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How the Bills Dug Out of the Snow and Got Their Season Back on Track

From buried doors and missing snow boots to helpful neighbors and long-winding paths, the Bills’ players, coaches and staff escaped a storm then got the win they needed.

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.

The Bills jog onto the field in Detroit before a game against the Browns

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.”

Bills tackle Dion Dawkins walks from his house through a path cleared in the snow

Dawkins (left) and Raccuia had a clear enough path to make it from Dawkins' home to the car.

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.”

Poyer learned a couple of hours later that he was actually one of the lucky ones and that he wasn’t alone in the help he’d get from the people who lived around him. Before morning was out, Dawson Knox and Spencer Brown had posted similar stories of being dug out by neighbors.

On the flip side, more than half the Bills’ roster, and some coaches and staff, too, were stuck in the same circumstance that Dawkins was, in unplowed neighborhoods without any path out other than to get creative and meet a ride at whatever plowed intersection might be closest to their house. Initially, the team hired about eight plows to get guys out, but even that idea hit its roadblocks.

“There were addresses, kinda, Hey, send this guy here, this guy there, where players and coaches were in certain neighborhoods,” Beane says. “But we realized [Saturday] morning, pretty early, around 8:30, when we met, that none of these guys were getting out. We were having trouble. They were all kinds of stuck in their neighborhoods, because some of those neighborhoods had not been plowed at all yet.

“At that point, we started just trying to spread out the phone list and find out who can get out and who can’t, and then start the buddy system of telling people, You’re gonna have to dig your way out to whatever street you can get to, to have somebody pick you up.”

That’s where Moore and Harkins went to work, figuring out who could get their car out, who had a four-wheel drive vehicle capable of getting through the snow, and, strategically, who should go get who.

Dawkins got his ride from Boyko and Raccuia. McDermott gave edge rusher Von Miller and punter Sam Miller a lift. Beane was able to clear his driveway and get his car out, and he took three coaches who lived in his neighborhood with him—that included quarterbacks coach Joe Brady, who dug a tunnel from his garage up the street to get to the meeting spot.

A path through the snow at Bill QB coach Joe Brady's house

Joe Brady cleared a path to the street to reach his ride, Beane.

The goal was to have everyone in house by 1 p.m. All but four players made it by then, and everyone was in before 1:40, which allowed for McDermott to put the team through a quick walkthrough ahead of the slightly delayed ride to the airport. The Bills locked in a new Delta charter Friday and booked the same hotel they’ll stay at Wednesday night for their Thanksgiving game against the Lions, who helped the Bills through all of this, too.

“The Lions have been great,” Beane says. “Super helpful. They were jumping on Zoom calls with us. … Can’t thank them enough for not only opening their building but working with us to make it as much of a home field as we can.”

The Bills wound up declining the option to take the home locker room and sideline—they wanted to have the same one for both Sunday and Thursday games—but did take Detroit up on the offer to pipe their own music and effects into Ford Field to give the game against Cleveland a home-field feel. And they even left some stuff behind in Detroit, which will simplify their return Wednesday afternoon.

The Bills also wound up playing a game, and a pretty important one at that.

All of this happened to go down as Buffalo was trying to screech out of its most significant pothole of this season so far—a two-game losing streak and, really, a 10-quarter stretch of pretty sloppy football. Because so much is expected of McDermott’s crew this year, the downturn got magnified, and so did the pressure to dig out of more than just snow over the weekend.

Things didn’t get off to a hot start. Jacoby Brissett and the Browns’ offense opened the game with a nine-play, 75-yard drive, and the vaunted Buffalo offense started with three three-and-outs, its only points coming courtesy of a Nyheim Hines punt return that dropped Josh Allen and the offense in field goal range.

When Brissett fumbled the ball away at midfield with 8:17 left in the second quarter, the Browns had 10 first downs, the Bills had zero and Cleveland was up 10–3.

The Bills ended the half with back-to-back 11-play scoring drives, the first resulting in a Tyler Bass field goal and the second finishing with Allen connecting with a wide-open Stefon Diggs in the back of the end zone. They led 13–10 at the half and wouldn’t trail again, at one point extending that lead to 18.

Bills teammates Dion Dawkins and Stefon Diggs celebrate a Diggs touchdown against the Browns

Dawkins (left), Diggs and the rest of the Bills ended up with plenty to celebrate on Sunday.

“I think we settled down a little bit, understood that we saw their gameplan kinda come to fruition and saw how they were gonna attack us,” Poyer says. “We understood coming into the game, we had to stop the run in order to be successful. Nick Chubb, he’s leading the league in rushing touchdowns with 11, and I think just understanding what we had to do in order to get this victory and stop the run, we were able to do that.”

But more than just that, they got the pivot point they were looking for. Two years ago, the Bills lost the Hail Murray game in Arizona right around this point in the season, then won their next eight in a row—all six in the regular season by double digits before beating Indianapolis and Baltimore in the playoffs. Last year, a stretch of three losses in four games—including the bizarre wind game against New England and the overtime loss in Tampa—was followed by five straight wins, leading right into the epic AFC divisional playoff game in Kansas City.

Could this whole situation be this year’s version of losing in Arizona or on that wind-swept Monday night? As Poyer sees it, we’ll all know 10 days from now.

“These next couple weeks, this is kind of like, we’re at the corner,” says Poyer, when asked whether Sunday was a corner-turning win. “I think this was a stepping stone in order to do that.”

Indeed, a resurgent Lions team waits on Thursday, with a trip to face the Patriots in Foxborough seven days later.

Right now, the past few days are about the wild memories everyone created off the field. Poyer will remember the story he heard about his injured safety running mate, Micah Hyde, getting caught running around shirtless in the snow by his wife, after working out in the garage. Dawkins will remember how long some of his teammates’ driveways are—those with the longer ones had a rough week.

The fans, again, were a part of it too, both those who helped out in Buffalo and those who showed up in Detroit. Allen even mentioned them in his postgame address to the team.

“When you get home, pay those fans some f---ing respect, get them something nice, man, and treat them well,” Allen told his teammates. “Because that was awesome to see.”

Bills fans cheer at Detroit's Ford Field during the Bills-Browns game

Ford Field still took on something of a home-game field for the Bills.

And then there’s the larger context that Poyer alluded to, in what this could mean for Buffalo’s season and whether this is when they’ll hit the afterburners, like they did the last two years in similar spots. At the very least, the Bills see this simply as a reflection of the types of dudes they have in the locker room. At best, maybe the last few days revealed why this team will get to where it’s going to go, from a football standpoint.

“I think it’s just the attitude,” Beane says. “There’s a lot of reasons you could say people could have negative attitudes. I don’t want to leave [home]. I don’t want to play the game. This is an inconvenience, whatever. But the attitude from the staff, the coaches and the players has been, Hey, let’s find a way to make this happen, and guys did Zoom meetings Friday and were engaged as good as they could be.

“I think it’s a moment where everybody’s pulling together, everybody’s in this together, and it’s good to see all the positive energy in a tough situation.”

Now, the challenge will be refocusing again. If the last four days showed anything, it’s that these Bills have that in them, maybe even more so than they did before.

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