Sean McDermott leans on past experience to lead Bills in turbulent times

Sean McDermott leans on past experience to lead Bills in turbulent times

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Buffalo Bills players stand and kneel during the national anthem prior to a 2017 game against the Denver Broncos. (Harry Scull Jr./ News file photo)

The Buffalo Bills are not immune to what’s going on in the country.

That’s why head coach Sean McDermott started his team meeting Monday by addressing the ongoing protests pertaining to racism and police brutality against African Americans.

"I know that this hits very close to home, or hits directly at home for a lot of the guys on our football team,” McDermott said. “When we talk about doing things the right way, I just feel strongly about, right now as a country, we need to unify. There's been, obviously through this situation and other situations, there's a divide and I think that we as a country, we need to come together.”

McDermott is usually measured in his messages delivered through the media. He didn’t hold back, though, when asked what his reaction was to the killing of George Floyd last week, which sparked nationwide protests. A Minneapolis police officer faces second-degree murder charges in Floyd's death.

"I was disgusted by it and ashamed, as I shared with our players,” he said of the nearly 9-minute video that showed Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck. “We're all human and I share that with our players. We're professional coaches, professional football players, but at the end of the day, we're human beings. And so, yeah, I was disappointed, disgusted and ashamed.”

Since taking over as the Bills’ coach in 2017, McDermott has put an emphasis on players sharing stories about their backgrounds. His belief is that if teammates learn more about their differences, they’ll form a tighter bond.

"I hope that our team can be a unifying picture of what it should look like,” the coach said. “I really believe that, I really do. As you know, we've been in the community and we believe in that. We believe in doing things in the community that are right. And I've tried to open myself up to our players to be a listener, to be listening, a good listener in this case, and I think that's important to educate myself and build awareness.

"At the same time, lead our team and our family through this. … It's important as far as my faith goes is the love that we are to have for one another. And that's not just inside our building, but that's in the world. So that was kind of the general gist of what I shared with the team and it's obviously something that we take very seriously. I'm a big believer in doing things right. I'm also a big believer in loving one another.”

To that end, McDermott denounced the violence that has broken out at some protests. That includes in Buffalo, where Monday night an SUV drove through a wall of police officers, injuring three.

"I don't think there's any place for that as far as the violence,” McDermott said. “What we've got to do right now as a country is, again, unify and make really good decisions. Use that energy to make good decisions and I know emotions are very high right now. And that is to be expected. As I share with our players, let's handle that energy to do good in our communities.”

McDermott was hesitant to share specifics of what was discussed with the team, but said the overall theme was “a lot of emotions.”

"I wanted to make sure that we addressed it,” he said. "Wanted to make sure that it was addressed in a genuine way, and I wanted to make sure that … I counseled or got counsel from some of the members of our football team, staff included, and some people that I hold in high regard outside of our football team.

"As you know, you've gotten to know me, you know I do very few things on the spur of the moment. But I also think that shows how deeply I care about our football team in terms of making that investment, to make sure I learned and educated myself and was aware as I possibly could have of all the different variables in things and so that I was able to address everyone. Because, our team is a microcosm of the world. We all come from different locations geographically and different backgrounds. So my goal was to address it, my goal was to show empathy and my goal was to make myself available in our organization as well as I navigate our team, or help navigate our team, through this.”

In doing so, McDermott leaned on his experience. Shortly into his first season as the Bills’ coach, following inflammatory comments from President Donald Trump about former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and others who took a knee during the national anthem as a peaceful way of protesting police brutality and racism, the Bills held a team meeting the night before a game against the Denver Broncos.

"Every experience you try and learn from,” McDermott said. “And that was certainly one that I learned a lot from and I think we as an organization learned a lot from. And I think you see the result of that, this past week, when we had the opportunity to address our players. On Monday, we did that, and (owners) Terry and Kim (Pegula) put out a statement. You know, they were at the forefront of this as well. And so I think that says a lot about things that we've taken from that other experience and as well as what we're trying to do and how we're trying to lead.”

McDermott had an idea even before taking the job as the Bills’ coach that the Xs and Os of coaching football would not get as much attention as expected.

"And that's real and it's because of the leadership aspect of the job,” he said. “If you had to break it down into a pie chart, it would probably be my amount of time on Xs and Os, especially in the first year, was very little. And now, I've tried to manage my time better through experience and through, obviously, trusting staff to take some of that off my plate so that I can expose myself to the Xs and Os more.”

The protests come at a time when the Bills are conducting a “virtual” offseason. Teams around the NFL have been unable to hold spring practices because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

"You spend a lot of time problem solving, and making yourself available to dialogue and have conversations,” McDermott said. “The people aspect of the job is real. … One of the things I've learned over the course of the last 10 years (is) you can have the scheme, you better have the scheme as a coach, but you also better be able to connect with people and have staff that can do the same. You know, my dad always taught me, my mom and dad both always taught me that, people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. I think that's a true fact. So we've tried to do that, we'll continue to try and make ourselves available and help facilitate our players in the action that they want to take in our community.”

Shortly after the game against the Broncos, the Bills formed a social justice initiative. In addition to making monetary donations to groups focused on reducing barriers to opportunity and prioritizing making improvements in education, economic advancement, community and police relations and criminal justice reform, the program focuses on reducing poverty, promoting racial equality and supporting workforce development.

"I'm not the only one that's listening and I'm not the only one involved in these conversations with our team,” McDermott said. “We've got a great support staff and our development team, as we call them, has done a great job communicating with our players and our coaches. The point I'm trying to make is it's not just me, it's our collective team, trying to do our best to communicate and be good listeners and be there for our players.”

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