Two years ago, in the spirit of the NCAA tournament, my editors at NFL.com asked me to name an NFL Cinderella for the upcoming season.
The initial concept -- and something that I continue to stress -- is that my selection isn't necessarily a playoff pick. What I'm looking to do here, in simple terms, is spotlight an overlooked team that could turn some heads in the coming season. You know, like when a double-digit seed makes a tourney run. Here's the problem, though: My first two picks in this annual exercise have set the bar quite high.
So there's pressure on this pick. And this league's defining trait -- parity -- only increases the difficulty of this exercise.
I mean, what's a sleeper team in today's NFL anyways? The league is brilliantly set up for franchises to go from worst to first, rags to riches. You expect the Falcons to bounce back after a season leveled by injuries. The Browns are a legit threat to win in the playoffs. Those aren't sleeper teams. I thought about the Jets, a club I believe could be rather competitive -- and, dare I say, legit on offense? I considered the 49ers, who own the second overall pick in this month's draft, had a strong free agency period and are getting key players back from injury, starting at quarterback. But that's not Cinderella.
No question they're under the radar. Everyone's sleeping on the franchise in Western New York. I'm begging you to wake up. The Bills are going to be a really strong team this year, a tough out every Sunday. Seriously.
I love this team. I love what general manager Brandon Beane is building. I love the toughness and accountability third-year head coach Sean McDermott has brought to Buffalo.
Let's start where all conversation starts in today's NFL: with the quarterback position. It's Josh Allen's time to shine -- or Schein, for the sake of this conversation, as I've always loved the uber-talented, rocket-armed signal-caller. Despite the extreme polarization surrounding the Wyoming product at this time last year, I felt he oozed rare talent. And I wasn't alone. Many savvy NFL executives whispered that he was the top dog in a special quarterback class. Many respected analysts, including my CBS Sports Network teammates Phil Simms and Steve Beuerlein, felt the same way. When Buffalo traded up to draft Allen at No. 7 overall, I lauded the Bills for snagging "their most talented quarterback since Jim Kelly." And then he went out and enjoyed a fine rookie season.
OK, "fine" might be the wrong word. Especially when you take a glance at the stat sheet, and zero in on the completion percentage (52.8), the touchdown-to-interception ratio (10:12) and the quarterback rating (67.9). But here's another stat: 5-6. That was Allen's record as a rookie starter. And given what people initially expected of the 2018 Bills, as well as the underwhelming offensive talent that surrounded Allen, that 5-6 mark speaks volumes. A couple more stats that sing: 631 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. Allen's rushing ability was a revelation. Remember the hurdle of Anthony Barr? That's not normal for a quarterback. Special stuff.
Long story short: Allen enjoyed an encouraging rookie season. He silenced many naysayers. And that was just the beginning. Josh Allen is going to be great -- and I'm not throwing that word around flippantly. Talking to Beane last month on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein On Sports," the general manager stressed that Allen has the intangibles to go with the freakish tangibles to become a star.
"In spite of all of his physical talents, he is a guy who has the intangibles that you want from a quarterback," Beane said. "He's a big-time leader and, you know, I think Year 2, walking in as the guy, he will feel himself. Hopefully he will show us that he earns that 'C' on his chest. And I think it even started with some of the things that I was unaware of. When these (free-agent acquisitions) came in yesterday, four or five of them mentioned to me that he was the first guy from this team -- because we can't talk to them during this negotiating period, we are only dealing with the agent -- but that Josh called them within minutes of it getting out. They really thought that was cool, and it was good for me to hear, that Josh had taken that initiative to call those guys and welcome them."
I love that. It's a big deal. It's the kind of off-field sophistication you need from a true franchise quarterback. And I expect to see increased maturation on the field in Year 2. So does Beane.
"It is his decision-making," Beane said. "I hear the accuracy -- I don't totally agree with that narrative. It is the decision-making. ... Josh is so competitive, and he's obviously got the arm, that he tries to make throws that a lot of guys can't make, so they don't even try it. There are times, and that was one of the areas of growth that we kept stressing to him, is that it is OK to take the 5-yard checkdown and move it to second-and-5 or second-and-4, instead of trying to squeeze it in the hole 18-to-20 yards downfield that is just a lower percentage. You know there are times for those, but sometimes you just want to possess the ball and keep the chains moving, depending on your defense.
"If we are playing a Tom Brady, well, we don't want to score too quickly -- we want to keep him on the sidelines. So that's just a maturity thing. I'd rather have to pull him back than for him to be 'Checkdown Charlie' and try and kick him and ask him to try and drive it down the field."
It's going to click in 2019. Take it to the bank. And that's thanks, in large part, to Beane's brilliant work this offseason.
As I mentioned before, Allen's supporting cast in Year 1 was ... lacking. Buffalo's offensive line and receiving corps were both among the NFL's worst. Beane attacked both areas in free agency. Prioritizing help up front, the Bills have already added six(!) offensive linemen to the roster. Big-ticket acquisition Mitch Morse is the headliner -- and the 26-year-old center is exactly the kind of battery mate you want to hand a young quarterback -- but don't overlook veteran pickups like Ty Nsekhe and Quinton Spain. The approach at receiver was well thought out, too.
"Josh is young," Beane said, "and I thought we needed some veterans, some guys that he can count on."
Insert slot machine Cole Beasley and deep threat John Brown. Beane waxed poetic about Beasley's innate ability to separate and create throwing lanes, as well as his precise route-running: "He is not going to cut it short, he is not going to cut it long -- he is going to be where he is supposed to be, and I do think that is a big reason why Dak (Prescott) went to him on third downs, the money downs." As for Brown, well, he was the one that got away last offseason ...
"John was actually in free agency a year ago, and we pursued him," Beane said. "We lost out, and I understood why: He was going to do a one-year, prove-it deal, and our quarterback situation was up in the air. We had not had the draft and gotten Josh, so I understood the thinking by him. But he had a good year and we stayed on him and he came around this time and we were able to secure him for a three-year deal this year."
Beane also brought in future Hall of Famer Frank Gore, the ageless running back who still has gas left in the tank. But most importantly at this stage, Gore is a Hall of Fame worker and teammate, a leader who will set the right tone and make sure LeSean McCoy is ready for a bounce-back season. That's the kind of stuff I'm alluding to when I describe Beane's offseason work as brilliant. Other teams made sexier moves. The Bills made the right moves. The get-over-the-hump moves.
And shoot, I haven't even mentioned the defense, which is fitting. Nobody noticed, but Buffalo finished No. 2 in total defense last season. Against the pass, the Bills yielded a measly 179.2 yards per game (easily tops in the NFL). While youngsters like Tremaine Edmunds (still just 20 years old) and CB Tre'Davious White (24) show great promise, and solid vets like S Micah Hyde and DE Jerry Hughes are perennially underrated, the whole of this unit is greater than the sum of its parts. And that's because the highly astute McDermott maximizes the talent he's given on that side of the ball.
Beane and McDermott have put together a young, hungry squad. This team is likable. This team represents Buffalo perfectly. And if you win in Buffalo, you are a legend. The fans are passionate, knowledgeable and incredible. And they demand hard work, toughness and accountability.
Don't be shocked if, come December, the Bills are knocking on the door to get back in the playoffs. I think this team has some magic to it.
The slipper fits.