Shea Tierney got the phone call he was waiting for, but a difficult conversation followed.
It was January 2018 and Tierney was working as an offensive analyst for the University of Alabama. A few short weeks after the Crimson Tide’s victory in the national championship game, Tierney was at coach Nick Saban’s house as part of a recruiting visit. He excused himself to take a call from Bills coach Sean McDermott, who had a job offer: Come to Buffalo to be an offensive assistant on new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s staff.
Daboll had worked in the same capacity at Alabama, and Tierney was sure he wanted to follow him to the next level. He gladly accepted … then headed back inside to tell Saban he was going.
“I had to go in and tell coach Saban that I was taking the job with the Bills and that ‘Dabs’ wanted me up there the next day,” Tierney recalled in a conversation with The Buffalo News.
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Tierney wasn’t quite sure how Saban might react, but the legendary coach offered his congratulations and thanked him for a job well done. That night, Tierney returned home and his fiancée, Emily, had already started to pack up his belongings. The next morning, he started the drive to Buffalo.
In the time that has followed, Tierney has become an indispensable part of the Bills’ coaching staff – even if he’s not a household name. On the day star quarterback Josh Allen signed his massive contract extension, he thanked Tierney by name.
More recently, Allen expanded on that thought with this money quote on what Tierney means to the organization: “He’s the most underpaid person working for the Bills, I’ll tell you that. He does so much for this team and this offense.”
“He's been here since day one,” Allen continued. “He's basically Daboll’s right-hand man. He makes all the cut-ups. He makes all the install pages. He runs our scout defense. Just the energy and juice that he brings, too, he's just one of the guys and he loves football. That's what I love about him.
“When he's in our meeting rooms, it's awesome because of the things that he sees. He's been around a lot of really good coaches in the past and he’s been able to kind of take some things from those guys and apply it to what he's doing now. He's still very young, but I think he's got a long, long future in this NFL business.”
A native of Philadelphia, Tierney, 34, spent three seasons with his hometown Eagles as an intern and offensive analyst before spending the 2016 and ’17 seasons with Alabama.
Tierney was promoted to assistant quarterbacks coach prior to the 2020 season with the Bills. He spent much of last year putting rookie quarterback Jake Fromm, who was isolated from the team as much as possible as a precaution against Covid-19 spreading in the position room, through his own individual practice after the full team practice.
That just scratches the surface of what Tierney does on a weekly basis for the Bills, though, according to Daboll.
“He's a total team player,” Daboll said. “Anything that he's asked to do, he does it with a full-on mindset that ‘I'm going to do the best job I can do, whatever that may be.’ We've all started at certain spots in our careers, and once in a while you catch a break along the way. I think he's very appreciative for Sean bringing him in, coming from Alabama. He's a valuable asset, really, to the entire offense. He's got a great personality about him. I just appreciate how much of a team player he is. Those guys are kind of hard to find.”
Tierney and Daboll met in 2017, when they spent the year together on Alabama’s staff.
“I'd try to go in there early and stay as late as we had to,” Daboll said. “Every day I got there, his car was there. He didn't leave until I left. You appreciate that. He's smart. He's dependable. He's got really good character. He's a hard worker. I'd say probably most important, he's a great teammate."
Having come to the Crimson Tide from New England, where he was on the coaching staff for multiple Super Bowl championships, Daboll immediately won over the room. Tierney knew immediately that he wanted to coach with him for as long as possible.
“I could be here all day telling you how much he means to me and what he's done for me,” Tierney said. “It's probably turned into my most fulfilling relationship I've had with a coach. I can't say enough about him. Great coach, and an even better man. He's meant a lot to me and my family and I'm just really grateful that I have a mentor and a friend like him.”
Daboll’s introduction as the Bills’ offensive coordinator came at the Senior Bowl in January 2018. It was there that he recommended Tierney to McDermott for the role of offensive assistant. The next day, Tierney made the four-plus hour drive from Tuscaloosa to Mobile, Ala., to meet with McDermott.
A couple of days later, after McDermott had called to offer the job, Tierney hung up and before he even had a chance to call his fiancée, Daboll was calling – inquiring as to when he was going to be on the road.
“He goes, ‘Are you leaving tonight?' ” Tierney said. “I said, ‘Let me call Emily and tell her I took the job. You know before she does that I took the job. I'm going to pack some stuff up tonight and I'll get on the road in the morning.’ ”
On that drive, Tierney spent much of the time talking with Daboll about what needed to be done. The Bills were coming off a playoff season, but it was clear improvements were required. McDermott had replaced offensive coordinator Rick Dennison with Daboll, and the search for a new franchise quarterback was about to begin.
Tierney was involved as the team scouted and eventually drafted Allen to be the franchise quarterback, and has been a part of the development process that has led him to signing a contract extension worth potentially more than a quarter-billion dollars.
“I've been able to see the journey from draft night to now, just how hard he's worked,” Tierney said. “Josh is not complacent about anything. He's always thinking about, how can we get the next win, how can I get the next first down, how can I get the next touchdown?
“It's hard for a young kid like that to come into a situation where basically the whole weight of the city is thrust upon your shoulders and quite honestly, half of them don't think you can do it and the other half aren't sure you can do it. He took that responsibility head on and just embraced it. He embodies Buffalo. … It felt really good to see him get that contract, because he deserves it.”
Tierney’s close relationship isn’t just with Allen. It extends to the other quarterbacks on the roster, along with Daboll and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey.
“Everybody in the room, top to bottom, we just have a lot of trust between us,” Tierney said. “It doesn't matter who is talking to them, they trust what we're saying is the right thing. It's going to help them. I think that's the way you impact players the most. No. 1, they have to trust you. That means the most to me, when a player trusts me. He knows I'm telling him the right thing.”
In turn, the quarterbacks on the Bills’ roster have made Tierney a better coach by challenging him. Each has exceptional football intelligence, Tierney said, which means he has to be prepared for well-thought-out questions that will come up in the meeting room.
“These guys are all smart,” he said. “They know you're going to give them the right answer, so you've got to be prepared for that every day. They force me to work really hard, because I know they work hard. You have to be on your game. I'm in there with Dabs, Dorsey, they're really sharp coaches, so I have to be on my game, too, just to measure up to them. The whole room makes each other better.”
The Bills’ coaches and quarterbacks compete in the meeting room, quizzing each other on the playbook.
“Hopefully we’re making them better players," Tierney said, "but they’re definitely making us better coaches with how hard they work and how smart they are.”
One area Tierney doesn’t have much experience in is dealing with the media. He joked with a Bills media relations employee that he was nervous about being interviewed for this story. He might want to get more comfortable with it, though, because he’s positioned himself well to move up the ladder. If the Bills duplicate their offensive success from a year ago, Daboll promises to be a hot head coaching candidate. It’s not hard to connect the dots about Tierney possibly following him to his next stop.
That conversation can wait, though.
“The only thing I want to do is win – no matter what role I'm in," he said. "The coolest thing I have is a national championship ring at Alabama. Now I want a Super Bowl ring. I want it to be in Buffalo, because this place deserves it. It's a great place. The fans are unbelievable. … That's my goal. I just really want to win a Super Bowl here, do the best job I can, and after that, all that stuff that comes with success will take care of itself.”