When the NFL season kicked off four weeks ago, few predicted that the Buffalo Bills would be leading the AFC East in October. The Bills, who have a storied history and a passionate fanbase, have struggled to compete in the AFC East in recent years. In fact, they have not made the playoffs since 1999, the longest active playoff drought in any major professional sport.

Added to the tradition of disappointment was a tumultuous change in management during the offseason, with the departure of Head Coach Rex Ryan and the firing of General Manager Doug Whaley the day after the NFL draft.

But the Bills currently sit atop their division, boasting a 3-1 record after an impressive road victory over the Atlanta Falcons, the defending NFC champions. When trying to explain their unexpected success this season, one factor stands out above all the rest: the importance of team culture.

Perhaps the most important change Buffalo made this offseason was appointing Sean McDermott as the team’s new head coach. McDermott was the defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers for five years, helping them make it to Super Bowl 50. McDermott’s seeming obsession with culture in the room has had a real impact on the play of the team thus far.

His focus was part of the Bills’ consideration when deciding to make two trades this summer. McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane shipped off disgruntled wide receiver Sammy Watkins to the Rams and cornerback Ronald Darby to the Philadelphia Eagles.

These moves were widely panned as the Bills preparing to “tank,” or lose intentionally, in an attempt to rebuild the franchise through the draft. By trading established players for picks and younger prospects like wide receiver Jordan Matthews, many thought Buffalo was conceding defeat before the season had even begun.

Instead, the Bills have stormed out of the gates this year, beating the Jets, Broncos and Falcons and only narrowly losing the Panthers on the road. A dependable offensive line, LeSean McCoy’s effective ground game and efficient quarterback play from Tyrod Taylor have made for a solid offense.

On defense, McDermott has switched the Bills from Ryan’s 3-4 scheme back to a 4-3 one, which has seemed to fit their personnel better so far. The secondary, which lost Darby in the aforementioned trade and Stephon Gilmore to the Patriots in free agency, has been playing better than ever. The group is led by standout rookie Tre’Davious White, who scored a touchdown and had the game-winning pass in Sunday’s win against Atlanta.

Will all of this last?

It is difficult to predict, as many analysts believe that the Bills’ perceived lack of talent will come back to haunt them as the season continues. Even if Buffalo does not regress, it is likely that the Patriots will break out of their early-season funk and win the AFC East.

However, even if the Bills do not make the playoffs this season, the foundations for success have already been laid.

A year ago, Buffalo was perceived as a lovable loser around the league, a team capable of surprising others, but certainly not a legitimate contender.

Now, the Bills have a young roster sprinkled with talented veterans to lead the way. They also have extra draft capital due to this summer’s trades, meaning they have the resources to continue to improve in the years ahead.

And perhaps most importantly, they have McDermott, a talented young coach who has proven his skills both in designing game plans and motivating his team, at the helm. With a positive, progressive team culture in place, the future looks bright in Buffalo — something that hasn’t been said about the Bills for some time.

Ryan McCoy is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. “GM’s Corner” appears in print every Friday.

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