Sean McDermott gets a little uneasy when asked about those notebooks he has been filling, season after season, for most of his NFL coaching life. “People are going to think I’m anal,” he said with a sheepish grin.
Still, no conversation about the start of McDermott’s second year as a head coach is complete without bringing up the notebooks. As with McDermott, himself, they’ve evolved, going from old-school, three-ring binders to software that provides the same functionality on a computer.
What hasn’t changed, though, is McDermott’s insatiable appetite to get better at his craft. That’s why there’s a tab in the notebook from 2017, his first at the helm of the Buffalo Bills, labeled, “Improve 2018.” That’s also why there’s a tab in the one for this year labeled, “Improve 2019.”
“Just coming off of training camp, there’s probably 15 to 20 things for next year,” McDermott said. “It’s just a long to-do list and then I’ll organize it. (Last year) it came to a couple of pages of typed notes. It’s just things that I observed or things that people communicate to me … just trying to make sure I’m hitting all the boulders as opposed to some of the pebbles throughout the day.”
All in the name of elevating his performance and, therefore, that of the Bills.
“The whole thing is to take everything up to that playoff-caliber level, which is what our standard is in every corner of our building,” McDermott said.
You might think making the playoffs in his first year – even backing in the way the Bills did with help from others – would have taken a little of the edge off. It didn’t. Take a look at that four-by-six white card McDermott pulls out of his left pocket with all of the notes he jotted on it from a just-completed practice. Consider his decision to halt that workout and sternly address the team after seeing an illegal formation and a player going in the wrong direction than the play dictated. “Guys, we’re going to do a lot of things here,” an angry McDermott said. “But I can tell you what we’re not going to do: We’re not going to beat ourselves. If we get beat because we can’t stop the run or we don’t make enough plays, while that will frustrate us, it’s not going to frustrate us more than beating ourselves.”
McDermott won’t let go of the many challenges he faced in transitioning to the top job, in having everything cross his desk – especially the items he never saw coming. At the NFL’s annual meeting in March, he admitted there were times last year he felt as if he were “drinking from a big fire hose.”
McDermott’s eight seasons as a defensive coordinator – six with the Carolina Panthers and two with Philadelphia after 10 seasons with the Eagles as an assistant in various capacities – didn’t prepare him for occasional feelings of being overwhelmed.
He uses more water analogies to describe them.
“One wave comes in, goes out, the next wave comes in,” McDermott said. “Just picture that and sometimes it’s just like a storm, where it’s coming and coming fast. Other times it’s just lapping up on the shore, but it’s still coming. And sometimes, as much as you want to get to scheming third down, there are more important things at that moment.
“In my humble opinion, anyone that says that they’ve anticipated everything, especially the things that come in between those moments, I think they’re lying to you. What’s more realistic in my mind is you prepare your butt off and you’re able to be very organized and put things into buckets, ‘Hey, this is how I want to work with the media in this case ... this is how I want to handle crisis management in this case.’ And you just divide things into buckets, so that you have a plan going in. What happens in between those buckets are leadership moments of dealing with people. That’s really, to me, the neat part about the job, the part that I continue to be passionate about and even more passionate about in the second year than I was last year.”
Bill Cowher has been there. He spent 15 seasons as coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, with whom he won a Super Bowl and multiple coach-of-the-year honors. He sees plenty of reason for McDermott feel as if he’s able to get his arms around more of the job than in 2017.
“It’s just like a rookie to a second-year player, you feel more comfortable,” said Cowher, an NFL studio analyst for CBS. “Now, all of a sudden, you get in the second year, you understand what you have. You understand where maybe some areas that you need to spend more time on are. You can’t overlook anything your first year. You’re worried about where you are with the personnel department, you’re worrying about making sure you’re taking care of things in the medical department, the equipment department. ‘And, oh yeah, I have this media obligation that I didn't think about before.’ All of the responsibilities that you have, you do a better job of balancing your time and then knowing where you need to spend more of your time based on what you went through that first year.”
“That first one kind of goes so fast and then you rely so much on general managers and other people in the organization to help you get through that first year,” said Bruce Arians, the former Arizona Cardinals coach who retired after last season to become a game analyst for CBS. “You come in with a message and Sean had a great message (stressing a team-first mentality). Now, he gets to get more heavily involved in every aspect – free agency, the draft. He knows the players now.
"I think it's so much easier the second year, but it's really the year you get to put your stamp on it.”
Those who have been around McDermott on a regular basis since he first arrived at One Bills Drive have yet to see him waver from the guy who continues to walk with his shoulders back, chest out, head high.
“He might smile a little bit more now, but it’s the same confidence he had when he walked through this building and it’s infectious,” offensive tackle Jordan Mills said. “And this year it’s just progression. It’s gone from drinking water from a fire hose to drinking water out of a faucet. It’s not drinking water from a glass yet, but it’s getting closer to that.”
Kim Pegula, the Bills co-owner and president, notices more of a quiet confidence in McDermott this year.
“His first year, I think he may have asked some more questions like you would expect a first-year head coach going through his way in an organization," she said. "But this year, whether it was the draft, whether it was training camp, OTAs even, it seemed like things clicked much quicker, almost seamless to the point where some things just happened. There wasn't a whole lot of discussion and I just think that comes along with him learning and understanding from last year and just having more confidence about what it is that he wants and what he's looking for in a team.”
That’s where McDermott’s diligence in listing all that he believes he needs to change or tweak or hone comes in. It’s an exercise that grew from advice he received from then-Philadelphia coach Andy Reid early in his time with the Eagles. “Be a sponge,” Reid told him.
As McDermott soaked in the knowledge, he proceeded to fill binder after binder.
“That started when I was a quality control coach (in 2004) to get ready for position coach, then a position coach to get ready for a coordinator and a coordinator to become a head coach,” McDermott said. “And now I’ve got one (for) head coach Year One to head coach Year Two.”
The data, which now resides on Microsoft OneNote, covers topics ranging from time management to scheme to personnel to administrative. Some are large, such as the $18-million weight-room expansion that began this summer and is due for completion in April. Others are much cheaper and simpler to implement, such as:
> Is he short-changing the offense with his attention? McDermott found that to be the case last year, so he’s spending more meeting and one-on-one time with offensive players. “We’ve got a lot of different plays, obviously, on offense and in early spring, the quarterbacks were quizzing him on certain stuff and right away, he was naming it off and we’re all like, ‘Oh, OK,’” center Ryan Groy said. “I didn’t expect him to know that stuff. I was impressed. He’s definitely put his time in on offense. I think he knows what’s supposed to happen and more assignments and more the mechanics instead of just the big picture.”
> Are media obligations interfering with his ability to pop in and out of player meetings? McDermott found that to be the case last year, as well, so his briefings with local reporters are later in the morning this year.
> Do players need to be meeting more during training camp? McDermott concluded they did, and the schedule reflected as much. “No nap time this year,” safety Jordan Poyer said. “It’s a grind, for sure, but they’re trying to condition our mind, our body and our spirit for football.”
Even the most minute details such as whether the grounds crew has the field properly lined for practice or whether the music is being played at the right times don't escape McDermott's attention.
Another gauge of how good McDermott felt about his handle on the job was being willing to allow cameras provide a behind-the-scenes look at training camp with the “Embedded” series the Bills streamed on Facebook.
“No coach wants cameras in their meetings rooms or following them around, I get that,” Pegula said. “But Sean understands the business, he understands the market that we're in and he understands our fan base.
"As much as you can hear about how great our Buffalo Bills fans are, when you experience and when you live with it for a year, it becomes a part of you. I think that went a long way for him to understanding what really resonates with our fans and he was willing to open himself up and the team up to get behind the scenes because he's experienced how much that means to our fans. I think that was kind of his way of saying thank you for the much appreciated reception after the playoff game and the things that he has experienced in his first year.”
Nowhere in any of McDermott’s notebooks is there mention of how to handle your players kneeling during the National Anthem to protest social injustices, an NFL-wide matter that surfaced right before the Bills’ third game last season, against Denver, at New Era Field.
“That was a delicate issue for the whole league and there’s no handbook for that,” said General Manager Brandon Beane, who also was in his first NFL season in his role. “But I thought Sean did a great job of having an open, honest conversation and hearing everyone. And I think players really respected that. Now, the Pegulas were involved and myself, but Sean’s in front of them every day.”
“No matter how much you prepare for this type of job,” McDermott said, “there are so many things that come up that are not necessarily in your notebook.”
Such as making the sudden and surprising decision to bench his starting quarterback – with disastrous results. After deciding to replace Tyrod Taylor with Nathan Peterman for the Nov. 19 game against the Chargers at Los Angeles, McDermott encountered one of the largest tests of his rookie season after the then-rookie QB threw five interceptions in the first half. Taylor was inserted in the second half, but couldn’t stem the tide of a 54-24 humiliation.
McDermott owned the mistake of pushing Peterman into the No. 1 role when he was woefully unprepared for it.
“I’m going to make mistakes; that’s the human part of this job,” he said. “And I hope that I don’t have too big of an ego to where I can’t admit that I’m wrong because if that’s the case, then you’re not going to be able to achieve what we’re trying to achieve and then sustain it. I don’t want to go back into that specific decision, as to what went into it, but specific to leadership overall, yeah, my style of leadership is that I need to be able to admit when I’m wrong. And what was right for us at that moment and specific to that situation was for us to make Tyrod our starting quarterback (rather than Peterman). Self-awareness is a big part of leadership.”
“I felt for him for the heat he took because he didn’t just go rogue and make this decision,” Beane said. “We talked it out like we do everything. He’s out there, front and center, with the team, with the media, the message to the fans. But he doesn’t own that by himself. I own that as well and we talked it through and I supported that.”
The loss put the Bills at 5-5. Their season was teetering on the brink. It would have been easy for McDermott to lose the locker room.
Beane said the coach’s ownership of the controversial move went a long way toward preventing that from happening.
“Whether I, as a player sitting in that room, agreed with it or I’ve got to respect this guy for standing up there and saying, ‘Guys, I tried something, it didn’t work,’” Beane said. “And he took it all on him. I told him, you don’t need to do that, but that’s just who he is. Who can’t respect a guy who sands up there and says, ‘I’m human, I tried this, I was trying to win a game. Not trying to do anything other than that.’
“And that’s all you can ask of anybody, all the way down to youth sports. Little Johnny fumbles the ball, but he’s trying his best. What are you going to do? Rip him? I mean, he’s trying. And I think guys said, ‘You know what? I can play for this guy. I really like him.’
"Because there’s a lot of coaches that can coach great and take teams when everything’s going well. It’s the ones that can handle the adversity. And there was no more adversity than coming back on that plane, all the way across the country, from that debacle and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to eat some crow here and own up to this. We’ve got a six-game season, let’s own it and let’s go into Kansas City and get a win.’”
The Bills did exactly that, beating the Chiefs, 16-10. After winning three of their final five games, they were 9-7 and ended the their 17-year playoff drought and were preparing to face the Jacksonville Jaguars in the wild-card round.
For McDermott, it was the high point of his rookie year, even if it did come along unexpectedly. Much of his enthusiasm is tied with that of fans who were ecstatic to have the monkey of “The Drought” being ripped off their collective back.
“That was special,” he said. “I think you share moments as a team and a community, and that was a moment, in my 20 years around the NFL, that I’ll forever remember. That was the high point.
“And the lowest of the low was after we loss to Jacksonville, just because I know we came up short. I don’t like doing that.”
McDermott doesn’t need to consult his notebook to see how deeply that outcome impacted him. All he needs to do is look across his office. There, hanging from a shelf is his sideline credential from the playoff game.
“I don’t ever wear those passes,” McDermott said. “They put it in my locker for that game, and I took it with me when we left. It’s hanging there so I can see it. Nothing against the opponent.
“It’s just, you’re hungry to take another step.”
To do so, you must find ways to improve. To do so, you must find ways to improve. To see what those ways are, just open that Year One notebook and click the tab to Year Two.