The Art of Culture: How Sean McDermott Transformed Two Decades of Losing.
It is weird to think about, but at the end of the day, Football is a job. Players fill out W-4s when they are signed and get a W-2 at the end of the year. And just like most of us at some point in our lives, they have a boss. Think about the bosses you loved, how did they make you feel? Was going into work easier? How was your performance? If you are like most people, having a great boss made your life exponentially better. On the flip side, having an awful boss made your life dreadful. Whether you work a 9-5 office job or you a 6’5 300 pound beast designed to hit other 6’5 300 pound beast, your boss matters. Since coming to Buffalo in 2017 Sean McDermott has become the best boss Buffalo could have. Over 3 ½ years McDermott has shown the doubter of “culture” why it matters even in America’s toughest sport and put the Bills on a path to be successful for the next decade plus.
Doug and Rex’s Fiery End.
For the better part of the 21st century, the Bills played mediocre to bad football. But they were never a dumpster fire. There were never damaging leaks, current players calling out the team, or the subject of national punchlines. The Bills were loveably bad.
Until December 27th, 2016. Following a demoralizing overtime loss to the Miami Dolphin that erased any postseason chance, Rex Ashely Ryan, was fired before completing his second season. For the sake of this article I will avoid writing about everything that went wrong with the Rex Ryan era. For brevity, let’s just say it was well deserved. Below is a play that I think pretty well summed up the drought era Bills, from the last game of the 2016 season.
This was my lowest point as a Bills fan.Doug Whaley went out for the end of season press conference and admitted embarrassing truths about the inner working of the Bills including, allowing throwing interim coach Anthony Lynn to the wolves to answer questions about Tyrod Taylors tricky contract situation, the role he played hiring Rex, and the reasons he was fired.
Just a snip it of that
Q: A press conference of this consequence, why do we not have ownership or the team president here with you and why are you out here on your own?
A: As season-ending review of the football operation department, I speak for the ownership and the team president, and I speak for our football operation department.
Q: Doug, you said that you represent ownership so we haven’t had a chance to hear from Terry or Kim [Pegula] regarding Rex Ryan’s firing. Walk us through. Why was he fired? What was the thought process?
A: We had just finished our weekly phone conversation with Terry, myself, and Rex. Rex asked to speak to him privately. After that, I was informed that Rex would no longer be our coach. I wasn’t privy to the conversation so I cannot get into those details.
Q: Did his not making the playoffs have anything to do with his firing?
A: Again, I was not privy to the details of the conversation.
I mean, pure performance art.
But maybe rock bottom was what the Bills needed.
There seemed to be two hot candidates in 2017. Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, and then everyone else. Sean McDermott clearly fell into the “everyone else” category.
Clearly burned by hiring a “star” head coach, the Pegulas spent the 2017 hiring cycle looking for lesser known candidates from Harold Goodwin to Kris Richard, before settling on little known Sean McDermott, coming off a 6-10 season in Carolina.
Aside from the relative obscurity of Sean McDermott, there were plenty of questions surrounding the Bills. Who would make roster decisions? Would the Bills pick up Tyrod’s option for the next three years?
In typical McDermott fashion, he did a great job of answering these questions, by never really answering them. McDermott’s answers always come in actions.
But slowly his vision became apparent early. On March 8th, 2017 McDermott got Tyrod to agree to a more responsible, restructured deal, giving him more flexibility to deal with Doug Whaley’s absolute cap mess. McDermott immediately signed a safety duo that would go on to be pillars of the defense still, in Hyde and Poyer. He let big names walk, including Stephon Gilmore to the division rival Patriots.
Sean McDemott showed that he values asset accumulation in trading the 10th overall pick to draft for the 27th pick in the 2017 Draft. I will not talk about who was drafted at 10 in the draft and only who McDermott drafted with 27. In his first ever draft McDermott selected an immediate contributor and future All Pro in Tre’Davious White. A tone setter for his defense for years to come. In the same draft he added future offensive cornerstone Dion Dawkins, and stud linebacker Matt Milano.
The reason this draft deserves such a deep dive is what happened after it. On April 30th, Doug Whaley and the entire scouting staff were relieved of their duties. It will always be a mystery what was going on in this organization between the time Sean was hired, the draft happened, and Whaley was cut. But it is clear that McDermott was given complete control from day 1. The first draft was not a Whaley draft but a Sean McDermott draft. In was a Sean McDermott free agency, not Doug Whaley free agency From day 1, Sean McDermott saw the big picture, like no Bills coach had seen this century and laid to groundwork to get where this team is now.
The trade that changed everything.
It was immediately very clear that the Bills had one person in mind for the general manager job. A little over a week after Whaley was fired, the Bills brought in McDermott’s friend from Carolina , Brandon Beane.
He IMMEDIATELY rocked the boat.
After singing the praises of Sammy Watkins all camp, Beane parted ways with Sammy Watkins and cornerback Ronald Darby, for Jordan Matthews, EJ Gaines, a 3rd round pick, and a 6th round pick.
Why is this trade such a big deal? Why did this change everything? The theme of this piece, culture. We may never know if Ronald Darby fit in a McDermott team, but now know that Buffalo was probably not the place for Sammy Watkins to flourish as a player or person. Beane does not buy into the sunk cost fallacy that plagues so many GMs in football. Instead of hanging onto a supremely talented wide receiver who the team invested two first round picks into despite the lack of fit, Beane saw an opportunity to build for both the future, and the present by bringing in picks and players. Players that fit the system and culture of a team.
It set the Bills on a path for a season absolutely NO ONE expected.
The accidental playoffs
I really don’t think we talk enough about how absolutely wild it was that the 2017 team made the playoffs. The Bills had all the signs of a rebuild. From the trades to rolling out with Jordan Matthews as WR 1.
Not only was this team not good, it was one of the worst of the drought era Bills.
But something was different about this team. This team went in and stole wins at the defending NFC champions, Atlanta Falcons. Stole a win at Kansas City. Stole a win from the jaws of a tie using Joe Webb as a quarterback in a snowstorm.
Getting blown out three straight weeks by the Jets, Chargers, and Saints would have been the death bell for most drought era. Benching a serivable vetern QB for literally the worst QB in the history of football, would have been the death bell for any drought era Bills teams.
But why wasn’t it? How did McDermott get this to rally from 5-5 to finish 9-7 after losing 54-24.
McDermott preached it from the moment he got to Buffalo. It was ridiculed by radio host, writers, and fans alike in the early days of the McDermott era.
But the culture was the sole driving force behind the 2017 Bills and building blocks for future success.
Rebuild with a purpose
One of Rex Ryan’s failings, was he tried to take existing players and fit them to what he was doing. A square peg in a round hole.
Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott, looked at the roster, as decided they would craft it in their image. By year 2 of McDermott/Beane, only 7 player had ever taken a snap under Rex Ryan.
That much turn over isn’t easy. The Bills ate 53.9 Million dollars in dead cap in 2018.
Beane had confidence in the process. Beane sold Peugla on the idea that, if they could eat all the bad Rex Ryan/Doug Whaley contracts over the course of 2 years, they would have the freedom to build around a franchise QB.
Enter Josh Allen. Despite finishing in the playoffs the year before, the Bills used the bad contract of Cordy Glenn to move up to get Josh Allen. And by all indications, Josh Allen was never supposed to play that season. Beane knew they may have to take some lumps, but letting Josh develop with Daboll and Ken Dorsey was the long term plan. But, alas, Peterman, Petermaned and forced Josh into action early.
And he struggled. With no name receivers and a patch work offensive line. All the storylines about Josh looked true early on.
Josh went down with an injury in week 6 against Houston. He was forced to watch and learn behind Matt Barkely and Derek Anderson.
And it seemed to help. When Josh came back, he finished the season 3 and 3 with highlight plays and dynamic ability that took the Bills offense from historically awful, to rather “meh.”
Why was a 6-10 season important? How is going from 9-7 to 6-10 part of the plan? Looking back it is easy. It is easy to see that grew through taking his lumps. Even in losing McDermott in Allen had an uncanny ability to get play above their weight class. That was by no means a team that should not have even won 6 games like they did.
Reaping the profits
Chan Gailey, Rex Ryan, Doug Marrone. They always thought they were a season away. One offseason. One player. One good draft. But never did the work. They never turned over a roster and cleared bad contracts. They were so focused on the now, they never built for long term success.
After scrapping everything Doug Whaley built, Brandon Beane has the second most cap space to work with in the league in 2019 and 76 million dollars.
And what he did with that money, may be more impressive than saving that much in the first place. He did not chase star studded players with huge contracts, he methodically plugged holes with contracts that would not put them in a compromising position down the road.
Mitch Morse.John Brown. Jon Feliciano. Cole Beasly. Not spending to just spend, spending with a purpose with players that fit the culture that had been built in Buffalo.
In 2019, and now in 2020, you see profits. Profits of quality talent acquisition through the draft, through free agency. The Bills are 17-8 dating back to the start of last season after dismantling a Super Bowl contender at home on Sunday.
Why culture matters
Why does culture matter in the NFL? Why, in a gladiator sport, do players’ feelings matter?
Practically, it helps the ability to retain and recruit good players. How often does a leak about trades or contracts come out of the Bills organization? How often does a player ask for a trade? How often has a player had a public spat about a contract? Positive culture encourages retention, just like it does in any workplace.
Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott take care of their own. They showed that in making sure White, Dawkins, and Poyer, all had contracts going into this season. Players take notice. Players talk to one another.
I am not naive. I know money talks. But in a league where any little thing can give you advantage, creating a player friendly organization can be the difference between long success, and 17 year playoff droughts.
It is more than finding players to fill your mold, it is getting players to buy into what you want the mold to be.
McDermott and Beane are not without failures and stumbles. They traded for Kelvin Benjamin, they started Nathan Peterman, and they probably overlooked the CB 2 position this offseason. And they will make mistakes again.
But make no mistake. What we have seen over the last 3 ½ years, is the recipe for success not for just one or two years, but a decade plus. As the team continues to find success, standards will change, as they should.
But never forget how you felt watching Doug Whaley spew toxic nonsense in 2016 and remember the Bills have come a long way.
All stats from Pro Football Reference
All cap information from Sporttrac