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Jerry Sullivan: Time for McDermott's process to show results

Sorry for this. A Bills head coach is making his regular-season debut on Sunday at New Era Field, and I'm leading with the other guy. You know, the buffoon who couldn't count to 11. It won't happen again.

But remember when a Jets-Bills game was a major deal? Two years ago, when Rex Ryan returned to New York for a national TV game, it was the biggest story going, the old coach returning to torment the team that fired him.

There's no comparable buzz over Sunday's opener. In fact, Ryan told a Jets writer it could be one of the worst games ever. Asked if he planned to watch it, Ryan said, "Hell, no. There's a lot better games than that one."

Rex Ryan on whether he'll watch Bills-Jets on Sunday: 'Hell no'

Call him a bitter blowhard, but Rex has a point. The anticipation for the opener isn't as keen as it was for, say, Ryan's first game as head coach two years ago, after the Bills set a record for season-ticket sales. It was the most eagerly awaited opener since the Super Bowl years.

Bills fans seem ambivalent about this year's squad. Sources tell me season-ticket sales are down significantly, perhaps by as many as 5,000. Two days before the season opener, the Bills still wouldn't release any official numbers. As I recall, they couldn't wait to tell the world in 2015.

The NFL's elimination of the blackout rule was certainly a factor, but there's not a lot of enthusiasm or optimism about the team. You could tell by the clamor over a fifth-round rookie quarterback, Nathan Peterman. Fans are desperate for a new face. Tyrod Taylor is dynamic, but you don't push tickets on a 30th-ranked passing attack and a QB who was forced to take a big pay cut.

So for better or worse, the new head coach is the primary story line. On Sunday, McDermott becomes the Bills' 10th head coach – counting interim guys – since Marv Levy retired after the 1997 season. No one since Wade Phillips has departed with a winning record. Only Dick Jauron made it to a fourth season, and he got whacked after nine games in '09.

McDermott inherits a team with a 17-year playoff drought, the longest in major pro sports, an old, thin and overvalued roster, and a fan base that's been beaten down by years of dysfunction and mainly grateful for a chance to hang out and drink in the parking lots on game days.

The bar has been set low for the new guy. Luckily, his chances of clearing it are good in his debut. The Jets are the worst team in the NFL. They're clearly tanking, as opposed to the Bills' campaign to cast off Doug Whaley draft picks like so much yard refuse while claiming they're in to win now.

Eradicating Whaley era involves 'tough, difficult decisions,' Bills coach McDermott says

McDermott has a good chance to become the second straight Bills coach to win his debut on opening day. Hard as it is to believe, Buffalo head coaches had been 0-17 in such situations before Ryan broke through two years ago.

Of course, McDermott's greatest virtue when the Pegulas hired him was that he wasn't Ryan. He seemed organized; he had a coherent plan. Where Ryan was casual about detail, McDermott is the kind of guy who micromanages every aspect of the operation – though he's usually late for press conferences.

It's all about the "process," as you've probably heard a time or 10. One of the beat writers kept track and by Aug. 28, McDermott had uttered the "P" word exactly 100 times in press conferences. Among the inspirational messages he has on the walls at One Bills Drive is simply, "Respect the process."

He said the process involves everything they do, including how they get out of their cars at the team facility. Seriously. How about the process for brushing one's teeth? Is flossing part of the process? Will the new coach monitor how swiftly the guys raise their tray tables before landing on team flights?

I've covered many bad teams over the last 30 years, and I've found that when coaches talk about the process, it's a subliminal message they use to remind fans and critics that they've been dealt a tough hand, and they'll need time to put it together. Don't judge them by wins and losses at the start.

"We’re building a foundation," McDermott said recently. "You’ve heard me say it before, we’re building a team. We’re not accumulating talent, we’re building a football team that will be built to win in the short term and long term."

That's a tough line to walk in the NFL, where inferior teams get trampled over a grueling 16-game season. But it's understandable that he and GM Brandon Beane wouldn't blow up the roster. McDermott was given an unprecedented level of power, and he doesn't care to put a 2-14 season on his coaching record.

So they kept Tyrod Taylor, Jerry Hughes, LeSean McCoy and Kyle Williams, and signed Eric Wood to an eye-popping extension. They still have Marcell Dareus shambling around, like some mammoth salary cap anchor.

They're building a foundation at the same time, which is another word for rebuilding. But they want to keep people interested in the product, show tangible progress and make McDermott look like the young coaching savant that the Pegulas believed they were hiring last January.

It's a convenient setup for McDermott. If he loses, people will point to the Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby trades, and the roster mess that Whaley left behind. If he wins, he's a genius for rising above the trouble he inherited, a pigskin process preacher man whose guys backed it up on the field.

All I want to know is if the guy can coach. McDermott has a master's in Coach Speak, which means he's practiced in revealing virtually nothing. We've heard every approach during the drought. It's results that matter.

I think it was Jim Boeheim who said the widest 18 inches in sports was the space between the head coach's seat and the top assistant's. You never know about a coach until he slides into the big job. Accomplished coordinators fail all the time in their first crack at being a head coach in the NFL.

We've seen coordinators, former head coaches and college coaches since Levy's day. They all failed in one way or another. Some were bad on detail, others were poor game managers, or had weak staffs, or coached conservative like it was the 1970s. The lack of a franchise quarterback didn't help, either.

McDermott needs to look like a coach who was born to the top job, whose teams play an intelligent, passionate and disciplined style. He needs to get players performing at or above their potential, and playing as if they care about their teammates, their sport and the community they represent.

There were some troubling signs in preseason. There were two games with 10 or more accepted penalties, when they looked a lot like the Ryan teams. In one game, offensive guys lined up incorrectly three times. Things move even faster and the consequences are greater in the real games.

That's when a head coach needs to assert his control over the entire operation. McDermott doesn't need to be some grand orator or stand-up comedian. Have you sat through a Bill Belichick or Andy Reid presser lately?

Which reminds me, how about that Chiefs-Pats game Thursday night? So much for the Patriots going unbeaten, or for Reid's team imploding and gifting the Bills a top 10 draft pick in the draft day deal.

But maybe it's a sign that this will be a Bizarro year in the NFL, where the world gets tipped upside-down and the Bills shock the critics by ending the playoff drought in McDermott's maiden voyage at the helm.

What does that clown Rex Ryan know, anyway? It's opening day, a Jets-Bills showdown in the first game of the McDermott-Beane era. Winner stands alone in the AFC East. Loser gets a leg up in the race for a franchise quarterback.

How could you not be fired up for that?

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