Mornings won’t be quiet at the Buffalo Bills’ training camp this summer. Not nearly as quiet as the last two years, at least, when Rex Ryan’s routine was all about easing into each day – and pretty much everything else.
At around 4:30 a.m., Sean McDermott will already be in the gym, going through his intense daily workout.
By 7:30, the entire team will be gathered for a meeting with the head coach. “I want to check in with guys in the morning, look them in the eye,” McDermott says.
Seventy-five minutes later, a horn will sound for the 8:45 start of practice. It, too, will be conducted with a noticeably greater sense of urgency than the sessions of 2016 and 2015.
That’s how it all is expected to unfold on most of the two-plus weeks the Bills will be at their summer digs at St. John Fisher College. And that will be where the foundation of the McDermott Way will be built.
“My hand will be on the back of this team at all times,” he says. “Sometimes that means it’s like this (pushing) and sometimes that means it’s just right here (holding it still) and the guys know, even though the pressure may not be as hard, when they look, yeah, I’m right here from a support standpoint.
“There’s other times when it’s going to be, ‘Hey, let’s go,’ because I think that’s what a leader does.”
McDermott has never been the kind of leader at an NFL training camp that he’ll be this year, because this is the first where he’ll be the head coach.
As has been the case since his arrival at One Bills Drive, he will put his own distinctive markings on it.
Following Reid’s script
Doing away with the mid-morning practices that Ryan favored is one. Eliminating most of the night sessions – with the notable exception of the one at 5:30 p.m., to kick things off on July 27 and another at New Era Field on Aug. 4 – that had been a staple since the Bills held their first camp at St. John Fisher in 2000 is another.
The thinking behind the nine practices scheduled to begin at 8:45 a.m., is three-fold.
One, it’s the same schedule McDermott’s primary mentor, Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid, has followed since McDermott was on Reid’s coaching staff with the Philadelphia Eagles. Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, for whom McDermott worked as a defensive coordinator the past six seasons, also prefers early morning practices, although his are a little later than Reid’s.
“If people have observed Andy’s camps, there’ll be similarities there and there’ll be some pieces from what Ron did and then there’ll be an overall Sean McDermott camp, too, in terms of what I believe in,” McDermott says. “That’s what you do, right? You pull the best from the best and then you put your own spin on it, so a lot of what we’ve done, I’ve just pulled from Ron and Andy and then also (from) research I’ve done over the years in preparing for this opportunity.
“The night stadium practice is something we did in Carolina. It was great for the fans. I thought the players benefitted and the coaches and scouts benefitted because now you’re getting a young player basically a week before the first preseason game and, for the most part, he can go through his pregame routine under the lights or at least closer to game time and we can evaluate him and how he responded to the big stage.”
Another reason McDermott believes early morning practices make sense is to help minimize the potential disruption from pop-up thunderstorms. Yet another is to allow players to develop a routine of getting their work done and still having plenty of time to recover for the next day.
“I really see camp for nothing more than that in terms of, it’s not to play games” other than the one the players are paid to play. “It’s to get our work in and be focused,” McDermott says. “When we’re there, I want to know that everyone’s focused, number one. And, number two, is I want to feel the camaraderie building.”
That’s the advantage McDermott sees to holding camp at a remote location rather than joining the majority of NFL teams that conduct camp at their year-round facilities.
About 20 years ago, practically every club trained away from home, but that changed as more and more franchises invested in upgrading their own facilities and looked to cut costs associated with setting up temporary quarters elsewhere. Additionally, with the restrictions the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association places on the amount of contact and work in general players can have during camp, some teams just don’t see enough value in taking the operation on the road.
For McDermott, however, the chance to better promote bonding – which he views as vital to success – is priceless. To that end, one of his biggest changes is converting the first two floors of the players’ dormitory into fully staffed, MASH-style training and recovery rooms to encourage everyone to remain in one place for the majority of their needs between practices and meetings.
The first floor once contained video games for the players, but McDermott got rid of those, just as he did with the ones in the locker room at One Bills Drive.
“That doesn’t matter,” McDermott says of the presence of video games. “What matters is what we’re doing. So now, it’s going to be lounge-type setups where players can get iced down, get stretched, and hang out. I think camaraderie's built by just elbow-to-elbow hanging out, watch Sports Center or whatever’s on.
“It’s all there, right outside of their door, so they won’t have to walk to the training room (inside the locker room on the other side of the campus). Hopefully, that’ll end up being a place where guys congregate. I’m not setting up a country club, but they shouldn’t have to want for anything.”
‘Can’t be one-sided’
During practice, McDermott will spend the brunt of his time with the defense, especially the linebackers and defensive backs. It’s where he’s the most comfortable, having coached defense – and those positions in particular – through the majority of his NFL career.
However, McDermott promises to keep an eye on offense and special teams.
“You can’t just be a one-sided head coach and be effective,” he says. “I want my influence to be felt in all three phases. Certainly, the defense comes naturally for me, but that said, I’ve had ideas for what I want the offense and special teams to look like as well.
“I think the tendency for some is when you get into the special-teams periods and things like that to just, ‘Hey, that’s an off period for coaches sometimes.’ And special teams is where you win games. You’re going to win or lose sometimes two or three games a year on special teams or situational football.”
Day and night, McDermott will look to cover as much ground as possible. He’ll sit in on meetings with the offensive coaching staff. He’ll also sit in on player meetings with each position coach.
“I want to see the dynamic of the position rooms and the environment that they build,” McDermott says. “As much as I’m instructing, I’m learning at the same time, because at the end of the day, iron sharpens iron.
“We all get better.”