Sean McDermott had been on the job as head coach of the Buffalo Bills for about a week. In those early January days in 2017, he would look out his office window across the parking lot at Bills Stadium and envision home playoff games. How it would look, sound and feel.
Almost four years later that vision has become reality. Buffalo's first division title ensures that there will be at least one home playoff game in Orchard Park in January.
McDermott knew from his time coaching in Philadelphia and Carolina that there was great value in playing in your stadium when the stakes were win or go home. But that vision had to have a plan. Fortunately for the Bills, McDermott's plan was one that was fully supported by Terry and Kim Pegula.
From the time he took the job, McDermott knew there would be difficult decisions ahead. Decisions that would not make sense to outside observers. Decisions that would require an enormous amount of conviction to adhere to a philosophy that would eventually breed sustained success.
Brandon Beane would join him as general manager just a few months later, and the tear down and reconstruction began.
There would be no quick fixes like so many of the failed rebuilds of the past. The build would be methodical. A step-at-a-time approach that would have small setbacks on occasion, but one that with steadfast determination and commitment would succeed in making the Bills franchise a perennial contender.
"I want to thank Brandon," said McDermott after their division-clinching victory. "I wouldn't want to work next to anybody else. He's really put together a heck of a roster—not just this year—but as we built this thing through the years."
The foundation of that build was chiefly focused on getting the right people on board and moving on from those who wouldn't be able to subscribe to what was soon to be asked of them.
McDermott preached a philosophy rooted in daily self-improvement and asked his players and coaches to trust that it would yield results.
The head coach encouraged players to share their personal stories to build the kind of bond with teammates that hadn't existed on Buffalo's roster since a handful of future Hall of Famers were winning division titles like they were door prizes.
"When Sean came in, there was a different culture that he was trying to build in Buffalo," said Jordan Poyer, another of the 2017 originals. "He took the right group of guys to continue to build that culture and continue to understand the expectations that coach has for us. It's been building, man. We made it to the playoffs in 2017, ended up losing. We were able to learn from that. Weren't very good in 2018. Same thing in 2019 where we're one play away from winning a playoff game. Those experiences that we went through, the hardships that we've gone through. It's all led up to this moment right here for us to be able to win the AFC East."
McDermott put together a staff that's as good at developing players as perhaps any in the team's history. After players arrived in Buffalo they got better. A lot better.
Matt Milano was an inexperienced linebacker after making a position switch from safety in college. Jordan Poyer was a gifted athlete, who just needed a clearly defined role. Dion Dawkins was an athletic lineman, who just needed to be convinced he could be great. Ike Boettger and Levi Wallace were undrafted rookies, who've been developed into starters. And Josh Allen just needed someone who believed in him.
McDermott's staff checked all those boxes and more. But the head coach also fostered a true symbiotic relationship between his coaches and players that has them making suggestions to one another on how they could each get better. The relationship isn't coach-to-player, but rather person-to-person.
"I'm just happy for our O-line coach Bobby Johnson," said Dion Dawkins minutes after their historic victory in Denver. "For us to get this accomplishment for him, I'm just happy for that guy. Bobby Johnson kept it real for all of us. When he would tell us everything that we didn't want to hear, like when we weren't doing well, he wasn't just fluffing us up and fake talking. He was keeping it 100. And then he would dial in to each individual on what they needed to do to get better. And I respect it. Bobby doesn't want to let us down and we play not to let him down as well. That's the big homie, and we love him to death."
Scroll through to see fans welcome players and coaches as they arrived back in Buffalo after winning the AFC East division title.
Meanwhile Beane subscribed to the tenet that success is most effectively reached by putting good people around you. He assembled a powerhouse front office that had two former general managers and a slew of accomplished personnel executives who knew what building winning rosters was all about.
In the four drafts since Buffalo has had McDermott as head coach, 22 of their 29 draft choices are still on the roster. Eleven of them hold starting roles.
And while everyone will point to how the organization hit a home run in drafting Josh Allen, one should stop and think about a few of the other most critical positions on an NFL roster besides quarterback. Cornerback, middle linebacker, offensive tackle and defensive end are critical pieces to any successful franchise.
Buffalo has draft choices manning all of those positions in Dion Dawkins, AJ Epenesa, Tremaine Edmunds and Tre'Davious White. Two of them are already on their second contract set to enter the prime of their careers, while the other two are still on their rookie deals. Two have been to the Pro Bowl with one of them being an All-Pro. And although the trajectory of Epenesa's career is not yet known, the other three along with Allen are clear cornerstone pieces for the long term.
"When I saw coach McDermott on the field, I told him, 'I really appreciate you taking a chance on me as your first draft pick in your first head coaching role,'" said Tre'Davious White. "It's special. Me and him have a special bond because in his first coaching job he picked me as the first pick to try to turn this thing around. I take this Buffalo and changing the culture thing to heart because I was the first guy he brought in. He drafted and handpicked me. I don't take that lightly. I'm going to continue to make him proud and make him right that they picked me."
Add in Beane's shrewd value free agent signings and trades the past four offseasons, and Buffalo has the perfect blend of youth and experience, grit, playmaking ability and heart to make this year's team the first of many to contend for AFC supremacy.
Saturday's victory, which clinched the AFC East title, was the definitive validation of McDermott's process.
"It means everything," Hughes said. "It means that the process works. We talk about it every April, our goals, how we're going to achieve them. What we need to do to be successful. So to see the plan go to form, everyone doing their job, doing their one-eleventh like Sean always talks about, it works. And so, it puts us in a position to where we are today and all we need to do is go out there and play Bills ball. That's what he always talk about, just going out there and playing aggressive, playing fast. You've done all the work throughout the week. So, it just goes to show that when you have a great coaching staff that comes up here and supplies us with talent, we're able to go out there and produce."
It wasn't surprising to hear McDermott credit just about everyone who has a Bills ID badge. Being selfless is his nature. But hearing the emotion in his voice when he addressed his players after they clinched their first division title in a quarter century, his players couldn't help but mob him and love him up.
"It's been a fun journey, just watching how Sean has come over and just impacted this organization, impacted this team," said Hughes, who has been with him from the start. "I'm excited for him that we were able to deliver this to him just because he's been speaking about it since he got here. Twenty-five years since we've done this so we're going to enjoy it."
That enjoyment however, was short lived. Their division title T-shirts said it all.
'Won, not done.'
"It's great that we're able to do it the first time in 25 years. To be the team and to be the quarterback on the team that does it, obviously feels really good," said Josh Allen. "At the same time, that's not our end goal. We set out to do this in order to get the chance to do what we really want to do, and that's to win a Super Bowl championship. Everything's still in front of us and this just gives us an opportunity. It gives us a shot and that's all we can ask for."
The end goal this season may not yet be achieved, but the turnaround of the Bills franchise has unquestionably been completed.
Take a look at the best photos following a win against the Broncos to clinch the AFC East division title.