Some of Sean McDermott’s predecessors attempted to distance themselves from it. They said they had nothing to do with creating it, acted as if they hadn’t inherited the football equivalent of a house with a gaping hole in the roof and a foot of water in the basement. The Buffalo Bills’ playoff drought was somebody else’s doing. New head coaches couldn’t be bothered with it, couldn’t see how the past was impacting the present. It was the fans’ and media’s problem, not theirs.
To his credit, McDermott took a different tack. He owned The Drought the minute he was hired as the franchise’s 20th head coach last January. He repeatedly acknowledged that he felt the pain of a generation of Bills fans who had suffered through 17 seasons without a postseason. He said it was a priority to rid them of this albatross, ASAP.
And, so, from the moment he arrived at One Bills Drive, he plastered the words “playoff caliber” on locker room walls and players’ T-shirts. He mentioned the phrase often during interviews. Some scoffed. Playoffs? You can’t be serious! But he was. And so were his players. They had been angered and motivated by the outside talk that the Bills would be tanking this season in order to procure a high spot in the 2018 draft. To them, the future was now, not next year. They bought into McDermott’s mantra wholeheartedly.
And New Year’s Eve, BILL-lievers finally were rewarded when this cursed franchise went from being “playoff caliber” to “playoff-bound.” Heeding Prince’s musical advice, they partied like it’s 1999, the Bills’ last playoff season.
The ignominious streak that hung over this franchise like ominous lake effect snow clouds met its demise a week shy of its 18th birthday. A combination of Buffalo’s victory over the Dolphins in Miami and an improbable Cincinnati comeback win against Baltimore enabled McDermott to join Joe Collier (1966) and Wade Phillips (1998) as the only head coaches in Buffalo history to guide their teams into the playoffs in their first seasons at the helm.
That hideous drought is no more. And the man most responsible for its demise is a 43-year-old football lifer who just may be the coach this team has sought since marvelous Marv Levy retired 20 years ago. “If you look around, we’re basically 53 reflections of him,’’ Bills elder statesman Kyle Williams said in the joyous locker room at Hard Rock Stadium Sunday night. “Never wavering, unflinching and just going out there, grinding and working and finding a way to get the job done.”
Williams had endured a dozen years of The Drought. The undersized, overachieving defensive tackle watched the team cycle through busloads of head coaches, general managers and teammates, and a generation of heart-breaking losses. He seriously considered retirement, until sitting down with McDermott in the offseason. Williams was blown away by McDermott’s energy, vision and sincerity. He decided to give it another go. No one was more pleased with his decision than McDermott. The coach and player have formed a special bond. That’s not surprising because they are similar in many ways. They’re guys who often have been told they were “too this” or “too that” to succeed.
On Sunday, McDermott put Williams at fullback for a play and the defensive lineman snow-plowed in from the one for his first NFL touchdown. Fittingly, that score provided the decisive points in Buffalo’s biggest victory in nearly two decades. “He’s worked, he’s sweated, he’s bled and he’s put his heart and soul into this city and this team,’’ McDermott said of Williams following the game. “And I couldn’t be any prouder at this moment.’’
Give Terry and Kim Pegula credit, too. The owners botched things badly when they retained power-hungry general manager Doug Whaley and hired headline-hogging Rex Ryan as their coach. They took a big chance on McDermott, who paid his dues for nearly 20 seasons as an NFL assistant, rising through the ranks to defensive coordinator for two different teams. The gamble was not only in hiring a guy who had never been a head coach before, but also entrusting him with far-reaching power. McDermott was allowed to pick his general manager, and he, in turn, took a risk by bringing in his friend, Brandon Beane, who had never held an NFL GM position before.
So far, so good. The two have worked well together, performing the difficult juggling act of earning a playoff spot while executing an extreme makeover. At last count, there were 29 players on the Bills’ 53-man roster who weren’t here last season. Along the way, McDermott and Beane orchestrated some bold moves, jettisoning high draft picks Sammy Watkins, Marcell Dareus, Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby. They’ve shown a keen eye for both free-agent and draft talent. Veteran acquisitions Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer and Stephen Hauschka have played integral roles in the Bills playoff run, as have rookies Tre’Davious White, Dion Dawkins and Matt Milano.
Yes, McDermott has made some rookie errors along the way. Clearly, benching veteran quarterback Tyler Taylor blew up in his face, as first-year replacement Nathan Peterman threw five first-half interceptions in that 30-point loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. But, unlike some of his predecessors, McDermott didn’t allow pigheadedness to cloud his vision. Taylor went back in, and the Bills won four of their final six games to secure a playoff berth.
McDermott acknowledges the Bills have much work to do and aren’t anywhere near where they need to be. Thanks to Beane’s shrewd trades, they’ve stockpiled several high draft picks—including two first-rounders. And given their track record from last year’s draft, you have to feel good about this regime’s ability to further bolster the roster.
McDermott has reminded us ad nauseam to trust the process. After what transpired New Year’s Eve, the team’s new motto may be: “In Sean, we trust.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.