It’s tough to envision an NFL game being played without fans.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, however, has forced all professional sports leagues to consider the possibility.
Appearing Tuesday on former Bills center Eric Wood’s “What’s Next?” podcast, coach Sean McDermott admitted that games played at New Era Field without fans would be a challenge.
“Let’s face it, from the time we’re just 6, 7, 8, 9 years old and we first start playing football … it was always nice to have the sideline packed, right?” McDermott said. “And then you take that to junior high into high school to college … and now to the NFL. That’s a big part of the environment and the atmosphere, in particular in Buffalo, for us. So it’ll be a challenge, it’ll be different, but I also know this: I know that we’ll adjust.”
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That has been the story of the offseason for all professional sports teams. The NFL has conducted two major events on its calendar, free agency and the draft, remotely. Currently, teams are conducting their spring practices in a virtual format.
“When I get off this call, I’ll be on to our virtual meetings with our team,” McDermott told Wood. “We’ll have a team meeting usually every day or every couple of days. Then they’ll be in position meetings or unit meetings with offense and defense and special teams. And then the rookies, the rookie development program continues to build every season through the NFL, is a big part of what we do, so the rookies will be tied up a little bit longer than the vets.”
Like just about everyone else working from home at the moment, McDermott has learned a lot about the proper way to conduct – or perhaps not conduct – business online.
“There’s always someone who’s got a screaming child in the background or they’re shuffling around and they left their talk button open,” he joked. “It’s kind of like family dinner etiquette, or proper table etiquette. It’s like proper Zoom etiquette. I had to learn it the first couple of Zooms I was on. But it’s interesting. There’s always that one or two guys that seem like they just landed on planet Earth and they’re new to this, after about 15 Zooms albeit, and so they just continue to do the same stuff like nobody else can hear what they’re saying or the background noise at their house.”
Aside from that, McDermott said he’s been happy with what his team has been able to accomplish from the time its season ended with a crushing playoff loss to Houston until now.
“The minute that game was over, we went to work to try and improve and get ourselves ready to go for this upcoming season,” he said. “A lot of runway in front of us, a lot of work to be done. Encouraged to this point the work that our players are putting in in this virtual format, virtual setting. Yeah, it was not an easy ending to last season, because a lot of work went into that, but I’m encouraged by our progress.”
That included the additions to the roster that came in the draft.
“Preparation is everything,” McDermott said. “If you’re prepared, you can go in confident. I felt like we went in confident. Brandon (Beane) had a good plan. It was good to have the ability to communicate with him and with ownership, Terry and Kim (Pegula) both, and I thought it went off as well as could be expected.”
The highlight of the draft for the Bills was landing Iowa edge rusher A.J. Epenesa – a player many thought was a first-round talent – in the second round. Wood asked McDermott where Epenesa would best fit in 2020.
“We have Trent (Murphy), we have Jerry (Hughes), we brought in Mario Addison at the end position, we’ve got some young ends still as well in Darryl Johnson and Mike Love,” McDermott said. “In a perfect world, (Epenesa) will play a backup position the first season. Potentially to move inside on rush situations. That’s asking a lot at this point because learning two positions just in your first season and adjusting all the while to life in the NFL is a challenge, so we’ll just focus on one position for now, but the more he can do, the better for us and his future.”
After going 10-6 last season, the Bills are facing heightened expectations in 2020. With Tom Brady no longer a member of the New England Patriots, the AFC East is thought to be up for grabs for the first time in two decades. Most analysts have the Bills as the divisional favorite.
“I think the obvious is every year it starts with hard work,” McDermott said of how the team can position itself to take the next step. “We’ve got a lot of work between now and the time we kick it off. A large runway in front of us. That said … we have to continue to evolve our mindset. When we first started here, it was stay away from the ‘here we go again’ moments in the fourth quarter, where you find ways to lose a game instead of winning it. We won some of those games that first year.
“And then we evolved through 2018 and 2019 of expecting to win. Now it’s, ‘OK, we should expect to win.’ What’s beyond that now is winning the division, winning at home and then trying to make a good push deep into the playoffs and the Super Bowl, with that being our final goal.”
The biggest factor for that to happen is the continued development of quarterback Josh Allen, who is entering his third season. McDermott was asked about where he believes his quarterback is in that regard.
“No. 1, he’s a great teammate. No. 2, he works extremely hard,” the coach said. “You watch his growth and development from his rookie year to last year. I’m excited to see what he’s done now from the close of the season 2019 to the time we see him again -- whether it’s this spring or come training camp. He’s a guy that works hard and so you know when you have talent plus work ethic, the skill level plus the work ethic to go along with it, really the sky is the limit.”