ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Bills training camp this year doesn’t have a clever motivational phrase hanging on banners and being sold on T-shirts at St. John Fisher University.
But back home in Orchard Park, coach Sean McDermott this summer ordered for new banners and wall coverings to go up inside the team’s indoor practice field.
On the far wall of the field, stretching almost the length of the end zone, is a banner reading “Buffalo Football,” and “One Team, One Goal.” In the middle of the banner, framed perfectly by the goal posts, is a giant Lombardi Trophy.
The Lombardi Trophy that the Bills’ organization has never won in the Super Bowl’s 57 years. The Lombardi Trophy that has painfully eluded one of the NFL’s most talented teams the last three seasons.
“That’s it. That’s the mission,” said former Bills great Steve Tasker, who hosts a daily radio show for the team. “They’re not shying away from anything. It’s right there on the building. That’s the only reason they’re playing football this year, is to go to it and win it.”
Most players haven’t seen the new banner yet. But when they get back to Orchard Park in three weeks, they will see it every day. Obviously on days when they practice inside. But even when the Bills practice outside, they walk across the indoor practice field to get there.
McDermott may be tempting fate by plastering a giant championship trophy across his practice facility. Adding unnecessary pressure. Getting too far ahead of himself.
McDermott doesn’t see it that way.
“It’s just a daily reminder of what we’re here to do and what we’re trying to accomplish,” McDermott told the Globe before Friday’s practice. “It’s just really a standard for us, what we’re trying to accomplish every year. And more than anything internally, it’s to keep us focused on that through the course of the season, when that can get clouded with the journey.”
The image of the Lombardi Trophy at practice every day underscores the seriousness of the Bills’ quest in 2023. No more messing around in Buffalo. It’s time to win a championship already.
In 2021, they had the “13 seconds” fiasco in the playoff loss to the Chiefs. Last year, they got demolished by the Bengals in the playoffs after being hit by an avalanche of tough circumstances — the Tops supermarket shooting, two deadly blizzards, Kim Pegula’s stroke, and Damar Hamlin’s near-death in Cincinnati.
“I thought there might be a handful of players on their roster that needed to leave, because I don’t think they could put the helmet on and feel good about playing football ever again,” Tasker said. “It was that deep. I thought there was some real healing that needed to happen from what they witnessed in Cincinnati that night.”
But the Bills are back in 2023, minus a couple of changes such as the sacking of defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. It’s still Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, and Dawson Knox leading the offense. Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tre’Davious White, and Matt Milano are back on defense. Von Miller is returning from a torn ACL and should be himself by midseason.
And they are back with a singular, unwavering purpose.
“My main focus and my only focus is winning Super Bowls,” Diggs said. “Regarding last year, obviously, the way we lost was just terrible in any regard. You don’t want to lose any game. But we’ve lost for a couple of years at this point. We’ve been trying to get over the hump. And obviously it’s cause for a lot of frustration.”
The Bills will go as far as Allen, 27, will take them. And he acknowledged this past week that he needs to change his style for the Bills to take the next step.
Allen and the Bills’ offense were the NFL’s most wild ride in 2022. They had the fewest punts in the league (46), finished second in points per game (28.4), second in points per drive (2.5), and second in the percentage of drives ending with a score (45 percent).
But the Bills’ 27 giveaways also ranked 31st. They led the NFL with eight turnovers inside the red zone. Allen led the NFL with six interceptions in the red zone — no one else had more than three.
“Being smart but not conservative, [offensive coordinator Ken] Dorsey talks about that all the time,” Allen said. “There were times last year I was trying to force too many things to happen instead of letting the game come to me.”
It’s tempting for Allen to put the team on his back and try to make plays. He’s the biggest, toughest, strongest-armed quarterback out there, and the play is never dead when he has the ball.
But playing heroball leads to trouble — interceptions, fumbles, big hits. Allen needs to start looking more for the checkdowns.
“He needs to play quarterback a little bit like you have to play golf — you’ve got to take the triple bogey off the card by playing the safe shot,” Tasker said. “Last year, he took the club cover off for every shot. There’s plenty of times where if he would take the easy one to Devin Singletary, to Dawson Knox — Josh has got to get used to moving the ball instead of trying to move the scoreboard on every play.”
Dorsey, entering his second year as offensive coordinator, said it will be tricky trying to rein in Allen while not inhibiting his playmaking abilities too much.
“It’s a balancing act, you don’t want to just come back and be, ‘OK, check down, check down,’ ” Dorsey said. “If we make good decisions, then everything else takes care of itself, with the personnel that we have and the type of player that Josh is.”
In the last three years, the Bills have won 37 games and three straight AFC East titles. But playoff success has eluded them.
The Lombardi Trophy hangs above their end zone. They have six months to earn one for the team’s mantel.
“We’re here to win a world championship,” McDermott said. “It’s trying to keep our vision, and one of the goals that we have as an organization, in front of us at all times.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.