(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a three-part series with fourth-year Bills coach Sean McDermott from a Zoom session with the team media earlier this week.)
By now, under normal circumstances, the Bills would have been through the storied organized team activities and both minicamps and the coaching staff would have been into its annual sweat-a-thon hoping the players stayed out of trouble for the seven weeks until training camp.
But these aren’t normal times.
And they got a bit more abnormal earlier this week when the National Football League decreed, in deference to the coronavirus pandemic, that teams must conduct training camp at their own facilities and not remotely.
For the Bills, that means no St. John Fisher, but rather workouts at the team’s Ad-Pro practice facility in Orchard Park.
Oddly, the quaint practice of NFL teams going away to a nearby college for a couple weeks of intense training has become a bit passe. In fact, of the league’s 32 teams, only 10 still follow that practice. Besides the Bills, there are the Bears, Chiefs, Colts, Cowboys, Panthers, Raiders, Rams, Redskins and Steelers.
Indeed, Buffalo’s contract with SJF ends after 2021 and it has long been rumored that when it ends, the Bills will conclude their relationship with the Division III school in suburban Rochester.
However, this year’s cancellation of training camp there is a disappointment to coach Sean McDermott, who talked about it in a marathon Zoom call on Wednesday.
“THERE WERE a lot of questions early on whether Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane were proponents of going away to training camp,” he said. “There was some myth, for some reason, mixed messaging early. I don’t know how that happened but I’ve always been a proponent of going away … we’re one of the few teams that still does. I believe in that for a lot of reasons, one of which is getting away I think builds fellowship and camaraderie. And you share an experience. Anytime you can share an experience, I think that bodes well for building community chemistry which is so important in my opinion to building a good team.”
He added, though, “Obviously this is a situation that we have to do in terms of taking the best measures to keep everyone as safe and healthy as possible. I do support it, I respect the fact that the NFL has a vision and the foresight to get out in front of things, so we can plan accordingly.”
What do the Bills lose by missing the Fisher experience?
“When you’re away, it just kind of frees you up a little bit,” McDermott said. “Specifically to kind of give you the look behind the curtain when you’re away at camp. 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 ... I think there’s a bit of a pull for husbands and fathers and that’s all good when home, but when you’re away it’s nice to have that.”
He continued, “What I found happens in those late nights or those off times is guys spend time together … playing cards, playing dominoes, it just helps to build that connection. What we did in the dorms up there is set up kind of a MASH area in each entrance to each floor. Guys that don’t want to play games can get iced or rehab. That 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 is where there’s a lot of value in building our football team.”
OF COURSE, when training camp will start and preseason games will actually be played are in the purview of the NFL.
“What I know from the league to this point is that, as far as the preseason games go, we’re expected to play on schedule,” McDermott said.
“(Training camp) will be things that the league and the NFLPA discuss amongst themselves. When you go back to 2011, the last time we had a work stoppage – not to put those two in the same category with the COVID situation now, because they’re not – anytime we’ve been away like this, we saw a spike in injuries. We want to make sure, whether we do get extended time or not that we as a coaching staff do our best to acclimate our players early on in the training camp process.”
McDERMOTT is aching to get started in his fourth season as coach, and after making the playoffs two of the previous three years, fans’ expectations are dramatically inflated. Many feel the postseason is a given with some of the most common sense-challenged even thinking Super Bowl, despite one of the NFL’s toughest schedules.
And while McDermott welcomes the enthusiasm about his team, he’s also cautious.
“Games aren’t won on paper, that’s the mindset we’ve embraced since we showed up here,” he said. “If games are won on paper we would have probably won two or three games the first year. That’s probably what we were projected to win ... and a handful of games the next year and just over a handful of games last year. That, in and of itself, is a great lesson for our football team.”
Still, McDermott conceded, the optimism “shows a sign of respect in terms of expectations. When people and expectations rise it’s a sign of respect that people have for what we’ve done and how we do things. We embrace it … it’s not going away.
“At the same time, (we have to stay) the course and know that we’ve got to earn it. Wins in the NFL don’t come in the offseason (they’re) the result of earning the right to win. That starts in the offseason, it continues through the preseason and training camp and then it goes into Sunday afternoons and Monday nights. That’s something that we certainly respect and, and there’s a lot of work in front of us at this point.”
(SATURDAY: Bills players step up to get a head start on workouts)
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)