- The first-year coach navigated difficult circumstances, partly of his own doing, to lead Buffalo to its first postseason berth in 18 years
- Other sections include: Carr’s role in luring Gruden; why Lewis stayed in Cincy; the Browns’ blueprint to compete in 2018; and much more
The real test for Sean McDermott came exactly when you probably figured it did—right after the Nathan Peterman debacle.
The Bills had cooled off after a hot start, losing by double-digits to the Jets and Saints in Weeks 9 and 10. Looking for a spark, the Buffalo coach benched Tyrod Taylor. He turned to Peterman, who promptly threw five picks in a little over two quarters. The Bills lost 54-24 to the Chargers. And everyone in the locker room was looking to see how McDermott would respond.
A lot of first-year head coaches wouldn’t have the way McDermott did. He buried his ego. He fell on the sword. As one vet laid it out, “He’d explained why he was benching Tyrod and promoting Nate. No one saw that coming into the (Charger) game. And after the game, he owned it with the team. We discussed and moved forward, united behind Tyrod and Coach.”
And it was over, just like that. Everyone else kept talking about it. The Bills didn’t.
“I just believe in being honest with my team, whether I’m right or wrong,” McDermott said from his office Wednesday night. “We all make mistakes. From a leadership standpoint, if I can try and communicate the best I can in sharing information I have with my team, then we’ll able to move forward. There’s also part of it, being vulnerable with my players, and being open, and being able to say, ‘Listen, if I made the wrong decision, I’ll admit it, and we’ll move on.’
“That’s an important part of our growth. No one’s perfect. And I think it’s important that the players see that honesty and vulnerability from their head coach as well.”
Six weeks later, McDermott was doing what the five Bills head coaches that came before him couldn’t, and he was doing it in Year 1. Buffalo is going to the playoffs, set to kick off Sunday at 1 p.m. at fellow upstart Jacksonville.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll look at the role Derek Carr may have played in luring Jon Gruden; we’ll examine Marvin Lewis’ decision; we’ll take one last look at Jimmy Garoppolo’s debut-season impact in San Francisco; we’ll check on the Browns’ rebuild; we’ll dive into the Rooney Rule, and much more.
We’re starting, though, with the team that looked dead to rights at Thanksgiving, and how they got to a 17th game for the first time in 18 years, and how it’s really about the details and the program, more than it is about any single moment. And how it’s taken a lot of ups and downs to get here. McDermott sees the team’s fight as a sign that there’s a foundation in place now that’ll last.
Never was that more apparent than in the aftermath of that bad Charger loss. You could say the result has hung over the team right until the very end—those guys wouldn’t have had to sweat out the Bengals/Ravens game Sunday if not for it—but, as they see it, the Bills learned plenty about themselves in the aftermath.
“Really, the players, to their credit, more than anyone were the ones that did it,” McDermott says. “And that’s not easy to do in that type of situation, to stick by us, to execute what we ask them to execute, and to perform like they did in Kansas City (in Week 11). I thought really said a lot about our group and our building. That’s the other part. The journey has been 17 years.
“And there’s been a lot of losing stretches, right? And to be able to stay away from the here-we-go-again mentality, I think, collectively, was a challenge, but one we came out on the other end of.”
It wasn’t the only tricky spot McDermott and GM Brandon Beane, imported with the coach from Carolina, have navigated in giving the Bills a facelift over the last six months. There was also…
• The trade of former fourth overall pick Sammy Watkins to the Rams. Watkins was packaged with a sixth-round pick, with corner EJ Gaines and a second-round pick coming back.
• The trade of star corner Ronald Darby to the Eagles. The team got Jordan Matthews and a third-round pick in return.
• The trade of Marcel Dareus to the Jaguars for a conditional sixth-round pick.
In each case, the Bills were shipping off a really good talent (their best receiver, best corner, and, perhaps, best player) for assets that, for the most part, weren’t going to help the 2017 team. And that meant the brass had to keep selling the players on what they were building.
“We’ve gone through trading players, a quarterback situation, the national anthem part of it, we’ve had some of our more outspoken alumni speak out. And so to go in at an early age as a head coach and explain to our leadership council why we just traded Sammy and Ronald in the middle of training camp, that was a challenge,” McDermott said. “But I’ve always tried to take the approach: I’m always going to be honest with my players.
“And sometimes those aren’t easy conversations, but they’re necessary conversations. And in the end, things will come back and work out for the good of everyone.”
And that’s shown around the facility. Back in September, McDermott and I spoke about the standard that he and his coaches were putting in place. Plenty of you latched onto this from him—“It's how we get out of our cars when we come into the building”—because it sounded a little over the top.
Now? Maybe they all aren’t overly conscious of that detail, but they are prepared and ready like their coach wants them. There’s an example of it every morning, McDermott says, in how all the players show up with a notebook and can take coaching.
“That happens every day,” McDermott said. “Tomorrow morning, our first team meeting going into the game week, they’ll fire answers back at me. Early in the year, the answers I was getting weren’t the ones that would lead to winning. Now, the players get upset if I don’t ask them questions related to the opponent, because they know they’ve put the time in, and they want to give me the right answer.
“It’s a neat standard that’s been created, really by them and the ownership they’ve taken.”
It’s sturdy, too, based on what we’ve seen the last few weeks, and that means the future here looks bright. The Bills have pieces, and they have some capital to play with (two first-rounders, two second-rounders in April) too.
But for now, all of that can wait. In the aftermath of Sunday’s win, McDermott thought of Takeo Spikes. The former Pro Bowl linebacker came to Philly late in his career where McDermott was an assistant, and he still vividly remembers Spikes talking about enduring nine playoff-less years in Cincinnati and Buffalo, and not truly getting it.
“It was hard for me to understand that at the time. I was young,” McDermott says. “But coming here now, being in this seat, having it be front and center, for me, I really appreciate what it meant, to continue work your tail off, like Takeo did, like Kyle (Williams) has, like Eric (Wood) has, when you haven’t gotten results you’d hoped and dreamed for. And that’s why it so special.”
Here’s where McDermott lets his guard down again, saying that seeing videos of fans come in from around the world, showing their jubilation over the streak being snapped, “still makes me get emotional.” And yes, this is a different kind of vulnerability than the kind he showed at the end of November, because it’s a different kind of moment.
But the two, as we’ve learned, certainly aren’t unrelated.
FIRST AND 10
1. I’d expect that the Broncos will at the very least take a big swing—be it through the draft or on the veteran market—at a quarterback this offseason. GM John Elway’s well aware that the championship window for an aging defense won’t be open forever.
2. We mentioned last week that Packers VP of football administration Russ Ball may be the favorite to replace GM Ted Thompson, and that means Ball’s relationship with coach Mike McCarthy is now vital. McCarthy got a one-year extension during the season, which means the Packers will have to revisit his situation again in early 2019. It matters that McCarthy and Ball have a strong rapport.
3. Weird stat for the week: The Panthers have only allowed more than 120 yards rushing twice this year. Both times, it was to the Saints, who ran for 148 yards and 149 yards in sweeping Carolina. That illustrates not just a hex New Orleans seems to have over Carolina, but also how much the offensive identity of the Saints has shifted.
4. With all the concern over the Falcons offense, and how the team has lost its identity on that side, a young Atlanta defense has really come of age. We saw the speed in the Super Bowl last year, and it’s being harnessed now. Atlanta went from 27th to eighth in points allowed, and from 25th to ninth in total defense from last year to this year.
5. We now know the consensus top four draft-eligible quarterbacks—USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield—will all be in the pool come April. Each has a significant hole or two and you better believe the hype machine will be cutting those open and examining them thoroughly.
6. Five players to watch in Seattle: Kam Chancellor, Cliff Avril, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett. The first two have neck injuries that could put their careers in jeopardy, The second two are going into contract years in 2017. And Bennett turns 33 in November. If all are gone, that’s a significant chunk of the team’s identity suddenly missing.
7. Important to remember with the Giants’ job opening how important fit is. It’s up to the coaches to prove they fit the team, and not the other way around.
8. Miami coach Adam Gase reaffirmed this week that Ryan Tannehill is his starting quarterback, but the team does now have added flexibility. Miami is clear of all guaranteed money on Tannehill’s deal and has him at a very affordable rate of about $18.6 million per for the next three years.
9. Speaking of affordable, Eli Manning is due $16 million this year and $17 million next year (plus $500,000 workout bonuses in each season). That makes it very feasible logistically to carry both Manning and a first-round quarterback back (at about $7.5 million per) on the roster. Whether or not they can get Eli to sign off on the idea is a running question.
10. As we all saw it caught on camera, Rams coach Sean McVay has been awfully creative in finding a way to maximize the play clock, and get adjustments into quarterback Jared Goff by getting the team to the line quickly. But a couple coaches explained to me over the last couple weeks that it’ll be tougher to pull in a playoff setting, because opponents will zero in on it, and do more to disguise looks on defense. It’ll be interesting to see if Dan Quinn, who has a rep for being a little vanilla scheme-wise, tries to mess with the 22-year-old QB.
1. Derek Carr the deal-maker? Much of the buzz hovering around Jon Gruden over the past two weeks was centered on the idea that he’d go back to Tampa. It was an idea buoyed by the Ring of Honor ceremony the team put together for him in mid-December. By then, because Gruden’s youngest is graduating high school soon, and because he wasn’t as happy in the Monday Night Football booth any more, and because he’d begun to work on a staff, it was obvious to most that he was preparing himself for a return to the sideline. So why in Oakland and not Tampa, presuming the Raiders push this one over the goal line?
My belief is the quarterback was a factor. And that’s not say Gruden doesn’t like Jameis Winston. It’s a testament to how Gruden’s been known to feel about Derek Carr. Let’s back up to the 2014 draft for some history here. Oakland owner Mark Davis has been known to consult with Gruden on football matters, and Gruden made clear to Davis how much he thought of Carr, to the point where Davis wound up advocating to GM Reggie McKenzie that the team take Carr with the fourth overall pick. McKenzie and the staff wound up holding off the dogs on that one, and the rest actually played out perfectly. The team got a generational talent at 4, in Khalil Mack, and still wound up with Carr in the second round. But to the coaches who were there, there was a feeling that Davis, who’d always been interested in bringing back Gruden, wanted Carr badly because he knew that Carr, if he panned out, could wind up being a chip to entice the old coach. And lo and behold, it sure looks like it might’ve been.
So Gruden gets the quarterback he loved, and Davis gets the coach he always wanted—presuming, again, that I’s get dotted and the T’s get crossed on this one.
2. Bengals bringing back Marvin Lewis. Is it possible that Cincinnati and Marvin Lewis needed to look at the landscape around them to realize they needed one another. Yes. The Bengals staff was truly in the dark over which way it would go on Monday and Tuesday, all of them with expiring contracts, and that was after many spent the past two weeks under the assumption that Lewis would likely move on. So it’s at least interesting that two of three coordinators—Darrin Simmons on special teams and Bill Lazor on offense—signed quickly after Lewis did, as did a number of position coaches. Why?
As Lewis saw it, 2017 was really a reboot for the franchise. Cornerstone leaders Domata Peko and Andrew Whitworth were gone, and so the staff made an effort to push the burden on a group of young vets, like Andy Dalton and AJ Green and Geno Atkins, to fill that void. As for the roster, there was a concerted effort to get more athletic (highlighted by the drafting of receiver John Ross and tailback Joe Mixon) in the wake of a 2016 in which the team felt the loss of guys like Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. And Lewis pushed all of them harder in camp, because he felt like the standard needed to be reinforced.
“I think it’ll work,” Lewis told me then. “The proof comes in the season. That’s where they separate from us. Once they’re out in the huddle, they’re away from us. And that’s what matters – what they get done by themselves out there on that field, and that they have that kind of feel for it.”
The last two weeks of the season, there were glimmers of it in wins over a pair of teams playing for their playoff lives. And maybe that’s when Lewis and Bengals ownership saw that the best thing for both, based on Lewis’ potential opportunities on the market and the market’s potential opportunities for the team, was to go forward together. There weren’t the number of job openings across the league that were expected. Conversely, with Mike Brown very much favoring hiring people he knows, the fact that neither Jay Gruden or Hue Jackson were available is believed to have been a factor as well. And remember, this deal’s only for two years, so Lewis’ job status will be raised again post-2018. But given the promise of some young guys on the roster, I can see why each side would make the call to give it another go, and why a bunch of assistants signed back up. Now, Lewis has to go find himself a defensive coordinator and an offensive line coach.
3. Garoppolo changing the Niners’ program. Last week, we explained how strongly the Niners felt about Jimmy Garoppolo’s future, and how GM John Lynch was smitten with the fourth-year pro’s ability to lead in a natural way, without imposing it on his teammates. And after talking to a few more people out there, it’s clear Garoppolo’s way had a deep impact on the young players on the roster, and all that underscores why NFL teams dive so deep into the psyche of quarterbacks before drafting or signing them.
Garoppolo did more than play well. He gave the rest of a young offense a sense of calm, which showed up every week as the coaches went through the tape. A skill group that led the NFL in drops earlier in the year was suddenly catching everything. Tackles that were being made on them earlier in the year were broken for big plays later in the year. Garoppolo’s poise and confidence rubbed off on teammates. And that showed up in the stat sheet and on the scoreboard.
“I think it relaxed a lot of guys,” said one staffer. “We’ve got a lot of rookies out there. We had a lot of guys out there that had never started before. … So getting him out there and having success gave them confidence.”
In the team’s finale, four rookie skill-guys (George Kittle, Matt Breida, Kendrick Bourne and Trent Taylor) played significant snaps, and all of them, two fifth-round picks and two undrafted free agents, got the ball. And as Garoppolo brought a little more out in them, they got a good lift going into the offseason, and the Niners got a better look at their potential.
The intangibles of the quarterback matter, and the Niners couldn’t have known to what level Garoppolo had those things, even if Bill Belichick told Lynch before the trade, “You’re gonna love the player. Guys respond to him.” Now, the Niners know.
4. Browns not that far off. It’s easy to look at 1-31 and think of Cleveland as a punchline. And given their perpetual rebuild of the past two decades—they’re 4-49 since Thanksgiving 2014, and 88-216 (.289 win percentage) since coming back into the NFL in 1999—any sort of skepticism is absolutely warranted. But there are two pieces of change this offseason that could lead a young core out of the woods, and prove new GM John Dorsey prescient in saying the team can contend in 2018.
The first element relates back to Dorsey, his philosophical similarities to coach Hue Jackson, and Dorsey’s deep-seated belief that GMs need to draft to their coaching. It gives the organization hope it can have the alignment between coaching and scouting that it’s lacked, really, over the whole time Jimmy Haslam has owned the team. That won’t make a difference in assessing a generational talent like Myles Garrett, who’d fit into any program or scheme. It will in the guts and depth of the roster, and later in the draft, when picks are dictated more by fit than just talent.
Second, there’s an expectation that the investment at quarterback will be there—and the real possibility it comes on both the veteran and rookie levels (a la Philly in 2016 and Chicago in 2017). Jackson’s been clear on what he wants in a quarterback, and that was reflected in the failed pursuits of Jimmy Garoppolo and AJ McCarron in 2017. The Browns can’t revive the Garoppolo pursuit, but McCarron will be on the market (either as an RFA or UFA) in March, with Drew Brees and Kirk Cousins also potentially available, and all that will play out before the Browns pick (barring a trade) first and fourth in April. Add to that more than $100 million on the 2018 cap to spend, and three second-round picks, in addition to the two first-rounders, and you can see where Dorsey and Jackson could turn the team around quickly.
For now, the first item on the agenda is the process Jackson is going through now, deciding whether or not to hire an offensive coordinator, and whether or not to hand over play-calling duties. Despite a few of Dorsey’s public comments, the Browns like their young foundation (i.e. Duke Johnson, Kevin Zeitler, Joel Bitonio, David Njoku, Garrett, Jabrill Peppers, Christian Kirksey, Emmanuel Ogbah), and believe a couple things going right over the next few months could unlock its potential. We’ll see if this group can buck the trend in Cleveland and actually pull it off. But at the very least, things aren’t all bleak in the immediate aftermath of 0-16.
LESSON OF THE WEEK
With the coaching carousel spinning this week, the Rooney Rule is again in the news, and its application is again the subject of scrutiny. This time, it’s in relation to the search in Oakland that is really more of a recruitment than anything else. Gruden is Davis’ guy, and everyone knows it.
The resulting question is not a new one. Should a minority candidate go through with an interview with the knowledge that the final result is in the bag?
“I’m very much in support of taking the interview,” Fritz Pollard Alliance chair John Wooten said over the phone Wednesday. “First and foremost, if you know you have ability, I tell our guys, ‘take the interview.’ If you take the interview, you put yourself in position to learn how the interview works. And above all it gives us the opportunity to talk to the team and people in the interview room.
“We’ll learn what your strengths and weaknesses are, and that’s all a work in progress. So yeah, I’m with the group that says take the interview.”
So here’s our Lesson for the Week: There’s a lot of good that comes from the Rooney Rule, and this isn’t the kind of “sham” interview anyone should be worried about.
Now, if this was a truly wide-open search, and the Raiders were conducting a token interview to check a box, that’s not right. But this wasn’t that. If the Raiders wanted to hire Gruden, it was always going to take aggression and focus, and they shouldn’t be faulted for that. And as Wooten sees it, it doesn’t mean that candidates shouldn’t take advantage of an opportunity to interview, which he says they have.
“When we first heard they were talking to Gruden, and that Gruden may go there, I sent Reggie a text: ‘Don’t forget the Rooney Rule,” Wooten said. “He got back to me, and I believe and trust the integrity of Mark and Reggie anyway, but he sent me back a note, saying, ‘Hey, we interviewed two minorities before we even talked to Jon.’”
Wooten said he didn’t have names, and McKenzie didn’t respond to a text asking about it, but there are examples of this having benefited guys in the past.
Wooten raised Anthony Lynn as one. Lynn was hesitant to interview for the Jets job in 2015, thinking the team, for which he was serving as running backs coach, was just trying to satisfy the rule and taking the easy route by doing it with an in-house candidate. Wooten talked him into going through with it.
“I said, ‘Hey, Anthony, you’re on a list to be a head coach, you need to take the interview, so I can critique the interview, and you can be better prepared down the road,’” Wooten said. “We feel like he was and, two years later, he’s the head coach of the Chargers.”
So that’s the argument for keeping the status quo. Don’t want that? Well, I came up with an idea that could address this particular issue that I ran by a few league people.
If a team is “recruiting” rather than “searching,” then allow them to do it. Force them to declare it to the league, and prohibit interviewing anyone else until there’s a resolution on the recruitment. That way, the team can focus on its star candidate, and the “sham” argument goes away.
Again, that’s if you’re really against the way it is now. I know, having run my idea by those at the league office, that the NFL feels like the rule is pretty good as is. And Wooten thinks so too.
“Everyone wants to make the Rooney Rule the savior,” Wooten said. “The rule is working. For the guys who are out here working their butts off to be head coaches and VPs and GMs and so forth, it’s working. Guys, black and white, are in and interviews are going on all over the league. The rule is working to that extent. Now, and I go back, just saw Stephen A. (Smith) beating me up.
“I can take those kinds of things. … The Rooney Rule, as it stands, is strong enough.”
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