ORCHARD PARK — The Buffalo Bills have reached the 2-minute warning.
There are no timeouts to use and no way to stop the clock. It’s going to tick without stopping and now it’s up to the Bills to reach their final goal before it expires.
Whether the Bills lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the playoffs Sunday or win the Super Bowl, there are going to be significant changes to the roster next season. Buffalo has the sixth-oldest roster by average age in the playoffs and 23 expiring contracts at the end of the season, seven of them who have played for the Bills since their first of four AFC East championships in 2020.
Buffalo also has several veterans with contracts that expire following the 2024 season, some of whom may be salary cap casualties for a roster that currently projects to be more than $40 million over the cap next season, according to Spotrac.com.
The Bills have avoided change more than any playoff team, largely keeping the core intact. Twelve players have been with the team non-stop for all of Buffalo’s five consecutive playoff appearances and 22 have been on the team for all four AFC East titles, while no other playoff team has more than 15 players who have been around for at least four years.
As their time together ticks away, the last goal to accomplish is winning a Super Bowl. Family and brotherhood are tossed around far too often in sports, but the Bills are closer than most and it’s important to them to win a Super Bowl together.
While Super Bowl opportunities likely won’t end after this season, if the Bills don’t win now, any future championship will come with a lot of new faces.
“I love these guys like they’re my brothers,” Bills safety Micah Hyde said. “I’m closer to a lot of these guys than I am to a lot of even my friends growing up, just because over the last seven years, I’ve been coming in here every single day it seems like, messing around joking around. … We want it for each other, we want it for this community, this organization.”
Hyde, 33, is one of the seven guys left from the 2020 team with an expiring contract and is one of the six holdovers — along with Dion Dawkins, Reid Ferguson, Matt Milano, Jordan Poyer and Tre’Davious White — from Sean McDermott’s first Bills team in 2017.
Other long-time veterans with one year remaining include Reggie Gilliam, Taron Johnson, Mitch Morse, Siran Neal and Poyer. Some may be victims of the salary cap due to age and cap hit, particularly with free agents they would like to retain this season and next.
With edge rushers A.J. Epenesa, Leonard Floyd and Shaq Lawson headed for free agency, the Bills would certainly like to keep one or two. Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones is also bound for free agency after the season, while Terrel Bernard, Rasul Douglas and Greg Rousseau may also be priority extensions.
Roster turnover is inevitable in the NFL and Bills players are aware of what may happen after the season, but it’s not a frequent topic of conversation.
“Turnover’s the name of the game in the NFL,” said Morse, who has been Buffalo’s starting center since 2019. “You understand that your number’s going be called at some point. If you dwell on that or try and make it more than it is, then your head’s in the wrong space and then you start playing a game that you have no control over.”
Part of why they don’t talk about it often is because there are more important conversations. Bills players have spoken about their tight-knit nature and it’s not hyperbole, they genuinely enjoy being around each other.
Over the last four years, the Bills have been weathered by adversity, like winning eight games in a row before getting thumped by the Chiefs in the 2020 AFC championship game or going from preseason Super Bowl favorites to 7-6 in 2021, only to rattle off five consecutive wins and lose in the 13 seconds to the Chiefs in the playoffs.
The Bills have burned through two offensive coordinators, while replacing defensive and special teams coordinators during that time. There were weather events like last season that moved a game and stranded them in Chicago on Christmas Eve, while suffering from a combined 192 games missed due to injuries over the last two seasons.
This season the Bills started 6-6 and were on the brink of missing the playoffs altogether. Von Miller, perhaps the team’s most respected player, was arrested on domestic violence charges, offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey was fired and McDermott’s character questioned.
And then there were adverse events from another stratosphere like the racist Tops Supermarkets shootings or Damar Hamlin’s collapse, jarring occurrences the Bills were able to handle those jarring occurrences because of their closeness.
That closeness is also easy to see daily, with guys playing ping-pong or cards in the locker room after practice, while others simply sit around and talk. The bond Buffalo has lured players in free agency and brought others back.
Lawson and Jordan Phillips have both publicly admitted they couldn’t wait to return after leaving as free agents in 2019. When Phillips rejoined the Bills in 2022, he said, “You are playing for more than money here.”
Linebacker A.J. Klein has been signed four different times, including being added to the practice squad Thursday. Practice squad cornerback Josh Norman played for the Bills in 2020 and came back this season following White’s injury. Upon return, Norman, 36, noticed how much some of the players had matured since 2020, but what struck him the most was how close the players were.
“I don’t know if I’ve been on a team where you have everybody on the same page that actually likes each other and cares about the next person and actually seeing them do good,” said Norman, who played for the Carolina Panthers when they went to the Super Bowl in 2015 with McDermott as defensive coordinator. “When you have that, you have a breeding ground for a successful team.”
Liking each other won’t be enough to cure the salary cap illness contracted by trying to build the team into what it has become. Should the Bills fail to win a Super Bowl this season, some veterans will kick around as long as they can until they win a Super Bowl. If the Bills do win a Super Bowl, there will be players who will try to stay afloat until they win another.
“I came in here because I was addicted to winning Super Bowls and I felt like this was my best chance to get back,” Miller said. “… There’s just nothing like it. It’s hard for me to relay that to these guys. It’s hard to miss something you have never experienced before. It’s hard to have those emotions that I have without experiencing it. I try my best to tell these guys football heaven is a magical place to be and we got the team to do it and we’ve got the mindset to do it, too.”
Others, though, will do whatever it takes to win a championship, but won’t fear legitimacy if they never win. This current core of Bills has 48 wins over the last four seasons, which is second only to Kansas City’s 51 during that time and is one behind the teams from 1989-1993 for the top franchise mark in a four-year span.
Some of the players helped end the 17-year playoff drought, while others snapped a 25-year run without a division championship and a playoff win. Buffalo has been to the playoffs six times in seven seasons, including five in a row, which is the second-longest streak in team history (1988-1993).
“Every year the goal is that (Lombardi) trophy,” Hyde said. “But at the end of the day, I’m not that guy that’s going to be defined by a Super Bowl. I have a beautiful family, I have an amazing wife and that’s what I live for. I’m not going to be chasing that thing the rest of my life, but I would love to get it, though.”
WR Gabe Davis (knee), LT Dion Dawkins (illness), LB Tyrel Dodson (shoulder), CB Rasul Douglas (knee), WR Deonte Harty (personal), TE Dawson Knox (illness) and S Taylor Rapp (calf) did not practice Thursday. … RB Ty Johnson (concussion) wore a red non-contact jersey and was limited.