Early in 2001, a month after I succeeded the late Larry Felser as the main columnist on the beat, the Bills hired a 42-year-old defensive coordinator who had recently coached in the Super Bowl as their new head coach, replacing a retread head man who was the son of an NFL coaching legend.
His name was Gregg Williams.
It did not go well. That defensive whiz kid went 3-13 his first year and was let go after three.
This does not mean Sean McDermott, 42, will fail. McDermott, whose hiring was announced late Wednesday afternoon, could be just the man to lead the Bills out of their 17-year playoff wilderness. The former Panthers defensive coordinator has some fine credentials, like any coordinator whose name gets fed into the NFL head coaching pipeline after his team makes a playoff run.
McDermott will be the 10th Bills head coach, counting their two interim guys, since Marv Levy retired. Maybe I've been at this too long, but when you've been through it so many times, there's a creeping skepticism, a wariness that comes from seeing a string of coaches show up at One Bills Drive, full of optimism and football know-how, only to be worn down by the dysfunction.
What do we really know about the new guy? He's been in the league a long time and has had recent success as a coordinator. One thing I know is that coordinators whose teams get to the Super Bowl (or close) automatically become candidates for head coaching jobs. It doesn't matter if they have any clue how to be the head man. Most of them fail, as we know.
I'll give McDermott the benefit of the doubt. You never know which untested assistant has the acumen to become a great head man. The Bills are certainly due to get lucky. And considering the limited and uninspiring coaching search, they probably will need a lot of luck.
McDermott will need some luck, and the patience of the Pegulas. He walks into a difficult situation, same as Williams was 16 years ago. The parallels are unmistakable. Williams inherited a roster that had been severely compromised by salary cap issues left behind by the late John Butler, who overpaid many of his favorite players in an attempt to reach another Super Bowl.
The difference is, the general manager who created the mess is still in place. Doug Whaley has assembled a top-heavy roster with 24 free agents and an uncertain quarterback situation. That's hardly a recipe for success. It doesn't matter if McDermott is a combination of George Halas and Vince Lombardi. Winning requires talent and depth. That's why it's so vital to have a strong, capable GM running the show.
But Whaley is a weakened figure in the organization and his power has been further diminished by McDermott's hiring. If Whaley seemed unsure of his role during his bizarre postseason presser, this hire makes his fall from power seem even more evident.
Word is, McDermott wants control of the 53-man roster, which is typically the province of the GM. But with Whaley a weakened figure, any established coaching candidate would have demanded full control. According to reports, the Pegulas were impressed enough by McDermott to consider giving him some control of the roster. There's talk that he and Whaley will share control of the 53.
That's a ludicrous idea. Ride-sharing makes sense for Buffalo, but sharing control of the 53-man roster makes no sense. Coaches and GMs always discuss the makeup of the roster. But someone has to have the final say, the ultimate authority. If McDermott made that a condition for taking the job, it's hard to imagine him agreeing to some half-baked middling arrangement.
Clearly, the Pegulas believe in McDermott and are inclined to give him the power he seeks. It's a lot for a first-time head coach to ask, but they put themselves in this predicament by firing a head coach and leaving a weak GM in place. The owners are desperate for someone to lead the operation, which gave McDermott uncommon leverage for a man of his experience.
Jacksonville brought in Tom Coughlin, a two-time Super Bowl winning coach, to oversee their operation as vice president early this week. They retained Dave Caldwell as general manager and elevated Doug Marrone -- who was once the eager new guy in Buffalo -- as head coach. That gives the Jaguars the "czar" that the Pegulas have wanted for three years, a GM and a coach.
That's a more sensible division of power than what they'll have with McDermott. The president, Russ Brandon, has supposedly been distanced from football operations. Whaley, who seemed to embrace his own ignorance in his postseason press conference, becomes even less empowered than before. If he doesn't control the roster, he becomes like a glorified head scout.
Such an arrangement would move Whaley one step closer to the door. Given that level of power, McDermott will naturally want to bring in his own people to run the personnel department. He will want to remake the football operation in his own image, with his own people, and presumably, with his own general manager at some point.
It would be nice if the Pegulas hired someone above McDermott and Whaley -- a veteran football man to run the football department and referee the inevitable coach-GM disagreements. McDermott will be learning how to be a head coach -- a huge step up from being a coordinator -- and could use the help of someone who has been around the game a long time.
A good head coach has command of his realm. You never know which coaches will grow into the job. Command is most vital, of course, on game days. The Bills have employed a lot of weak game coaches during the drought. Ryan was the worst. It's a low bar for McDermott. Getting the players on and off the field in time will look like a major improvement.
Fans will be inclined to like the hire. That's how fans are. They'll point to McDermott's defensive rankings at Carolina. They were ranked 10th or better four years in a row. Of course, Ryan brought a lot of high defensive rankings with him to Buffalo. It's not all about total yards. In four of McDermott's six seasons as DC, the Panthers had rankings of 27, 21, 18 and 26 in scoring defense. Points are what matters most.
At any rate, it's hard to be inspired by a search that was so limited in its nature, that excluded former head coaches and highly regarded men who would want total control of personnel. McDermott could rise above the dysfunction and win despite it all. But it's a good idea that the Pegulas gave him five years, because it's likely to get worse before it gets better at One Bills Drive.
Wish him luck. He'll need it.