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Bills ready for camp in a Covid world

The Bills Report

Usually this time of year, Brandon Beane is in a dorm room at training camp.

He has the next month or so laid out. He can picture the preseason games, making cuts and getting ready for that first real game.

This camp will not be like those camps.

“That first game… seems like six months away,” Beane said.

He and Sean McDermott participated in the first media interviews of training camp Sunday morning. They were not in a tent at St. John Fisher College. Instead, they were in front a camera at the Bills team facility in Orchard Park and connected to reporters via Zoom.

Both emphasized the need to take things one day at a time. That’s not a just a beaten to the ground football cliche this year because the roster is, and will be, changing constantly.

“Every day you wake up… see if anybody’s positive. What does it look like with the contact tracing? Do we need to have someone sit out today just to make sure they’re safe?” Beane said. “Once we figure out who we’re going to have in the building every day, how are we doing to make the most of it?”

All 80 players on the active roster have reported to camp. E.J. Gaines joined Star Lotulelei on the opt out list Sunday and the Bills still have five players on the Covid reserve list.

The team has taken great measures to keep the rest of the players and staff safe. Tents have been set up for team meetings outside. If the weather is too severe, space has been created inside to keep players and coaches a safe distance apart.

Everyone in the building also wears contact tracers to track which people are coming into close contact with each other in case of an infection. The tracers turn red if someone gets within six feet of anyone else.

Keeping One Bills Drive virus free is not just about the actions at One Bills Drive. The team has had three virtual meetings with the families of players and staff to go over proper protocols.

“Trying to spread the word that it’s not only on the person in the house who works for the Bills, it’s on everyone in the house to be smart,” Beane said.

Communication is a key. Beane wants to know if any member of a household has even spent three minutes around someone who could be infected. That could be enough to send an employee home or hold a player out of team activities for a couple days.

Players and coaches must also make sure to hold each other accountable. McDermott thinks it might be the hardest part of the team’s Covid protocols.

“You can’t be afraid to speak up. The people that get held accountable, there can’t be tension about it,” he said.

It’s a type of peer pressure that already fits into the culture McDermott has established in Buffalo. His catchphrase for a safe working environment is “back up or mask up”.

“Every decision that is made by every person in this building, and we’re all teammates, has got to be made with so much love and appreciation for everyone else’s safety,” he said. “We’re not going to let each other down. That, to me, is the sign of a real team.”

Terry and Kim Pegula are an important part of that team. McDermott credited them for helping to get the training facility fully prepared for Covid life. He thinks the players have been impressed and are free of doubt that the organization cares about their safety.

The team understands their preparations won’t be 100% successful. They have already proven an ability to pivot by sending the rookies home last week after the five players on the Covid reserve list all tested positive. McDermott said other franchises have been calling the Bills asking about their thinking behind the move to learn about handling their own flare ups.

It will be harder for football. The NBA and NHL must only finish seasons. Baseball is playing only about one-third a normal season. The NFL is planning to play all 16 games.

The issues that have occurred in Major League Baseball and, specifically, with the Marlins have been noticed in Orchard Park. McDermott does not place any blame or hold any disdain for the Miami baseball club.

“The reality is that could be another team. This is new for all of us,” he said.

He also admitted playing a full season around Covid-19 is going to test his team’s endurance and discipline. The Bills brass will have to get creative with solutions to problems.

Any newly signed players must go through the same testing regimen that all players passed to begin training camp. It doesn’t matter if a player has come from someone else’s practice squad or arrived via trade and was Covid cleared by the original team. The new player will not be allowed inside the building until they have passed three Covid tests.

It means that if there is an injury in a game on Sunday and the Bills add a replacement on Monday, that player won’t be able to practice on the field with teammates until Friday or even Saturday.

During the season, a player who tests positive for Covid-19 or goes on the Covid reserve list will likely miss multiple games. The strict signing protocols make it doubly important to prevent any virus spread.

“One person, two people let their guard down like we’ve seen in some of these other sports, it could spread like wildfire and really damage our season,” Beane said.

Even if the season feels far off, Beane knows it’s not. The changes that have been made in Orchard Park to win the battle against Covid-19 can also help the Bills win games.

“The first goal for winning (this year) is keeping everyone safe,” Beane said.

“We talk about safety being number one,” McDermott said. “Now, we have to live it. We have to walk the walk.”

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