Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane has heard your jokes about Carolina North.
He heard them when he and Bills coach Sean McDermott, another Carolina expat, signed several ex-Panthers during their first season in Buffalo. Beane didn’t notice any Carolina North references this past offseason when the Bills brought ex-Carolina defensive tackle Star Lotulelei to western New York, but figures they were abundant.
“Yeah, I get that. And that’s natural,” Beane said this week. “You see that sometimes with teams, especially when both a head coach and a GM, who are aligned, have been at a place like Sean and I were for six years together.”
Thursday’s Panthers-Bills exhibition at Buffalo won’t carry the same stakes as their Week 2 meeting last season — a 9-3 Carolina victory.
But it still offers the chance for old friends and co-workers to reconnect before the games begin taking on more meaning next month.
“It’s fun to see everybody. Last year was an important game for them and for us. This time, a little less stress on the final outcome as both of us are just trying to evaluate our teams and start building on the 2018 season,” Beane said.
“It’ll be good to see those familiar faces and give them some hugs and high fives. And wish them the best of luck after the game for the rest of the year.”
This week’s matchup took on a little more intrigue when Bills receiver Kelvin Benjamin ripped Panthers quarterback Cam Newton as an inaccurate passer during a Q&A with The Athletic.
So while Beane planned to visit with Panthers coach Ron Rivera, GM Marty Hurney and other friends from Carolina on Wednesday night, it might be worth watching whether Newton and Benjamin interact Thursday at New Era Field.
Both Beane and McDermott declined to address the matter during phone interviews with the Observer this week. Although Beane said Benjamin, the Panthers’ first-round pick in 2014, “understands how we do things.”
A Carolina pipeline
Not many in the NFL understand how the Panthers operate better than McDermott and Beane, who became running buddies and confidantes during their six years together in Charlotte.
McDermott said it’s natural to lean on people and players you trust, which is why there seemed to be a Charlotte-to-Buffalo express shuttle running last year, when former Panthers Mike Tolbert, Joe Webb, Leonard Johnson and Philly Brown all signed with the Bills.
Beane and Hurney also executed a pair of trades, with the Panthers dealing wideout Kaelin Clay (whom they later reacquired) to Buffalo for cornerback Kevon Seymour and jettisoning Benjamin for a pair of Bills draft picks.
While Brown, Tolbert, Webb and Johnson are no longer in Buffalo, it doesn’t mean the pipeline has dried up. Clay is back in Buffalo, joined by ex-Panthers Dean Marlowe and Lotulelei, who signed a five-year, $50 million deal during free agency.
They also hired former Panthers linebacker Dan Morgan as their player personnel director, and added a video director from Carolina.
A different Star
Lotulelei still has his signature long hair and shaggy beard, but he also has something else, according to Beane — a voice.
“I have seen him open up, talking more than I remember in Carolina,” Beane said. “I think he probably feels, hey, they paid me what they paid me to come in here and lead. He’s taken the bull by the horns, and guys really like him.”
McDermott thinks his roster is better this year than last season when he ended the Bills’ 17-year playoff drought. He’s still figuring out who his quarterback is (fans figure to get their first look at rookie Josh Allen on Thursday) — and he still keeps track of his old team.
“In terms of the overall growth cycle, Ron’s been there, what, eight years now? It’s just the start of our second year,” McDermott said. “We always keep an eye on what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, in the hopes we may be able to adopt some of the things they do.”
Beane watched from afar as the Jerry Richardson scandal unfolded, ultimately resulting in a change of ownership when David Tepper bought the Panthers for a record $2.275 billion.
“Change happens. Sometimes you don’t know when and why and how. But it happens to us all, and hopefully for the better,” Beane said. “There’s a lot of good people there. … Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is brighter than it was before.”
Beane said he hasn’t spoken to Richardson, but plans to reach out to him at some point.
In the meantime, he and McDermott will keep trying to move their franchise forward.
They’re not running as much anymore. Both have torn their meniscus in the past year, and now take turns on a stationary bike at the Bills headquarters.
“Just getting old. I think that’s the gist of it,” Beane said, laughing. “Both of us said that. Dang, this getting old thing is getting hard.”
But the two ex-Panthers hope they’re just getting things cranking at Carolina North.