Leslie Frazier often says a prayer.
He asks for wisdom. For guidance. And, above all else, the best way to help a dear friend.
The 58-year-old has only served as the Bills' defensive coordinator for nine months, but his foremost role has always been as confidant and trusted adviser to Sean McDermott.
Their bond dates back almost two decades to their time working under Andy Reid in Philadelphia. And the connection never waned, even as they set out on divergent paths in the coaching world before finally converging in Buffalo. But their current working relationship is admittedly a delicate one, an arrangement that could test the boundaries between adviser and assistant.
Above all else, Frazier is loyal. And for that reason, the longtime football man and former NFL head coach, is careful to do more listening than talking behind closed doors. But it’s his integrity, his intellect and his experience that McDermott relies on most.
While the 43-year-old head coach deserves much of the praise for the Bills’ surprising 3-2 start and the revitalization of their defense, McDermott is quick to credit the men standing beside him. And as the Bills coached settle back into a rhythm this week after their brief bye-week break, the man in charge will continue to lean on Frazier’s expertise.
Get McDermott behind the lectern and he’ll deliver injury updates and scouting reports on opposing teams with an expressionless face and clichéd coachspeak. But grab him for a few minutes alone inside the Bills fieldhouse and he won’t stop smiling while raving about his defensive coordinator. To him, Frazier is more than just a staff member. He’s a mentor and a big brother in one.
The noticeable age difference isn’t lost on them, or 59-year-old offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. McDermott — the fifth-youngest head coach in the NFL at 43 — was only 7 when Frazier went undrafted in 1981 (Dennison entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent the following year). Amused by that little fact, McDermott chuckles like a mischievous child. But within seconds, he’s back to praising Frazier’s calming nature and careful introspection.
“I’ve relied on him for a lot of things,” said McDermott, who was the Panthers’ defensive coordinator for six seasons before coming to Buffalo. “How we handle it when we lost to Carolina (in Week 2), our first loss as a group, as a team, together; how we handle it when we win two games in a row (vs. the Broncos and Falcons in Weeks 3 and 4); and just making sure that we’re going down the right path. Things off the field, with some of the speed bumps you run into as a new staff, trying to change the culture, trying to change what’s been going on him.”
No topic is off-limits between them. No time better than the present to discuss them.
Frazier is the type of sounding board McDermott believes every first-time NFL coach needs. And for that reason, he leans on his friend whenever possible.
“There’s no substitute for experience,” McDermott said. “Just to be able to come in and say, ‘Hey Leslie, what do you think about this?’ ‘What do you think about how I handled this situation? Or my message to the team this morning, or after the game?”
‘THIS IS HIS TIME’
The two friends chat every day, at any time, about everything. And when Frazier finds himself being careful not to overstep his bounds, McDermott encourages him to speak up more. But balancing on that tightrope can be challenging.
“This is his team. This is his opportunity,” Frazier says softly, but unequivocally, during a recent break between meetings. “There are those times when I feel like I need to step up and say, ‘Hey, watch out for this.’ But I pick my spots. If I’m always interjecting, then whose idea is it?
“So, it is something I pray about often because I know how much he respects my opinion,” added Frazier, who was the Minnesota Vikings’ interim and full-time head coach between 2010-2013. “At times I pull back and say, I’ve got to let this play out and let him get a feel for ‘Is this the right way to do it or not the right way to do it?’”
Every Tuesday morning, McDermott meets privately with Frazier, Dennison and special teams coordinator Danny Crossman, 50. The trio essentially is “the team within the team” — “the leadership board, if you will,” McDermott explains — and those 20-minute meetings help “set the tone for the week.”
McDermott often begins by explaining what his message will be to the team that week before segueing into what he needs each coordinator to focus on from a game-planning perspective. Then they discuss which players likely will be active and inactive.
“We’ve just started to do that because I feel like I need to get some information to them and I need to get some feedback from them early in the week,” said McDermott, who meets with his entire coaching staff Tuesday afternoon or early evening. “It just starts the communication and dialogue.”
Constant dialogue is nothing new for him and Frazier, who also huddled up after pregame protests during the national anthem and President Trump’s inflammatory comments about kneeling players dominated the news cycle. Frazier wouldn’t divulge the details of their conversations on how to handle the protests and the player-driven calls for racial inequality and social-justice reform. But there were plenty of them.
“All I can tell you is, there aren’t a lot of things that we don’t talk about when it comes to this team,” he said, smiling.
McDermott was equally tight-lipped about those particular chats with Frazier.
“We talked a little bit about that, yeah,” he said. “Obviously, Leslie’s been a head coach before. And then the dynamic with us is there, obviously, as a Caucasian male and he’s an African American male.
“I’m a little bit younger. He’s a little bit senior. Don’t tell him I said that,” McDermott adds, flashing a playful grin. “We just have a good rapport. The trust that I have in all of my staff, and Leslie in this case, run very deep.”
‘ARE YOU COMING WITH ME?’
McDermott could have chosen anyone.
There were several worthy candidates, men with years of coaching experience on their resumes. But Frazier fit his vision for the rebranded Bills.
McDermott had made it clear that if he ever was given an opportunity to be a head coach, his good friend would be his first call. Those types of promises are often made in football circles, even when there’s no weight behind the words. But McDermott was different.
Said Frazier: “So it wasn’t a complete surprise when he got the job that he called and he said ‘I got the job. Are you coming with me?’”
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera had warned McDermott not to make the same mistake he did when first assembling his staff. And it’s a miscalculation Frazier readily admits he made with the the Vikings, too.
“Ron Rivera and I talked about this prior to Sean getting the job,” Frazier said, “If the both of us could do it again, we would have hired a guy who had some previous head-coaching experience because it would have helped us not make some of those rookie mistakes. Because some of the things that happen over the course of your head-coaching tenure aren’t in that manual when you do the interview with ownership.”
There’s no substitute for experience, McDermott maintains. But his appreciation of Frazier goes well beyond that. Those key attributes roll off his tongue as he explains why he couldn’t form a staff without Frazier.
“Aww man, why not? There are so many reasons for him,” McDermott said. “Leslie is such a good person. A high-integrity guy. Loyal. He’s been a head coach before. And we’re aligned philosophically defensively where we came from in Philadelphia, working under Jim Johnson.”
Johnson, one of the NFL's best defensive masterminds, was the Eagles’ longtime defensive coordinator before he was forced to take a leave of absence in 2009 to undergo cancer treatment. McDermott was named the interim coordinator.
Two months later, Johnson passed away at age 68.
Eight years have since gone by and McDermott is no longer an assistant. He’s now responsible for getting the Bills organization to mirror his lofty standards. And he’ll try to do so with Frazier’s help.
The Bills’ revamped defense has surpassed the expectations of many, currently ranking No. 1 in points allowed per game (14.8), second in turnover differential (plus-8) and seventh in rushing defense (87.6 yards allowed per game). However, the unit is still a work in progress, evidenced by the Bills’ 21st-ranked passing defense (234.8 yards allowed per game) and 13th-ranked overall defense (322.4). But McDermott credits Frazier for the positive changes thus far.
“Really, Leslie’s in charge. …He’s the leader of the defense,” he said. “I’m not out front. I’m more in the background and it’s similar with our team.”
It’s Frazier who’s front and center during defensive meetings. In fact, McDermott sometimes isn’t even there. Instead, he’s in the offensive meeting room. Other times, he's sitting with the special teams unit.
“I was asked a question early on in my tenure here: ‘What type of head coach are you going to be? Are you going to just be with the defense?’” said McDermott, who was hired in January, two weeks after former Bills head coach Rex Ryan was fired with one game remaining in the 2016 season. “I think when you do that you make a mistake. It’s never going to be exactly even, but I want everyone to know that I’m going to try and be around all three phases of the team.”
Through the first month and a half of the season, McDermott has demonstrated what Frazier knew was in him all along: the ability to lead a team and franchise in a new direction.
This season is long from over. But Frazier is determined not to let his first-time head coach fail. So, for that reason, he says a prayer. He asks for wisdom. For guidance. And, above all else, the best way to help a dear friend.
“I want to protect his back. I want to make sure I’m doing everything I can to ensure I’m helping him succeed,” Frazier said of McDermott. “I just want to make sure that when I do talk to him about things, that it’s to help him and not to harm him. And more importantly, let him grow at his own pace.
“This is his time. I’m just here to support him and get our defense to play well, which in turn helps him to be successful.”