Panthers North: Carolina transplants lead Buffalo back to postseason

Brandon Beane, Sean McDermott, Kelvin Benjamin help Bills end 17-year playoff drought

First-year Bills coach Sean McDermott is one of several former Panthers who helped lead Buffalo back to the postseason. (Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Buffalo Bills made their first NFL Playoff appearance of the millennium, losing to the Jaguars in the Wild Card round.

The team, which hadn’t been to the postseason since the 1999 season, relied on an infusion of front office and on-field talent from the Carolina Panthers to snap the NFL’s longest playoff drought.

With a GM, head coach and handful of players imported from Charlotte, the team looked like Panthers North as it ended nearly two decades of frustration.

The playoff appearance was a bit of a surprise. After 10 losing seasons in the previous 12 years, this year was expected to be a rebuilding one. Don’t look for the early success to tempt the team into making any short-term moves to try to speed up the process, however.

“We have a long way to go,” said GM Brandon Beane. “We really do. We have a lot of work to do. We’re trying to compete and win every day. Our plan has not changed. The only thing that you adjust is that you don’t know where you’re going to be drafting. It’s a great thing to be drafting No. 21. If you’re drafting in the 20s, it means you made the playoffs. And that means you have a chance.”

The Bills had a chance this year, thanks, in part, to Beane, one of the key components of Panthers North.

He had served as Carolina’s director of football operations for 12 years and served two years as assistant general manager. He was thought to be the heir apparent to Dave Gettleman before leaving to take the Bills job this past offseason. Ironically, a few months after his departure, the Panthers job he’d been waiting for opened up, unexpectedly.

One of Beane’s biggest hires was his head coach, Sean McDermott.

Plucked from Ron Rivera’s Panthers staff, where he’d spent the last six seasons as defensive coordinator, McDermott was a hard-nosed, no-nonsense leader for a team that quickly took on his personality.

“I’ve known coach McDermott for some time,” said fullback Mike Tolbert. “He brought a certain bravado to the team that hasn’t been around in a while. It was definitely what I expected and more.”

Tolbert, a five-year Panther, is in his second stint following a former assistant to his new team. Prior to joining McDermott in Buffalo, he followed Ron Rivera from San Diego to Carolina to help implement the new head coach’s mindset.

The team also picked up special teams ace Joe Webb from the Panthers late in training camp. Webb ended up playing wildcat quarterback and stepped in to lead the team to an overtime victory late in the season when the starting quarterback went down to injury.

Following the Jacksonville loss, McDermott discussed his first year on the job.

“We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time,” he said. “That said, we’re not where we need to be. That’s obvious. We still want to be playing, and we’re not playing next week. … There are no moral victories. I don’t believe in those. What I believe in is continuing to build, and we’re not done yet. When we came in here, we set a vision and put forward a plan to accomplish that vision.”

His boss was happy with McDermott’s rookie season as head coach.

“I thought Sean and his staff did one heck of a job,” Beane said. “We threw him some curveballs with some trades in August and even two during the season. To go through all that, to handle the three-game losing streak and get this team into the playoffs says a lot.”

One of those midseason trades brought in another former Panther in wide receiver Kelvin Benajamin.

A first-round pick of the Panthers in 2014, Benjamin was dealt to Buffalo for draft picks at the trade deadline.

In his second game with the Bills, Benjamin tore his right meniscus. The injury would cause him to miss two games and struggle to a 36 yards per game average, the lowest of his career. He’ll have knee surgery this offseason.

“I’d be lying if I said Kelvin was himself,” McDermott said. “He wasn’t.”

“I was trying to make that push,” Benjamin said. “If I had to go all the way through the Super Bowl, I would do it. It’s the grit. You’ve got to play injured. You’ve got to play hurt. We’re out there playing for each other. You’ve just got to push through it.”

The team pushed through adversity to make the playoffs in their first year as Panthers North, and the future looks brighter than it has in a generation in Buffalo.

“We did it, first year, man,” Benjamin said. “A bunch of guys, coming in, not even knowing each other.”

“I saw flashes, at times, of this thing getting turned in the right direction,” McDermott said.

He’s one of the big reasons why.

“With that guy at the helm,” Tolbert said, “there aren’t going to be many years where the Bills aren’t in the playoffs.”