The McDermott Problem, Part I: Blame Game
“This job’s too hard to fight from within and that’s what you do there. ... You’ve got to overcome the head coach." Our three-part series begins with a look at life at One Bills Drive.
When the clock ticks closer… and closer… and closer to triple zeroes, all viewers of the Buffalo Bills have been conditioned to expect calamity. Seven years of torture will do that. The sight of Sean McDermott whispering into a headset has become synonymous with impending doom.
The 2023 season is caving.
The Super Bowl window is closing.
Those who’ve worked with the head coach on a day-to-day basis predicted all of this — months in advance — because they’ve seen how McDermott operates on a day-to-day basis. How tangibly nervous he gets in close games. How he has never truly appreciated his gift from the football gods: Josh Allen. How he’s quick to blame everyone but himself in defeat. That’s why one coach — in June — began by asking a simple question: “If they fail again this year? What does ownership do with Sean?”
Three seconds later, he answered his own hypothetical.
“Next year if they fail, you know who’ll be the first person he serves up? Ken Dorsey.”
The coach wasn’t quite sure how McDermott would manage to put Dorsey’s head on a stick. After all, it’s the head coach’s beloved defense that has melted in four straight postseason losses. The honeymoon period with fans ended a long time ago — pointing a finger at his breadwinning quarterback, again, surely wouldn’t work. Yet even back in June, this assistant knew his old boss would find a way to deflect blame.
“Watch,” he said, “if they sputter at all during this year, the narrative’s going to be the offense.”
On cue, seeds of blame were planted loss, to loss, to an agonizing 24-22 loss to the Denver Broncos on Nov. 13. McDermott didn’t lament the jailbreak blitz that teed up a game-winning field goal. Nor did he take ownership for 12 men being on the field, a penalty that gifted the Broncos another field-goal attempt. He gushed over the defense, trashed the offense and canned Dorsey the next day. A card he probably didn’t expect to throw on the table so soon. All the ensuing 37-point offensive outburst in Philadelphia did two weeks later was further brighten the blinding spotlight on the real problem in Buffalo.
A problem that began long before the Bills devolved into a 6-6 team loitering In The Hunt.
The great mystery of the 2023 NFL season — What happened to the Buffalo Bills? — is no mystery at all.
It’s McDermott. It’s always been McDermott.
He’s a coaching relic routinely paralyzed by fear late in games. He never imagines what could go right with 20 seconds left in regulation, instead forever horrified of what could go wrong. Oblivious to the reality that he employs one of the sport’s most talented quarterbacks. The word you’ll hear constantly from those who’ve been around McDermott is “tight.” He’s so incomprehensibly tight, they say, players cannot help but stiffen up themselves. As if the head coach uses the 2-minute warning to administer mass lobotomies on his team.
He’s an unnatural communicator, a “robot.”
He’s described repeatedly as a “blamer.” Coaches see a boss who preaches accountability while taking none himself. As the Titanic inches toward an iceberg, this captain shoves passengers aside to secure his own lifeboat.
He has never managed to truly connect with the most important player on the team: Josh Allen.
This is the man who ended the team’s 17-year playoff drought, who restored order and discipline to the moldy frat house Rex Ryan left behind. McDermott also guided the Bills through the near-death of a player. Damar Hamlin’s heart stopped, a football game was cancelled, a nation was forced to reconcile with its love of football. He deserved every rose of praise for navigating a team through such a surreal moment in time.
But if the goal is to win a Super Bowl, the Bills have one option: Fire the head coach before its too late.
This three-part series is the culmination of extended interviews with 25 coaches, players, personnel men and other team sources who’ve passed through One Bills Drive. Many were granted anonymity to speak freely without the fear of retribution.
Most know exactly when the McDermott Era broke: Jan. 22, 2022 at Arrowhead Stadium.
Adversity reveals character in any field. Not only did McDermott insult the public by writing off 13 Seconds as an “execution” error. He never owned the defeat privately. He allowed it to linger, and that’s the danger with any trauma. There’s no way for anyone involved to move on unless it’s dealt with head-on. Unless the guilty party takes accountability. McDermott, as Go Long detailed, was the culprit. Yet when his decision to kick a touchback and his defense doomed Buffalo against the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs, there was zero accountability. To delusional proportions. One assistant coach remembers McDermott saying in the locker room that the offense scored too fast and left the Chiefs too much time.
“It was such a ludicrous statement,” the coach said, “that it didn’t move the needle.”
The next day, McDermott continued to point the finger. “You guys need to get away,” the assistant recalled the boss saying. “Recharge, reflect, and figure out what you can do better to avoid that happening again.” With that, he walked out of the room.
“It’s narcissism,” said this coach. “Because narcissists are a unique conundrum. They want the attention, but they’re so insecure at the same time. And that’s him. The issue with the team is the guy at the top. It’s really nothing else. There are so many examples of his insecurity — and his bizarre leadership — that you could talk for days.
“He never takes accountability. For anything.”
One quick reporting note because I always want to be upfront with our readers. While Go Long is based in Western New York, the Bills are one of the few teams that have chosen to deny us credentials and, hey, that’s fine. That’s their prerogative. We were told a while back to grab quotes from press conferences online for stories. Of course, that’s a disservice to you. So, in the interest of covering this team to the best of our ability, we’ve brought you the “Isaiah McKenzie Show,” connected with many Bills players independently for longform profiles and, now, it’s time to sift through the rubble to figure out why everything’s going south.
The shame of it all is that this should have been the Buffalo Bills’ golden age. The hierarchy of most important employees should’ve been obvious that fateful night in KC: 1) Allen, the human buffalo of a QB; 2) Brandon Beane, the driving force behind drafting that QB; 3) McDermott, the man who ended the drought.
Rings are missing. But it’s not too late. Owner Terry Pegula can either operate in fear of the playoff-less wilderness or act now while there’s still time, while Allen is still a 27-year-old in his prime.
Complacency will only lead to more torment for all involved.
And that is what’s most telling about these 25 conversations. People who aren’t even working in Buffalo anymore empathize with the torment. Thrilled as they are to move onto greener pastures — as players, as coaches — they’re universally exasperated and saddened for those still in Western New York.
“This job’s too hard to fight from within and that’s what you do there,” one ex-Bills assistant explained. “You’re fighting against the head coach. You’ve got to overcome the head coach. This job is already hard enough. You’ve got to overcome all your opponents, all the dynamics. You’ve got to overcome so much shit. But then you’ve got to overcome the guy who’s supposedly steering the boat.”
Hold on tight.
The iceberg nears.