No matter what, Sean McDermott wants to maintain the sort of strong, team-first culture he and General Manager Brandon Beane have proudly built since becoming the Buffalo Bills' head coach in 2017.
McDermott made it clear Thursday he has no intention of allowing the coronavirus pandemic, which has kept players away from coaches and each other during this NFL offseason of social distancing, to change that.
He offered a not-so-subtle boast of what he and Beane have put together when he mentioned cornerback E.J. Gaines reaching out with his desire to return the Bills, with whom he spent only one season before leaving in free agency in 2018.
"I think it really speaks volumes about our culture, our team, the guys, the people in our building at the Bills," McDermott said.
Maintaining it in the midst of a worldwide health crisis could be easier said than done, considering this is the time of year that a large part of team chemistry is built. Now is when players and coaches get to know each other, while also familiarizing themselves with the playbook. Although the Bills' roster, and especially the starting lineup, mainly figures to go unchanged, enough new faces have been added to make interaction imperative.
The problem is that for the time being, it can only be done through video conferencing, the same method McDermott used to field questions Thursday in his first encounter with reporters since the NFL combine in February.
Call it virtual bonding, which the Bills have been doing for about a week and a half.
It's far from ideal, but it won't stop McDermott from striving to make the new normal feel like the old one as much as possible.
"That part's certainly a challenge," the coach said. "Our players this time of year are used to players sharing their stories, in some way, shape or form, in order to help bring our team together. And so, we've continued with that during our meetings, where players are sharing, coaches are sharing, maybe where they live. They tell their story a little bit, they talk about their family.
"So we have not gotten away from that, because at the end of the day, these are real human beings that we're trying to develop a sense of family, a sense of camaraderie and a sense of, then, the resulting culture that comes from that."
Talking is one thing. Providing the sort of guidance to train a body for football activity is another.
The Bills split the four-hours-per-day maximum the NFL allows for video conferencing during their offseason programs in half: two hours for meetings, two for workouts. McDermott said trying to work out or rehabilitate in front of strength and conditioning coach Eric Ciano and his staff requires "getting creative, really finding different ways to reach out to players to at least establish some sense of accountability in terms of how we know that we're working out."
An area where the lack of teammates being able to work together presents a concern is the place the Bills set out to make the greatest improvement: making big plays through the air. That was why they gave up a bounty of draft picks in March to acquire wide receiver Stefon Diggs from the Minnesota Vikings.
Normally, according to McDermott, the Bills spend about 70% of their noncontact offseason practices working on timing between the quarterback and his receivers. However, it could very well be weeks, if not months, before Josh Allen gets to work with Diggs or any of his other receivers before playing a game – if that even happens this year.
"Probably the biggest thing we're missing is that time on task and developing the passing game," McDermott said.
Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips, who is in his native Omaha, Neb., as he works his way back from a major knee injury, has incorporated the help of his girlfriend while doing drills designed to strengthen his knee. She records each session on her cellphone, and forwards the video via a group text that includes a member of the Bills' strength and conditioning staff, an athletic trainer and a physical therapist. Once they review it, they send feedback.
"They'll text back, 'Hey, your right leg wasn't cycling as much,' " Phillips said in a phone interview. "Or, when I'm doing box jumps, I jump up and land and they'll say, 'Hey, when you're landing, you're shifting your weight to your left.' So then, for the next video, I'll make sure that I don't. They'll see that and text back, 'Good correction.' It makes the workout longer, because the videos have to be sent and they've got to watch the video and text back. But it's doable, it's very doable."
It is, provided players share Phillips' diligence and stay dialed into the importance of taking responsibility to do what is necessary to be as well-prepared, physically and mentally, for the season under these unusual circumstances. Offseason workout bonuses are still being paid for completion of drills, so that would figure to provide a decent amount of incentive.
Still, not everyone is hard-wired the same. There are players who require more prodding than others. Phillips, for one, said it isn't always easy to arrange video conferences for his position group because of scheduling conflicts and time-zone differences.
"This is where passion and discipline play a big part," McDermott said. "If you’re passionate about what you do, you shouldn’t need a kick in the butt to get up every morning and go to work. The longer this has gone, and I’m sure you (reporters) feel the same thing, the more discipline it’s taken. I would say, at the beginning, it took discipline to find a routine and then as the weeks have added up and stacked up, to me that’s when those that have a high amount of discipline are able to thrive in environments like this.
"As one of my players said, he’s built for the quarantine. With all due respect to all that’s gone on, he just meant he usually, this time of year prior to coming back to Buffalo, is in his weight room, training his butt off, studying his butt off. So it does take a huge amount of discipline right now to stay disciplined in your approach, your routines to get up at a certain time, to take a break at a certain time and then to go to bed at a certain time so you can stay on a healthy routine."
McDermott has learned plenty about himself since this all began. One of the bigger lessons is the need to have patience when doing all of his work from home.
"I've got kids that are young and young kids sometimes don't always understand and so they're yelling out and I'm trying to talk and so I hit the mute button," the coach said. "You want things right here and now and we're not able to have things sometimes that we want right here and now, in front of us. … Part of my goal, too, is to look back and say, 'You know what? I'm happy with how I handled this.' … I want to be able to say that I handled it the right way."
About a week after isolating became a way of life for millions of people, the Bills' coaching staff gathered to discuss how to approach the rest of the offseason.
"Listen, I'm not a rocket scientist, but you could kind of get a feel for where this was where this was headed," McDermott said. "At least, that we probably weren't going to be back into the building for weeks on end. So we got together as a staff and really tried to put our collective minds together and put together a plan so we would have our act together. We felt like the team or teams that came out of this the most prepared, the most unified would potentially have created a competitive advantage.
"That remains to be seen."
As long as a strong culture can thrive from a distance, the Bills should at least have a fighting chance.