As Bills free agent signee Mario Addison hopped on a Zoom call for a team meeting with head coach Sean McDermott and his Buffalo teammates recently, the veteran defensive end felt like a fish out of water. He had changed clubs from one season to the next in his career before, but not like this.
Meeting his teammates on a Zoom call was different, and though he knew a couple of his fellow free agent signees from Carolina, he knew little about the rest of the roster.
"It's weird trying to meet people through virtual meetings," Addison told Sirius XM NFL Radio. "For me I'm trying to distinguish which guy was already in Buffalo and who is coming in now like me. It's different when you're not face to face talking to them. So, I have to do a better job of using the numbers in my phone and meet the guys and have more one-on-one conversations."
Such is the challenge for NFL players in an offseason where they're operating remotely and not interacting directly with one another, training together and challenging each other at a team facility. Team training centers have been shuttered since mid-March with no definitive end date in sight.
For a team that has developed into a playoff team in part because of their locker room culture and camaraderie, it is a hurdle coach McDermott is hoping his players can clear.
"That part is certainly a challenge," McDermott admitted. "What we've tried to do is keep things as normal as we can this time of year. Albeit certainly aware of this situation and the circumstances that make it different and unique."
McDermott usually has his players take turns getting up in front of the group at a team meeting to share a story about their background, their upbringing or an adverse circumstance that helped shape who they are as a person. It's been beneficial in strengthening the bond between players throughout the roster. Buffalo's head coach has made a point of continuing that practice in their Zoom meetings.
"Our players this time of year are used to other players sharing their stories, players sharing in some way shape or form in order to help bring our team together," he said. "We've continued with that during our meetings where players are sharing, coaches are sharing some of 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 these are real human beings. We're trying to develop a sense of family and then the resulting culture that comes from that."
The second task for the coaching staff is creating that measure of competition that often raises everyone's level of play. This is often achieved in the offseason conditioning program exercises and group tasks that strength and conditioning coach Eric Ciano sets up and executes with his staff.
The competitive juices just naturally flow out of the players when they're placed in an active and populated environment at One Bills Drive, where they can readily try to one up the player who may have just gone before him in whatever physical challenge might be on the docket for that day.
But with the roster scattered all over the country how do you duplicate that now?
"We do pride ourselves in having different forms of competition in our offseason program," McDermott said. "I give credit to Eric Ciano and his strength staff and what they've done in getting creative. Really finding different ways to reach out to the players to at least establish some sense of accountability in terms of how we know that they're working out. He's come up with some pretty cool and new pieces to our offseason program in order to do that."
"It's different," said Addison. "It's really different. I'm used to being hands-on and working out with the team, but it's a good thing I have all this equipment at home and can do all these things. I just have to get it done and stay in shape."
Scroll through to view the latest updates on Buffalo's reported additions to the roster through free agency.
New arrivals to the roster like Addison and the other free agent signees do want to get to know their new teammates, but it's a heavier lift now that it has to be done by phone or Zoom calls or FaceTime.
Fortunately, some of Buffalo's locker room leaders are already working to overcome the physical distance between players who are all doing the same thing, but in different locations.
"During OTAs every year, I like to bring the guys together," said Harrison Phillips. "So, I'm the one in the group chat planning, 'Hey, can we go to someone's house tonight? Do you guys want to go out to eat?' or 'After practice, let's do this.' I like to plan that stuff and bring us together. Since we don't have that time, it's hard.
"I made a group chat for the D-line, with all of our new D-linemen in it, so that we can send some stuff, but I wanted to coordinate a Zoom call with all of us without any coaches but that's so hard with guys' workout schedules and families and stuff."
The Bills and 31 other NFL clubs are going to be working around all sorts of restrictions this offseason in preparation for the 2020 campaign in the fall. Whoever finds the most effective means for overcoming those obstacles should be that much further ahead come September.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle is assimilating the draft choices and undrafted rookies, who have a brand- new scheme to learn, largely through classroom instruction online. Again trying to take that instruction a step further, coach McDermott has encouraged his veteran players to offer one-on-one assistance to rookies in their position groups once rookies can interact with veterans following the rookie minicamp period.
"A lot of these older guys are aware that the only way we're going to make progress and be on time with progress is if they reach out to these young players and get them up to speed," said McDermott. "That has developed a little bit to this point with some camaraderie, but with a lot more room to grow the rookies are really separated right now by league rule. Give it a week or two here when we're allowed to blend the two together, and I think it'll grow exponentially more than when they can at least interact."
Bills fourth-round pick Gabriel Davis already has plans in place to get some one-on-one tutoring from veteran receiver John Brown after rookie minicamp has concluded.
"I plan on getting the system down and learning some things from him," said Davis. "He's a great receiver who has been a part of this offense. He knows a lot about the game. A great mentor to have so I'll be working with him in a couple of weeks."
If the COVID-19 restrictions stretch through OTA practices and June minicamp there will be more adjustments that must be made. Without physical reps on the field there is one area of the game in particular that can suffer, the timing of the passing game.
"To be able to develop that chemistry, and the continuity and the timing, the rapport with one another (takes time)," said McDermott. "We all know we can't do that right now. We can only control what we can. I am concerned about it, but I guess I'm not worried at this point. I think that we'll have to do a really good job with our practice plans, making sure that we've got enough of that scripted so we can develop that chemistry whenever the time comes.
"There are challenges for everyone right? What you do is, is you try and find ways to adjust and adapt. Our theme this offseason has been 'find a way.' And I think that it really fits the time and the situation and circumstances we're in."