Ground-up decision: How Bills, Bengals led the way after Damar Hamlin collapsed

January 9, 2023, 9:19 PM

An hour after Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field and about 35 minutes after he was rushed to a Cincinnati hospital, a small knot of people gathered amid a chaotic scene outside the locker rooms beneath Paycor Stadium.

Bills coach Sean McDermott, Bengals coach Zac Taylor, referee Shawn Smith and a few team executives and staffers stood anxiously in a semicircle with NFL chief football administrator Dawn Aponte. Passing Aponte's cellphone back and forth, they spoke with NFL executives at the league's command center in Manhattan.

It was 9:55 p.m. ET and the stadium's scoreboard read: "THE GAME IS TEMPORARILY SUSPENDED. PLEASE STAND BY FOR FURTHER INFORMATION." League officials still had not decided the game's fate. But for both teams' coaches and players, there was never a doubt: They would not play another down that Monday night.

"The Lord himself could come down, and we were not going to play again," a high-ranking official from one of the teams told ESPN on the condition of his and the team's anonymity. "She [Aponte] was getting pressure. She was not getting consistent and direct messaging that she deserved to receive."

Aponte appeared caught between two teams that didn't want to play and league officials inside the command center, led by NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, who left open that possibility for nearly an hour, the official said. "Whatever crazy nonsense she was getting," the official added, "man, she held it. She held it strong."

While NFL officials insisted that they never intended to restart the Bills-Bengals game, the accounts of coaches, players, union officials and team executives tell another story: Postponing the game was a ground-up decision.

"The league did not cancel the game," the team official said. "The Bills and the Bengals canceled the game."

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said Monday that the league would have no further comment. Last week, McCarthy answered some questions about why ESPN's "Monday Night Football" broadcast initially reported that the teams would resume play after a five-minute warmup. He said at the time Vincent and other league officials would not comment.

According to Rule 17-1-4 of the NFL rulebook, the decision to postpone a game because of extraordinary circumstances lies with commissioner Roger Goodell.

The next day, in a memo to all 32 teams, the commissioner indicated he had made the call: "After speaking with both teams and NFLPA leadership, I decided to postpone last night's game and have our focus remain on Damar and his family."

On Sunday, Goodell addressed the question for the first time, telling Boston's The Sports Hub the decision to postpone the game that night came "with a lot of discussion."

"A standard practice would be to resume play, but when you get feedback that it may not be appropriate, that's when Troy made the decision to suspend play," Goodell said. "Which was the right decision, and allow everyone to go back and let's gather ourselves and get more information, which was clear we needed to do. So, and then I made the decision to postpone shortly thereafter."

That final decision might have belonged to Goodell, but the first instinct not to play came on the field in Cincinnati.

"The ambulance left the field ... and it was crystal clear from everyone's perspective that we could not play," the top team official said. Aponte was speaking nonstop to NFL executives in New York and coaches and officials at the game. "The only chaos was coming ... from the command center."

The NFL's senior-most executive inside the command center was Vincent, who oversaw staff on the field and others in communication with broadcast partners. In a conference call hours after the game was suspended, Vincent adamantly denied reports on ESPN's broadcast that the game would resume after a five-minute warmup.

"And I was the one ... that was communicating with the commissioner," Vincent said. "We never, frankly, it never crossed our mind to talk about warming up to resume play. That's ridiculous. That's insensitive, and that's not a place that we should ever be in."

Last Wednesday, an indignant Vincent sounded near tears during a news conference as he repeated that the league never intended to resume play. Any other suggestion, he said, is "insensitive and frankly it lacked both empathy and compassion for Damar's situation."

Vincent said he was in constant communications with staff at the stadium.

"My mic was completely open in talking to Shawn [Smith] and at that time I'm the center resource," Vincent said. "At no time in my discussion in that hourlong time frame did we ever even -- myself -- reference [or] give any directives about getting players ready to play."

The team official placed blame for the league's vacillation squarely on Vincent.

"The league screws this s--- up because Troy Vincent screws this stuff up," the official said. "That's the wrong person in the wrong position at the absolute wrong time. ... He wants to be the hero, but he will never take accountability. That's him to a T."

In his comments to reporters last week, McDermott said there had been no word from New York on whether the game would be suspended when he and Taylor pulled players off the field and returned to their locker rooms.

"I went in and addressed the team and just felt like overall it was going to be really hard to put them back out there," McDermott, who felt the need to be at the hospital with Hamlin, said. "But I wanted to give them the option to go back out there if they wanted to. And led by Josh [Allen] and a couple of the other captains they decided not to go back out there."

Union officials echoed that view late last week.

"It sounds like there was a lot of checking to see what everybody's opinion was," NFL Players Association president JC Tretter said. "Moments like that are time for leadership, time to step up and make the right decision. And I think sometimes when you spend a lot of time asking for everybody's answer, you're looking for a specific answer. ... It's why it probably took an hour, is my opinion."

An hour after Hamlin fell, with the game still not officially postponed, some team officials were confused why NFL executives were delaying the inevitable. Multiple ideas and contingencies were floated from New York, two people with knowledge said, including the idea that the Bills would stay overnight in Cincinnati. That was "almost instantly shot down," a source said.

"We felt confusion and nonsense more than pressure," the team official said. "They were still discussing things. In our mind there was nothing to be discussed. ... If they would have said, 'If you leave you're forfeiting the game,' we're still leaving."

Paramedics spent nine minutes working to revive Hamlin, who fell to the field at 8:55 p.m. after making a routine tackle. A ring of weeping and kneeling players surrounded them. During those agonizing minutes, TV viewers got almost no new information as ESPN's "Monday Night Football" broadcast went to four consecutive commercial breaks. Eventually, Hamlin was taken off the field in an ambulance.

At roughly 9:10 p.m. -- 15 minutes after Hamlin fell -- DeMaurice Smith, the leader of the players' union, said he called Goodell. "I was on the phone with Roger immediately," Smith said, "and once I realized just how serious it was, made it clear that I believe that the game should be postponed."

At 9:14 p.m., Taylor crossed the field to talk with referees and McDermott, who covered his mouth as he spoke. "I said to Shawn Smith, 'Hey, we're gonna need some time here,'" McDermott said.

At that moment, on the ESPN broadcast, play-by-play announcer Joe Buck told viewers: "They're going to try to continue to play this game."

Multiple firsthand sources told ESPN that it was a senior NFL rules analyst inside the NFL command center who conveyed the plan to resume play to John Parry, an officiating expert working in the ESPN broadcast booth.

What Buck had relayed to more than 23 million TV viewers came from Parry, who had an open line of communication with the NFL rules analyst in the command center. Four times during the stoppage, Buck told viewers that the game would continue, saying one time it was an NFL decision.

The broadcast simultaneously showed Bills WR Stefon Diggs trying to rally his teammates and Bengals QB Joe Burrow throwing passes to warm up.

"People were saying we were going to play again," Burrow said. "It was just a lot of chaos, a lot of emotions, a lot of people saying different things. We really didn't know what was going on at that point."

Taylor said he "didn't feel any directive that guys need to start warming up."

"We've been through this situation a million times where there's an injury on the field," Taylor said. "There was no push for anything to happen. It was just, let's let these moments play out, see what the next step is, as people get a chance to get their minds right. Ultimately, that's what led to the decision."

At 9:16 p.m., as cameras showed referees huddled with the coaches, Buck told the national TV audience: "They've been given five minutes to quote-unquote get ready to go back to playing. That's the word we get from the league and the word we get from down on the field, but nobody's moving."

Also about the same time, ESPN Deportes' Spanish-language play-by-play team, relying on the same information, reported that the teams were operating on a five-minute warmup before resuming play.

"The league is telling us that they've given five minutes to warm up again and that the match will begin," Eduardo Varela told the audience.

Immediately after their huddle with officials, both teams' coaches sent the players to their locker rooms, and the referee told fans in the stadium that the game was being "temporarily suspended."

"Joe, just talked with New York in the command center," Parry said on the air. "The situation has risen to a point where they want to give both teams, coaches, personnel, an opportunity to go back into the locker room, regroup themselves and so the game has temporarily been suspended to give them the opportunity -- whatever they need at this point, teams are driving it."

Over the next half hour, as ESPN bounced among Buck, studio analysts and commercial breaks, players gathered themselves in their locker rooms while team and league officials huddled over what to do. In the Bills' room, emotions were high as players consoled each other and took an informal poll.

"It wasn't like one person standing up kinda saying this thing, it was really a back and forth between the coaches, the players, and it was pretty cool to see," Bills center Mitch Morse said.

On the Westwood One national radio broadcast, Rich Eisen told listeners at 9:42 p.m.: "There was a moment after the ambulance left the field where both teams repaired to their sidelines and appeared to be getting ready to come back out on the field after a five-minute warmup." Eisen said he heard the information from watching the ESPN broadcast and not from the league. "I figured, if Joe said it, it's gotta be true," Eisen said in an interview. "I know this goes against what I was taught at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism about verifying every piece of information, but I was sure Joe had it right."

The league suspended the game at 10:01 p.m. ET, 66 minutes after Hamlin's collapse.

Hours after Hamlin was transported to the hospital and the game was suspended, Vincent told reporters that the NFL had never decided that the game would continue and league officials never told anyone that had been decided.

In a statement after Vincent's initial comments, ESPN disputed Vincent's denials, saying, "There was constant communication in real time between ESPN and league and game officials. As a result of that, we reported what we were told in the moment and immediately updated fans as new information was learned. This was an unprecedented, rapidly-evolving circumstance. All night long, we refrained from speculation."

Parry declined to comment to ESPN beyond saying, "The ESPN statement was accurate."

Last week, McCarthy said the NFL rules analyst in the command center was "adamant that at no time did he say anything related to a five-minute warmup period to John Parry. ... John is just plain wrong."

"We stand by Troy Vincent's comments and strongly refute this characterization," McCarthy said.

Buck told ESPN that what he conveyed to a national audience came from Parry, who was in constant communications with the league office.

In an interview, Buck said he was "surprised" to hear Vincent had said that the information about the intended resumption of the game did not come from the league office.

"If what I said on national TV with the eyes of the world watching was wrong in the view of the league, I would have been corrected -- immediately," Buck said. "And I was not."

Four separate times in a span of 45 minutes, Buck indicated that the game would resume.

No one from the league ever asked for a retraction. "We were on the air for another 40 minutes and no one corrected the idea that the game would resume," Buck said. "No one."

"I can't imagine what was going on in that room and the different scenarios and the heartache in that command center," Buck continued. "It's unprecedented, what we all witnessed and went through. Nothing is going to be perfect. I just know that we went with the information we were given by the league. I went on the air with a piece of information by John Parry through an open line of communication with the league that they gave us in real time."

But, Buck added, "The important piece of this is Damar Hamlin is fighting for his life and beyond that nothing else really matters."

Last Thursday, the NFL announced that the Bills-Bengals game would be canceled. It was the same day as news arrived that Hamlin's condition and prognosis had dramatically improved. On Monday, a week after he collapsed, Hamlin was transferred from a hospital in Cincinnati to another in Buffalo to continue his remarkable recovery.