The prize in 2015 that every Bills player, coach and fan had their eyes on was the postseason. Obviously the team fell short of that goal this past season. What grew out of those shortcomings however, is shaping up to be a pretty encouraging consolation prize.
When the season began to head the wrong way following the Week 12 loss to Kansas City, first-year starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor sought out respected players on both sides of the ball in that postgame locker room and appealed to them to pull the team together before their postseason opportunity slipped away.
"As far as the leadership thing, first year here, learning some of the guys, I was seeing how guys respond to different things," said Taylor. "Learning different people, but I think I've taken steps forward in that department."
The result was an inspiring win over fellow AFC Wild Card contender Houston at home in Week 13.
Unfortunately it was followed by a couple of disappointing outings at Philadelphia and Washington when some common problems that had plagued the team during the season resurfaced. It proved to be the last straw for a couple of young second-year players like Preston Brown and Sammy Watkins and gave them the impetus to speak up and address with their fellow players what the problems were and what had to change moving forward.
It proved to be a significant shift with a pair of players from the 2014 draft class and the team's starting quarterback filling a leadership void that was left behind by injured players and veteran departures.
Brown and Watkins backed their head coach and advocated for unified preparation every week and player to player accountability in the locker room when that wasn't evident.
Over the last two games, evidence of that new approach showed on the field with Buffalo, despite being severely shorthanded in terms of injured starters, posted a pair of victories to end the 2015 campaign. Yes, it was too late to qualify for the postseason, but young players helped to chart a new course for future success.
"We just played," said Watkins of their two victories to end the regular season. "We didn't care about calls or what defense Rex was running, or what the offense was calling. We just went out there and played. We didn't care what was going on outside, penalties nothing. Our job was to go out there and get the win. And that's what we did. We prepared the right way during the week and we had fun during the week and had fun in the game."
Brown explained why their motivation to find the right approach was important even after the team was eliminated from playoff contention.
"We're all in this boat together and we're all fighting for our jobs each week trying to get better," said Preston Brown. "We've got to come together. If we want to have success next year we had to show that we have promise. We couldn't go out there and keep doing the same things where it's like we're not improving and we're not getting any better so what's the point of still trying. We had to go out there and show that we can get better at what we're doing."
The defense did that posting the lowest back-to-back points allowed efforts of the season.
"It's just too bad that it took that long to understand that if we all did what we were supposed to do we would've had success no matter what we were doing because we had the talent on this defense," Brown said.
Rex Ryan said changes would likely be made in the offseason. To what degree is anyone's guess. Watkins was clear with where he stands when it comes to making changes the organization believes will be for the better.
"As a player, I'm backing him up, whatever he can do to get this team right. I'm backing him up," said Watkins of Ryan. "If somebody doesn't live up to the hype or play the way they should play, get them out of here. I think now everybody understands that we can win. We've got to come together as a group as players and take it over and be more accountable with ourselves, not the coaches. And keep that within the locker room between ourselves. Just do what the coaches ask you to do. Do the job to the best of your ability and we'll get wins."
As the season closed Watkins was confident that the message was largely received on the whole in the locker room and doesn't anticipate some of the inconsistencies that negatively impacted the team in 2015 returning next season.
"I think it will help if more leaders on this team address situations and problems and hold other players accountable," said Watkins. "I think that will help the whole team out. We'll have accountability on offense, defense and special teams and even hold the coaches accountable. Just come together as a whole team and nobody take it personal. It's our job. It's a business. Do your job and if you don't there will be consequences.
"There are things we need to go over and fix and that's why they'll go and evaluate everybody on how you did this year and what you've could've done better and what you should do in the offseason and what you should work on. Everybody should be accountable and accept whatever criticism and fix it. Once we step up as players and take over, I'm pretty sure everything will be different next year."