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Bucky Gleason: Amid the jubilation, Sean McDermott pauses to reflect

Bucky Gleason

The cheering had subsided and postgame interviews had been conducted Sunday evening when Sean McDermott stepped away from his locker stall in Miami, leaving his young son behind to draw pictures while sitting on a stool. The Bills had clinched a playoff berth, ending their 17-year drought.

McDermott stood under the shower while the warm water washed over his head and enjoyed a rare moment of serenity. He looked straight ahead for several minutes, focusing on nothing and reflecting on everything while digesting his first year as an NFL head coach.

The emotional highs and lows that come with a season had been wrapped into a box over the previous 3½ hours. It included Buffalo's win over Miami, a Dolphins' surge that injected doubt and the Bengals' climactic win over the Ravens in the final minute after Andy Dalton's 49-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-12.

So much had happened in so little time, on Sunday and throughout the season, that it was difficult for McDermott to … you know … process. He was descending back to Earth after an emotional high, making the transition from postgame and postseason euphoria to the reality there was more work ahead.

For a few moments in between, he found peace.

"You stare against the wall, going, 'OK, that was a pretty cool,' " McDermott said with a smile earlier this week. "You go through these moments and think back."

In 1999, the last time the Bills reached the postseason, McDermott was a year removed from William & Mary and trying to find his way with the Eagles under his newfound mentor, first-year coach Andy Reid. McDermott was young and naïve and had only a general idea about where his career was headed.

On Monday, he flipped back the calendar to Jan. 2, 2017, a year earlier almost to the day, the morning after the Panthers ended their season with a loss to Tampa Bay. McDermott was confident he would be a top candidate for the head-coaching vacancy in Buffalo, created weeks earlier when the Bills fired Rex Ryan.

McDermott woke up early on a hazy morning for a jog with head trainer Ryan Vermillion in the Charlotte area. The two were talking about McDermott's future while they ran, which consisted mostly of Vermillion passing along whatever inside information he had about Bills' operations.

Through the morning fog, they could barely make out a shadowy figure ahead, a man walking his dog along the same street. Vermillion continued talking as they approached. Sure enough, when they drew close enough to clearly see him, they realized the stranger was wearing a Bills shirt.

They ran a few more steps before McDermott looked at Vermillion, who stopped what he was saying in mid-sentence.

"Yeah, I saw that, too," Vermillion said.

An omen, maybe, like something out of "Field of Dreams" in which Ray Kinsella and Terrence Mann were the only people who could see Archibald "Moonlight" Graham flashing on the scoreboard at Fenway. Mann couldn’t resist the temptation to climb into Kinsella's van for a journey to the unknown.

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McDermott had stayed true to his faith and stepped aside while fate took its course, offering no resistance to whatever and wherever life would lead him. He embraced the idea that he and his family belonged in Buffalo for one reason or another, that he was the right fit, that coaching the Bills had become his calling.

He trusted the process before implementing his own with his football team. After his first full season, he allowed himself a sliver of satisfaction knowing his job with the Bills was just getting started. He had come a long way in his coaching career, but he had such a long road ahead.

"You think about the trials and tribulations that I've experienced, that my family has experienced, between that time and now," McDermott said. "As a man of faith, you think, 'I'm worried about this' or 'I'm worried about that' but all along, all along, there was a plan.

"I firmly believe that we as a family were brought here for a reason, not from the perspective of a savior, at all, but more so that this is where we're supposed to be as a family. I had a good situation in Carolina. We had a good quality of life. Bang, fast-forward six, eight, 10, 12 months now, and here it is."

Here it is, for a rookie head coach who exceeded expectations and steered his team into a playoff game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Under McDermott, the Bills accomplished something that eluded them under six full-time head coaches: Gregg Williams, Mike Mularkey, Dick Jauron, Chan Gailey, Doug Marrone and Ryan.

All along, the 43-year-old McDermott never lost sight of the big picture. He kept the season in perspective when the Bills jumped to a 5-2 start. He came to appreciate consecutive blowout losses to the Jets, Saints and Chargers because they offered an opportunity for him to see which players would stand tall against adversity.

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When the pressure was cranked up late in the season, when the Bills stayed in the hunt longer than they had in years, he discovered he had enough players who would stand up and fight. The results were part fortune in a strange year in the AFC, and partly because the Bills chose the right people over the best players when building the roster.

Buffalo had better teams in past seasons that failed to make the playoffs for various reasons. The Bills had considerably more talent under Ryan than they had a year later under McDermott and first-year GM Brandon Beane. They traded away good players in Sammy Watkins, Ronald Darby and Marcell Dareus.

And yet the Bills became a better and more united team that ultimately ended up greater than the sum of its parts. They had no business winning nine games this season, not with a mediocre quarterback and shortage of receivers, not with a suspect run defense. They overachieved, thanks largely to their coach and his staff.

"He demands a lot from an accountability standpoint," center Eric Wood said. "It's not a lot of yelling and screaming. He set a standard. The guys that didn't meet that standard are generally not here. You look around and say, 'If I want to be here, I need to act like this and play like this.' "

The Bills were more organized than they had been in recent years. They had a singular, team-first message under McDermott that was a departure from various people inside the organization who spent years, in some cases many years, working harder to protect their jobs than help their team.

On the field, the Bills were more disciplined with their assignments and controlling their emotions. Penalties declined while efficiency increased. With a roster purge that rid the Bills of players accustomed to losing and replaced them with others unscarred by Buffalo's grisly past, there was a shift in attitude.

The Bills became less likely to fold in close games than they had been under other coaches, feeding the idea they would prevail rather than succumb to an  inevitable doom that was painfully familiar. While McDermott was learning how to become a head coach, his players were learning how to win.

"The biggest thing with any coach is staying consistent with your message and coming across genuine," linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. "Sometimes, you can have some coaches who don't play to their personality and who they are, and they come across phony or gimmicky. Everything he does is who he is as a person. He's sincere."

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Now, by guiding the Bills into the postseason, he gained credibility around the league and equity within the organization and its fan base. He should be a candidate for Coach of the Year after getting so much from his team. Their success should accelerate his maturation as a coach and help the organization as a whole.

Just know that McDermott is no better, and no worse, a head coach when the Bills made the playoffs Sunday night than he was when they were a long shot Sunday morning. The results of two games, or Dalton's touchdown alone, fueled unbridled joy that spread across the region.

If the Ravens had beaten the Bengals or the Bills finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs, this week would have been considerably darker. For starters, the shortsighted would have criticized McDermott for playing Nathan Peterman against the Chargers while entirely missing the point of his objective.

If it was a mistake, which remains open to debate, it was a minor one. Simply, he took a gamble and started Peterman with hopes the rookie's ceiling was higher than that of starter Tyrod Taylor. The only way to find out was playing the kid in game conditions a week after Taylor threw for 65 yards against the Saints.

The decision wasn't completely based on beating the Chargers, or marginalizing Taylor, or even making the playoffs. It was McDermott trying to squeeze what he could from his team while raising the standards in Buffalo. It was consistent with his message that the Bills were trying to win now and planning for the future.

Buffalo finished 9-7. A few plays in either direction were the difference between the Bills going 11-5 or 5-11. He would still be the same coach.

"I talk about this with our players: Find six inches on every play," McDermott said. "That's what the game is. The margins are so tight."

McDermott believed he understood the job and the community during training camp, but looking back it took a full season for him to completely grasp both. He learned a little more each week as the season greeted him with different obstacles and challenges. It was all new to him as a head coach.

He realized the job was less about X's and O's and more about managing and leading people. All coaches say the right things, but the best deliver the right message with the proper tone and reach their players. They understand analytics without ignoring intangibles. They keep games in perspective and the objective in mind.

Success comes from having good players, but teams come together through trust in one another and faith in people at the top. Most people evaluate coaches by what happens on Sundays, using the score and standings as their only measure. McDermott focused on effort and improvement, trusting the results would follow.

Early Monday morning, when the Bills' charter arrived from Miami and was greeted at the airport by fans standing in sub-zero temperatures at 2 a.m. on New Year's Day, he realized how desperately fans needed to taste success. He was blown away by their response, giving him a greater taste of Buffalo.

With his family spending the night in Florida, he came home to an empty house and plopped himself on the couch. For a brief moment, he exhaled.

"It was nice," he said. "I could just sit there, just stare, and have some Sean time."

Then he started thinking about Jacksonville …

And beyond.

"I knew it would come," McDermott said. "No one said this was going to be easy. And you know there's going to be more (tough times ahead). Sometimes, the second year is harder than the first year because people are now going to try to put us up here. We have so many warts. There's so much work to be done."

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