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"For the boys" | How Sean McDermott's leadership has shifted in his six years as Buffalo's head coach


The Bills have a 4-0 home playoff record with Sean McDermott as their head coach. If you asked McDermott about the role he played in those wins, he would immediately praise his players. He's a team-first coach who loves his guys and wants the best for them.

Even though he recognizes his team first, his leadership is one of the biggest reasons why the Bills are heading to the divisional round of the AFC playoffs for a third straight season. After a season full of adversity, the Bills' biggest goals set at the beginning of the year are still there for the taking.

And it's not just McDermott's own guidance, it's how his leadership and coaching has extended to his players since he took the job six years ago.

That type of stewardship was on display when safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field during their Week 17 matchup against the Bengals, a team who they'll see again on Sunday.

"He did not approach the situation as a football guy, he approached it to me as an incredible man," ESPN NFL reporter Dianna Russini said. "It was all about people first, the players first and their overall mental health over anything in regard to football. That's harder, I think, than people understand because of the pressures that come with the job and the pressures to win."

Winning was nowhere near McDermott's thought process as he gathered his team in the locker room and allowed his players to lead the decision-making process of if the game would continue.

"The way he handled it, he was the perfect man in that situation to handle that," quarterback Josh Allen said of his head coach. "I can't say enough about what he did, what he said to us in the locker room."


To explain why McDermott was the 'perfect man' to lead his team through that situation and why he has been that way in so many others, we've got to rewind back to the Bills-Jaguars playoff game in the 2017. Not only was it McDermott's first playoff game as the Bills' head coach, it was Buffalo's first playoff game in 17 seasons. It was uncharted territory at the time.

"You talk about that first playoff game, you think you're ready," McDermott said of the 10-3 loss to the Jaguars. "And then six years later, what I know now versus what I knew then, maybe. So, I think that's what makes it a little bit fascinating. You're always growing, you're always trying to improve yourself, and you think you're at a certain spot, but you've never really arrived. You're always just trying to work to improve every day."

McDermott spent that 2017 season working tirelessly to implement the culture and character he wanted at One Bills Drive. That culture didn't happen overnight. According to those who were there on Day 1, McDermott was meticulously consistent in his leadership, coaching and work ethic.

"Sean is the most consistent person I've ever been around and, in my opinion, that's the most important quality for a leader especially when you're trying to lead an active roster of 53 alpha males," said Bills legend Eric Wood, who played for McDermott in 2017. "You have so many people within the building and everybody looking to the head coach, consistency is king and that is Sean McDermott. When he came into the Bills, he had to establish his core values within the organization. He had to establish what he wanted to see on a day-to-day basis, which required a lot of leadership, communication and action from him."

Sticking to what he believed in allowed players to understand what McDermott expected of them right away. What stood out to many others about McDermott's leadership was his value of being detail oriented.

"I think the biggest thing that I can think of, the first thing that comes to mind is his attention to detail," long snapper Reid Ferguson, who has been with the Bills since 2017, said. "I think that shows itself in the way that we practice, the way that we meet, the way that we prepare for games. I think we practice game situations more than anybody. I've had guys tell me the same thing that have come from different teams that we practice in-game situations more than anybody. 

"I think this year, really, it's paid off for us. If you compare last year with one-score games, there's a big difference this year."

Ferguson's right. Including playoffs, the Bills have won five one-score games this season compared to their six one-score losses last season.


McDermott's leadership with his consistency, attention to detail and constant communication helped shape a culture that is now rock solid six years after becoming Buffalo's head coach. Whether it's 'Playoff Caliber', 'Humble and Hungry' or 'Find A Way,' each motto McDermott has come up with represents Buffalo's core values. As players began to reflect that culture in how they operated, McDermott started to turn over some of the leadership opportunities to his players.

"I would say probably in the middle of the 2020 season with the pandemic and everything. I felt like that was probably the start of it more than anything," McDermott said of when he started to lean on his players for leadership. "But I think it kind of resets every year a little bit. I think it's earned, that's an earned responsibility. And I think every year you wait and see in training camp, how the leaders are going to take ownership of the team, by word, by example. So when they do that, you can hand it back every year at a certain point."

Check out the best postgame and locker room photos from Buffalo's playoff win over the Dolphins.

With each passing season, McDermott has empowered his players to be a part of the conversation and have a say in things in the building. Feeling like you have a hand in some of the decision-making processes creates a team who rides for their head coach. That's evident with how current players talk about McDermott.

"McDermott is for the boys," said left tackle Dion Dawkins, who was drafted by the Bills in 2017. "And as a player, that's the best feeling ever to have a coach that is for his players. And McDermott does everything that he could possibly do to keep us healthy, to keep us fresh, to keep our mental."

"When he makes a decision, he usually asks for input," said center Mitch Morse, who joined the Bills in 2019. "I think that's really cool. And, he goes in asking questions, not already have an answer in his mind, and wanting to hear that answer. If it's a different answer that he wasn't expecting or hadn't thought about, he wants to discuss it."

Feeling like your voice and opinion matters has created a team that's all in.

"It creates buy-in within any type of organization when you take the input of everybody," Wood shared. "And when you have input on a play call, then you want to make that work. When you have input on a personnel decision, then you got to make that work. You have to stand behind it and you have to make it work, and Sean understands that from his time as a defensive coordinator and working his way all the way up to now being one of the best coaches in the entire NFL."


McDermott's shepherding has impacted several players on Buffalo's roster, and that's shown in how players have grown into their own leadership roles. Josh Allen is one example. Similar to McDermott, he's a team-first who would literally put his body on the line for his brothers.

Allen will share the big stage on Sunday afternoon with another leader in Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. The two tied for the second-most passing touchdowns this season with 35 and each had at least 40 total touchdowns. Burrow's four playoff wins are the most by a Bengals quarterback in franchise history. Allen is just the second quarterback in NFL history to have three straight playoff performances with at least 300 passing yards and three passing touchdowns.

They're two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but it's the leadership that resonates most with their teammates.

"They lead in a little bit of different ways, but the teams mimic them," Wood said of Allen and Burrow's leadership. "It's Josh's passion, Burrow's confidence. Josh is reckless with his body and shows absolutely no ego, to Burrow bouncing back from a rough start to the season and saying I can shake it off and we're fine."

Passion is on display every time the Bills take the field with Allen as the captain of their offense. And, you can't ignore the swag and confidence the Bengals have with 'Joe Cool' at the helm.

"Probably the best thing about the top three AFC teams right now is none of the organizations, none of the fan bases, none of the teams would trade their quarterback for any of the other two," Wood said. "It's a unique situation, and you're about to see two of the league's best face off."


The Bills wouldn't be where they're at today without McDermott's guidance. They wouldn't have grown as much as they have within the last six years without his supervision. And they wouldn't be preparing for a divisional round playoff game with a chance to make a run without his coaching.

So many players recognize that and are thankful to have the opportunity to learn from one of the best leaders they've ever been around. And they're equally as grateful to have earned an opportunity to lead alongside McDermott.

"I'm thankful to be a part of what he's doing and I'm thankful to have a leader like him because he's true, as a dad, as a person and as a coach, he just does it the right way," Dawkins said of McDermott. "I'm truly blessed. I really am."

McDermott though would say the same thing about his players. He's just as grateful to have witnessed his team step up and lead when given the opportunity.

"I've been just tremendously proud and appreciative of those guys," McDermott said of the player-driven leadership he's witnessed this season. "It's led by Josh (Allen), and it's been fun to watch Von (Miller) come into that mix as well and add his level of influence on our team, in our leadership group. It's been a joy to watch really, and I'm very grateful for it."

There's also joy in looking back on the season and seeing how the team weathered each storm — both figurative and literal storms this year. Most importantly, witnessing how the team's leadership didn't falter in the face of adversity.

"It shows incredible resiliency. You go back to the final 13 seconds of the Kansas City game and forcing overtime and losing that, the heartbreak of that," Wood said. "And then everything they've been through just the leadership to steady it, to have a 13-win season and end the regular season on a seven-game win streak, battling injuries and everything else, the exterior circumstances that could really affect you emotionally and affect you on a day-to-day basis. Sean and the team have pushed through in a remarkable way."

The team will continue to remain resilient when hardship comes their way because of the strong leadership they have within the walls of One Bills Drive with McDermott at the helm and his players by his side.

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