ORCHARD PARK –Tonight is the seventh annual NFL Honors Ceremony, where the league reveals what players and coaches earned the most prestigious awards for the 2017 season. Most winners won’t come as much of a surprise as they’ve already been projected and debated by media pundits over the last month. The MVP award may have already been spoiled after a reporter snapped a picture of Tom Brady’s acceptance speech during Super Bowl week. The conspiracy theories are rampant after that.
There have been no spoilers though, in regards to who will win the AP’s Coach of the Year, however, it’s expected that Los Angeles Rams’ head coach and the league’s youngest head-man, Sean McVay (31) will take home the hardware for 2017. He’s got some tough competition though in Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone and Doug Pederson of the NFC Champion Philadelphia Eagles. But there’s a name missing from this finalist group who I’d argue is the best is more deserving of the award: Bills head coach Sean McDermott.
Now don’t get it twisted, assuming McVay is tonight’s winner, his efforts in turning around the Rams, nurturing his young quarterback Jared Goff into a Pro Bowler and establishing an offensive powerhouse in Los Angeles this season was nothing short of spectacular. The purpose of this piece is not to slander the likely winner of the AP’s Coach of the Year award, but rather just to highlight that what McDermott did in his first year at the helm to transform the plagued Buffalo Bills franchise into a perennial playoff contender, was more impressive.
Both McVay and McDermott are two of the youngest coaches in the NFL despite McDermott being 12 years McVay’s senior. At 31, for McVay to earn the respect of a Rams’ locker room that despite being the second youngest roster in the NFL also houses some players of equal age or older than him, is certainly commendable. The other area that McVay has McDermott beat is in the win column.
The Rams finished a pathetic 4-12 in 2016, prompting former head coach Jeff Fisher’s dismissal. Enter McVay, and the Rams put together an 11-5 record that won them the NFC West division. A seven-win turnaround is remarkable, to say the least. And in comparison the Bills only won two additional games in McDermot’s first-year in charge, improving from 7-9 to 9-7.
Context is key though. And while on the surface the Rams quick turnaround looks more impressive than Buffalo’s, how each got to the playoffs was very, very different – and I’d argue much more challenging for McDermott.
Dismal as the Rams were in 2016, McVay inherited a roster with some pretty impactful cornerstone players, all of whom are 27 or younger. Names like DT Aaron Donald, DE Rob Quinn, CB Trumaine Johnson, MVP candidate Todd Gurley and QB Jared Goff come to mind. Of course, Goff entered 2017 as still a largely unknown commodity, but after a Pro Bowl season where he racked up 3,804 passing yards, and 28 touchdowns, only threw seven interceptions and led the league’s highest-scoring offense, it’s safe to say the talent was there. Props to McVay for pulling it out him.
Of course, it helps that he surrounded the youngster with some incredible weapons, far more than Buffalo had at any point this season.
First came the signing of WR Robert Woods, who ironically left Buffalo as a free agent. In the draft Los Angeles used a third-round pick on rookie wide receiver Cooper Kupp. Oh, and then just before the season started, Buffalo sent over Sammy Watkins in exchange for CB E.J. Gaines and a second-round pick. All three of those wideouts went for 590+ yards on the season and scored at least five touchdowns. Gurley actually outpaced everyone except Cupp in receiving yards with 788. Masterful as McVay was in getting the most out of Goff, it’s not as if the second-year QB didn’t have help. McVay was the beneficiary of having and adding a surplus of talent. And while he deserves credit for getting all the pieces functioning together, what coach wouldn’t kill for that arsenal of players?
As McVay was saddled up with an embarrassment of riches our in Los Angeles, McDermott’s roster in forgotten Buffalo got comparatively worse from the season prior. Sure, on defense – McDermott’s specialty – he found hidden gems in safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer as well as CB Tre’Davious White via the draft. The Watkins trade that netted them Gaines wound up being a nice addition as well. But it’s not as if the Bills defense was that of the Eagles or the Vikings. They had issues. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the ball, the offense was scarce following the departures of Woods and Marquise Goodwin via free agency and Watkins in that preseason trade. LeSean McCoy and an elusive Tyrod Taylor were the only wrinkles left in Buffalo’s gameplan. And wouldn’t you know, McCoy finished the season not only as the team’s leading rusher but it’s leading receiver in terms of catches as well.
So where the Rams constructed a drastically better roster, the Bills roster got woefully worse. Buffalo really had no business making the playoffs with the team they fielded, yet in spite of their anemic offense, an at times porous defense, a three-game losing streak in the middle of the season, they did. A team slated to win four or five games won nine. Buffalo was arguably one of the least talented teams in the NFL this past season and made the playoffs, something eight other coaches before McDermott have failed to do this century. That’s not a fluke. McDermott’s ability to squeeze so much out of so little was miraculous. And isn’t that the ultimate sign of a great coach? McVay, Marrone and Pederson all had the luxury of more talent on both sides of the ball in comparison to McDermott, who got his team winning off of pure heart.
Call it the McDermott effect. And on a larger scale, it was his ability to transform one of the NFL’s most misguided and incompetent franchise’s into – as he likes to call it – playoff caliber, in less than a year’s time that makes him the real coach of the year. The things that used to define the Buffalo Bills organization: bad draft choices, lazy players, losing, misery. Gone, in a single season. McDermott purged the roster of players who weren’t buying in, drafted pieces who saw substantial playing time, built a locker room on a foundation of love and mutual respect. Games that past Bills teams would lose in heartbreaking fashion, they won. Like Week 12 in Kansas City where Tre’Davious White halted the Chiefs attempt at a game-winning drive with an interception. Jokes about being “in the playoff hunt” are usually a formality in Buffalo. This year, it was a reality all the way through December where normally the Bills falter. Not this group.
McDermott’s case goes beyond the X’s and O’s, or the number of wins his team had. It even goes beyond ending the 17-year playoff drought. It’s about the sweeping culture change he implemented and it’s effectiveness in year one. He may not have developed or found his quarterback of the future this season, or overseen one of the NFL’s top units on either side of the ball. But his impact on the franchise from top to bottom is unmatched by any of the three finalists for coach of the year.
So with all due respect to Sean McVay, who I expect will be announced as the winner of the award tonight, there’s a Sean in Buffalo who’s simply more deserving. Naturally, being Buffalo’s coach left McDermott forgotten, as the city tends to be national. That or he may have been disqualified for his controversial decision to bench Taylor in favor of rookie Nate Peterman in Week 11, which in truth was just a tactical attempt at reviving the offense. Whatever the reason, he won’ t be winning with the AP’s Coach of the Year Award tonight. Regardless, Bills fans don’t need to see his name on some trophy to realize what he’s building here in Buffalo is special. Everyone else will catch on eventually.