It became clear this week that Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was one of the Buffalo Bills’ top candidates for the head coach role. On Wednesday, the Bills announced they had hired McDermott as Buffalo’s new head coach.
Following a second interview at the Boca Raton, Fla., home of Bills owner Terry Pegula, they were expected to finalize a five-year deal.
McDermott has been Carolina’s defensive coordinator since 2011, and he has coached some of the best defenses in the NFL. In fact, the Panthers have one of the best front sevens in the league. During Carolina’s stellar 2015 season, which it finished 15-1 and ended with a loss in Super Bowl 50, McDermott’s defense was ranked sixth in the NFL.
During McDermott’s six seasons with the team, the Panthers defense ranked in the top 10 four times. His defenses were well-rounded, and could rush the passer, clog up rushing lanes, and create turnovers.
The Bills need a different approach from the new head coach, and McDermott is a perfect fit.
McDermott is truly a “players’ coach”
Since McDermott has never been a head coach at the pro level, no one knows his offensive philosophy. But on defense, he loves the 4-3 alignment. His defenses are relentless and physical. But for McDermott, building a defense is about more than that.
"In order to build chemistry you've got to really know one another,” McDermott said, via David Newton of ESPN. "I want guys to spend time with one another, really get to know one another and care for one another.”
Players have also raved about how he motivates them.
“McDermott’s strength as a coach right now, without a doubt, is his ability to motivate guys and keep guys tuned into what we're trying to do as a football team and as a defense,” Panthers veteran linebacker Thomas Davis said.
Players first, scheme second
Rex Ryan had a reputation as a players’ coach, too, but his tenure in Buffalo seems to discredit that idea. Following the team’s 8-8 finish in 2015, Ryan’s first season, players openly criticized his approach.
More than that, Ryan seemed averse to modifying his defensive system to better fit his personnel. That’s the key difference between McDermott and Ryan, and it makes McDermott the right fit to take over in Buffalo.
McDermott calls his defense player-friendly. He plays to his players’ strengths and makes adjustments to mask their weaknesses.
“That's important, rather than tying them up with intricate schemes and things," McDermott said. "We can certainly do that. It's like the game of chess. But at the same time a player has to be able to execute and play fast and be fundamentally sound."
The 4-3 McDermott prefers fits the personnel in Buffalo, which is an advantage for him off the bat. McDermott’s approach centers around bringing relentless pressure on the quarterback, and his willingness to adjust to put his players in a position to succeed on the field will be key.
Why he’s ready to lead the Bills
McDermott, 42, is young, but he has a wealth of knowledge about football. He has achieved so much over his career because he does a great job of motivating players and helping them flourish.
McDermott has earned the respect and support of his head coach in Carolina, Ron Rivera, who supported his head coach candidacy.
"I think he's deserving, I really do," Rivera said prior to the final game of the season, via the team’s website. "If you go back and look at the things he's accomplished, his resume should speak for itself."
This season, McDermott had to help his players in Carolina weather the experience of going into the season with the expectation of reaching the Super Bowl again, and then the reality of plummeting to a 6-10 finish. The Panthers were working with a young, inexperienced secondary and lost linebacker Luke Kuechly to a concussion, but McDermott’s defense still finished the season allowing just 23.1 points per game.
In Buffalo, McDermott has his work cut out for him, but he has defensive talent that fits his scheme, and his approach should be a welcome change for the Bills. Buffalo’s offense was also a problem in 2015, and McDermott is expected to bring in former San Diego Chargers head coach Mike McCoy to lead that unit.
McCoy also has a track record of being adaptable, most notably by tailoring the Denver Broncos’ offense in 2011 to actually win a playoff game with quarterback Tim Tebow. Despite an atrocious offensive line and a host of injuries to key players, McCoy orchestrated top-10 offensive performances out of quarterback Philip Rivers in each of his two seasons as the Chargers’ head coach.
On the other side of the ball, McDermott is expected to bring in Panthers linebackers coach Al Holcomb as the Bills’ new defensive coordinator, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
McDermott will be the 10th coach — including Perry Fewell and Anthony Lynn on an interim basis — for the Bills since they last made the playoffs in 1999. Their 17-year streak of missing the playoffs is the longest active drought in the NFL.
The Bills desperately need a head coach with a fresh perspective and approach to leadership, and that’s precisely what they’re getting in McDermott.