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Bills coach Sean McDermott shines in ... pingpong?

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The voice is unmistakable. Jordan Mills is so used to hearing it, he can't help but laugh to himself whenever it travels all the way from the other side of the Buffalo Bills' dressing room to his cubicle.

It's loud enough to rise above the din of chatter, laughter, music booming from the big speakers on the floor, audio from the televisions on the walls.


The offensive tackle nods, knowing that particular yell can only mean one of two things: Sean McDermott has either won a pingpong match against one of the other players or has slammed home a decisive shot from his end of the table.

That's right. The 43-year-old head coach of the Bills, Mr. Discipline and Accountability himself, is right in there sharing leisure time with his players.

Competing. Talking trash. Having fun.

Yes, this is the same guy who had the pool table and video games removed from the same locker room. He wryly cited "ball skills" as the reason the pingpong table remained, but now it's clear he had an ulterior motive. Pingpong happens to be a game McDermott loves to play as much as anyone else on the team and he fully intended to make use of that certain piece of recreational equipment as much as the apparatus he uses during his ultra-intense early morning workouts.

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Of all of the changes that have occurred since McDermott's arrival last January, all of the roster upheaval and general tightening of what had been a very loose ship, his regular presence in the dressing room ranks as one of the biggest. Since its construction in 2014, the second of Doug Marrone's two seasons at the Bills' helm, no coach has ventured into what was thought to be the players' exclusive domain the way McDermott has. Even Rex Ryan, famous for allowing his troops to pretty much do and say whatever they pleased, barely set foot in there through the past two years he spent as the Bills' coach.

So far, the players seem to appreciate McDermott's efforts to get closer with them.

"It matters because he shows he's one of us," Mills said. "He doesn't act like, 'I'm a head coach, I don't need to be around (the players).' He interacts with us."

McDermott doesn't have to walk very far for that interaction. In the normal layout of an NFL team's headquarters, the coach's office and the locker room are usually on separate floors, and the setup at One Bills Drive is no exception. However, soon after he arrived, McDermott had a secondary office built right next to the dressing room so he can be "more readily accessible, bringing in a player, having a coach in, and those are good dynamic-type meetings that I like to have in there."

He has those meetings in his upstairs office as well.  He wants players to always feel welcome to "sit down and let's talk life, let’s talk football, current events, whatever it is."

Coaches and players generally don't spend much time in each other's company beyond the practice field, the meeting room or the stadium on game day. In his first year as a head coach at any level, McDermott set out to change that. He would establish a leadership council of veteran players who serve as a conduit between him and the rest of the squad, but he wanted something more – the ability to know the temperature of the roster on a regular basis rather than having to guess what it is or rely on second-hand impressions.

"It’s about me being around, and not just myself, but all of our coaches, and all of our support staff, in terms of, 'Hey, we’re around our players, it’s not a divide between (us)," McDermott said Friday, as the Bills finished preparation for Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers. "A lot of buildings are set up such that floor one is the locker room and floor two is everyone’s office. Well, the dynamic is, 'How do you communicate?'

"Yeah, I want to know the pulse of our football team, and you get that by being around, whether it’s the locker room or meeting rooms. I just came from some meetings, in the meeting rooms, with the players. Being able to feel that I think is important as a leader, and also to be able to listen to what’s going on, and the communication between players and coaches, coaches and players.

"In terms of where we are as a team, week-to-week, what’s the vibe going on in the locker room? And where do I want it to be as opposed to where we are?"

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Mills is in his fifth NFL season. He has spent time with three other teams: the Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions.

He knows that other coaches aren't like McDermott.

"The average coaches come in, they might be to themselves, drinking their coffee upstairs and you might not see them until team meeting and when we walk on the field (for practice)," Mills said. "It's great to have a coach that interacts with us like that. It makes us feel like he's one of us, which he is."

Center Eric Wood has been with the Bills for all nine of his NFL seasons. He, too, has been exposed to different coaching styles. He likes McDermott's constant effort to stay connected with players, whether it's over the pingpong table or a table in the meal room.

"That goes a long way," Wood said. "It helps build trust and I think he's got a good mix of we respect him and there's a certain amount of ... I don't want to say fear, but he is the head coach, and this regime means business. There is a lot of turnover, so you have to play to their standards or it's been shown you want be a part of  us.

"But in the other sense, he does care about you as a person. He wants to know about you, he wants to spend time with you. He's personable. He's a younger head coach. He's pretty current with what's going on with the team, what's going on with us. He's a guy you can converse with. It is talking to a coach, but you don't necessarily feel like you're talking to your dad or something like that."

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It's all part of McDermott's belief that the infrastructure of a football team should be horizontal rather than vertical.

That doesn't mean it is devoid of a pecking order. The Bills have one and every player knows, whether he's at the other end of the ping-pong table or across the desk, McDermott sits at the top.

"At some point, yes, I have the final say," he said. "That said, it’s important that the guys know I’m a normal guy. I’m a human being that has a family, and I want them to see that. To me, that’s healthy, because it allows them to have space to be who they are, if they’re seeing me be who I am.

"There shouldn’t be a great divide between the two."

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