Sean McDermott has never led a team in an NFL game, but the Buffalo Bills' first-year coach has solidified his role as the only leadership figure and chief football decision-maker of the club that hired him in January.
The writing was on the wall for general manager Doug Whaley, who was fired on Sunday, a little more than 12 hours after the 2017 draft ended. McDermott took over Whaley's duties of speaking to the media prior to the draft and after each selection was made. Twice when discussing decisions made during the draft, McDermott used the word "I" to refer to the moves before stopping himself and using the word "we," as if he had been reminded to keep up appearances that Whaley still had sway.
When pressed on Whaley's future Saturday at the conclusion of the draft, McDermott was forced to sidestep the question. He simply said Whaley and his staff did a "phenomenal job" in the draft, which seemed more like a recommendation for their next jobs rather than an endorsement of their efforts in Buffalo.
This had become McDermott's team, and it was only a matter of time before Whaley was fired. Making the move after the draft coincides with when many scouting departments across the NFL see changes.
Whaley's demise was swift. In January, owners Terry and Kim Pegula tasked him with leading the team's coaching search. That led the Pegulas to McDermott, the former Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator known for his work ethic and attention to detail. McDermott's approach has clearly made an impression on the Pegulas, who are further empowering their coach by firing Whaley.
The Pegulas like McDermott so much that they are shoving Whaley out the door four months after publicly backing him.
"That's grossly unfair what he's going through," Terry Pegula said on WGR 550 in January, referring to criticism of Whaley after the 2016 season. "Doug does a good job. I like him, and he works hard and he's a smart guy."
Whaley and Pegula had struck up a relationship in recent years. At training camp last summer, Whaley often drove a golf cart around St. John Fisher College with Pegula in the passenger seat. Whaley would spend practice pointing out to Pegula and explaining what was happening on the field. Before regular-season games at New Era Field, Whaley would often accompany Pegula as they walked from the tunnel into pregame warm-ups.
That bond was not enough to save Whaley's job. While it is unclear whether there was any sort of vocal power struggle between McDermott and Whaley, the result of the past few months is that McDermott now has the opportunity to lead the Bills forward. It is likely that he will be involved in the Pegulas' hiring of a general manager.
If all goes well for McDermott over the coming days and weeks, he will have someone he knows and trusts leading his scouting department. That person could come from the Panthers, his former team. Assistant general manager Brandon Beane is one possibility.
The goal for the Bills should be to get the scouting and coaching staffs on the same page, and keep them there. Doing so would lead to long-term synergy between those two arms of football operations that have not often been completely cohesive over the franchise's ongoing 17-year playoff drought. At the end of the 2014 season, then-coach Doug Marrone went as far as to use an opt-out clause to leave the team because he did not feel it was the right situation for him.
Marrone's departure was one bizarre chapter in Bills history, just as the past few months have proved clunky and awkward for Buffalo. Ideally, Whaley should have been fired in late December or early January, not long after a strange end-of-season news conference Jan. 2 in which Whaley attempted to speak for ownership about head coach Rex Ryan's firing but said he was not "privy" to the details of it.
Tasking Whaley with leading the coaching search, then having him retain control of the 53-man roster once McDermott was hired, makes the Pegulas' latest decision confusing for some. But if the Pegulas have made the right call about McDermott, the latest rocky chapter in Bills history will lead to a smoother future.