Doug Marrone knew walking in the door as Buffalo's new head coach that his biggest challenge would be to reverse the losing culture that enveloped Buffalo's locker room. Marrone knew on the whole there were players in that room that wanted to reverse the lack of success the team had experienced. All they needed was a guide. As Buffalo's 2013 season quickly approaches the midway point Marrone is proving himself capable of leading the way.
Too many times over the past 13 seasons Buffalo has seen games that should be victories turn into losses. From 2000 to 2012 the Bills have been in 128 games in which there was a seven-point differential on the scoreboard in the fourth quarter. Their record in those games was 51-77.
It's no secret that finishing the close ones is what often separates playoff teams from non-playoff clubs. Marrone saw some of it first hand in Week 1 when a game that was there for the taking against division rival New England resulted in a two-point loss (23-21).
What Marrone has done since then that his predecessors did not was develop a solution to change the collective mindset of the team. He's delivered the message before, but heading into this past week's road game at Miami he reiterated it.
"I spoke to the players about not thinking about consequences and let's go out there and play each play," said Marrone. "Usually when you start thinking about consequences you start thinking negative. So we've tried to correct that with some of our people. For our players we just went out there and started playing each play, play by play and believed in each other. That's what happened (Sunday)."
The players have bought into this approach. They no longer think about the potential consequences of a negative play anymore. Instead they focus on making something happen on the play that follows.
"In the past it'd be kind of like, 'Here we go again,'" said Kraig Urbik. "Players would dwell on a mistake, but now when someone makes a mistake the coach comes to you, asks what you did wrong, you say what you did wrong and then it's, 'Alright next play.' It's kind of one of those things where you can't let the same play affect you twice. We're still making mistakes, but we're also making big plays so we need to just keep going and keep being aggressive and make the plays we want to make."
For those players who do get down on themselves, they're not allowed to drop their head for long.
"For example, we have young DBs and if they shut a receiver down for a couple of plays and then the receiver makes him look foolish for a couple of plays, that might get a DB down," said Marcell Dareus. "But we keep talking saying, 'Don't worry about that. Stay in the game.' We have turned and we've changed and not let anybody get down for various reasons."
The new approach has prevented the snowball effect that has worked against the Bills in the past. All too often when one bad play happened it was followed by a series of others that eventually led to points on the board for the opposition. The Bills were seemingly unable to stem the tide in recent years and a close game would suddenly turn into a lopsided loss.
That hasn't happened this season, even in the losses. Buffalo was down by 13 to New England in Week 1 and lost by two. They trailed the Jets by 14 and came back to tie the game before losing by seven. Against the Bengals in Week 6 they forced overtime before losing by three.
"Cincinnati we're down 24-10 in the fourth quarter and maybe last year we would've packed it up and said, 'Screw it.' Or whatever," said Urbik. "This year we score 14 unanswered points and tie it up. So it's definitely a different mindset around here."
What has come from the simplified one play at a time method is a team that finally appears to have genuine mental toughness.
"There's a bunch of relentless individuals that know that we have what it takes to win and we're going to go out there and do everything we can week in and week out," said Thad Lewis. "As long as we believe we can win every week, which we do, we'll be fine."
"I think the mentality of this team is one of the toughest in the league," said Fred Jackson. "We have to be able to play through injuries. That's why you can name 10 guys on this team with injuries that would keep some people out. We want to be out there and continue to compete and give ourselves an opportunity to get to the playoffs."
The players know they've yet to get over the hump. At 3-4 there's not much margin for error, but the Bills feel they've changed for the better so they want to see how much they can push even some of the more successful teams in the league like New Orleans this Sunday.
"Obviously, we'd like to be sitting better than 3-4, but we're fighting, and we've had a lot of adversity," said Eric Wood. "There's not a ton of teams playing our schedule against the defenses we're playing, with a pretty good rotation at quarterback. We've missed Stevie for a game, we've missed other receivers for games. We have dinged up running backs, shuffled the offense line. And we're still putting up points and still going out there and fighting week to week and playing every team tough, and put ourselves in a position to win. No, we're not making all the plays at the end, which we need to do a better job of, but we're out there fighting and credit to the coaches putting us in a good position."
"We're a team that's fighting and trying to get over this—we haven't been in the playoffs for 13 years. We know what's out there. It's not the elephant in the room. We talk about it all the time," said Marrone. "We're fighting, fighting, fighting, and that's what we're going to keep on doing.
"At some point, it's going to start to break, and it's going to break to go over the top. That's what you're seeing right now. You're seeing a group of guys that care about each other. Really, deep down inside, you look at the players and you appreciate how they handle themselves professionally. At least I appreciate it as a coach, how they go about how they're playing. Granted, we're not happy with the record or where we're at, but we're working on changing that every single day."
"In the past we have lost those close games and the majority of our games have been real close this season," said McKelvin. "Now we're starting to eke out those close games. If we can keep doing that then the sky is the limit."