HOUSTON -- It would make perfect sense for Sean McDermott to look at Dan Quinn as a symbol of what's possible for a first-time NFL head coach who emerged from the ranks of defensive coordinator.
Two years ago, the Atlanta Falcons hired Quinn. On Sunday, he'll guide them in Super Bowl LI against the New England Patriots.
Before taking over the Falcons, the 46-year-old Quinn oversaw the defense of a prominent NFC coach with a defensive pedigree, Seattle's Pete Carroll, and was part of back-to-back Super Bowl runs.
Before taking over the Buffalo Bills, the 42-year-old McDermott oversaw the defense of a prominent NFC coach with a defensive pedigree, Carolina's Ron Rivera, and was part of a Super Bowl run.
They even have a William & Mary connection. McDermott graduated from there and began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at his alma mater; Quinn's start in the profession began as a defensive line coach at William & Mary.
"And you've seen Sean and what he can be," Quinn said. "So for him and Sean McVay (the former Washington Redskins' offensive coordinator who recently became head coach of the Los Angeles Rams), guys I'm totally pumped for, because I've seen their work. I've seen what they've done as coordinators, and now as they're taking the next step, it's like, 'Alright, men, go for it.'
"So the only advice I'd give them is, 'Man, do it your own way. Don't try to copy anybody else's style. Let it rip in your own way.'"
Now, it helps to have one of the game's best quarterbacks in Matt Ryan. And it helps to have one of its top receivers in Julio Jones. And it helps to have other highly talented players at running back and on the offensive line.
McDermott doesn't have that kind of roster. However, he can do plenty with his coaching skill to help lead the Bills out of their perpetual funk. He can, as Quinn pointed out, take an approach that is all his own and get players to respond favorably.
Quinn's way begins with speaking in "bumper stickers." He's big on giving his players mottos by which to prepare and play, and the players recite them as if quoting scripture.
Quinn has about 10 go-to sayings. Ask three players to give you a favorite, and you'll get three different answers.
For cornerback Jalen Collins, it's, I do my job so my brother can do his. "That's a big one," Collins said. "If I'm taking care of my business, if I'm covering my receiver, my D-line brothers can go rush the quarterback."
For linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, it's, Don't make stuff up. "(Stuff's) not the exact word," Campbell said. "But what it means is, for example, we're out here and we've got all this free time so people will tend to want to go out or maybe go out and do what you normally wouldn't do. That's making stuff up. Stick to the process that' you've been sticking to for the past 20-plus weeks. Don't change it up just because we're on a different stage."
For wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, it's, Who's going to set it off? "Who's going to be the first person to set it off (with a big play) and get the sideline out of their seats?" Gabriel said.
Besides his highly talented roster, Quinn's quick rise to Super Bowl coach can be attributed to his ability to rapidly connect with his players.
Players find it easy to follow his direction because he's a student of the game and they see the effort that he and his coaching staff put into getting to know them and finding ways to put them in the best possible position to succeed. That was an easier task when Quinn was a position coach and had fewer players under his watch. It grew harder when he became a coordinator and reached a whole new level when he was at the helm of an entire team.
Along the way, he diligently took notes. This was how Steve Mariucci installed game plans in San Francisco when Quinn was the 49ers' defensive line coach. This was how Nick Saban ran practice in Miami when Quinn coached the Dolphins' defensive line. This was how Eric Mangini ran meetings with the New York Jets when Quinn was his D-line coach.
“The biggest connection that you try to make with a player is to get to know them so you understand the very clearest way of how far you can help that player develop or how far they can go," Quinn said. "Sometimes a player may not even know how far they can go or the vision of how good they can be. That’s one of the things I love so much about coaching is explaining this role or this player, what you can be. I feel like that’s always been our job as coaches, to take every player on our roster as far as we can."
Some of that is done through bumper-sticker speak. Some of that is done through putting tremendous effort in seemingly little things, such as the loud, up-beat music played during practice. Quinn has gone as far as to have different DJs compete for the chance to put together the playlist "because you definitely get some critics amongst the guys on the field and the coaches."
Most of all, though, he has been able to win over players with his demeanor.
"He's not panicky," defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "I wasn't here last year, but I remember, when things started falling apart and, I guess, they were losing a lot of games in the second half of the year. And one of the No. 1 things they told me when I came here was, 'Look, Dan's going to stay the same. He does the same things regardless of the scenario and the situation.' He doesn't, all of a sudden, make stuff up because we're losing. He believes in what he believes in and the players believe that and trust that, so therefore, we're all in it together."
"The atmosphere that he brings and the culture that he's brought is just like no other," Collins said. "We've all bought in and we love it. Just this brotherhood that we have, just this group of guys, it's really special. You don't really find this anywhere else."
Said Gabriel, "He's a coach that you want to play for. He's a coach that you want to go out there and put everything on the line for. That's why we love DQ, man, just because he puts it in the players' hands. It's not always in the coaches' hands. He puts it on our hands to be perfect, to go out there and do the things that they expect us to do, so I feel that's why we work so hard for him."
The coach getting the most attention this week, of course, is Bill Belichick. He is universally viewed as the smartest and best the game has ever seen.
But Freeney can envision the day when Quinn also reaches iconic status.
"The sky's the limit for what he's going to do," Freeney said. "And then, hopefully, they're going to speak about him the same way they speak about Belichick."
That's something else Sean McDermott can shoot for.