With the 18th edition of Buffalo Bills training camp kicking off Thursday at St. John Fisher College, the buzz phrase fans will hear a lot is “Don’t blink, you might miss it.’’
And, I might add, “You might miss it for good.’’
At 13 days, this camp is not only the shortest held in Rochester but the shortest in the franchise’s 58-year history. Makes you wonder if the Mayflower drivers will even bother to turn off their engines.
But there’s more.
With just one evening practice, that on the very first day, and most open practices starting at 8:45 a.m., this camp was designed by new coach Sean McDermott to be team-friendly, not fan-friendly.
Where his bombastic predecessor Rex Ryan would’ve practiced every night under the lights at Growney Stadium (five times last year) and had his players put on a show, Field Marshal McDermott wants lights out early.
He doesn’t even plan to speak to the media every day.
Clearly, McDermott’s “training camp lite’’ was designed to get down to business — and then get out of town.
By doing so, he’ll have thrown the folks in marketing a bone, weaned the locals off this summer spectacle that has taken place each year since 2000, and set the stage for the Bills to do what most NFL teams have already done: Relocate training camp to their state-of-the-art, ever-improving home facilities.
Has it really come to this?
Call me paranoid, but the Bills have scheduled two events at New Era Field in Orchard Park this training camp, a night practice at the stadium on Aug. 4 and a practice at their field house on Aug. 11. If it floats like a trial balloon and looks like a trial balloon, it’s a trial balloon.
It’s true that the Bills and Fisher have a five-year contract extension in place. But that’s as binding as the walking-around cash in billionaire owner Terry Pegula’s wallet.
There’s a mystique associated with NFL training camps born of nostalgia, with dads regaling sons with stories from “back in the day.’’ When players came to camp to get in shape, get a little rowdy, and bond like Roman legionnaires.
But that was so 1995.
Team’s home facilities have been evolving into variations of Club Med, World Gym, Harvard and Microsoft with state-of-the-art spas, workout areas and classrooms equipped with the latest in information technology.
Meanwhile, collective bargaining led to the phenomenon of “organized team activities,’’ code for off-season practices. Really, the only thing different about training camp than what takes place in March, April, May and June is that the pads go on and the circus tents go up.
Even then, hitting is minimal and two-a-days have been eliminated. There’s more contact at the concession stands but the passing drills are fun to watch.
Is it any wonder that the number of NFL teams eschewing the work and expense of temporary setups for the ease of utilizing their own facilities they’ve built with great expense is up to 21? That the old Wisconsin "Cheese League'' has gone the way of Limburger?
The Bills join the Texans, Chiefs, Raiders, Steelers, Panthers, Bears, Cowboys, Packers, Rams and Vikings as current old-school holdouts. But next year, the Vikings are relocating to spacious new home digs after 52 years at Minnesota State 90 minutes away in Mankato.
Up until now, Buffalo hasn’t had much choice.
In 2000, there was a dire need to "regionalize'' the franchise and expand its corporate footprint in a league where keeping up with the Jerry Joneses had become very difficult. The deal struck with St. John Fisher College was mutually beneficial and brilliant.
But after the death of founder Ralph Wilson and Pegula’s purchase of the team in 2014, things changed, eliminating the threat of relocation paramount among them.
Which leads us to today.
Last season, teams that trained at home vs. away led in playoff berths 7-5 with two, the Patriots and Falcons, playing in the Super Bowl.
Still, there is some intangible value in making grown men sleep in dorm rooms with curfew checks. Two teams, Dallas (1,500 miles away in Oxnard, California) and Houston (1,200 miles away in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia), reduce their players to monk status.
Where the Bills go next is like a lot of the passes thrown by some of the quarterbacks in their employ. Floating in the wind.
Will McDermott and new GM Brandon Beane be blown away by the energy and atmosphere at St. John Fisher (that’s if it can be replicated given the early practices and short stay) and decide to keep things status quo?
They each saw a remote location work on the business and football side in Carolina where the Panthers, located in Charlotte, North Carolina, hold training camp 77 miles away in Spartanburg, South Carolina, under the slogan “One Team, Two States.’’
“Make no mistake, I do see tremendous value in going away,’’ McDermott said. “It’s about building the team and building our identity as a tough football team. If you don’t do that … you’ve missed your opportunity.’’
If true, this condensed version of training camp that seems so unnatural to football’s traditional “dog days of summer'' could merely be McDermott's enlightened view of a productive camp being short and sweet.
But he and Beane are also young and more likely to initiate change after nearly 20 years of the same old thing with the Bills.
With input from the business and marketing side, they may decide that holding camp in Orchard Park is more fair to their core fan base. That perhaps taking a few practices or scrimmages on the road to Rochester, Syracuse and even Toronto achieves regionalization with a lot less hassle.
One thing is clear and this all fans can feel good about: Unlike every GM and coach before them since 2000, Beane and McDermott have more freedom to make decisions based on football and not marketing.
When McDermott blows his whistle to start practice at 8:45 a.m. and there’s no sound of clinging cash registers or tingling wine glasses, if it helps end this unfathomable 17-year playoff drought, I’m OK with that.
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