BALTIMORE -- While most of the Buffalo Bills, if not all of them, were already changed from their dress clothes and on the field stretching Saturday night less than two hours before kickoff of their third preseason game, the team's highest-paid player was nowhere in sight.
Instead, occasionally impactful defensive tackle Marcell Dareus was outside M&T Bank Stadium, trying to get a parking spot in the D Lot, with the team buses already departed from the Bills' downtown hotel. And by 5:30 or so, Dareus' roller bag was removed from the visitors' locker room and he was quickly headed right back to the parking lot, his evening over and his spot on the team charter going vacant; he would not be suiting up and he would be arranging for his own transportation back to Western New York.
There have been plenty of indications early in the regime of rookie head coach Sean McDermott and rookie general manager Brandon Beane that the Bills are going to be managed in a manner diametrically opposed to the laissez-faire atmosphere of the doomed Rex Ryan/Doug Whaley coupling. The past two seasons in Buffalo were filled with players running amuck, persistent backbiting between the coaching staff and the front office and precious few victories. Dareus getting left off the team charter might have been the most revealing sign yet that McDermott and Beane mean business.
That was made even more clear Monday after Chiefs for a fourth-round pick., Whaley's second-round pick a year ago, to the
If the Bills are going to finally emerge from a 17-year funk without a playoff appearance in a league whose foundation is parity and revenue-sharing, it's undoubtedly going to take the kind of culture change that NFL types speak so readily about. And in this instance, it's apparent that discipline, holding players accountable, being smarter about who gets paid and not being a slave to anyone's contract -- or contract demands -- is going to be the new normal in Buffalo.
The task is larger and more daunting than some might realize, though the intent of Beane and McDermott is unflinching, and this locker room already got the message that there are no longer any untouchables or sacred cows. Many of the players most prized by their predecessors are already gone -- quarterback prospect Cardale Jones and former first-round pick EJ Manuel, former first-round pick Sammy Watkins (who Whaley over-reached to trade up for), Ragland and fellow former second-round pick Ronald Darby. Others, like the oft-troubled Dareus, are clearly on notice that what was once tolerated or laughed off is no longer.
Just because someone previously identified a player as part of the Bills' core, and compensated him as such, doesn't ensure his employment here any longer, and just because someone makes a lot of money doesn't mean he's a leader or someone to build around.
"One-hundred percent," Beane told me shortly after the decision was made to send Dareus home, "and that's what we're doing now. We're figuring out from the guys that were here, 'Hey who wants to jump on board, who understands what we're doing and who is built with the DNA that we're looking for, not just as a player on the field, but who they are off the field, in the training room, watching film, taking care of their body.' Just being the right type of person. It's all encompassing of what kind of roster we're putting together.
"There are guys here that have jumped on board, and that's what you're looking for. Sean and I aren't saying, 'We didn't bring this guy in, so let's get him out.' We're looking to see who will buy in and help spread our message, and the ones that will, we're going to try to keep them, and the ones that don't, we'll move on. And that process will go on throughout the year."
While McDermott, 43, and the 40-year-old Beane lack experience in their current positions, and time together in these roles -- Beane wasn't hired until May as Whaley wasn't fired until after the draft -- they have no shortage of conviction in their beliefs, a bit of moxie and a willingness to make bold decisions. They have a synergy born of their years together in the Carolina Panthers organization, where McDermott was the defensive coordinator before taking over the Bills and where Beane spent 19 years absorbing all aspects of football management. Some thought the North Carolina native would never leave that organization, but the allure of working with McDermott in New York was too strong.
In the past, Dareus might have been quietly fined -- or perhaps just verbally warned -- but neither of these men would be complicit with that.
"I don't know if it's happened on a team that I've been on that I recall at this point in time," McDermott told the media at his Sunday press conference back in Buffalo, "but I've been around it. And whether I've been around it or not, what's important is what's right for us. It may not be right for another team, but it's what's right for the Buffalo Bills. I made that decision last night, because I felt like it was the right thing for this football team."
Dareus is the kind of over-compensated player whose lack of effort and leadership, not to mention his four-game ban for violating the league's drug policy, would appear to be a natural choice to depart Buffalo, though that contract complicates things. Buffalo would have to endure a $24.4 million cap hit to release him before the season, and Dareus is set to make $10 million this year as part of a six-year, $97 million deal.
"Any player that you have to send home, this is not the norm," Beane said Saturday night. "This is not what you're looking for. Obviously, a guy with his contract status, you would hope that we would be a better leader than that and hopefully he learns from it and moves on and just be a Buffalo Bill."
McDermott didn't shy away from questions Sunday about the need to potentially re-assess Dareus' spot on the roster.
"These are all the decisions and conversations that Brandon and I have on a daily basis," the coach said. "That's part of the job, it goes with the territory. We embrace those, those are good conversations, important conversations and important decisions for the future of this organization. We take those very seriously and that's why when we do things, we do them for a certain reason, and that's everything we do. It's in the best interest of this football team and this organization."
Um, yeah, these guys aren't done reshaping the Bills image and roster by a long shot. That will not include, however, a trade of star running back LeSean McCoy ("LeSean is going to be a Buffalo Bill," Beane said, emphatically, leaving no wiggle room), or starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who suffered a concussion Saturday during a penalty- and injury-filled contest that displayed many of this team's current limitations.
This is not a total teardown, though no one here would oversell the ability to truly contend in 2017, either. There is a tacit understanding that the ultimate task is to ensure stability and success down the road. They inherited a fractured building and a team beset by poor evaluations and bad contracts.
"We reworked some things in the football operations and who is doing what and basically the chain of command everything," Beane said of efforts to bring all sides of the franchise together. "It's not been a total overhaul, but we've modified it and we think it's a good setup for a winning culture. And the coaches and the front office, everybody has to preach the same message to the players. And when you really get it going, the players, your veteran leaders, the guys that have your message and have your back, they will handle it from a peer standpoint. …
"Obviously, when jobs open rarely is it Camelot when you walk in -- $40-plus million in cap space and a franchise quarterback, and all of that stuff. But the attraction here was the Pegulas [owners], my relationship with Sean, and the trust that would be there. And we think we've got some players and we know we've got work to do and were fired up to do it."
Following the trade of Darby to Philadelphia (with the Bills picking up receiver Jordan Matthews to offset some of the loss of Watkins), and Watkins to the Rams, Beane has amassed two picks in each of the first three rounds of the 2018 draft. The Bills are positioned to take a top quarterback if it's time to move on from Taylor and continue an aggressive rebuild through other trades as well.
For all of his skill, Watkins' chronic foot problems limited him. The team had smartly not picked up his fifth-year option due to the health issues (a decision made before Beane's arrival), and that second-round pick Buffalo got from the Rams stands to be quite high in that round.
"I was not intent on trading him," Beane said of Watkins. "I got some calls back in June and I just said, 'Look, let's get him healthy and see what we've got and let me get to know him a little bit.' And he's a great young man, but it's just that L.A. gave us a value, and, at the same time, I knew I had the Jordan Matthews thing coming back for Darby, and I was working them both. And knowing that we want to win in 2017, I don't know if I would've done it not getting Jordan back. But now we're also stocked with two ones, two twos and two threes next year."
And, now two fours following Monday's Ragland trade.
In 2018, Bills fans might finally see seeds of the turnaround. Evaluating this regime on this season doesn't make much sense; what they do with this haul of picks will chart the course. In the past these opportunities have been wasted. It's obviously quite early, but I get the sense the franchise is in much better hands now.
Plenty more familiar players will be gone by then with the possibility for more trades before the roster cut down and the midseason trade deadline. A noteworthy release or two isn't out of the question, either. They're getting this locker room's attention, and attacking this arduous task head on.
"We're looking to put the best 53 out there we can," Beane said, "but at the same time we're keeping an eye on what helps us moving forward, and we'll do that if there is a guy we don't see as a great fit here and somebody else does, maybe we swap players. Anything like that. We're not looking to move anybody, but at the same time you have to keep working."