Sean McDermott and the Buffalo Bills Culture

Sean McDermott

When Sean McDermott took over as head coach of the Buffalo Bills in 2017, he had his work cut out for him. The team hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1999. They’d had eight coaches since 2001, who had combined for a .366 winning percentage. The Buffalo Bills hadn’t been a team to take seriously for a very long time. In the three years that McDermott has been the Bills head coach, they’ve made the playoffs twice. They’re a team known for focus and discipline and are now an attractive destination for NFL players. In a short period of time, McDermott has helped lead the Bills from a joke to a contender. And he’s done so by establishing a culture Bills fans thought could only exist elsewhere.

Culture and Sean McDermott

When general manager Brandon Beane joined Sean McDermott in Buffalo, the two set about rebuilding the Buffalo Bills. Every player from top to bottom was evaluated to see whether or not they fit the new direction the team was headed in. The result was staggering. In 2017, players thought to be franchise cornerstones like Sammy Watkins and Marcell Dareus were shipped out. 2019 saw 21 new players added via free agency. In fact, heading into the 2019 season the roster had only three players on it from the year before they took over. And at the forefront of every move made was culture.

Removing the Obstacles

Sean McDermott took over the Buffalo Bills as they had just come out of the Rex Ryan era. An era categorized by a lack of discipline. And the culture was a problem. How much of a problem? A big problem.

For example, former Ryan era Bills player Sammy Watkins was quoted as saying “Then the coaches have to be hard on us, not scared of us. Get at us, yell at us, curse at us. Whatever to get the player to do that job the best he can, that’s what they need to do.” He also spoke of discipline being the biggest issue with the team during Ryan’s tenure. Normally having a star player speaking like that would be good for a team. But in this instance, it wasn’t. Why?

Because while Sammy was saying things like the above publicly, privately he was lacking discipline and contributing to the poor team culture. Going out and drinking every night, getting wasted, and skipping rehab treatments for injuries.

Sammy Watkins was arguably the Bills best player at the time. Someone the team should have been able to build around. Instead, he was a liability. And rather than coddle Watkins because of his talent, or take it easy on him, Sean McDermott saw that he didn’t fit the culture he wanted and traded him before the 2017 regular season. Trading away a team’s best player is never an easy decision for a rookie head coach. But for McDermott, it was necessary in order for the Bills to be successful. And he knew that, and acted on it with Sammy and the roster as a whole.

Establishing the Culture

Once Sean McDermott began removing obstacles, he needed to replace them with players that embodied his vision. The Buffalo Bills are now a team of players who have a chip on their shoulder. Players who would outwork anyone you put next to them. Players overlooked by other teams or doubted, and who fight on every single play. Like Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde. Like John Brown and Cole Beasley. Players with ability who, for whatever reason, didn’t receive the opportunity they believe they deserved.

The Buffalo Bills operate with that philosophy in free agency, and in the NFL Draft too. Very few people saw Tre’Davious White as an All-Pro cornerback in the NFL. Analysts thought Devin Singletary was too slow. Josh Allen had no scholarship offers coming out of high school. The list can go on and on for current and former Bills players brought in under McDermott. The players he brings in are tough. They fight and they grind and they earn every inch of what they get. Because they know what it’s like to have nothing. And then those players become leaders.

Players like Dion Dawkins, who wrote a letter to Bills Mafia talking about how special the team and the city is and about how players are putting down roots to stay together. Players who play for each other. Sean McDermott built that. That is a direct result of Sean McDermott and what he wanted on the field and off of it. And he coaches that in his players and develops that in his players as much as he coaches and develops technique and ability.

Last Word on Sean McDermott

Sean McDermott received an extension this month that will keep him in Buffalo until 2025. He’s led the Buffalo Bills to the playoffs twice in three years. And free agents and draft picks brought in under him have seen growth in their game. And with each move made, culture was a driving force behind it. Player fit off the field given just as much priority as player fit on the field. Hopefully he can lead the Bills to a Super Bowl. But either way, he took the Bills from nothing to something. And he did it with culture.

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