Around 12:30 on Saturday afternoon, Bills PR chief Derek Boyko was behind the wheel with team COO Ron Raccuia sitting shotgun, the two having just navigated a circumstance they’d probably never anticipated encountering in their careers in professional football. The 77 inches a three-day winter storm dumped on the Southtowns region of the Buffalo suburbs was mostly on the ground by then, and they’d just picked up a stranded member of the team’s traveling party. The Bills were scheduled to leave for Detroit at 3 p.m.
When I asked Raccuia and Boyko which was the steepest hurdle in a week full of them, the answer was academic.
“Getting Dion Dawkins from his house,” the COO responded.
I laughed, knowing Dawkins, the team’s 6'5", 320-pound left tackle, was sitting right there in the backseat.
“It’s really not a joke,” Boyko then said, “if you were in the car with us, you would know.”
Dawkins added: “I’d not left my house. I’d been in the house the whole time, me and my kids and my lady, we've just been watching how bad it’s been. We couldn’t honestly believe how it just kept coming down and coming down and coming down.”
A sliding door on the side of Dawkins’s house had been sealed shut behind a wall of snow and, if he’d not had a small, elevated patio, with steps that spared one door from the worst of the accumulation, he’d have had an even harder time getting out. “If my back door was my front door,” he said, “it would’ve been impossible.”
Worse, getting to the neighborhood where Dawkins lived proved just as tough as it was for Dawkins to get himself out of the house. On their way there, Boyko and Raccuia encountered a jackknifed tractor trailer in an area that, Boyko says, “tractor trailers shouldn’t be driving in.” They never got an explanation for why the 18-wheeler was there, but they did get Dawkins to the plane.
About 70 minutes later, all the Bills were present and accounted for at the team’s practice facility, in the parking lot of Highmark Stadium, to board buses for the short trip to the airport. The buses left 15 minutes late, at 3:15, and a ride that normally takes 20 minutes took 45 due to a closed interstate. The Delta charter was wheels up just before 5 and landed at 6:10 in Detroit. About 26 hours later, at 8:20 on Sunday, the Bills were back in Buffalo, with a short week ahead and a return trip to Detroit less than 72 hours away.
Oh, and the Bills arrived home with a 31–23 win over the Browns. And a lot of amazing stories.
We’re 11 weeks into the NFL season and we’ve got a lot to cover in The MMQB this week. Inside the column package on this Monday before Thanksgiving …
• In Three Deep, we dive into the Commanders’ quarterback situation with Ron Rivera, discuss the Eagles’ resilience with Brandon Graham and break down what games like Sunday’s mean to Cowboys dynamo Tony Pollard.
• In Ten Takeaways, we’ve got Josh McDaniels on the Raiders’ comeback and where his retooling of the franchise stands, Jared Goff on the Lions’ sudden surge and a ton more.
• In Six from Saturday, we uncover an encouraging sign on the long-term prospects of USC’s Caleb Williams, assess where Michigan Heisman candidate Blake Corum stands, and get you ready for Hate Week in college football.
But we’re starting with the blizzard, the Bills and how all this might actually wind up helping Buffalo in the long run.
The Bills started, in earnest, looking at the storm patterns Tuesday, six days ago. At that point, pretty much everyone agreed that the biggest challenge the team was likely to face would be clearing snow from the stands at Highmark before Sunday’s kickoff.
“If you look at the weather forecast on Tuesday, it was gonna be bad Thursday and Friday, better Saturday and Sunday,” Raccuia says. “And this storm was tracking to be more of a city impact and a northern suburbs impact. But what happened was, when it hit, the lake effect band just didn't move, and Orchard Park got really walloped. So by Wednesday, what we were contemplating was, All right, we have to get people into the stadium. We were about to send out notices for staff, shovelers, etcetera, etcetera. Our standard operating procedure.”
GM Brandon Beane says that, in a Wednesday conversation with the league office, there was a concern “that this thing wasn’t moving. It was gonna be wide and it wasn't gonna let up. So it was like, All right, let's reconvene Thursday.”
By Thursday morning, Beane felt the momentum to move the game getting “stronger and stronger,” but the league wanted to go through one more round of calls with government officials before finalizing the decision. So Beane and coach Sean McDermott, knowing that practicing Friday might be impossible, decided to get the team on the practice field for an outdoor workout to best prepare for the contingency that the game was played at Highmark.
Watch the Bills on Thanksgiving: Full schedule here.
When they got back inside after the lunchtime practice was done, Beane and the rest of the Bills brass jumped on a call with the league. The NFL office asked for a little more time to hear back from the New York governor’s office on whether a state of emergency would be declared. Once everyone got word the declaration was coming, the wheels were in motion for the game to be moved, with the Bills and NFL already working with the Lions to have Ford Field ready for Sunday.
It was 4 p.m. The announcement that the game was moved came at 4:15. The snow started falling in buckets around 7 p.m. With about 140 people in the traveling party and 14,000 pounds of equipment to going to Detroit, there was no choice but to ride out the snow and hope there’d be a window to go Saturday. (Beane told me they’d also talked to the league about a last-resort, day-of-game Sunday travel plan. “The league did not want us to do that, but we made sure they understood it was a real possibility.”)
“It’s not an everyday plane, and those planes aren’t stationed in Buffalo. And crews aren’t on standby, especially with everything else going on,” Raccuia says. “So yeah, it would be almost impossible, and the fact is, we didn’t officially know until 4, and the storm started at 7. Derek and I live 10 miles from the stadium. It took us an hour and a half to get home, and that was when the storm was just starting.”
So the players, coaches and staff stayed in Buffalo, the snow came (and came and came), practice was canceled Friday, and everyone worked remotely through it.
Meanwhile, the rest of the organization narrowed its focus. Director of equipment operations Jeff Mazurek kept his staff loose and ready. Ryan Moore from football ops and Kelsey Harkins from player engagement led the effort to get everyone to the facility Saturday. Senior director of security Chris Clark and VP of stadium ops Andy Major had to step up, too, as did Matt Hunter (stadium operations), Kevin Meganck (football administration), Kevin Kearns (communications) and Matt Worswick (assistant to McDermott).
Really, everyone did. Especially on Saturday.
Jordan Poyer is in his sixth year in Buffalo and, somehow, when he needed them most, he couldn’t find his snow boots. His reasoning to me: Last year, he didn’t need them, and they got lost somewhere along the way as a result. So when he woke up Saturday to find his Dodge TRX pickup buried up to the windows, Poyer was left to start shoveling, at around 7:30 a.m., in—in his words—“some flip-flops and shorts, like I was in South Florida.”
By 8:15 or so, his neighbors were awake and doing some shoveling of their own, and saw the famous football player down the street struggling to get his truck out.
“They all came to help me get to my truck,” Poyer says. “And even after that, everybody started going to shovel their own respective garages and cars. So me and my wife, we went to go help them. It was really awesome—my neighborhood was actually really cool. It was the first time I ever experienced something like that, and I could see why they call Buffalo the City of Friendly Neighbors.”