Thursday's NFL: Bills' Sean McDermott frustrated by team's low vaccination rate

Associated Press

Orchard Park, N.Y. — Frustrated as Sean McDermott has grown over the number of unvaccinated players on Buffalo’s roster, the Bills coach acknowledged there’s little more he can do to influence them to get the shot.

“It’s tough. It’s frustrating. It’s challenging, however you want to say it. But I can’t make the decision for them,” McDermott said before practice on Thursday.

His comments came in the wake of receiver Isaiah McKenzie revealing he faces NFL discipline for violating the league’s COVID-19 protocols for unvaccinated players by failing to wear a mask inside the team’s facility.

Bills receiver Isaiah McKenzie revealed he faces NFL discipline for violating the league's COVID-19 protocols for unvaccinated players by failing to wear a mask inside the team's facility.

And it marked McDermott’s first opportunity to speak since the team placed four unvaccinated players into five-day self-isolation on Tuesday after being in contact with a vaccinated trainer who tested positive for COVID-19.

Receivers Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis, and defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Vernon Butler were all placed in the NFL’s five-day cadence and it’s unclear as to whether they will be able to play Saturday, when the Bills close their preseason schedule hosting Green Bay.

McKenzie posted his note on social media Thursday. He was sidelined on Wednesday and wore his left arm in a sling after being hurt in practice a day earlier.

McKenzie wrote: “They got me! @NFL you win!” in a social media post in which he included a copy of the first page of a letter he received from the league informing him of the violation. It was McKenzie’s second violation; the league issued him a warning on July 27, a day before the Bills opened training camp.

McKenzie’s post led to several Bills players weighing on social media, with Beasley revealing he was also fined by the NFL for not wearing a mask.

Beasley has been a longtime opponent of vaccinations and has repeatedly complained about the NFL and NFLPA’s COVID-19 protocol by questioning why unvaccinated players get tested daily, while vaccinated players are tested once every 14 days.

The NFL said that 120 players have received warning letters, with 25 players each fined for mask or tracking device violations.

Under league rules, the first offense for violating the protocols will result in a fine of $14,650. Repeat violations could result in a player being suspended or fined a week’s salary.

The NFL wrote that McKenzie twice failed to wear a mask on Wednesday. The first violation came while he walked through the team’s fieldhouse to the trainer’s room, and the second was later in the day while he was in a meeting area of the weight room near other players.

The league also noted his violation came shortly after NFL staff made a presentation reminding players of the mask-wearing requirements and that penalties may result to players who fail to do so.

“For players who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, like you, your conduct is expressly prohibited by the protocols,” the NFL wrote. “Again, your conduct potentially compromised not only your safety, but the safety of others, as well as the league’s ability to ensure that your club’s training camp is conducted in a safe manner.”

Aside from player safety, McDermott noted the team faces a potential competitive disadvantage should this have happened in the regular season.

“There’s people’s livelihoods at stake in terms of people’s jobs,” he added. “Being able to count on people is important, so when you’re going through a week — if this were a real week — and having the players out that we’ve had, that makes it harder to win games that way.”

Beasley and Davis are projected to be among Buffalo’s top four receivers, while Lotulelei is pegged to regain his starting job as the Bills’ top run-stuffer after he opted out from playing last season because of COVID-19 reasons.

The Bills are considered to be at the lower end of the NFL scale in having about 80% of their players vaccinated.

McDermott has been a long-time proponent of getting vaccinated, and said the team has gone to such extremes of educating its players on the issue that, “there’s not much room in our day left to anything else other than educate on that and football.”

Titans outbreak

Tennessee general manager Jon Robinson made a plea for people to get the “life-saving” COVID-19 vaccination as the Titans’ virus outbreak grew to nine including quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Robinson said Tannehill, tight end Geoff Swaim and linebacker Justin March-Lillard joined four other players on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Tannehill practiced Tuesday and talked to reporters afterward.

That makes three Titans starters out. Coach Mike Vrabel revealed on a Zoom session with reporters that special teams coordinator Craig Aukerman also has been affected, missing the past two days of work, and likely missing Saturday night’s preseason finale against Chicago.

The Titans GM said the team is close to being either 97% or 98% vaccinated or with antibodies present, indicating a person recently or previously had COVID-19. Tannehill said at the start of training camp that he was in the process of being vaccinated.

Vrabel will miss Saturday’s game because he has yet to test negative even once. Matt Barkley, who signed with the team Aug. 5, will start against the Bears and rotate with Logan Woodside every two series as they compete to back up Tannehill.

Linebacker Harold Landry was the first starter affected by this latest virus outbreak, going on the reserve/COVID-19 list Wednesday.

The others on the list include defensive lineman Anthony Rush, linebacker Nick Dzubnar and running back Jeremy McNichols. The reserve/COVID-19 list is for players who either test positive for the virus or are in quarantine after close contact with an infected person.

Personnel dept.

The final day of joint practices between the Giants and Patriots featured the return of two stars hoping to be on the field when their teams begin the regular season.

Giants running back Saquon Barkley participated in 7-on-7 drills for the first time this preseason, getting reps with the first team early in practice before joining the training staff for individual conditioning.

Patriots quarterback Cam Newton also returned to practice for the first time since what coach Bill Belichick called a “misunderstanding” of NFL COVID-19 protocols. It required Newton to sit out a mandatory five-day waiting period for unvaccinated players after he attended an out-of-town doctor’s appointment over the weekend.

… Odell Beckham Jr., who has slowly increased his activities since the Browns opened training camp last month, took his first snaps in team drills during practice — a major step in his return from season-ending knee surgery.

Beckham was on the field for a handful of plays in the 11 on 11 period, and the star wide receiver also caught passes in 7 on 7 drills, his most significant work to date.

… Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and most of the other Dolphins starters will sit out the team’s exhibition finale Sunday at Cincinnati.

Several starting offensive linemen will likely see action, coach Brian Flores said.