Jerry Hughes felt like he was back in grade school.
On the bus ride from Spartanburg, S.C., to Charlotte, N.C., following the Buffalo Bills’ joint practices last month with the Carolina Panthers, coach Sean McDermott made a pit stop.
The entire team – 91 players, plus coaches and staff – stopped at Lemmons Farms in Gaffney, S.C. McDermott used to visit the farm regularly when commuting between Wofford College and Charlotte during his time as the Panthers’ defensive coordinator, and he wanted to take the Bills there for ice cream or the specialty item on the menu: A peach milkshake.
“The milkshakes were phenomenal,” Hughes said this week. “You get out there, there’s no cellphones, and it was just a bunch of guys on a field trip.”
Since taking over as coach in January 2017, McDermott has made team building a top priority. This offseason, the coaching staff continued the tradition of having new players address the entire team, giving them an opportunity to explain where they come from and who they play for. The meetings serve as a way for teammates to forge relationships on a deeper, more meaningful level. The ultimate goal is to build a bond that can make a difference in the outcome of games.
“The events that we've done, the team-building exercises we've done, have all been geared toward just being a team and being a unit together,” backup quarterback Matt Barkley said. “There aren't a whole lot of individuals, a whole lot of egos or guys in it for themselves. It's just guys who are hungry and eager to win together.”
The stop for ice cream in South Carolina was just one way the Bills have built a bond that multiple players describe as rare. From escape rooms to bowling alleys, movie nights and numerous dinners, the offseason was filled with activities designed to promote togetherness.
Several teammates worked out together, with Josh Allen hosting the team’s wide receivers in California for training sessions. Receiver Zay Jones trained in Florida with John Brown. Defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Trent Murphy worked out together in Phoenix. Hughes met up with first-round draft pick Ed Oliver in their native Texas.
“The chemistry just feels different,” said Jones, a third-year veteran. “Being in this system and being a part of this organization within this building, not only from players, but staff, staff members, front office, you feel that connection. We all have that specific goal in mind, and that's to win football games. I feel that bond. I'm sure everyone else does, too.”
How did that chemistry form?
“I wonder the same thing,” defensive tackle Jordan Phillips said. “Sean and Brandon (Beane), I don't know how they put this roster together, to be honest with you, because we're all different personalities. We're all from different backgrounds. But we all gel really nicely together. It doesn't really make any sense how we are so close, just because we are from so many different places, but everyone gets along really well. I don't know how they did it, but they did a great job.”
Location plays a part. Buffalo is smaller than most NFL cities, and most of the team’s players live near Orchard Park. That inevitably leads to teammates not just hanging out after practice, but families getting together. Friendships between kids form at barbecues and game nights.
Phillips previously played for the Dolphins. Players were so scattered throughout South Florida, he said, that they didn’t spend nearly as much time together after leaving the facility.
“They preach family here, and it’s a real thing,” he said. “Especially on the D-line, I wouldn’t have a problem leaving my kids with any of them. It’s just a great group of guys. We’re all on the same page all the time, and we all live within five or 10 minutes of each other.”
Sweat equity also plays a part. During organized team activities last spring, the team headed to nearby Chestnut Ridge. There, players ran up the toboggan hill – with weights on.
“Running up hills, getting on the rope doing tug-o-war, that’s what brothers do,” Murphy said. “That grind brings people together.”
McDermott also knows when to dial it back. He canceled the team’s last mandatory minicamp in June and instead had the team play backyard games such as cornhole and Kan-Jam inside the fieldhouse.
The bond formed was evident in the preseason. When Christian Wade took his first NFL handoff 65 yards to the end zone, the sideline erupted. Afterward, starting quarterback Josh Allen called it one of the coolest moments of his football career.
In the third preseason game, running back Frank Gore was hit late by Lions safety Tracy Walker out of bounds. Left tackle Dion Dawkins immediately sprinted over to get in Walker’s face. Allen got involved, too.
Then in the fourth preseason game, quarterback Tyree Jackson led a furious fourth-quarter rally that was punctuated by a go-ahead touchdown pass to David Sills V. Again, the Bills bench went wild.
“It didn't matter who was out there, the twos, the threes, guys who were fighting to make an NFL team, everyone in this locker room, we push,” Hughes said. “It doesn't matter where you are on the depth chart or where you came from. We want everyone to succeed, and when you have a team like that, that chemistry and morale, it brings everyone closer this time of the year, and that's what you need.”
What’s most impressive about the Bills’ bond is that new players have quickly caught on. That speaks to the type of players targeted by Beane.
Hughes has played a big part in forming that chemistry. During the season, the man cave at his house is the spot for all the Sunday, Monday and Thursday night games. On Monday, he hosted a Labor Day carnival as a way of saying congratulations to those who made the 53-man roster. When Hughes first arrived in Buffalo, former defensive tackle Kyle Williams hosted a similar party, so the defensive end’s wife, Meghan, took it upon herself to continue the tradition.
When Hughes got home from practice, he arrived to a lawn full of kids enjoying bounce houses and a mechanical bull-style Bills helmet, not to mention a cotton-candy machine and ice cream station. Bar Bill delivered more than 400 chicken wings, and Hamburg restaurant the Grange catered.
“Being on a team, you want everyone to feel close,” Hughes said. “You want that team unity, you want everyone to feel accepted because there are going to be some rough patches in the season. You don't really build that relationship just by being at work all the time. That's that comfort level we build at the house. There are going to be some times when turmoil is going to show up. That's the worst time to not be together, because then the locker room is divided and your season goes down the drain just like that.”
That gets to the all-important question: Can chemistry impact the bottom line, which in the NFL is measured by wins and losses? Liking your teammate can’t tackle Le’Veon Bell or block Leonard Williams, after all.
To a man, and for different reasons, the Bills say that chemistry can have a big impact, though.
“It can be a big factor in the sense that trust is a big factor,” Murphy said. “When things are going fast and not according to plan, you can look inside and know you trust that person -- know where they come from, what they're made of. You know they can dig deep and do their job as well. Sometimes when it's just another body out there, you don't know what they're going to do, and you might have something in your head that says, 'I've got to do something extra now.' Here, it's just ‘I've got to do my job and I know he's going to do his job.’ That's how you win on defense."
Added Barkley: “In those tight games when push comes to shove and you know that you can count on your buddy next to you, you know that you've already been through a whole lot off the field together, you know who each other are. If it's a bad play, nobody is pointing fingers. They're all coming together no matter the circumstance. I definitely think when it comes down to crunch time, it will definitely benefit us.”
Deadline looming for bus-lot permits
The change to parking in the bus and limo lot at New Era Field will go into effect at the home opener Sept. 22 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
A refresher: A parking permit will now be required for occupants of buses and limos who wish to tailgate. The cost for a 20-person vehicle is $300, then $600 for a 40-passenger vehicle and $900 for a 60-person vehicle. That breaks down to $15 per passenger. That tailgating will take place in a designated "Tailgate Village."
For buses or limos with occupants who do not wish to tailgate, there is a flat $100 fee for a parking permit.
The deadline for permits to be purchased for the home opener is Sept. 16. Andy Major, the team’s vice president of operations and guest experience, conceded Thursday that sales for the bus and limo lot are trending behind where they were last season, but that the drop did not come as a surprise.
“We expected that, quite frankly,” Major said. “If it does avoid the issues and helps us out from a fan-behavior standpoint, makes it safer for the other tailgaters in the bus and limo lot, that’s a good thing. We hate to lose business of course, but if it makes the fan experience better and safer and more fun, I think that’s what our job is.”
Buses or limos that attempt to park in the designated lot on game day without a permit will be forced to find alternative parking. The team’s “Tailgate Village” will be operated by Tailgate Guys, an Auburn, Ala.-based company that specializes in customizing tailgate parties at several major colleges and six NFL teams.
Permits for the bus and limo lot can be purchased on the company’s website, tailgateguys.com.