Brandon Beane has said that the last game of the playoffs can be emblematic of where a roster needs to improve.
The Bills general manager saw a need to score more points after losing to the Houston Texans during the Wild-Card Round a year ago. His response was to acquire receiver Stefon Diggs, who helped propel the Bills to an AFC-leading, franchise-record 501 points in 2020.
The months ahead will be about deciphering how to improve a roster that made it all the way to the AFC Championship but fell short against a Kansas City team that has established itself as the class of the conference.
"We're still not a Super Bowl team," Beane said Wednesday. "There's one team happy at the end of the year. We made a great step last year in '19 from '18 and another step this year. We still have to go further. The goal here is to win that thing. Until we get in that game to compete for it, we can't win it. So, it wasn't good enough this year."
The ramifications of a COVID-impacted salary cap could leave little wiggle room for the Bills to operate, decreasing the likelihood of a Diggs-level swing. Instead, Beane said the onus will be put on plugging holes, having a strong draft, and conducting an honest assessment of how the Bills can improve schematically.
"Is there anything personnel-wise we can do? Probably so," Beane said. "Is there anything schematic? Do we need to adjust some things? Do we need to do this, whether it's the protection or the run game or the pass rush or cover skills? You just have to be very honest.
"Were there certain defenses that gave our offense trouble? Were there certain offenses that gave our defense trouble? Did we struggle more against the run than against the pass? We've got to be real honest. We've got to open it up and that's why we're going to try to debrief here for the week and then take a step back.
"Sometimes, it's too close. It's too fresh right now. We'll continue to look at it as the weeks and months come and be honest through this whole spring before these players get back. "
Here are more takeaways from Beane's end-of-season press conference.
An eye on the Chiefs
Bills players have spoken about the possibility of having to go through Kansas City in order to reach a Super Bowl. The Chiefs won both head-to-head matchups this season, defeating the Bills on the strength of a 245-yard rushing effort in Week 6 and then with a healthy dose of tight end Travis Kelce and receiver Tyreek Hill during the AFC Championship.
Beane said that assembling a roster capable of beating the Chiefs will be among his priorities this offseason, albeit not the only one. He stressed the need to prioritize winning division games, particularly now with a target on Buffalo's back.
"We can't all of a sudden put our eyes on Kansas City and forget about New England, Miami, and the Jets," Beane said. "So, it always starts there. But, yeah, I mean we definitely got to look at this game and this team and what are the things that they do well and how do we overcome it? We're not going to change our identity. It's just trying to add and make some things on our side."
Of course, building a roster to beat the Chiefs is easier said than done. Kelce's 1,416 receiving yards this season were the most by a tight end in NFL history. Hill is nicknamed "Cheetah," and even that can seem like an understatement when he's sprinting past defenders in the open field.
"That guy is a unicorn," Beane said. "I can't tell you that I can find a DB that can run as fast as him. That's where some things, scheme will come into play as well. You're not always going to have a guy that matches up against, using their team for example, that matches up against Travis Kelce and a guy that matches up against Tyreek Hill and that matches up against Mecole Hardman."
Addressing the run game
Beane echoed head coach Sean McDermott in stressing the need to improve the run game as an option to keep defenses honest against the Bills' passing attack. The Bills ranked 19th with an average of 4.2 yards per carry.
The general manager also emphasized his belief that the onus does not fall squarely on running backs Devin Singletary and Zack Moss.
"I think it's so unfair to look at the running backs to point blame on the running game," he said. "Running the football is very complex and it's obviously the o-line, it's the tight ends, it's the receivers and if one guy doesn't make his block the play's probably dead.
"And so, there were times this year where we're one guy away, and whether it's a tight end or whether it was a lineman, it's a big gainer and you're going, 'Gosh, if we just get this guy blocked.' We had that at times. I'm not saying there's no blame - sometimes the running back missed the hole - but it's one of those things you got to practice, you got to emphasize and you got to work on it and that's something that we'll definitely look at."
Tough decisions await
The low salary cap might also influence the Bills' decision-making on which players return from 2020. Buffalo's list of free agents is headlined by linebacker Matt Milano, who missed six games due to injury and saw his snap count increase incrementally upon his return in Week 13.
"We'd love to be able to get Matt back," Beane said. "He knows that. I shared that with him and I'm sure Sean has as well. The business side matters. He wants to and he's earned the right to go to free agency and see what his market bears.
"We'll do our best to retain him and as many guys as we can. We just don't even know the numbers yet and what it's going to be. There's going to be some tough decisions unfortunately for us, whether it's letting guys go on this roster or having to watch guys leave."
Beane did no rule out using the franchise tag on Milano.
The general manager also spoke highly of pending free agent offensive linemen Jon Feliciano and Daryl Williams. Williams won the right tackle job during training camp and started every game; Feliciano played center and both guard positions after missing the first seven games due to injury.
"Whether we can get them back, I don't know," he said. "We'll have to see where their markets are and things like that. But if not, we'll have to try and find some similar replacements at a cost-effective number."
Extensions on the horizon?
The Bills locked up a pair of cornerstone players by signing cornerback Tre'Davious White and left tackle Dion Dawkins – two members of the 2017 draft class – to four-year extensions prior to the start of this season.
The 2018 draft class includes quarterback Josh Allen and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, both of whom were selected to the Pro Bowl this season. Beane did not comment on potential extensions for either player but spoke positively about their directions.
Allen set virtually every team passing record in 2020, yet Beane still sees room for growth.
"What I would say about him is he's his own worst critic," Beane said. "Even though he had a great year, just like he did last year, he kind of led our exit meeting. He went through what he's got to do and he knows. He's so driven, we got to get Josh to power down and just reset. But he's gonna come back, using Sean's words, humble and hungry. I'm very proud of him and he's shown people what he can do in this league and I don't think he's reached his ceiling. I think there's still room for him."
Edmunds played through a shoulder injury early in the season but grew more comfortable as the year progressed.
"I think when he banged his shoulder up that first game, he got back out there, I think it took him a while," Beane said. "I think it was his first injury he played with. I think he struggled with it, but I thought he played overall solid down the stretch.
"Are there more plays out there? Probably so, but he makes the Pro Bowl, I think that's legit, I think he's respected by his peers. I think sometimes in your own fan base or your own house sometimes you can be more critical of your own than seeing how they compare across the league, but Tremaine is 22 years old, a young player, we still have a lot of confidence in him and where he'll grow into."