Sean McDermott surrenders (again)
This isn't anything new. The Buffalo Bills lost in the postseason exactly as they have before. So, what now?
The question was laughed away as idiocy. Fingers clasped, for a split-second, Sean McDermott broke character with the rarest of rare condescending smirks.
Is he concerned that the Buffalo Bills’ Super Bowl window may be closing?
“No, no, no,” McDermott said at his postgame press conference. “This is a good football team and you learn from things like this. You keep knocking on the door. That’s what you do. You stay steadfast in your focus and your approach.”
No fan is starving for 1,000 empty calories of cliches after a letdown like this. Obviously, the Bills are a “good” football team. One of the best in the AFC. That’s been the case for a half-decade and, sadly, that’s the point. Sunday’s meek 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in the divisional round panned a magnifying glass over the state of the organization. This is a team currently bashing its head against the wall, advancing as far as it can under its head coach. There are serious issues with the construction of this roster and we’ll get to those but everything at Orchard Park starts with McDermott. Always. That’s been the case since the day he was hired: Jan. 11, 2017.
There’s plenty of good. He has spent six years bringing structure to a chaotic building. The drought ended. How he handled all the surreal off-field adversity this season is textbook.
Yet, January is usually when he checks out. This is exactly when McDermott finds himself a cozy, secluded cave and slips into hibernation. Rest assured, he’ll return to a podium near you to drone on… and on… about resiliency and mental toughness and all of these playoff losses being part of the team’s larger “story.” Problem is, this story has become more a re-run that ends with the exact same final scene. When McDermott enters the entirely new world that is the NFL Playoffs? When pressure reaches its apex? He puckers up.
His defensive gameplan is more of a mass retreat to the hills. Cornerbacks give seven-yard cushions on third and 4. His game management is more of a surrender. He does not believe the team’s 6-foot-5, 247-pound quarterback is capable of gaining two yards.
This is a head coach paralyzed by fear.
He’s the one who’s manually starting to close that Super Bowl window.
Here’s the hard truth: Nothing in Buffalo will change until Sean McDermott does.
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Of the final eight teams remaining in this tournament over the weekend, the Bills were the only one whose head coach has a defensive background. He was hired to rise up in this moment. And yet his defense allowed 30 first downs, 412 yards, forced zero turnovers and hit Joe Burrow all of three times despite the Bengals missing three starters on the offensive line. An all-time pathetic performance, right there with any losses that come to mind since the team’s inception in 1960. This playoff defeat is more demoralizing than 13 seconds — “a bad, bad situation” — because it feels like the Bills are much further away from winning a Super Bowl now than they were one year ago.
Obviously, the Bills are not going to fire Sean McDermott. He has enjoyed quite a bit of regular-season success. But it’s painfully obvious he’s a coach with severe limitations. He is Marty Schottenheimer, Dan Reeves, John Fox, a head coach incapable of thinking outside the box when a season’s on the line.
So, the Bills run in circles.
This defeatist mentality is getting old.
At Highmark Stadium, it was clear that the Bills were not going to stop Joe Burrow and this Bengals offense. Immediately. Everything was so easy, so breezy through 79- and 72-yard touchdown drives to start this game. Cincy’s passing game was akin to a game of catch in the backyard with Bills defenders lining up so far off the ball. Blaming defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier for this is unbelievably short-sighted. Yes, he calls the plays but this entire defense is Sean McDermott’s baby. He runs it. It’s his show. Philosophically, he wants a unit that’ll bend, bend, bend and bend some more in hopes of never breaking. There’s minimal risk. No disguise. And certainly not a slot corner like Cincy’s Mike Hilton blitzing off the edge to change a game.
The McDermott scheme begs the offense to nickel-and-dime its way down the field. That’ll earn you juicy stats against inferior quarterbacks in the middle of September.
Not so much against the best in the NFL.
Burrow essentially said “Don’t mind if I do!” exactly as Patrick Mahomes did those final 13 seconds of regulation one season ago. Before the first quarter was even over, the Bengals quarterback had completed passes to seven different players. Whereas Cincinnati’s passing game is surgically precise and deliberate, the Bills were a boom-or-bust operation all season. Go ahead and stare at the 2021 and 2022 stats all day if you’d like. On paper, they’re similar. In reality, this was a completely different offense without Brian Daboll.
The Bills were down 14-zip before your third sip of beer, yet McDermott failed to acknowledge that his defense was not going to stop anyone this day. Oblivious? Stubborn? Who knows.
Either way, two specific moments told us everything we need to know about the head coach.
Granted, we’ve lived through the re-runs. We’ve seen the Bills lose to Doug Marrone and the Jacksonville Jaguars… and blow a 16-0 lead at Houston… and settle for chip-shot field goals in a blowout AFC Championship loss to KC… and choke away those 13 fatal seconds. This time, the re-run looped inside the Bills’ home stadium. The only reason Cincinnati didn’t score a third touchdown on its third drive was that the football was barely dropped out of bounds by Ja’Marr Chase. Buffalo caught a break, advanced to the Bengals’ 41-yard line with 40 seconds left in the half and — for Surrender No. 1 — McDermott opted to punt on fourth and 10.
In the old NFL, this decision makes all the sense in the world. Field position is paramount.
In the new NFL, you chase points at every opportunity. Especially when your defense is so promptly liquefied. Fourth and 10 at the 41 should not be viewed as a burden, rather an opportunity. Think positively. Shift into attack mode. Score a touchdown here, cut it to 17-14, get the ball to start the second half, take the lead, turn this game into a shootout on your terms. Instead, McDermott chose to delay the loss rather than win the game. The contrast was damning. It was unbelievably telling that Zac Taylor did not order kneeldowns when pinned back at his own 9-yard line. Taylor, unlike McDermott, understands this new NFL. His coaching style suggests unlimited belief in his quarterback. Taylor decided to chase points and the Bengals worked their way into a Hail Mary attempt.
If this wasn’t infuriating enough, McDermott busted out the white flag again on the final play of the third quarter. Oh, he was reminded some more that his defense was incapable of stopping anyone. The Bengals reeled off another 75-yard touchdown drive to make it 24-10. Then, facing a fourth and 2 from his own 20, McDermott opted to punt again.
For reasons unknown, he fully expected the Bills defense to get two stops in the fourth quarter.
Does the game effectively die if you fail on fourth and 2? Yes, it does. McDermott was correct to point that out afterward. But slow torture is far more painful and that’s exactly what he chose. Worst of all, this decision to punt was such a slap in the face to everyone on offense. Specifically, the quarterback. Didn’t we just have this conversation two years ago? In the 2020 AFC title game? McDermott does not learn his lessons and that’s something that should irk ownership. At Arrowhead that night, McDermott opted for a 20-yard field goal to cut KC’s deficit to 21-12 before the half (on fourth and 2 from the 2) and then kicked another field goal to make it 24-15 (on fourth and 3 from the 8). All while the Chiefs rolled to 439 yards in a blowout win.
You are in possession of your own rare talent at quarterback. You paid Josh Allen $258 million to keep your season alive in moments like this. Get him out on the edge. Run a boot. Call something that puts everything in his hands. Afterward, McDermott spoke about how much work goes into getting to this point of the season. It sure does take an endless amount of blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice. If this is the case, reward your players. Give them a chance to gain those two yards to keep the season alive.
Instead, he punted because “Seanball” is the new Martyball.
Buffalo lost, 27-10.
A team that could’ve won the Super Bowl is now again sitting at home for the Super Bowl.
There are big-picture concerns to explore.
Last season, we wrote that the new hierarchy should go something like this: 1) Josh Allen; 2) Brandon Beane; 3) Sean McDermott. The Bills did the hard part — they found an elite quarterback, they wisely selected Allen over UCLA’s Josh Rosen and developed him into a MVP candidate. Now the key is maximizing this prized possession because, no, Super Bowl windows do not stay open for an infinite number of years. For starters, you cannot help but wonder if Buffalo let its best coach leave in offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. He’s the one most responsible for Allen’s meteroic rise. Trading for Stefon Diggs was a huge success. But since then? The Bills have conducted business as if they’re trying to win a 13-10 game.
McDermott’s fingerprints are all over this obsession with defense in the draft.
This current regime has never drafted a wide receiver in the first three rounds. The last time Buffalo selected a wideout that high (Zay Jones), Doug Whaley was the GM working with McDermott. Instead, the Bills are constantly giving McDermott tools to work with on defense, and what’s there to show for it? Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow have hardly broken a sweat in these last three playoff games. On 122 total dropbacks, they’ve been sacked a combined four times. It’s about January — not September, not October, not November — for this team. Buffalo has finished eighth, first, and third in yards allowed the last three seasons. Raise the banner. McDermott’s defenses have been paper tigers, feasting on bad quarterbacks in the regular season.
Von Miller was supposed to be the star who brought real bite, and he tore his ACL. He also turns 34 in March.
If this Bills team was competing for Super Bowls in the 1990s, loading up with defensive lineman at the 30th (Gregory Rousseau), 61st (Boogie Basham), 54th (AJ Epenesa) and ninth (Ed Oliver) overall picks over a three-year span might’ve gotten them over the championship hump. Not in 2023. Not with how these rules are set up.
Where do the Bills go from here? The team can start by letting other teams overpay for the underachieving Tremaine Edmunds and Oliver. The middle of Buffalo’s defense was a turnstile against the Bengals’ injury-ravaged O-Line. Oliver was invisible his 56 snaps and Edmunds often snowplowed right out of the play as the Bengals rolled to 176 rushing yards on 34 attempts. If either free agent wants to stay for substantially less money, fine. But tying up too much money here would be foolish. Good thing Beane inherited linebacker Matt Milano from the previous front office — his own track record on defense is spotty. Milano saved this defense countless times this season and often looked like the only one who came to play against Cincinnati.
It won’t be easy to reload, but Beane and his scouts absolutely must start hitting on defensive starters in the middle rounds. There’s no other option.
Enough is enough: Draft weapons.
Late this season, one source told me that the Bills brass was in a state of palpable “panic” over the team’s lack of receiving threats outside of Diggs. Hence, the desperation signings of John Brown and Cole Beasley. They only have themselves to blame. The Bills must relentlessly pursue receivers, tight ends, backs in the draft and get creative in free agency. There aren’t many starters available on the open market? OK. Trade for someone. Run up that phone bill.
Because here is the result of sitting on your hands and being obsessed with defense. On the third and 2 before McDermott’s spineless punt, Allen rainbows a perfect shot deep left. The margin for error is small in Ken Dorsey’s offense — they needed to complete these bombs simply to eek past the Skylar Thompson-led Dolphins. But hit this and there’s hope into the fourth quarter. Instead, Allen’s heave through the snow globe traveled 40+ yards in the air, landed in the hands of Gabe Davis, and the 128th overall pick of the 2020 draft had the ball tomahawked loose by cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt.
Davis spiked the ball in anger. That play was his up-and-down season in a nutshell.
Elsewhere, offenses aren’t reliant on 128th overall picks in divisional playoff games.
After the Bengals drafted Burrow first overall, they did everything in their power to vault him into superstardom. Tee Higgins was taken 33rd overall in that same class and Ja’Marr Chase was the choice at No. 5 in 2021 over the badass offensive tackle Draft Twitter demanded: Penei Sewell. The QB’s former LSU teammate, Chase, has particularly served as rocket fuel. Burrow is as close as this generation will see to Peak Tom Brady. And when the offensive line’s deficiencies cost Cincinnati a Super Bowl, the front five was promptly rehauled.
True, a defensive tackle (Aaron Donald) made the game-winning play in last year’s Super Bowl. But that was because he ragdolled Quinton Spain. The Bills have work to do on their line as well.
Buffalo’s one bold swing — the trade for Diggs — has obviously boosted Allen’s career, but even this has not amounted to much in the playoffs. Diggs has gone five straight postseason games without a touchdown. A nonfactor Sunday, he gave Allen an earful on the sideline and then reportedly exited the locker room before some coaches even entered.
Not ideal from one of the team’s leaders, but clearly Diggs is just as frustrated as you at home.
What probably stings McDermott most is that this is the scene he dreamt of all along. A steady snowfall. A packed stadium. A feeling of true hope in Western New York. You know Marv Levy’s old saying: “When it’s too tough for them, it’s just right for us.” Those Bills of yesteryear thrived in an atmosphere like this. These Bills, however, were on ice skates for three hours. McDermott and Beane have been determined to build a team for these exact wintry conditions… and that team was physically punished by the visiting Bengals. The same Bengals who were 2-14 just three years ago.
When he’s not speaking in front of camera, even McDermott must realize championship windows come and go in the NFL.
The worst thing the Bills can do this offseason is lazily assume they’ll compete for Super Bowl titles as long as Josh Allen is the quarterback and stand pat. The Bengals and Chiefs are obviously here to stay. The Jacksonville Jaguars are not far behind with Trevor Lawrence and their fearless head coach. The Miami Dolphins had something special cooking with Mike McDaniel and Tua Tagovailoa for a while. Tua will only improve in Year 2 of an exceptional scheme and this is the No. 1 benefit of hiring an offensive-minded head coach. He’s not going to leave like an OC would. Like Daboll did. And outside of the quarterback, the New York Jets have a top 5 roster. What happens if they, say, trade for Lamar Jackson?
The league is changing. Always.
With one exception apparently.
Once the Bills get into a tight playoff game, and it’s fourth down, and it’s time to play to win, Sean McDermott is likely to concede defeat.
Not only does McD invest heavily on defense every year both in the draft and financially, he does so at the expense of the offense. Beane and McDermott have over spent on the d line every year to no avail. Millions of dollars wasted and cap space used up with a dumb philosophy of playing 7 yards off the receivers. A quick release from the qb to a wide open receiver renders the d line useless. Not only that he has so many high paid d lineman but uses them sparingly, rotating them in and out of the game and having them play contain instead of rushing. The rotation and lack of use is supposed to keep the d line fresh for the fourth quarter. Not once in the McD era has a Bills defensive line ever dominated any one much less in the third quarter.
Ignoring the offensive talent and line is putting Josh in a no win situation of having to do everything. McD is following the same formula that was used in Carolina that severely shortened the qb’s career. Josh will have a short career also if he has to keep taking huge hits every game.
McD is a great guy but just like Marvin Lewis he will never get the Bills a Super Bowl. The players seemed to sense the gameplan was so bad and had no chance of working that they didn’t even seem to try. One of the worst showings in front of a pumped up sold out crowd I have ever seen as a Bills fan and I’ve seen a lot in 50 years of following them. The players followed McD’s cowardly leadership and failed miserably.
Disclaimer: I'm a Bengals fan who moved to Buffalo 10 years ago.
This is a great piece, Ty. I obviously have felt many kinds of football pain over my 40+ years following this team. Playoff losses are the worst. So close, yet so far away. People tend to forget the Bengals made the playoffs 7 times in 12 years in the 2000s... and lost the first game every single one. We all were pretty sure it HAD to be the coaching. Dalton and Palmer were solid with great skill talent around them, but Marvin Lewis could never win the Prime Time or Playoff games. Joey B and Zac Taylor sure have shown the opposite.
It's hard not to see the commonality with Sean. He seems like an awesome dude and a solid coach, but he's done just enough for his team to be very good... just not great. Then again, how many coaches can?!