Upon taking control of a team in virtually any sport at any level, a new coach will attempt to put his stamp on the program with rules, slogans and other ways of establishing a culture around the program.
Two years ago, former Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan ditched the rigid structure of his predecessor, Doug Marrone, for a looser atmosphere that some players praised for treating them more as professionals. Ryan took his players to an Airsoft range, the bowling alley and the movies in his first offseason as coach, but by the time of his firing near the end of the 2016 season, his players admitted discipline was lacking in their two lackluster years playing for Ryan.
Now the pendulum has swung back in the other direction. In the three months since the Bills hired Sean McDermott in January, the first-year coach has made a mark around the facility that he hopes will restore the focus he believes his players will need to win.
Here is a recap of some of McDermott's early changes:
Removing locker-room games. While Marrone was the coach in 2014, the Bills expanded their locker room from a tiny, high-school style layout with white metal stalls into perhaps the NFL's largest and most modern player lounge. Video games and a pool table were among the initial perks, and a table tennis table and an air hockey table were eventually added under Ryan. However, McDermott has since nixed the video games, pool table and air hockey. "This is a business," McDermott said March 9. "We have to make sure we stay focused on the task at hand, and that means earn the right to win on a daily basis. I don’t believe that playing video games in the locker room is part of earning the right to win. We’re going to be a focused, disciplined and accountable football team, and I believe you do it one day at a time." Table tennis, which has been popular among Richie Incognito and other players in recent seasons, remains. "[It's for] ball skills," McDermott said with a smile.
Rearranging locker-room stalls. Since the 2014 renovation, the Bills' locker room has been arranged by position, with players in each position group having stalls next to one another. McDermott has also shaken that up. "We're getting more comfortable with other position groups and other players," cornerback Kevon Seymour told 1270 The Fan in Buffalo. Seymour noted that cornerback Ronald Darby, as one example, now has a locker next to Incognito's.
"Earning the right to win." One of McDermott's most popular tag lines since arriving in Buffalo has been "earning the right to win," which the former Panthers defensive coordinator sees as doing what is necessary on a daily basis to be successful. To that end, McDermott has made frequent use of the word "process," even plastering his "Respect the Process" motto on the walls of the team's facility. Another motto? "Playoff caliber." That phrase has been put on players' T-shirts for the offseason workout program, as well as on the doors of the cafeteria for the team with the NFL's longest playoff drought -- 17 seasons.
Consolidating the team's public voice. When general manager Doug Whaley took questions from reporters in January for the first time in months, he defended the decision by saying the Bills had a policy of having "one voice" during the regular season -- the head coach's. That philosophy has seemingly been expanded under McDermott, who will conduct the team's predraft news conference instead of Whaley later this month. Whaley also did not speak to reporters at the combine or owners meetings in March. While Whaley retains control of the 53-man roster, putting only McDermott in front of cameras has reinforced the perception that he is the team's central leadership figure within the football operation.
Bolstering leadership among players. Ryan's longstanding practice as a coach was to have a different group of captains for each game, attempting to motivate players by bringing them out for the coin toss against their former clubs or in a city where they had close ties. McDermott aims for a steadier leadership by his players and will develop a "leadership council" toward that goal. Defensive tackle Kyle Williams, the team's longest-tenured player, will certainly be among that group; he spoke to his teammates last week. "He said, 'Coach says be here at this time, be here at this time,' That's starts with being disciplined," Seymour said. "[Last year], if we had a run and coach said, 'Go put on your cleats, be back out here at 51 [minutes past the hour],' some guys probably didn't make the time. ... It's definitely a saying, if you're going to be here on time, you're late."
We've redecorated a bit at One Bills Drive.— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) April 4, 2017
Our designer? Sean McDermott. pic.twitter.com/kTidWDoPlp
Like Ryan, McDermott has attempted to connect with the franchise's past -- just in a different style. McDermott quietly took seven of the team's best players from the 1990s to dinner last week, while in 2015, Ryan visited a local bar with Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas for a Sports Illustrated cover shoot. Ryan also tried to connect with Kelly by bringing his entire Bills roster to the Hall of Fame quarterback's annual charity golf tournament, and the two shared beers last St. Patrick's Day in Buffalo.