When Sean McDermott arrived at One Bills Drive in January 2017, he inherited an organization in disarray and in need of a singular, steady voice after the fiasco which was the end of Rex Ryan’s tenure and the confusion of what exactly GM’s Doug Whaley’s role was within the leadership structure of the organization. It could not have been more clear that the franchise was searching for a leader and a purpose after 17 years of futility. Every moment since his arrival, Sean McDermott has been building to Sunday’s game. Not because there is a chance they could clinch the 1-seed in the conference (depending on the result of the Chiefs game on Saturday there is a chance the Bills will be eliminated from clinching the 1-seed before their game), not because they have a chance to knock the Patriots out of the playoffs, but because the Bills will have a chance to demonstrate the mental toughness and culture that Sean McDermott has worked tirelessly to instill in his team. His hard work will be on full display for the nation on Sunday.
We know the science of the trauma, it has been covered on the airwaves this week as the nation copes with what they saw. We know that when a human being experiences trauma, their brains goes into overdrive as the adrenaline and other chemicals take over. The brain will then paint it’s own picture of the event to cope – which results in them replaying the traumatic experience over and over in their minds. Josh Allen, while fighting back tears, explained that exact scenario in his Thursday press conference.
“Being on that field…you lose sleep, you hurt for your brother. A lot of shared grief. The scene replays over and over in your head, it’s something we will never forget. I’d be lying to you if I told you some people aren’t going to be changed forever after being on that field and witnessing that and feeling those emotions.”Josh Allen
Allen alluded to the aspect of shared grief and the emotional well-being of the team after going through this traumatic experience together this week. Both Allen and McDermott believe that despite the emotionally taxing week, the team is ready to play a football game on Sunday, referencing Damar’s continued positive gains throughout the week as the main reason why. Another reason why the team will be prepared to play just six days after the tragedy is Sean McDermott’s hyper focus on player mental health and overall well-being, which is something that has been there for the duration of his tenure, but has obviously been amplified this week. McDermott explained that the organization has provided additional counselors this week for players, coaches, and staff members who need a place to talk through the event and the feelings surrounding it. It would not be wrong to assume that because of McDermott’s preventative approach to player mental health over the past few years, the players were better equipped to handle what was thrust upon them this week.
Once the fanfare and dedications to Damar end shortly before 1pm on Sunday, the real test will begin for Sean McDermott’s team. Every coach talks about mental toughness, but the Bills under McDermott have embodied that – with no shortage of opportunities to practice it. Once the ball is in the air the Bills will be forced to compartmentalize and focus on the task at hand. The first tackle, the first big hit, the first time a player goes down and trainers jog onto the field from the sideline, the wounds from Monday night will start to open again. That is the human element of the game that will be inevitable for the Bills. For most, time will heal that. But on Sunday, it is too soon to expect the Bills to play in this game without recalling mentally what they experienced just the other night.
The Bills might play the New England Patriots on Sunday, but their biggest opponent and challenge will be playing through the pain, grief, sadness, etc. from what they, and what Damar, went through and will still go through. It’s their toughest challenge yet. All week you have heard players and coaches say “there’s nothing you can do to prepare for this.” And while that is correct in a sense, it also isn’t. The truth is, Sean McDermott has been preparing his team for this moment from the second he walked in the door six years ago. Through this experience, it is now the teams’ turn to show the fruits of his labor, to demonstrate just how mentally tough they are.