It’s a simple gesture, but one that the Buffalo Bills say is having a profound impact on building team chemistry.
Before the start of their morning meeting, coach Sean McDermott invites a player to address the team. Given the opportunity to address their teammates and coaches, everything is on the table.
What inspires them? Who helped them get to where they are today? Who and what do they love most?
Emotions spill from players as they discuss what makes them, well, them.
“It’s been awesome to learn the personal side of guys,” quarterback Tyrod Taylor said. “You know them as players, some people have grown up with others, but for the most part we’re here and we just know the outside, so for those guys to get up and be vulnerable and tell stories about their lives that people don’t know, it definitely brings you together — brings the room together.”
Take defensive end Jerry Hughes, for example. He sits next to offensive guard Karim Barton. Those two are about as far apart on the NFL spectrum as two players can get. Hughes has a $40 million contract, while Barton has bounced from practice squad to practice squad.
“Just the fact that I’m actually building a relationship with an offensive guard and we’re hanging out, talking and getting to know him a lot better, I love it,” Hughes said. “Anytime we get to build that camaraderie with our team, especially during training camp, is fantastic.”
Hughes has had his turn to speak, and said he focused on his parents.
“I have a fantastic mom and dad, so I had no problem talking about them and everything like that,” he said. “It’s building great team chemistry right now. It’s allowing us to kind of be open and vulnerable in front of our teammates and at the same time, you get to know guys on a personal level, not just what they can do on the football field, but get to know the man behind the helmet. I think that speaks volumes because we see guys running around, knocking heads, blowing people’s heads off, making great touchdown catches, great passes but then you get to find out more about each man’s personal life – their upbringing, their kids and what really means a lot to them and I think that’s fantastic.”
Vulnerability and football are not often associated with one another. Taylor, though, believes that knowing more about his teammates other than their 40 time or what kind of route they like to run can be valuable.
“If you know the story of your brother beside you, it makes it a little harder to let that person down,” he said. “You want to go out there and fight for him because you know what that person is doing this for and you don’t want to let them down.”
McDermott, a first-time head coach, said he had experimented with a similar idea during his time as a defensive coordinator. When he took over the Bills, he knew it was something he wanted to do.
“We just feel strongly that this is important. Part of the reason we came here was to build this football team and when you build any type of team, as far as we’re concerned, you need to know your teammates,” he said. “What better way to know your teammate than for individuals to share their personal stories and what inspires them and who they play for.”
The unscripted speeches have been powerful to hear, according to the coach.
“To watch guys share, open up, in a vulnerable position,” he said. “The love that we need to have amongst our people — when you know someone, you play a little bit harder for the guy next to you and that’s just kind of the organic part of it. … It’s run the gamut of emotions and it’s been fun. I use the word ‘fun’ in quotes, but it’s been good.”
With 90 players on the roster and another 20 or so coaches, those who have been selected to speak are doing so in front of a pretty big room. Anyone who has taken a public speaking class knows that’s not always so easy, but after the first couple players went, those who have been involved said it’s like a dam has been broken.
“Just because everybody has such a unique story, everyone travels different paths, so it’s just fun, interesting and exciting, just to kind of sit back and just hear each individual story - just to be amazed at their journey,” Hughes said.
Rookie quarterback Nathan Peterman said the sessions have helped him grow more comfortable at a time when everything is new.
"We’ve had great ones everyday, honestly," he said. "I think, especially for me as a rookie, I don’t know really a lot of the back stories of a lot of guys, so it’s good for me to get to know guys a little bit more."
Those who know McDermott best have mentioned how closely he values family. One example of that came during the NFL Scouting Combine. As he sat down with a reporter for an interview, he noticed the lock screen on the iPhone sitting in front of him was a picture of a little boy.
"Is that your son," the coach asked, and when the reporter said yes, the conversation became about how old the boy was and what he liked doing.
Learning more about the players isn't an act. McDermott truly believes in its value.
"I don’t want to act like we’re doing something that nobody else is doing but it’s very intimate in nature and private in that way, as you can imagine," he said. "You watch the look on the players' faces and the staff’s faces that are in there and it’s a pretty dialed-in moment of the meeting."