ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Eric Wood had played eight seasons for the Buffalo Bills, working for six head coaches and five offensive coordinators. He was a first-round pick in 2009, a team captain before former coach Rex Ryan eliminated that title, a Pro Bowler and the Bills' second-longest-tenured player.
But as Wood approached his 31st birthday this past March and entered the final season of his contract, he wondered whether he should play beyond 2017 for a franchise immersed in a 17-season playoff drought.
Ryan was fired two days after Christmas and replaced by Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. Changes in the front office seemed imminent, and the status of starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor was up in the air.
Wood's agents traveled to the scouting combine in Indianapolis in February to relay his concerns about another rebuilding project to Bills management, including McDermott. The next morning, Wood received a call from his new coach. Not knowing what to expect, Wood thought maybe he was getting cut.
"I appreciate you wondering," McDermott instead told Wood of his approach. "We are absolutely not rebuilding. We’re going to win and win fast."
In opposition to preseason expectations that placed the Bills only a rung above the NFL's worst clubs, that is exactly what McDermott's team has done. Buffalo is a surprising 5-2, its best start since 2011, going into Thursday night’s game against the New York Jets.
If they beat the Jets, the 6-2 Bills would have their best record through eight games since the 1993 season, which began 7-1. That year ended with Buffalo's fourth and most recent trip to the Super Bowl.
Change in culture
The Bills are not loaded with talent like their counterparts in the early 1990s. Eighteen of their 53 players were undrafted. There are only five first-round picks on the roster, including wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who was acquired Thursday via trade from the Panthers. Defensive end Shaq Lawson, chosen 19th overall in 2016, is the highest draft pick on the team.
Yet every corner of the locker room -- which McDermott shook up upon his arrival in January by grouping stalls randomly, not by position -- will tell you that there is a bond forming.
"What I love about this group is that Sean and his staff have just gotten everything out of it," first-year general manager Brandon Beane, hired in May to replace Doug Whaley, told SiriusXM NFL radio on Tuesday. "We’re not pretending that we’re fully stocked. But we got a lot of guys that play hard every week. We feel like we’re getting the most out of what we got.
"It’s a team-first thing here. ... I can quite honestly say, I’ve not heard one guy complain at all about reps, about how much I’m starting, how much I’m playing, whether I’m active or not."
Only 16 players, including six this season, were drafted by the Bills or signed as free agents out of college. The rest of the roster includes players cast off by their previous teams. The secondary, which includes former Packers safety Micah Hyde, former Browns safety Jordan Poyer, former Rams cornerback E.J. Gaines and former Panthers cornerback Leonard Johnson, refers to itself as a group of "misfits."
Being cut or unwanted by their old teams is only part of what has motivated Bills players this season.
The locker room was initially shaken by a pair of big-name trades in August, which sent wide receiver Sammy Watkins to the Rams and cornerback Ronald Darby to the Eagles. The deals, which included the Bills' acquisition of the Rams' second-round pick and the Eagles' third-round pick in next year's draft, prompted speculation that the Bills were dumping talent for future assets in order to "tank" this season and improve their draft position in 2018.
Beane publicly expressed displeasure with the perception, saying that he made the trades with the thought of winning now while keeping an eye toward the future. Wood, meanwhile, took a look around the locker room.
"They better get rid of a lot more guys if we’re really gonna tank," he thought to himself, “because we’re going to win way too many games to tank this year.”
The Bills still had one of the NFL's best running backs in LeSean McCoy, as well as established veterans in Wood, Taylor, defensive tackle Kyle Williams, guard Richie Incognito and linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. McDermott met with his "leadership council," which included those players, to discuss the Watkins and Darby trades before the Bills practiced. His message was that the Bills were trying to build a team -- not just collect talent.
"Guys, they embrace that, they embrace that underdog mentality, that underdog role, and honestly, I think that’s how they approach every week," McDermott said. "There’s guys that have been told they’re not good enough by other teams. I know this: I’ll take them on my team any day of the week."
Building a team
McDermott, who coached in Super Bowl XXXIX as the Eagles' assistant defensive backs coach and Super Bowl 50 as the Panthers' defensive coordinator, has been preparing for his first opportunity to be a head coach for 18 seasons.
Among his ideas for team building was the "two truths and a lie" icebreaker he played with his defensive players in Carolina. McDermott kept score and had players compete to see who knew the most about the others.
In Buffalo, McDermott began having his players stand in front of the meeting room and open up about their backgrounds and journeys to the NFL. The stories became personal. At one point in training camp, an offensive player shared how he found his infant daughter not breathing during a trip home earlier in camp, and she required CPR. He was back at work the next day, and players had a new appreciation of his work.
Even well-traveled veterans in the locker room cannot recall knowing so much about their teammates.
"If I sat here and said this was exactly what I thought or where I thought it would go, I’d be lying," McDermott said. "It’s really, just on a human level -- forget football -- it’s really pretty cool.”
Johnson believes players have taken to each other's "weirdness" and feel comfortable around one another. He recalled finding kicker Stephen Hauschka face-down in a water floatation therapy tank, wearing a snorkel and goggles.
"You’re really supposed to do it on your back, floating," Johnson said last week. "But he thinks that it helps his legs, and we all laugh and joke about it. But we embrace. Other places, that wouldn’t be the same."
Although many NFL teams introduce players individually as they exit the tunnel at home games, including the Bills under past coaching staffs, McDermott left the decision up to his players -- with a catch. He showed them a video of one Super Bowl participant that was introduced as a team.
"I can’t remember what Super Bowl it was, but it was just so they could see the body language, the posture, the belief, the team atmosphere, culture -- call it whatever you want of them -- what it looks like to have that come out like that," he said. "My approach was the players can take it and run with it, but it was more of when you walk into the stadium, like a playoff team looks like, smells like, feels like, tastes like something. That’s how it’s got to look. The belief has to be there before the result."
Bills players chose to be introduced as a team at home, where they are 4-0 -- a perfect mark matched only by the Eagles (4-0) and Seahawks (3-0).
From 1 to 53
The Bills have dug into the depth of their roster to grind out wins. In a 30-27 victory in Week 7 over Tampa Bay, running back Taiwan Jones caught an 11-yard pass on third-and-9 to extend what became the Bills' go-ahead field goal drive. It was one of only two offensive snaps this season for Jones, whose contributions have mostly come on special teams.
Then, in the third quarter of a 34-14 win Sunday over the Oakland Raiders, something special happened. Wide receiver Brandon Tate, who played in only five offensive snaps in the game and had two catches on the season, snagged a throw from Taylor, spun away from two Raiders defenders and beat another to the sideline for a 24-yard gain on second-and-20.
Tate was taken down near the Bills' sideline by Raiders defensive end Bruce Irvin and was swarmed by more than a dozen teammates. An official tried to hold Bills players back, thinking they were going after Irvin for a perceived late hit. The CBS announcers also wondered if a skirmish were about to break out.
As McDermott sat in a leather chair Monday in the Bills' practice facility, he smiled as he recounted the play and how the officials eventually got that it was "a pure, raw celebration" and Irvin was not a target.
Beane played video of the celebration for Benjamin upon his arrival Wednesday. McDermott showed the celebration in a team meeting Monday, saying it was unique in his 20 years of coaching. He also used it to deliver a message.
"There are no labels," he said. "[Tate] is a backup receiver. No, he’s a receiver on our team. He made a huge play. Guys get fired up. You saw defensive players coming in, coaches coming in. I just think that that’s what, to me, when you can bring a group of men together and people together and have a common purpose, pretty cool."
Wood, who signed a two-year contract extension in August after he saw the positive shift in culture, was part of the Bills' 5-2 start in 2011 that fizzled into a 6-10 finish. Williams experienced the 2011 collapse and a 5-2 record in 2008 that evaporated into 7-9 by season's end.
"There’s 10 games left," Williams said last week. "I don’t know what the future holds record-wise, but I do know that these guys are gonna compete and they’re gonna give it their all in the games that we play. I’m confident in that. That's got a lot to do with the type of people, the type of guys, their makeup. And that’s a credit to Sean and Brandon and the kind of guys they’re bringing in.”
Of the 53 players on the Bills roster, only 23 were with the organization last season. Beane has made seven trades in the past three months, including sending defensive tackle Marcell Dareus to the Jaguars last week and acquiring Benjamin this week.
The Bills have experienced early success this season in spite of that constant change.
"We’re thrilled we’re 5-2, I’ll say that," Beane told WGR 550 on Wednesday. "I’ve seen [McDermott's] blueprint for what he wanted to get done here, and from a chemistry standpoint, I knew this was gonna happen. You never know how quick. I can’t say it was going to be totally this quick.
"But we’re still building. We’re not there. People need to understand that. The Buffalo Bills have not arrived. We still have a long way to go to get where we want to get. We’ll continue to build this thing.”