The day after minicamp ended last month, Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott sat down for what’s become an annual meeting with beat reporters covering the Buffalo Bills.
The idea behind the session, which is organized by Derek Boyko, the team’s vice president of communications, is twofold. No. 1, it gives reporters a chance to get materials together for articles previewing training camp. No. 2, those same reporters don’t have to then bother the team’s general manager and head coach during the only dead period on the NFL calendar, allowing everyone to enjoy a nice vacation before the grind of the season sets in.
McDermott was a bit late in arriving to this year’s meeting, leaving Beane to start. When the head coach showed up, he had a question for the general manager: “What ever happened to Antonio Brown?”
That brought some laughter to the room, and was a small glimpse into the relationship between the two men entrusted to finally turn the Bills back into contenders.
Entering year three of their partnership, it’s easy to assume that with their shared background of working in Carolina, Beane and McDermott have always been close. Their roles with the Panthers, though – McDermott as the defensive coordinator and Beane as the assistant general manager – did not overlap all that much.
“I would say we definitely knew each other in Carolina, but when you don’t work with each other directly every day in hand-to-hand combat, you really don’t … you see the best of each other,” McDermott said. “The stages of a relationship are dating, then we’re engaged, and then we’re married, like there’s stages in that relationship. There are.”
In this case, it can be called an arranged marriage. McDermott was hired first, in January 2017, then Beane came to Buffalo after the 2017 draft a few months later.
“I believe in him, or I wouldn’t have made this move up here,” Beane said.
While three seasons may not sound like that long, it’s an eternity in NFL years. The Bills haven’t had the same GM-coach combination in place for that long since 2001-03, when Tom Donahoe was upstairs and Gregg Williams roamed the sidelines.
That speaks both to the outright incompetence of previous general managers or coaches as well as the win-now nature of the NFL.
“As you prepare for the job, you hear experiences of other people and you watch and you see head coach and GM relationships. They fracture all the time, and I can see why,” McDermott said. “As close as we are and how much trust I have in Brandon before he came here ... just like a marriage, it tests you. It tests you.
“But over the test of time, if you know that you’re both in it for the right reasons and the agenda, your personal agenda is right, I think that that’s what sustains. Because there are tough times. There’s some good times, but there are definitely tough times and challenging moments that you have to talk through.”
Like with any marriage, communication is key. It’s clear listening to Beane and McDermott speak that they don’t always see things the same way. It’s in those moments that their relationship is tested. Instead of internalizing those feelings, though, both men have recognized that the health of the relationship depends on having an open, direct line of communication to the other.
“There’s always things that come up,” McDermott said. “I think that any great relationship starts with mutual respect. That my respect for him and his respect for me, we know that that’s present at all times. Then the other piece I think that comes into play is you just, you try and keep it to ‘If I have an issue, I’m going to him and he’s coming to me.’ ”
Any NFL job is going to come under the microscope, but Beane and McDermott are judged differently. The GM’s decisions on player acquisitions and how he handles the salary cap are graded over time, whereas McDermott might be immediately second-guessed for play calls in games or how he manages the clock.
“That relationship is critical. The trust that’s got to be there that ‘Hey, I went for it on fourth and 1 and we didn’t get it and it turned out that maybe it wasn’t the right decision,’ ” the coach said. “There’s just an inherent trust that’s got to be there … because it’s easy to sit up in the (press box). It’s easy to sit up there and go, ‘That was wrong,’ as opposed to (asking me), ‘What were you thinking?’
“Brandon does a great job with it. He’ll come in and talk about the game and go over a list of ‘X’ amount of questions. He’ll say, ‘What were you thinking on this play?’ or ‘What were we running on this play?’ I think that’s healthy that anything is on his mind, we can talk about it.”
McDermott understands that not every decision Beane makes is going to work out, and vice versa. Both of them recognized mistakes are going to be made, and that neither will be right 100 percent of the time.
That’s a far cry from the behind-the-scenes power struggles that played out between Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley, or Whaley and Doug Marrone before that. The Bills aren’t making headlines for bickering behind closed doors, and that’s because Beane and McDermott keep their disagreements in house.
“At the end of the day, I know that Sean is trying to do what’s best for the Bills and it’s not a personal agenda,” Beane said. “We don’t always see eye to eye. You never are. There’s too many things. I don’t see eye to eye with every scout I have. But we encourage people to say what’s on their mind, and I think that gets you to the right answer. Don’t take it personal. And if you don’t take it personal you can get over it even if you disagree.”
The open lines of communication extend beyond just the coach and general manager. When the personnel department brings in a player, for example, the coaching staff is included in the decision. Beane wants his coaches and scouts working together as much as possible. Inevitably, there are times when the coaches are lobbying for a certain player, and the personnel department doesn’t see it.
No matter which side wins out in those instances, Beane has a rule in place.
“He’s ours,” the GM said. “We’re going to support him. … Not every guy I’ve signed, the coaches are screaming down the hall ‘Yay, we just got an All-American player!’ Sometimes they’re going ‘I don’t know if I see the fit.’ But as long as they’re open to it and they’re going to work with them, sometimes those guys will say ‘Hey, you were right’ and sometimes it doesn’t work out. I think that’s how we stay on the same page.”
The Bills have had to navigate some rocky times over the past two years, particularly in 2018 when the team got off to a 2-7 start and was forced to start four different quarterbacks at various times. In the ego-filled NFL world, though, it’s not just tough times that test relationships.
There is a famous story in Bills history from the 1989 season. Offensive line coach Tom Bresnahan suffered face and head injuries that required stitches in a fist fight with receivers coach Nick Nicolau. That came after a 34-3 win over the New York Jets that improved the team’s record to 5-2. The argument reportedly started about who deserved more credit for the win.
“I’ve seen head coaches and GM relationships get strained or fractured because of success,” McDermott said. “All of the sudden, it’s because of me or he’s saying it’s because of him. That battle for power or the battle for whose ego is bigger — I’ve seen that fracture a relationship. It’s always under stress, I guess you would say. You’re either going through a really good moment or an adverse moment.”
Entering their third year together, it can be safely assumed that Bills fans are eager to see how the Beane-McDermott pairing handles prosperity.
“We're trying to put a winning product out there,” Beane said. “Not that we haven't been before, but we definitely are now. We feel we've got some improved areas. Again, we're not a finished product. I think we're trending in the right direction, but we've still got a lot of work to do.”