When Jimmy Johnson won the NFL’s Coach of the Year award in 1990, no one batted an eye. You might not bat an eye today. Seeing that name branded on to the trophy beside 1990, with the benefit of hindsight and history, seems correct. One might not bother Googling what his team achieved, nor how well they might have fared in the playoffs. Buffalo Bills fans refuse to Google anything related to 1990 anyways; no need to say why, as nothing happened in 1990. Nothing at all.
The point here is that Johnson’s Dallas Cowboys—dynastic later in the ‘90s, by all accounts—went 7-9 that season, his second at the helm, and missed the playoffs. They finished second-to-last in the NFC East, then home to five teams. They might have made the playoffs, if not for an injured Troy Aikman (at least that’s how Texas Monthly’s Gary Cartwright felt in 1992). Back then, Johnson was ostensibly the “hungriest” coach in the NFL. He was a famished and starved multimillionaire whose embarrassment of riches he had experienced as the University of Miami’s head coach during their dynastic years had swiftly devolved into merely embarrassment.
He was, as of 1990, a failure. He was also the winner of the highest honor a coach in football could receive.
How in the world, you’re likely wondering in 2020, did Jimmy Johnson win a coach-of-the-year award after finishing 7-9? No other winner has ever finished with as few wins; better yet, no other winner has ever finished below .500.
The answer is a rather simple one, and one we can understand all too well as we consider the trends at play in the present, modern league. You see, Johnson’s Cowboys saw a significant improvement from 1989 to 1990, so much so that merely being in playoff contention was a feat admirable enough to deserve the honor. In ’89, Dallas finished 1-15, a mark abysmal enough to be the worst record in franchise history, as well as the worst record in the league. In ’90, after a six-game improvement, I suppose the NFL saw what no one else could. Johnson would never finish below .500 again.
Only once in his head coaching career has Sean McDermott led a team that finished below .500. Perhaps unusually, it was in his second season in Buffalo, when the Bills finished 6-10. That was a season plagued by horrid offensive numbers; they ranked 30th in yards, points, and giveaways, and they finished second-to-last in passing yards. The defense, however, was a league-wide surprise, a standout that in but one season became Buffalo’s calling card. In 2019, it was arguably the best in the entire league, and fueled a trip to the playoffs, McDermott’s second, and Buffalo’s second since 1999.
Not once in those three years has it felt premature to call McDermott the coach of the future in Buffalo. And while there are still offensive concerns—perhaps not glaring ones, but certainly those that are omnipresent—it’s not hard for Bills fans to rejoice at the idea of having their first long-term coach since (*squints at a very long and overwhelmingly depressing list*) Marv Levy.
Which also asserts that it’s not premature to openly wonder about McDermott’s COY chances. In just three seasons as a head coach, he’s made the playoffs twice, successfully transforming a team that was offensively confused and defensively dominant into one that understands its limitations on either end (and maximizes upon that of their opponents), and fostered a culture. That’s a word we hear a lot nowadays, one that almost no one knows the actual football definition for, but one that everyone loves to overuse.
So how, exactly, can McDermott win the award? That brings us back to Dallas in 1990.
What’s most interesting about Jimmy Johnson’s selection isn’t necessarily why or how he won the award, but how it helped to chart the award’s eventual history. More than anything else, it was an improvement. Winners who preceded him, however, weren’t bound by any stipulation that required their team to experience an overwhelming upgrade from one season to the next.
Throughout the 1980s, trends were scattered. On one hand, you’d find Green Bay Packers teams led by Lindy Infante finishing 4-12 in 1988 and then 10-6 in 1989—a weighty promotion that would likely see any coach awarded for his or her efforts. But then there’s the other hand to consider, the one involving Mike Ditka’s “improvement” from 1987 to 1988. His Chicago Bears won only one more game in that span, improving their record from 11-4 to 12-4. He won the award in 1988; in 1987, it went to Jim Mora, whose New Orleans Saints improved their clip by five games and made the playoffs. Earlier in the ‘80s, Washington’s Joe Gibbs won the award twice in a row, in 1982 and 1983. He went 8-1 the first time around (the season was shortened due to a player’s strike) and won the Super Bowl; a 14-2 mark came the following year, bookended by a loss in the Super Bowl. Success, yes. But improvement? Debatable.
Johnson’s victory might have been an anomaly, though so was the very concept of consistency in voting logic. In the ‘80s, one could hardly tell why voters made the choices they made. How was Ditka’s one-game improvement worthy of winning a prestigious award? Was the league really so sorry that it only made sense for a stagnant Washington team to see its coach rewarded twice in a row for a negligible improvement? Really, many of the improvements were minor, or close to it. A few games here and there, maybe an extra playoff victory, but rarely an earth-shattering turnaround that would force the hand of anyone with a ballot.
Then, it seems, Jimmy Johnson won for a 7-9 effort, one that followed a 1-15 one—a switch-flip that clearly beckoned honors and prestige. Following Johnson’s win at the inception of the ‘90s, every single Coach of the Year-winner saw his team improve by at least three wins (though the average improvement was by 5.3 games), and every team made the playoffs in the coach’s award-winning season. It was a streak that perhaps helped voters and football minds alike rethink what actually made a coach be considered the coach of “the year.” Thus, the very idea of what that term really meant was born.
No longer are inconsequential improvements enough. No, you must achieve a level of rebuilding brilliance so profound and shocking that the Associated Press couldn’t possibly refrain from jotting your name down. Even if you were 10-6 one year and 14-2 the next—like Bill Parcells’s New York Giants in ’85 and ’86, and also like John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens in 2018 and 2019—the results of that four-ish-game leap better look like one of the greatest (regular season) teams in NFL history.
For our sake when looking at McDermott, we need to consider a few more of his contemporaries and look at winners beyond the 1980s in order to chart an accurate road map to trophy-case glory. In 2014, the Carolina Panthers went 7-8-1 (still somehow making the playoffs) under Ron Rivera; then came 2015, when Cam Newton played the most efficient football of his career, won MVP, and led the Panthers to a 15-1 mark and a Super Bowl berth. Ron Rivera won Coach of the Year in 2015. In 2015, the Dallas Cowboys—under Jason Garrett, the league’s second-best clapper behind McDermott—finished 4-12, the team’s worst record since 1989; they finished 13-3 in 2016, and made the playoffs behind one of the most exciting young offenses in league history.
Seeing a trend? The turnarounds are pretty remarkable. The coaches in question take a group of ballplayers with unrefined direction, build a system that fits their focal talents to a tee, and suddenly, a great product emerges. In 2015, Cam Newton was given the keys. He decided to trade in the Honda Accord sitting on 232,000 miles he was given for a Porsche, raced through the regular season, and only flattened a tire when it mattered most. In 2016, Dak Prescott was entrusted to reshape the offensive approach for the Cowboys, and was aided by Ezekiel Elliot’s stunning rookie season. Jason Garrett clapped on the sidelines, marveling at his creation (the only good one in his career, mind you).
So for McDermott, the route for his somewhat inevitable coach-of-the-year win (like those before him) is rather simple. He must improve, and not only improve by four or so games, but improve immensely, to the point where on top of going 14-2 following a 10-6 season, Josh Allen is one of the league’s most efficient quarterbacks, the secondary is improving upon its improvements, and the offensive options are thriving under Allen’s leadership.
Say the team were to struggle next season, then the follow-up effort wouldn’t be nearly as difficult. An 11-5 campaign plus a playoff berth would be suffice to nab McDermott the honor should the Bills struggle this season. But since that’s not necessarily the ideal scenario nor the probable one, it will take greatness personified. It will take a happy Stefon Diggs, a better Josh Allen, an even savvier secondary, and a division title.
In layman’s terms, to win this particular award in the modern NFL, you either need to suck and then be good, or be good and then be outstanding. Bills fans will hope for the latter. Opponents, particularly those lobbying for positioning in a wide open AFC East, will cross their fingers for the former. Frankly, though, I don’t think McDermott really cares. He’ll clap away as stoic as Belichick and maybe just as smart.
I’d be willing to bet that he only has one trophy on his mind. It’s merely convenient that that particular trophy would likely win him another.