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For Bills, challenge of team-building just got tougher

For Bills, challenge of team-building just got tougher

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McDermott training camp

Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott at St. John Fisher in the summer of 2019.

Sean McDermott always liked the idea of a remote training camp, even when there was rampant speculation he and Brandon Beane wanted out of the Buffalo Bills' summer home away from home at St. John Fisher College.

"I think there was some, for some reason, mixed messaging early," the Bills' coach said Wednesday in a Zoom conference with reporters. "I don't know how that happened, but I've always been a proponent of going away."

This year, there's only one message about the Bills or any other NFL team holding camp somewhere besides their own facility: Don't!

That's from the league, and it joins a long list of adjustments made since the coronavirus pandemic put its disruptive grip on the world nearly three months ago.

This one, though, impacts only a small number of clubs because most stay home for training camp. Staying home would seem to make sense for the Bills, too, given that whatever value practicing near Rochester for a couple of weeks held from a marketing perspective has long faded. The St. John Fisher arrangement was a product of a previous administration and ownership.

It also was McDermott and Beane who convinced Terry and Kim Pegula to spend $18 million for a state-of-the-art training wing that the Bills constructed last year. Why build that and have all of that grass-field space behind a fieldhouse that can better accommodate indoor practices than is the case at St. John Fisher, only to leave it behind for the sake of working remotely?

McDermott will tell you why.

"I just believe in that for a lot of reasons, one of which is getting away, I think, builds fellowship and camaraderie," he said. "And you share an experience. Anytime you can share an experience, I think that bodes well for building community and chemistry, which is so important, in my opinion, to building a good team."

McDermott made it clear he wasn't complaining. He reiterated that he respects the fact the NFL is taking the "best measures to keep everyone as safe and healthy as possible." It seems logical to think keeping a team in its own space would be more conducive to minimizing the spread of the virus rather than in the more sprawling environment of a college campus, where, even without spectators, more non-team personnel are likely to be present.

But as with so many of those well-intended steps by businesses and governments, there are consequences that don't align with how we prefer to work and, especially, live. McDermott places the highest priority on coaches interacting with players and players interacting with each other. Not only about football, but about life. He wants back stories shared, openly and honestly, so that everyone has as thorough an understanding as possible of what makes the other guy tick.

He wants the team to feel like a tight-knit family.

The videoconferencing that all NFL coaches and players have done since March, while scattered throughout the country, has served as the virtual alternative to in-person meetings. Words are spoken and the speakers can be seen and heard, but the sessions simply aren't the same as when everyone is sitting in the same room.

McDermott, for one, misses the time when offseason programs functioned that way. There might not have been another time this offseason that the coach wished he were standing in front of his players, under the same roof, more than this week.

McDermott shared that he has spent time during virtual meetings talking with his players about the widespread protesting and social unrest stemming from the killing of George Floyd. He acknowledged that "this hits very close to home, or hits directly at home for a lot of guys on our football team." He said he talked with them about the divide in the country and the need for unity.

"Part of the reason why we share stories in our culture and in our building is to learn about one another," McDermott said.

Since joining the Bills in 2017, he has made storytelling, often with visual support, a priority during the first team meeting at St. John Fisher. Sure, the same can be done at the Bills' facility in Orchard Park. The difference is, once the day ends, players scatter. At St. John Fisher, they're in dorms. They eat all of their meals in the same place.

They are together, all day and night, with little else vying for their attention.

"When you’re away, it just kind of frees you up a little bit," McDermott said. "I know, myself, it's a little bit of a different dynamic. When I go back to my room to go to bed, it's just me. It's not going home to my family. And I think there's a little bit of a pull for husbands and fathers and some of that. And that's all good when you're home. But when you're away, it is nice to have that.

"What I found happens in those late nights or those off times is guys spend time together. You know, playing cards, playing dominoes, and so it just helps to build that connection. What we did in the dorms up there is we set up kind of a MASH area, if you will, in each entrance to each floor. So guys that don't want to play games can also get iced or rehab. And that kind of became a little bit of a community in and of itself, where guys get to know one another just laying on the ice table getting extra treatment. I think those kind of, in-between times, if you will, is where there's a lot of value in that and building our football team."

It seems likely that the distancing the Bills and the NFL's 31 other teams have done throughout the offseason will continue for the balance of the month, when the last of team-run workouts are normally held. After that comes a break through most of July before training camps open.

That means, counting April, when offseason activity at club facilities would have begun, players league-wide will have gone roughly four months without being together or with their coaches. Josh Allen did manage to gather 19 of his offensive teammates last weekend for practices in South Florida. McDermott called it a "big step" for Allen and his leadership.

However, the coach knows that so much has been missing from the overall effort to establish a solid foundation for the season. He knows that the circumstances will make it particularly hard for rookies to acclimate to the NFL.

"It's a big uphill climb for them, because not only do they not know us, but they don't know our systems, our schemes," McDermott said. "Then, on top of that, you talk about transitioning to life in the NFL."

It's the same for the rest of the league, of course.

Yet, how each team handles the same challenges could go a long way toward determining which ones play beyond the regular season.

"This has certainly been an event-packed offseason, just in terms of the things that continue to happen," McDermott said. "To me, it comes back to leadership. And that's my job. That's also the job of the veterans on our football team; it's their team. I've got to take ownership, they have to take ownership and find a way to navigate everything that's happened and adjust. I'm confident that we will do that.

"We've got guys on our team that are built and wired that they've overcome adverse times before, as have I and so has Brandon. So does that mean it's going to be easy? No. Does that mean that the world right now is easy? No. And we all need leadership and our football team needs leadership. So that's what we plan on doing, as the leaders of our football team, myself included, plan on leading us through these times."

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Sports Reporter/Columnist

This is my 5th decade of NFL coverage. I'm a co-host on SiriusXM NFL Radio & a Pro Football HOF selector. I've authored 10 books about football (including multiple NY Times best-sellers). I'm a past president of the Pro Football Writers of America.

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