It’s rare that an NFL team peels the onion back in any way to allow fans a better look at its inner workings.
That’s what makes the Buffalo Bills’ latest in-house project so interesting. “Buffalo Bills: Embedded” is a four-part series that debuted Wednesday on Facebook Watch. The remaining three episodes will also appear there at 8 p.m. on the following three Wednesdays.
The series promises a “new, behind-the-scenes production that will give viewers an inside look at the Bills.” On that, it delivers. There is plenty of footage from full team meetings, position meetings and the practice field itself, all areas usually off limits to any outside eyes.
“I think what people saw in the first episode was really the artistic side,” said Chris Jenkins, the team’s senior director of content. “The way it was shot, where we were on the field – we weren't just on the sideline or in the end zone, we had a chance to be on the field and shoot certain ways and utilize technology to our advantage. This is the first time we could get this access, so we knew fans would be excited about it.”
The idea for the show came from the footage the team shot from the victorious locker room in Week 17 of the 2017 season in Miami. Assuming the Bills beat the Dolphins, there was a chance they could end a 17-season playoff drought. Camera crews were set up in South Florida, at (716) Food and Sport and in New York City, where the Sabres were preparing to play in the Winter Classic.
When the Cincinnati Bengals scored a late touchdown on a fourth-and-12 play to go ahead of the Ravens, cameras caught the celebrations. Those scenes are unforgettable.
“The fourth-down play, it was very dramatic,” Jenkins said. The footage of “Kyle (Williams) and his family. It just worked out getting all that footage. It was great for our social, our digital channels in terms of fan reaction to it. We ended up producing a show from it, because we had long-form interviews we were going to do with Kyle anyway. So it worked out.
Given the positive response to that footage, a team led by Mark Preisler, Pegula Sports and Entertainment’s executive vice president of media and content, and Jeff Matthews, the Bills’ vice president of media and content, approached coach Sean McDermott, general manager Brandon Beane and Derek Boyko, the team’s vice president of communications, with a proposal to do “Embedded.”
“It kind of formulated into, 'let's give it a shot' through the preseason and let's see where it goes,” Jenkins said.
In the buttoned-up world of the NFL – where even seemingly useless information is guarded with the importance of nuclear codes – it’s a surprise to see the level of access the team’s media department was granted.
Was Jenkins surprised?
“One thing about Sean is he wants that stadium packed. He wants our fans engaged and excited,” he said. “He felt that this was a good way to get them excited about the season and the team. We all know he has a plan and he has a process. He wasn't going to stray from his beliefs in terms of what we can shoot or what we can't shoot. There were clear lines. There were a lot of meetings from June and July to make sure we knew our boundaries and where he was comfortable with us being, and vice versa, 'Hey, this would help us tell the story.' ”
It’s easy to compare “Embedded” to HBO’s popular series “Hard Knocks,” which is following the Cleveland Browns this summer, but they are two different projects. “Hard Knocks” airs the good, bad and ugly of life in the NFL. Naturally, given that it’s a team-produced series, “Embedded” focuses more on the good.
“There are processes and checks and balances to make sure that everything that will ultimately get out, we're not giving anything away competitively,” Jenkins said. “Obviously we want to win too, we're working for the team so we don't want to put anything out there that hurts those guys. ... We want to make sure the football side is happy with the end product in terms of, ‘It wasn't too much of an inconvenience for the players or the coaches.’ At the same time, we want fans to be engaged and excited about the end result. So it's a balance.”
That’s not to say it’s all sunshine and rainbows, though. In one scene from the first episode, McDermott shows a touchdown catch made during practice, and wonders why none of the receiver’s teammates came to celebrate with him. In another, the coach has some tough words for rookie guard Wyatt Teller. Afterward, left tackle Dion Dawkins, who was wearing a microphone during practice, approaches Teller with some words of encouragement. There is also footage from a scuffle that broke out involving defensive end Jerry Hughes and right tackle Jordan Mills.
“It's authentic,” Jenkins said. “There's some hard coaching scenes in there. There's some physical football out there.”
There’s a good reason “Embedded” may have a “Hard Knocks” feel. That’s because the woman who oversees the project used to serve as a segment producer for “Hard Knocks.” Michelle Girardi Zumwalt came to Pegula Sports and Entertainment from NFL Films, where she worked on shows such as "Inside the NFL" and "Sound FX." A three-time Sports Emmy Award winner, Girardi Zumwalt oversees several of PSE’s more ambitious media projects.
“This was right in her wheelhouse,” Jenkins said.
On any given day of practice at St. John Fisher College, there were four videographers shooting action on the field. That resulted in the ability to present practice plays in a visually appealing format.
“We wanted to take advantage of the access and then obviously the talents of the men and women who are shooting and editing,” Jenkins said. “You have four cameras shooting every practice. I look back at a Nate Peterman-Cam Phillips pass. You have Nate throwing it, you have Cam catching it 40 yards down the field, and you have four different angles, so you can do pretty cool stuff in terms of editing.”
In addition to Girardi Zumwalt and associate producer Kyle Toot, Jenkins would listen in to the microphones during practice to assist in taking notes for the editors. Narrowing down the footage into episodes that are planned to be about 20 minutes long has proved to be a challenge.
“That's the hardest part of the project, is going through all the footage,” Jenkins said. “We shot every practice for about two weeks. Every team meeting. When you're in a position meeting, you're in there. You can't say, ‘excuse me, guys,’ and get up and leave. So we were in there two to three hours every day.”
The timing of the project worked because the Sabres’ season has yet to start, freeing up PSE staffers who might otherwise be working on projects for the hockey team.
“This was an all-hands-on-deck thing,” said Jenkins, who is in his first season in the team’s media and content department after previously having worked in communications. “I used to come up with story ideas and try to pitch them to guys like you. Now I'm using more of those talents for our internal properties. We have a radio show, we have TV shows that we'll be doing in the fall, and then we have our website content. ... We want to make sure we are using all our resources to get the best content out there for our fans. Whether that's working through social media, our radio shows, TV shows, that's where we are.
“The best part about it, I think, is when you watch the project, you'll really see how much time and attention to detail (McDermott puts in). What he expects of the team, the standard he holds not only himself, but the coaching staff and the players, how much time they really put into it – I think fans will get a great look at that.”