When he was hired by the Buffalo Bills in the winter of 2017, he talked about cultivating a new culture based on a daily process of self-improvement. Bills fans had heard some similar messages from the previously hired head coaches that appeared in revolving-door fashion in Buffalo since the turn of the century. But what was different about Sean McDermott's message was it had a vision and implementation plan to go along with it.
Now three years later that vision has become reality.
"I'm just grateful," McDermott said. "Just grateful to be a part of it and the group of guys and gals who are in that locker room. They work extremely hard. Coming to Buffalo two and a half years ago, a lot of people said, 'Why are you going there? You're not going to be able to get it turned around.' We got it turned around. With a lot of work yet to do. We haven't arrived. We've got a lot of work to do, but I'm just humbled by it."
The Bills got to 10 wins for the first time this century and clinched a playoff berth with two games to spare for the first time since 1991. Fans are showing up in droves at the airport to welcome them back from road trip victories. But what resonated most with the players is how they earned their ticket to the postseason without any help from any other AFC club
"That's big for us," said Tre'Davious White, who was part of the 2017 team that needed help from Cincinnati in Week 17 to get in. "Anytime you can get into the playoffs, no matter how is big, but finishing it and being in a position to come in here and… when the last time we won (in Pittsburgh)? 1975? So I mean it's big for us. We know we're not connected to the past. We just want to be that team to break down those barriers and we've been doing a great job all year and just respond to adversity and just playing a total team football."
For almost two decades the Bills had been a franchise that even on the rare occasions it achieved success didn't have the collective mental fortitude to sustain it or keep building upon it year over year. McDermott saw that perpetual wheel-spinning and resolved to eradicate it, even if it meant making difficult decisions like trading Sammy Watkins or Ronald Darby. Sometimes the right decisions are unpopular ones. Credit Buffalo's head coach for making them anyway for the greater long-term gain.
McDermott's players both current and former call the head coach the most level-headed person they've ever come across. That kind of stability in the week-to-week league that is the NFL is rare. And it's comforting for players because they know what they're going to get from the man they're supposed to follow every week. He built a foundation of team on hard work, dedication and love, which is a quite a feat in the most cut-throat league there is in professional sports.
That successful construction along with GM Brandon Beane's astute roster building, helped convince the Bills' newest acquisitions this offseason to sign with Buffalo.
"When I got here, to see what type of guys that are in this locker-room man. Great family. Play hard. Great coaches," said Frank Gore. "It kind of reminds me of when I was in San Fran when we were winning. When you won, and care and love for each other man, you would do whatever on the field for each other."
There might be more grinders than stars on Buffalo's current roster, but that's fine by McDermott. He was and remains a grinder himself. Grinders, more often than not, get the job done, and that's exactly what his 2019 team has done in punching their ticket to the postseason Sunday night.
And for a grinder like TE Lee Smith, who's never reached the postseason in his eight previous NFL seasons this achievement is seismic.
"Oh man, it's such a blessing," he said of reaching the playoffs. "Sean [McDermott] talks about it all the time. You can be in this league 20, 30 years as a coach, 10-plus years as a player, and I've played in zero playoff games man. So, the fact that we were able to punch our ticket with two weeks left in the season is just so awesome. It's all about this group of men that allowed us to do it, from the players to the coaches to management. You know, the Pegulas, how much they pour into the players. I've said it a million times, it's a special place to be, and it's just super exciting."
Smith remembers when that wasn't the case in Buffalo. He began his NFL career with the Bills, and the culture that exists here now is in stark contrast to what he experienced previously.
"I've been here before," he said in how he was convinced to sign with the Bills this past offseason for his second stint with the club. "I talked to Kyle Williams, who told me it's a special place and I listened. I also knew a lot of faces in the building now. The Pat DiMarcos and other people. Everybody raved about it from what the Pegulas have done since I left, to the coaching staff. Sean, his process, how consistent he is every day. So, it's just a special, special place. We've got a great, young quarterback that gets better every week, and it's just awesome. It's just so cool."
Buffalo's brand of football at this stage might have fans biting their nails. The Bills have largely been in tight games as their offense is still working to find solid footing against some of the better defensive units in the league, some of whom they'll face in the playoffs. But all those close games also has Buffalo battle tested, and their resiliency was on display again Sunday night.
In what was a one-score game from start to finish, Buffalo had more to give at the end, especially their defense. On Pittsburgh's last six possessions the Bills forced them three-and-out three times and recorded three interceptions on the other three drives.
"This is what this team is built for," said Jordan Phillips, who leads the team with 9.5 sacks. "We've been winning this way all year. We've been pretty dominant all year. We knew we were going to get in (the playoffs). I'll say that. You know what I mean? It was just a matter of time."
McDermott put a label on this season for his players. He handed them all a carabiner clip in late July and told them to strap in for 'The Climb.' Even he knew there was a lot of ground to cover, but he felt he had the right people on board. The right player-driven leadership where they could begin their ascension in the AFC ranks.
Bills fans might be proud that their team has qualified for the postseason with two weeks to spare, but for the players and coaches being 'Playoff Caliber' isn't something that's achieved and then forgotten. It is the embodiment of who they have become.
"Obviously coach preaches playoff caliber," said Josh Allen. "That's the standard we hold ourselves to. The goal is to get yourself in position to have a shot at the Super Bowl. To do that you've got to get into the playoffs. We've done that.
"We know we have two more crucial games which could really dictate where we're at and where we're seeded. It's a good position to be in, but we've got to attack these next two weeks and it starts with Saturday on a short week with the New England Patriots in Foxborough. We have a tall task ahead of us and we'll celebrate this one and get ready for Saturday starting Monday."
Now McDermott's team looks to take the next step and be 'Championship Caliber.' And they're going to do that by adhering to the practices that got them to this point in the first place.
"This football team is dialed in," said Smith. "We've got a lot more to accomplish. We will not take this playoff berth for granted. We're going to be right back to a 1-0 mindset for New England. We've got a short week. So, we've got to get ready to go.
"We didn't just win the Super Bowl. We locked our ticket to the postseason, but at the same time, with a team this special, we're not going to take it for granted. We're going to keep grinding like we have all year."
Are they a team that's ready to reach championship caliber? Outside observers might not think so.
But don't tell McDermott's players that.
"We've been building this thing since 2017 since we all got here and I feel like we're starting to make a turn," said White. "But we've just got to continue to trust the process and go to work each and every day and just try to be the best that we can be."
"You only get so many opportunities to get to the postseason," said Gore. "And when that time comes, anything can happen."