In this unique year where every part of daily life is impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Buffalo Bills and their way of preparing for a regular season is just as affected. Players have had the challenge of a virtual offseason and making the hard choice about playing or opting out. And if they are playing, even more important decisions about steering clear of the virus.
Coaches and general managers face different challenges, the most significant of which is keeping a roster healthy. Not far behind, however, is their regular task of evaluating the players on their roster to make the right call on who makes their 53-man squad come September.
And that evaluation process has been extremely curtailed by the elimination of OTA practices, spring minicamp and four preseason games. Like everyone else impacted by coronavirus, general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott have to find a way.
"That's a challenge I've never been around," said Beane of no preseason games. "It's like every day, there's a new challenge. And obviously, when those games got canceled, that's frustrating for me. I know it's frustrating for some of our players. I talked to a few of them that are looking for that chance to prove their worth to either make this roster or to win a starting spot, or a special team spot, whatever it is."
Scroll through to see photos of the Bills taking the field at training camp.
McDermott and his staff have been exhaustively assembling practice plans to try to give all their players enough of an opportunity to put their skills on display while also ensuring they have their respective starting units ready for the start of the regular season after no field work in the spring and now no preseason games.
"As coaches it really challenges us to be sharp and on top of our game," he said. "Reps are always important, but how we plan practice, we spent a lot of time on that. Who gets the reps? How many reps? Are we challenging the guys enough? Because of no preseason games are we putting them into situations that they would have seen through preseason games? So I think from a planning standpoint, not just with the COVID end of the planning, but also on the field, there's a lot of planning and we've got to be razor sharp on that end."
Absent preseason games, the coaching staff has to create at least some game-like situations in practice to make up for what is lost. But they also have to do it in a way that doesn't further jeopardize the health of their roster, knowing COVID and the long layoff will be contributing in that area already.
"Sean and I have talked about it, I think Sean's got some great ideas," Beane said. "We've got to come up with various ways to create competition and some situations in games. High impact, high pressure moments the best we can and make them here. We're not in pads yet or anything like that. We're still you know a little over two weeks away. But as we get closer to that first game we are going to have to try when we have to cut this roster down, we're going to have to come up with as many ways to simulate preseason games."
That's especially true at a position like kicker and punter where there are budding competitions between Stephen Hauschka and rookie Tyler Bass and Corey Bojorquez and Kaare Vedvik respectively.
"That's where we've got to get creative," said Beane. "And that same motto that we had in the spring is translating here. We've got to find a way and use different scenarios. Whether it's a kicker makes us long kick, we cut off 20 minutes off meetings or we go no pads tomorrow, whatever it is. I think, Sean will do a great job. He's got some good ideas. That's what we have to do to put these guys whether it's a quarterback or receiver, a kicker, whatever position it is, we've got to do our best we got to come up with the best ways and strategies we can to put these guys in as high pressure situation we can."
Scroll through to see behind-the-scenes pictures of veteran Bills players in full uniform from their annual photo shoot.
Both Beane and McDermott understand their plans will likely need to adjust based on how effective they and their staff and players are in avoiding contraction of the coronavirus. They realize completely steering clear of it is unlikely, though they will do their level best every day to do so.
"I think that depth is going to be challenged those we're already seeing across the league us no different," McDermott said. "We have some guys with conditions that they've come in with, whether it be injury or a COVID situation. Brandon has had to at an early point already in camp, start to move a little bit on some things here so that's going to be an ongoing challenge and I think is to be expected throughout the season."
That must be balanced with the annual task of ensuring they've put together the best roster possible and then getting their team ready for games that count with a lot less preparation.
"We've got to plan this out and we got to be safe and healthy and we can't decimate our roster trying to evaluate it so there is a fine line," said Beane. "We also have to evaluate to make sure we're keeping the best 53 players, but we do have to get ourselves ready for that Week 1 game against the Jets and be ready for them."