When a coach makes a move like Sean McDermott did this past week, there are some unknowns.
Firing a coordinator in-season ostensibly can look like a lot of things, but the hard reality of it in the aftermath of the headlines is that it rocks the day-to-day life of half of a 53-man roster. And to do that on a short week—such as McDermott did in dismissing offensive play-caller Ken Dorsey on Tuesday after a Monday night game—and elevating quarterbacks coach Joe Brady, only makes it more of a dice roll.
So you may, along the way, be looking for signs that things are going one way or the other, and McDermott got one from a place you might not expect deep in Sunday’s AFC East showdown with the Jets. His star receiver and captain, Stefon Diggs, was in the midst of a four-catch, 27-yard afternoon.
Meanwhile, his head was right where it needed to be, and it didn’t go unnoticed by someone who could hear that a lot better than he could see it during the game.
“He supported the team; he supported the plan,” McDermott told me from his coach’s office under Highmark Stadium an hour after the game. “He knew it was going to be tough. They got good corners and they always have all eyes on Stef. Having said all that, Stef still wins a few of those more than he loses. And that’s why he is who he is and what he is to our team and to our offense.
“But his leadership was felt in all three phases tonight. From what I remember, listen, I’m focused on the defense and the special teams—I could hear him over my shoulder cheering his teammates on. And that doesn’t happen all the time. I’m really seeing him grow as a leader, and it’s helping our football team.”
Yeah, that’s a small thing. But it sure could loom large as a team that seemed to be lost looking to regain its way may have found it on the last Sunday before Thanksgiving in chilly Western New York.
While the Bills’ 32–6 dismantling of the Jets was one game, McDermott did emphasize to me as we talked that the alternative would’ve been ugly. Simply put, Buffalo couldn’t afford to lose again to a New York team that has vexed it the past couple of years—Josh Allen got hurt in an upset loss in New Jersey last December, and the Bills fell in overtime on a punt return in this year’s opener after Aaron Rodgers went down—after the last week.
It would’ve put the Bills at 5–6, three games back of Miami in the loss column, with the Eagles, Chiefs and Cowboys next. It’s not overstating to say it could’ve ended their season.
Instead, Allen, Brady, McDermott and Buffalo can move forward.
And as McDermott’s anecdote would illustrate, the Bills can do it together, with a group of players that may not have many more shots at the championship they’ve been chasing.
Week 11 is in the books, and it was, well, a weekend full of football games that followed Thursday’s bloodbath in Baltimore. Here’s what we have in The MMQB this week …
• A look into how Jordan Love is riding the highs and lows of his first year as a starting quarterback in Green Bay.
• Tommy DeVito’s remarkable story of finding a job in the NFL with a shorter commute from his parents’ house than the one he had in high school.
But we’re starting with the tumultuous week in Orchard Park, and where it leaves McDermott and the Bills moving forward.
In last week’s Tuesday notes we drilled down on the makeup of the team around Allen and McDermott, now in their sixth and seventh years in Buffalo, and how, maybe, the age of that core is ratcheting up the urgency for everyone in the organization.
Pass rusher Von Miller (34), safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer (both 32), and center Mitch Morse (31) are on the wrong side of 30. Diggs will be next week. Left tackle Dion Dawkins gets there in April, injured linebacker Matt Milano hits that milestone in the summer, injured corner Tre’Davious White (29 in January) isn’t far off, either, and that adds up to a lot of Buffalo infrastructure with the clock ticking.
And that McDermott’s now turned over both coordinator spots in 2023, taking the defense from Leslie Frazier in January, and handing the offense to Brady last week, sure would seem to be a nod to that—and maybe an effort to pull every lever possible to get the group of players that turned the Bills around over the last half decade the best chance possible to finally give Buffalo that elusive Super Bowl title.
So I wondered whether the coach himself saw it that way.
“Listen, those guys, they’ve worked hard for years in everything,” he says. “We got a lot more football to play, and we’ve got a big challenge this week against the Eagles. Those guys work extremely hard. I think that’s as much as I can say about it.”
In other words, yes, the Bills are putting everything they can into the here and the now, with moves such as the coordinator switches, or the acquisition of Rasul Douglas at the trade deadline to replace White in the lineup. But McDermott also wanted to be careful about talking in absolutes. If this year has shown him and the Bills anything, it’s that everything can turn on a dime quickly.
Remember, that ugly season-opening loss to the Jets led to eulogies for the Bills and big-picture questions on Allen. But in the three weeks to follow, Buffalo looked like the best team in football, beating the Raiders, Commanders and Dolphins by a total of 80 points.
That, of course, proved to be just as fleeting as the post-opener story lines, with a 2–4 stretch coming in the immediate aftermath of that surge.
So as tempting as it is for anyone with the Bills to take the cheese and proclaim the corner turned, McDermott knew way better than to do that after Sunday’s win with the two Super Bowl teams up next, both on the road, with the bye week between them.
But that doesn’t mean there weren’t good signs Sunday.
Over Ken Dorsey’s 27 games (29 counting playoffs) as coordinator, there was always talk of how the Bills generally, and Allen specifically, might’ve missed Brian Daboll, who took the Giants job after the team’s epic playoff loss in Kansas City in January 2022.
So what might Allen have been missing?
Whenever I’ve been asked that question, I’ve thought of conversations I had with Daboll when he first got to Buffalo in 2018 from Alabama. Daboll had been with Tom Brady twice in New England, and one of the first things he did upon arrival with the Bills was show Allen as much tape of Brady as he could. And it was never about showing Allen how great that system was under him. More so, Daboll wanted to show Allen how easy Brady would make it on himself.
Brady, Daboll would tell Allen, would always take the easy completions—and the then OC thought Allen would become one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks in short order if he’d just take Brady’s type of never-go-broke-taking-a-profit approach more often.
To say it worked would be an understatement. Allen’s passer rating went from 67.9 to 85.3 to 107.2 over his first three years. He became a superstar, and the Bills became a powerhouse.
And it’s right there in the middle of all that where McDermott took the most satisfaction from Sunday’s turnaround for Allen—the 27-year-old hit on 20 of 32 throws for 275 yards, three touchdowns and a pick that came on a first-half-ending Hail Mary. He was efficient, and under control, and more dangerous as a result.
“He just looked like he was comfortable,” McDermott says. “And he looked like he knew exactly what he wanted to do with the ball. He took what the defense gave him at times. And then the guys who handled the ball in the flat or on a five-yard checkdown, they made people miss. And that’s a good tackling defense, so it was just good team offense led by Josh. That was good to watch.”
It, of course, would be over the top to just point to the firing of Dorsey—because the sort of move McDermott made Tuesday is the kind that causes everyone to look in the mirror.
So Brady and the offensive assistants, with line coach Aaron Kromer integral to all of this, had to scramble to do what they could to rework the system on the fly. Brady came in with a reputation in the building for being a bit more reserved than Dorsey, and also organized, creative and inclusive with others’ ideas in how he did his work. And, as McDermott saw it, all of Brady’s attributes showed up quickly.
“A lot of these decisions happen on bye weeks, right?” McDermott says. “And I had to take that, unfortunately, out of the equation, because I just knew it had gotten to the point where I had to make sure that I was doing the right thing by the team, regardless of a short week or normal week or long week or bye. …
“I mean, I don’t take those decisions lightly. And it just was a tough week. So, I thought the staff really did a great job of picking the baton up and going to work the right way. And I’m sure that was hard. But I commend them for it. And then you go in there, you got to game-plan right away and then you gotta rock, because we played Monday night. … We got very good collaboration and communication from their end.”
They got it, again, mostly on the plays that won’t make the YouTube highlight reel.
They got a lot of it, as McDermott saw it, on the first drive of the second half, a possession that helped affirm that he gave his team what it needed last week. The Bills dug out of second-and-13 and a third-and-12 with easy throws to Diggs, who, again, loomed larger in the game than his stat line indicated. And the touchdown came on a cool little bootleg play on which Allen threw it to Ty Johnson in the flat, who caught it inside the line of scrimmage, and took it 28 yards to paydirt.
The easy money Daboll used to talk about? Brady was dealing it to Allen, and Allen was taking it.
“That was a statement drive, coming out after half against a defense like theirs; they’re one of the better defenses in the league,” McDermott says. “I thought that was really good to see that intention.”
That made it 22–6, and the Bills never looked back.
McDermott lived through October just like he’s seen his team get in ruts the past couple of years, so a November win over the Jets was never going to lead him to make broad statements about the Bills and where they’re headed.
But there were good signs, for sure. The aforementioned drive and a throttled-down Allen was one. That Allen was able to balance that with the spectacular was another—the throw he ripped to Khalil Shakir for his 81-yard catch-and-run score was impressive. That the defensive front—keyed by an active Ed Oliver—was able to take advantage of, and undress, a wounded Jets line would be one more.
And then there was a run game that flashed amid Monday night’s ugliness, with James Cook keying a 192-yard effort against the Broncos, showing up again against the Jets.
“It’s nice to have that because it’s probably going to snow here at some point,” McDermott says. “In other years, we hadn’t been able to establish that up until this point. It’s not something that is easily discoverable midway, three-quarters through a season. So to have that is important for us moving forward.”
So, McDermott knows how good his Bills can be after Sunday’s win. We all do, too, after seeing what happened during the first month of the season.
The trick now will be seeing how consistently they can look like they did against the Jets.
“It’s hard to win in this league,” McDermott says. “Tonight, we played better as a team, and I’ll leave it at that.”
And as for what it means in the big picture? We’ll know more in six days after the Bills play the Eagles.