Jerry Sullivan: Self-effacing McDermott fills role of the anti-Rex - The Buffalo News
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Jerry Sullivan: Self-effacing McDermott fills role of the anti-Rex

Sean McDermott paused after the Associated Press' John Wawrow delivered the first question of the press conference, asking how McDermott expected to succeed where so many Bills head coaches had failed before him.

"Is this on?" the new coach asked, gesturing to the microphone on the dais when his voice was slow to come over the PA system.

The media got a chuckle out of that one. McDermott had unwittingly summoned a memory from Rex Ryan's introductory presser two years earlier. Ryan had choreographed a similar moment, tapping the mic and saying, "Is this thing on? Because it's about to be!"

People ate it up, as they did everything Rex said that day. He blustered. He promised to improve the defense to build a bully, to make the playoffs. He mentioned Cookie Gilchrist, He put on a show, and it was all about Rex.

But aside from McDermott's innocent and unrehearsed comment about the audio, his introduction to Buffalo on Friday afternoon could not have been any different from his predecessor's in January of 2015.

Where Ryan was boastful and brash, McDermott was reserved and self-effacing. His speech was slow and measured, and he was nervous and emotional. He started by giving credit to "the good Lord above". His voice cracked during his opening statement when he said, "I wouldn't be here without my family."

Of course, this is how it usually goes when you change coaches in the NFL. If you fail with a character, you replace him with someone buttoned-down and dull. If you lose with a quiet man, you shift to a volatile, outspoken guy who might instill more passion in the players.

Ryan was full of bravado and promises. I asked McDermott if he brought any special promises to town, or whether he felt it was better to keep expectations to more modest levels.

"I'm not into making promises," he said. "I think you'll find that out about me soon enough. The promise I'll make is we're going to be competitive. We're going to compete every day. I'm going to build this culture, along with the people in this building, to develop a daily standard of winning in the way we do things.

"You have to earn the right to win in this league, and I've learned that," McDermott said. "So I just believe in the process, and we're going to win going through the process. We've got a lot of work to do between now and then."

McDermott sounded humble, but he didn't hesitate to point out the qualities that he believes have served him well in his coaching career and will help him lift the Bills from 17 years of losing and organizational dysfunction.

If you listened closely, you could detect other differences between McDermott and the man who preceded him, characteristics that stood in sharp contrast with Ryan and made an instant and positive impression on the owners, Terry and Kim Pegula.

He referred to "my diligent nature, taking note upon note and learning every step along the way. I've been a part of building a defense from the ground up, brick by brick, step by step."

Later, McDermott called himself a "meticulous and thorough guy." Intended or not, it was a retroactive knock on Ryan, who was famous for his lack of attention to detail. No one has yet given a reason for Ryan's firing, but that was clearly a reason for his downfall as the Bills' coach.

McDermott is a football coach, through and through. He used all the requisite coaching cliches Friday. He wants to create a winning culture, he wants his team to have a clear identity, he believes in doing things the right way. Then there was this, when asked about his defensive scheme:

"I'm going to put the players in position to be successful," he said. "That's what a coach does. A coach adjusts to what he has."

Again, intentional or not, it reflected on Ryan, who inherited a top defense and tried to force his system on players who weren't ready or suited to play it. One has to assume that came up with the Pegulas.

Terry Pegula seemed to take a swipe at his ex-head coach in his brief remarks. Pegula said McDermott was "a man who could manage and enhance the cultural (sic) and the demeanor of our team on the field, and act as the face of our organization."

The Bills' tendency to commit dumb penalties and lose their emotional equilibrium in big games was a big criticism of Rex. The Pegulas are banking on McDermott to have better control of his players and command of his surroundings on game days – even as a first-time head man.

But while McDermott's personality is the polar opposite of Ryan's, his more essential problems will be the same. He's taking over a team with 28 free agents, a top-heavy salary structure, questions at quarterback and a weakened general manager who has clashed with two previous coaches.

McDermott said he was OK with General Manager Doug Whaley having the final say over the 53-man roster. Whaley's contract gives him that power. But Whaley admitted in his season-ending press conference that the next coach might have more power. It seems clear that McDermott will have a big say on personnel matters.

"I'm very comfortable with the situation," McDermott said, "and I wouldn't take this job if I wasn't comfortable with the situation. Terry and Kim took care of that, and I appreciate that. We had extensive conversations throughout the interview process, and they've gone to great lengths to make sure that I'm comfortable with things, and Doug as well.

"I wouldn't take this job if I wasn't comfortable."

That's four times he used the word "comfortable" in the space of 20 seconds. If McDermott was indeed seeking more sway over personnel and he's talking like someone who just bought the perfect mattress, it doesn't take a genius to conclude that he's more empowered than previous coaches.

So inevitably, that's where McDermott will share common traits with his predecessor. Whaley assured us it's a "team approach" and that "we are all in this with one goal" – to turn it around and win a championship.

But the GM-coach relationship is combustible by its nature. Even in the best of circumstances, when the true power structure is vague, it can be only a matter of time before it turns ugly.

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