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In Carolina, Sean McDermott's 'play hard' message still resonates

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In the Carolina Panthers' locker room this week, players floated all the diplomatic balloons about seeing Sean McDermott again.

For sure, the Panthers miss their old defensive coordinator, but they're thrilled with successor Steve Wilks and the rest of the staff.

Why, of course, they're looking forward to saying hello to McDermott on Sunday, when his Buffalo Bills come to Bank of America Stadium. They're ecstatic for his opportunity, but now he's another opposing head coach they plan to send out of town with lumps.

In more reflective moments, however, McDermott's former Panthers gave in to the fact such a respected coach can't commit to one place for six seasons and not make a lasting impact.

"What Sean was able to do for this organization," free safety Kurt Coleman said, "was put a blueprint for what a great defense needed to be and the execution we needed to play with.

"He always said, 'Whether I'm here or not here, this is the blueprint with which this Carolina Panthers defense needs to play.' "

Panthers coach Ron Rivera brought McDermott aboard in 2011 to devise the overhauled club's defensive identity, to apply the chemistry and to cement tradition.

Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid had just fired McDermott after two shaky seasons trying to uphold late defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's system. The Denver Broncos whisked McDermott for an interview, but he called Rivera first to let him know he was available.

Rivera had worked with McDermott in Philly and told him not to sign anything, that the Panthers would fly him straight from Denver to Charlotte the next day.

That's how anxious Rivera was about losing the chance to appoint McDermott his first defensive architect.

"He was inherited the defense with the Eagles," Rivera said Thursday at Bank of America Stadium, "but here he was able to put his stamp on it."

To hear players discuss what resided in McDermott's philosophical nucleus, the most obvious reaction is "No duh."

Bills fans already have been inundated with his smashmouth principles of an aggressive, accountable, mouth-frothing, reactionary, position-sound attack pack.

"He had a message he believed in," said all-world linebacker Luke Kuechly, drafted ninth overall a year after McDermott became Panthers coordinator, "and that was to play hard, play fast, play physical and play smart.

"That still permeates in this locker room. It's still stressed today."

Retired safety Quintin Mikell, who played with McDermott nine seasons in Philly and one more in Carolina, witnessed the system's evolution over that decade but isolated the common thread.

"One of his most prevalent ideals to me was always to stay aggressive and not back down from anybody, not take any crap," Mikell said. "That was the mindset.

"Always. We're going to attack. We're going to come after you. That aggressive style, to make the opponent work for everything they got, is the main thing I took away from Sean's coaching style."

Red-meat football talk.

Seems simple, although not necessarily easy to do. Not when it comes to finding 11 trustworthy defenders to execute the approach.

What did Sean McDermott teach Carolina's Kurt Coleman (20)? "He said I could play this game, that I just had to be smart enough and put in the work. It's not about being the most athletic." (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images file photo)

Pedigreed or high-salaried players don't matter nearly as much to McDermott as down-by-down dependability.

Coleman and Mikell provide expert McDermott analysis on this. Mikell was undrafted from Boise State in 2003, but he earned McDermott's faith, became a starter and was named a Pro Bowler in 2009.

A year later, the Eagles drafted Coleman in the seventh round. Mikell saw a younger reflection of himself. McDermott, the self-made William and Mary walk-on who became an All-Atlantic 10 safety, was equally pleased with Coleman.

"He always left me with these words, and I took them with me," Coleman said. "He said I could play this game, that I just had to be smart enough and put in the work.

"It's not about being the most athletic. So I prepared, and then you really start to think about that message. If you do the right film study, you can put yourself in a lot of plays without being athletic."

The Panthers last week voted Coleman a captain, their first new one in four years.

Beyond schematics, McDermott left his mark here in exposing players to a certain attitude.

Let's call them "On Fire Fridays."

When teams play Sunday on a typical NFL week, they'll undergo a light walkthrough practice Friday and then get Saturday off to rest or travel.

But McDermott dropped the hammer on Fridays.

"Friday was his day to just get on fire," Coleman said. "Every coach, as you get closer to game day, you get more intense and tighten up. But Sean on Fridays would just rip into people, and you knew it. That was his thing.

"It was just one of those things where he wanted to make sure we understood the importance of everything, that you don't take anything too lightly, that are things to be learned and things to get done. He didn't want to let a moment slip by."

Bills coach Sean McDermott shines in ... pingpong?

Unsolicited on the other side of the Panthers' locker room, Kuechly emphasized McDermott's ploys to wring out every moment the defensive unit was together.

"I don't think you can take it for granted," Kuechly said, "where you say, 'Oh, in the game we're going to do it.' It's got to be every day, every period at practice. You've got to live it.

"All this stuff is very cliché. It's just about believing in the message and doing it. ... I think it has to do with coaches, but you also have to have players that will buy into the system that's being taught."

Coleman and Mikell noted the ways McDermott has mixed up his inflections to suit a moment. Mikell described McDermott as "more of a dictator" in their early Philly days.

There were plenty of moments for McDermott to detonate last year. Carolina went 6-10 one season after going to the Super Bowl. But he didn't combust, not after giving up 48 points to the Atlanta Falcon in Week Four or 41 points to the New Orleans Saints two games later.

"He would find a way to speak to us, not only angrily," Coleman said. "There were times as a defense we didn't play well, the games when you would expect a coach to rip you up and down, but he came with a different type of approach.

"He would speak to us instead of yell, and that kind of got through. As the season went on you could see the growth in a lot of young guys."

Neither Buffalo, nor any team, can assimilate immediately.

McDermott has mentioned that Carolina is in the seventh year of its system, while Buffalo is entering merely its second week.

In his first two seasons with the Panthers, they went 6-10 (four wins better than the year before) and 7-9. Then the defense found traction in 2013, ranking second in points and yards allowed on the way to a 12-4 record.

In 2015, the Panthers' defense ranked sixth in points and yards, went 15-1 again and reached the Super Bowl.

"It is difficult," Rivera said of endorsing McDermott for Buffalo's opening, "because, for the most part, you don't want to train guys and then have them leave for something that's an equivalent [role] or that much of a step up.

"But in this type of situation, when you lose a guy like Sean McDermott, I knew what Sean's ultimate goal was. He worked very hard at it. He did a great job, coming from Philadelphia and having to change some of the things he did and having a chance to build the defense here."

As fond as Coleman is of McDermott, sentimentality will vaporize from the ear holes of the first ball carrier he zeroes up.

"Yes, he knows us. Yes, we know him," Coleman said with a smile. "But it's going to come down to guys just beating the guys across from him.

"When you know each other that well, you've got to whip a man."

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