ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- In two seasons under coach Chad Hall, the Buffalo Bills’ wide receiver room has morphed from a laughingstock into one of the best in the NFL as the team enters its bye week at 7-3.
Since arriving in 2017, coach Sean McDermott has filled his staff with experienced assistants -- Buffalo's position coaches and coordinators have spent an average of 11.9 seasons coaching in the NFL. But in 2019, McDermott turned to Hall, a first-time position coach, to lead the previously abysmal receivers group.
Their relationship dates to 2010 with the Philadelphia Eagles, and there was an underlying trust Hall could help get Buffalo's group off the ground, mainly because McDermott had seen Hall overcome long odds during his playing days.
"The Chad I knew then was this undrafted rookie out of Air Force Academy," McDermott said. "I'm not sure anybody thought he would make the team, let alone play for as long as he did [four years]. That's a credit to his character and his work ethic and how he worked so hard to hone his craft.
"Now he's taken that and applied it to his new craft of coaching."
From 2017 to 2018, Buffalo wide receivers ranked dead last in the NFL in yards, receptions, first downs and receptions per target and 30th in receiving touchdowns. They have made huge strides in two seasons under Hall. This season they lead the NFL in receiving yards (2,371), receptions per game (19.4), first downs (114) and receptions per target (72.1%). They're second in touchdowns (14).
GM Brandon Beane deserves credit for adding veterans Stefon Diggs, John Brown and Cole Beasley. Each has enjoyed the best season of his career with the Bills. But there's a reason: They all have resounding respect for Hall, his coaching, the energy he inspires and experience he brings as a former player.
"He's probably one of the most energetic coaches we have and we love him for it," receiver Andre Roberts, 32, said. "He brings that energy in meetings and on game day, and that energy that he brings is just nice to have -- especially as an older guy."
Dancing to their own beat
Watch the Bills' receivers during practice and you get a sense for the lift Hall provides.
After stretching, Diggs, Brown and Beasley typically remain off to the side with Hall while the other receivers -- Gabriel Davis, Roberts, Isaiah McKenzie and practice squad members Duke Williams and Jake Kumerow -- work with the special teams units.
Hall and his trio usually practice routes or play catch while they wait for their teammates -- nothing too high-energy.
That changes when it's time for position drills.
Bills receivers always dance right before position drills - it's the best part of practice pic.twitter.com/di3jnWKr6r— Marcel Louis-Jacques (@Marcel_LJ) October 8, 2020
The group ushers in the next segment of practice by dancing to whatever music reverberates through the Bills' practice field. Sometimes it's in a circle, sometimes in a line, Soul Train-style.
But it's always followed up by an immediate transition into no-frills work mode.
"I told them at the beginning that we're going to be the hardest-working group from Wednesday to Saturday, to really where game day is just fun," Hall said. "Knowing that we made that deal as a room -- that individual drill, for us, basically starts practice. Once that music hit, we all started dancing. Now it's in our groove, we're ready to go and we clear our minds. Not only are we going to work our ass off but also bring some fun to it. It lets everybody loosen up."
It's hard to argue with his philosophy.
Diggs, Buffalo's splashiest acquisition in years, leads the league in catches (73), receiving yards (903) and targets (102) and is on pace to shatter his career highs in all three categories.
His immediate success with the Bills after being traded from the Minnesota Vikings in March has been one of the biggest stories in the NFL this season and comes after Brown set career highs in catches and yards last season. And Beasley is on pace for the first 1,000-yard season of his nine-year career.
Diggs credited Hall with helping him acclimate.
"I give almost 100% credit to Chad Hall," Diggs said. "He puts a lot of extra time in. I just told him recently, he's probably one of the best coaches, if not the best coach, I've ever had as far as mentally preparing me and mentally getting me ready for the game."
After graduating from the Air Force Academy in 2008 and a two-year stint as a second lieutenant in the Air Force, Hall signed with the Eagles in 2010, spending two seasons with the team. He also played for the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs and briefly signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice squad during his four-year playing career.
Throwback Thursday....— History Of Air Force Football (@HistoryFalcon) November 21, 2019
Current Buffalo Bills WR Coach and former AF star Chad Hall.
In 2007 he was the only player in the country to lead his team in rushing and receiving. He finished third in the nation in all-purpose yards.He was also campaigned to win the Heisman Trophy. pic.twitter.com/KAqxzeT787
That experience has endeared him to Bills players, who Hall says trust his counsel coming from a good place.
He's only two years older than Roberts, Buffalo's oldest receiver, and Hall, 34, said his players respect him as a coach while somewhat viewing him as a peer.
"[Players] just kind of have an instant respect and trust," he said. "Just because they know you've sat in their seat and you've been through it."
Hall has had an impact on Beasley, 31, who leads all NFL receivers in yards out of the slot this season. Hall, a former slot receiver, said he's still learning about the outside positions, but coaching the slot is in his wheelhouse.
"It's cool that he played because he understands a lot more things that happen in a game than maybe a guy would who didn't," said Beasley, in his ninth season. "Everything on paper makes sense to [coaches who didn't play], and when you get in a game, it doesn't always happen that way."
Hall uses practices to correct and lay into his players when necessary, but he refrains from doing so on game day.
"His demeanor on game day is exactly what you want from a coach," Beasley said. "If you have bad plays, I've been with guys who will rip you on the sideline and then you get all pissed off and the game kind of changes a little bit. At receiver, you know when you do something bad, especially at this level. ... He does a good job of just letting us play through it -- that helps a lot.
"He keeps us loose, but it's not to the point where it's too loose. I've never seen a wide receiver group that plays well being uptight. Playing loose is important. You play fast, you play free. You're not worried about making mistakes. You can just play your butt off the entire time."
Hall believes his next step as a coach is developing young talent. It's one thing to help established players like Diggs, Brown and Beasley, but he wants players like Davis, who's a rookie, to reach their full potential.
Hall once caught a touchdown pass from Michael Vick and leapt into the stands at Lincoln Financial Field. The Bills took a similar leap of faith in the first-time position coach, but they're reaping the benefits in his second season.
"We have a lot of respect for Chad, and his coaching career is off to a very good start. It's only going to get better," McDermott said.