Bills coach Sean McDermott knows the climb is difficult, but vows to grow and rebuild
Getting close to the top of the mountain in the AFC – which of course isn’t good enough and Sean McDermott is the first to admit that – was a difficult four-year climb for everyone associated with the Buffalo Bills’ organization.
But as tough as it was to get there, it can be even more difficult in the NFL to stay there, another fact McDermott is keenly aware of.
Remember, he was in Philadelphia when the Eagles went 13-3 and went to the Super Bowl in 2004, then finished 6-10. And he was in Carolina when the Panthers went 15-1 and made it to the Super Bowl in 2015 and then finished 6-10 in 2016.
If the Bills hope to continue their ascension in the AFC from wildcard qualifier in 2019 to AFC Championship Game participant in 2020 to AFC Super Bowl representative in 2021, there is still so much work to be done.
“It’s probably premature to get into it too deep right now but generally speaking, we’ve got to improve,” McDermott said Tuesday during a 45-minute season-ending Zoom call with reporters. “I’ve got to improve, our teams’ got to improve, our staff has to improve. Here’s what I know from experience: If you sit here and say, ‘All we need to do is do this much more to make it to the Super Bowl’ you’re wrong. You’ve got to start over.”
Not a complete overhaul, obviously, but McDermott knows all too well that despite winning 15 of 19 games, there are several areas where the Bills need to be better. And the pursuit of that improvement will have to be done with a different cast of characters because the Bills have a long list of free agents and they won’t be able to keep them all.
“You can carry a lot of things forward, but every year you’ve got to start over, you’ve got to rebuild the football team, got to grow as an individual,” he said. “Just because we had success, you have to ask yourself the hard questions. You have to take that growth mindset approach because to think, ‘Well, we won 15 games and lost four, we’re perfect,’ no we’re not. That’s what you do when you’re a winner, that’s what you do when you’re hungry to be the best, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do as long as I’m the head coach here.”
Here are some of the topics McDermott covered:
Can the Bills beat the Chiefs?
During most of the previous two decades, the Bills had almost no hope of trying to get past the Patriots in the AFC East. Now that they’ve done that, and assuming they can stay ahead of Bills Belichick’s sure-to-be-back team, the Chiefs seem to be the next impenetrable fortress for Buffalo.
“Plain and simple, to get to where we want to be, that’s going to be the team we’re going to have to go over,” cornerback Tre’Davious White said Monday. “We’re going to have to find a way to beat them. That’s the standard there.”
McDermott knows this, and while he pointed out that the Chiefs are eight years into building their program under Andy Reid while the Bills just wrapped up year four in his, that’s no excuse.
“There’s a lot that we’ve improved on in terms of what’s gotten us to where we are, but ... there is still a gap in terms of where we are and where they are,” he said. “It’s not just one answer that solves that problem. Starting with me, we all have to continue asking ourselves the hard questions of the what ifs, and the whys and the hows.
“We have a lot of respect for them. They’re well coached, they have a good roster and they played better than we did. They coached better than we did. But this is a learning experience for us. A lot of our players had never been in a game of that magnitude on that stage. I’m confident we will learn from that experience.”
What did he say to Stefon Diggs?
For some reason, the wide receiver felt the need to stand on the field at Arrowhead Stadium and watch the Chiefs hoist the championship trophy amid confetti raining down. Josh Norman was out there, too.
McDermott always gathers the team in the post-game locker room and delivers a short speech, but he won’t do it until everyone is present. Rather than send someone out to get the two veterans, McDermott did it himself.
“Stef was the first one that I got to and he was emotional, he was visibly upset,” said McDermott. “I can understand why he wanted to stay out there and watch that. I’ve been around this game and those games enough, including the Super Bowl where, I can tell you, I don’t want to watch it anymore because I know how hard it is to watch it.
“But you learn from it, and that’s part of what he needed to do to get closure and also learn from it. I just wanted to be there for him as a teammate – nothing really more than that. Love him and care for him, whether it was Stef Diggs or the last man on our roster, I would have done the same thing.”
Was the defensive line good enough?
The most tinkered with part of the team during the offseason after 2019 was the defensive line.
The Bills opted to let Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips leave via free agency, and they signed free agents Mario Addison, Quinton Jefferson and Vernon Butler, drafted A.J. Epenesa, and later added Justin Zimmer.
There was a big need to improve the pass rush, and while sacks aren’t the whole determining factor, the Bills had 44 in 2019 and 38 this season. Phillips and Lawson combined for 16 while the five new additions in 2020 combined for 10, five of those by Addison.
“I thought that they did some really good things,” McDermott said of the group. “They really grew during the season and that’s a credit to the players and their mindset and being coachable. What you can see at the end of the season was they were playing really good football.”
Here comes the but ...
“Having said that ... we have to be able to affect the quarterback with a four-man rush. I thought at times we did that and other times we could have been better, so there’s still meat on the bone there. The exciting piece is when the guys come back, they understand now what’s expected in terms of the techniques and the fundamentals that go with playing at a high level at that position.”
Rookie class was productive
For a team that didn’t have a first-round draft pick in 2020, the Bills got some nice production from their draft class.
Epenesa, the second-round pick, clearly struggled early and wasn’t even able to get on the field very much, but he began to make strides and one would think that if the country can get the pandemic under control and the Bills can have a more normal offseason, Epenesa will show more growth in year two.
Zack Moss looked good in spots and rushed for 481 yard and four TDs; Gabriel Davis was a steal in the fourth round as he played 73.3% of the offensive snaps and caught 35 passes for 599 yards and 7 TDs; and Tyler Bass was outstanding as he set a team record by scoring 141 points.
“Yeah, good first years, all at different stages through the year,” McDermott said. “Gabe I thought got off to a really good start. Tyler hit some turbulence early, like most kickers do, and then worked himself through it. And I would say similar in A.J.’s development through the year.
“As you close shop on their first season you can look back, all of them, and say ‘Hey, a plus coming out of this first year. Now the biggest challenge is Year 1 to Year 2, what are you going to do with it?’ You’ve got to go back out there and recreate yourself every offseason.”
Sal Maiorana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.