When the Buffalo Bills hired Rex Ryan to be their coach two years ago, the team believed that it was very close to breaking through and earning a playoff spot. If the decision to tap Sean McDermott as Ryan’s replacement says anything, it’s that the Bills still believe that the postseason is within grasp.
Ryan arrived in Buffalo with a reputation as a sharp defensive-oriented coach. McDermott will do the same, having spent the past six seasons as Carolina’s defensive coordinator and the two before that as Philadelphia’s D.C.
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Under McDermott, Carolina’s defense ranked second in both points and yards in 2013, and was a driving force in a 15–1 record and NFC championship last season. Minus Josh Norman (and then with Luke Kuechly out due to a concussion), the Panthers failed to maintain that performance during a disappointing 2016, but McDermott still headed into the off-season as a top candidate for multiple vacant coaching jobs.
That the Bills scooped him up goes against the expected 180 franchises often pull—i.e. if a rookie head coach fails, find an experienced veteran; or, in this case, if coach with a defensive background fails, hire an offensive-centric mind.
So, why would Buffalo go back to the well, after Ryan bombed?
Well, just take a closer look at Ryan’s tenure the past two seasons. The Bills finished 8–8 last year and were not eliminated from the playoffs until Week 16. This year, they dropped to 7–9. Across 2015–16, they allowed opponents to score 30 points or more 11 different times and lost all 11 games.
They also, this season, gave up 4.5 yards per carry (fifth-highest in the league) and 21 rushing touchdowns (second-most). Injuries and suspensions hurt, and the Bills had to run a couple gauntlets on their schedule in 2016. But the reality is that if Ryan had turned the defense into a feared unit, as was the hope when he arrived, the Bills might have been a double-digit win team each of the past two years.
Hence, why they would look at McDermott here. This is not a hire made to push a multi-year rebuilding project. It is one that Buffalo has to hope pays off better on the defensive side of the ball than did Ryan’s arrival. If it does, perhaps that’s finally the ticket to the playoffs.
One unavoidable, troublesome caveat: The Bills don’t have a quarterback. Or, at least, odds are they won’t have a quarterback, if they—as expected—decline Tyrod Taylor’s contract option for the 2017 season. Signs pointed in that direction before McDermott’s hire, but the Bills’ decision not retain offensive coordinator-turned-interim coach Anthony Lynn may be the final nail.
Taylor was inconsistent, and the Bills’ offense at times more than played its part in the team’s overall mediocrity. There is not, though, another obvious QB1 on the roster—EJ Manuel is set to be a free agent (and also isn’t, ya know, good); Cardale Jones remains a long-term project.
McDermott’s hire almost guarantees, too, that Lynn will not return as offensive coordinator (although he could, if he’s not hired as a head coach elsewhere). The Bills had the NFL’s best rushing attack under Greg Roman in 2015, then repeated the feat with Lynn calling the plays this season.
What will the Bills’ offense look like moving forward? If it can be close to what it’s been—a slightly above-average scoring group with a hit-and-miss passing attack and dominant ground game—can McDermott succeed where Ryan failed, and get the defense up to a playoff standard?
Grade: A-minus. This hire has the potential to give the Bills everything they wanted from Ryan, without all the bluster that came with having Rex and his brother Rob on staff. McDermott has a no-nonsense personality that should play well in Buffalo (at least with the fans, if not all the players) after Ryan seemingly lost control in 2016.
Whether or not McDermott has a legitimate shot to break Buffalo’s 17-season playoff drought will depend on what happens above him. GM Doug Whaley held onto his post and led this search, but he still has to be considered very much on the hot seat. If the Bills bail on Taylor, can Whaley find a suitable replacement or, ideally an upgrade? Can he patch the holes elsewhere on this roster?
Doug Marrone pushed the Bills close to the playoffs. Ryan did the same, at least once. McDermott can finish the mission, but not all by himself.