The wife of former Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan once described her husband as “the fun parent” type of coach.
At the other end of that spectrum is the old-school, demanding style of NFL coaches like Vince Lombardi or Bill Parcells.
The Bills’ current man in charge, Sean McDermott, has found a happy medium. He does not suffer fools easily or let his players think they are running the team. At the same time, he demonstrates great concern for them as individuals, which has allowed them to jell into a high-functioning unit in the three seasons since McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane were hired.
On Saturday, the Bills will try to take the next step in their climb back to NFL relevance when they take on the Houston Texans in a wild-card playoff game.
The Bills’ turnaround under McDermott and Beane may not turn into a case study for Harvard Business School, but it’s a management triumph that will long be remembered in Western New York and throughout the nationwide network of Bills Mafia.
Those who study finance may want to examine Beane’s personnel moves and mastery of the NFL’s salary cap. He is the NFL equivalent of a value investor, the Wall Street strategy popularized by Warren Buffett in which, rather than loading up on blue-chip securities, a person chooses stocks that appear to be trading for less than their intrinsic or book value.
Soon after Beane got the job in 2017, the Bills upgraded their defensive backfield by signing free agent safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. Then Beane and McDermott landed cornerback Tre’Davious White with a first-round draft pick.
Part of the investment game in the NFL is moving on from overvalued players. That’s what the Bills did when they traded defensive tackle Marcell Dareus to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a draft pick in October 2017. Dareus would have counted $10 million or more in salary cap space every year through 2021. He has 2.5 sacks and 45 tackles in 30 games with the Jaguars.
Running back LeSean McCoy gave the Bills good production in four seasons here, though his contributions tailed off in 2018. The Bills never looked back after releasing McCoy last summer and letting veteran Frank Gore and rookie Devin Singletary carry the ball.
The Bills also traded away receiver Sammy Watkins, who had complained about the lack of throws to him, to the Los Angeles Rams. They received cornerback E.J. Gaines and a 2018 draft pick that the Bills used to move up in the draft to select Josh Allen, their new franchise quarterback.
News sports writer Vic Carucci, in his story published Friday, detailed the ways McDermott has created a family atmosphere on the team. In addition to some more conventional moves, like posting motivational slogans such as “Championship caliber” and “Defend our dirt,” the coach makes clear to the players that they matter as individuals.
McDermott takes on his players in pingpong to help him get to know them. He had an office installed next to the dressing room and formed a leadership council of players to consult with on team issues.
A particularly impressive ritual is when McDermott has teammates stand up in meetings to share personal stories about themselves. Players say that kind of bonding makes them a better team on the field.
“In this locker room, there’s really no cliques,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “Guys blend very well from offense to defense, from positions, white, black. It’s really not segregated at all.”
The Bills may not quite be a championship caliber team yet, but with their football brain trust, fans have more reason for optimism than they’ve had in decades.