl the next.
It can be done.