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How long without a playoff win before Sean McDermott’s seat turns hot?

Is it somewhere between Marvin Lewis and a New York Jets Bill Belichick?

Back in 2012, Old Deadspin’s Drew Magary did his best to make what is perhaps the “hardest” part of the job for an NFL general manager a bit easier. In his weekly “Jamboroo” column, he offered what he called five “mitigating factors [to consider] when deciding to terminate with extreme prejudice.” Such factors are: “Interim coaches are horrible.”; “Firing your head coach leaves your team dangerously shorthanded.”; “But hey, who said losing every game down the stretch was a bad thing?”; “Whoever coaches your team right now isn’t anywhere near as important as who will be coaching them next year.”; and finally, “I just can’t look at his stupid f—king face for one more second.”

Personally, I love pondering the fact that the last factor is likely taken into consideration a heck of a lot more than we think. Like, I wonder if on one cold morning in late December, after 16 years of overwhelming mediocrity and zero playoff wins in seven tries, Mike Brown woke up and realized he couldn’t stand to look at Marvin Lewis’s face for one more second. Maybe. Well, probably.

I’d like to perform an exercise today, one where I run through these factors with head coach Sean McDermott as the one in question. But before I do that, I’ll address your preeminent worries, ones that I’ve likely conjured up by merely typing out that last sentence, one that might have implied a hypothetical termination of McDermott’s time in Buffalo. “Oh, God,” I imagine you’re incredulously wondering. “Is he about to make an argument that McDermott should be fired?” “Didn’t he just write about how McDermott’s chances at winning the Coach of the Year Award are bound to keep rising as long as he continues to improve upon his previous seasons?” “How many cans of ‘Thurmanator’ Lager has he downed?”

Allow me to assure you: I’m not making an argument that McDermott should be fired. Nor have I taken a single sip of a Thurmanator this afternoon—they were sold out.

What I am going to take a look at is McDermott’s shelf life as the man at the helm. When this article was pitched, it started as a simple question: How many coaches in the league have been around for five years and still don’t have a playoff win? Without the benefit of the Marvin Lewis anomaly, I found that the answer wasn’t surprising: none. Some coaches remain winless in the playoffs for their career—11, in fact, including notables like Matt Nagy and McDermott—but not one has been around for five years.

Why is that? Well, it’s fairly likely (and obvious) that it’s because they’re fired due to lack of overall success before the playoffs are even a thought. In the NFL, in particular, it seems as though shelf lives continue to shorten. Unless you’ve made significant strides in your young stint as a head coach, limited success doesn’t go unpunished. I’d say Zac Taylor and Kliff Kingsbury could be prime candidates for this sort of judgment over the next few years. In Cincinnati—why have I spent so much time on coaches related to Cincinnati? I promise I’ll move on in a second—Taylor will be forced to succeed with a young and exciting talent in Joe Burrow at the quarterback position; the same goes for Kingsbury in Arizona, where Kyler Murray has positioned himself for a sophomore boom, one that will likely make Kingsbury look even better than his living room makes him look.

On the flip side, a coach like Matt Nagy might be approaching his expiration date sooner than expected, especially when you consider how his career began (he led the Chicago Bears to a playoff berth for the first time since 2010 in his first season). Now, his reckoning won’t come this offseason, nor might it come the following. But the Bears don’t seem to be inspiring confidence in oddsmakers, and apparently, Mitch Trubisky isn’t looking very good. Who woulda thought?

McDermott isn’t in the same position as Nagy, nor is he even close to as new on the job as Taylor or Kingsbury. He and Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane all but came over from the Carolina Panthers together, built a team that has gifted its fans with two trips to the playoffs in three years, and finally inspired analysts and football writers to deem them true AFC East contenders for the first time since 1995. It may seem insane that I’m even talking about the possibility that McDermott may need to prove himself anymore than he has thus far. But here we are.

So let’s go through Magary’s factors with McDermott; I’ll merely be pondering how they would relate to a firing of McDermott should we reach a point where lack of playoff success makes a coaching change seem slightly worthwhile. For right now, it very much does not. But you can’t call your coach a lifer if he and his team never win a playoff game. Let’s say we’re fast forwarding to, I dunno, 2022, which would indeed be five years after McDermott was hired. That way, we can be a bit more realistic about the expectations laid out under each factor, and I can stay true to my original assignment. Win-win!

  1. “Interim coaches are horrible.”

This is true. Interim coaches are, in fact, wildly frustrating. Consider Perry Fewell (I won’t count Anthony Lynn, since his sample size was so small. Also, he has a playoff win with the Los Angeles Chargers). He never quite fit into the scheme* Dick Jauron was running up until he was fired in 2009, nor was he ever given the time. In seven games, he went a respectable 3-4, but was asked to give fans and team officials a reason to thank him in a thankless job. Ultimately, all an interim coach is is a warm body, one that, as Magary wrote, “at best will help you close out a horrible season with your head down and your dignity intact.” I suppose Fewell did that. Would the Bills really rather start over, having formed a culture that may not have won any playoff games, but certainly achieved perennial regular season success that always seemed to border on threatening in the postseason?

*Trouble was: there was no scheme.

2. “Firing your head coach leaves your team dangerously shorthanded.”

I’m actually not entirely sold on this one. If it’s 2022 and defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier is somehow still in his same role with this team, it’s not because no one in the league wants him to take over their head coaching spot. It’s likely because he’s comfortable providing assistance in commandeering control of the league’s most proficient and consistent defense, and knows that his talents are best served in such a role.

Then again, he’s also the Assistant Head Coach. If McDermott were fired, that might imply that Frazier is gone, too, and a restart would be a fresh one entirely. In that case, yes, the team would be dangerously shorthanded. But if by some miracle it was McDermott that exited and Frazier that stayed? There are plenty worse hands to be in from a coaching perspective.

3. “But hey, who said losing every game down the stretch was a bad thing?”

This factor requires specifics, aka a win-loss record at the time of firing. If the Bills are at a point where they suddenly aren’t winning games and are looking to move on from Josh Allen, then it’s certainly feasible that the team might mail it in and vie for a top pick—one that could revamp the franchise.

4. “Whoever coaches your team right now isn’t anywhere near as important as who will be coaching them next year.”

This only fits if you’re set on firing a coach. Beane, ideally, would never enter a season with the decision to fire his head coach already made; if it happens mid-season, then this fits. It’s suddenly very important to make a hiring decision so that your new coach can build a staff. McDermott got to work rather quickly when he was hired. Whoever succeeds him—hypothetically—should be granted the same privileges.

5. “I just can’t look at his stupid f—king face for one more second.”

This one is just funny. But it doesn’t apply. McDermott’s face is not stupid, nor will it ever be. And I highly doubt he and Brandon Beane could ever reach a point where they hate one another so much that one of the two is saying this about the other.

The primary reason I feel as though this is worth of exploration is because of how we view the head coaching position and its natural cycle. Typically, coaches start out low, then improve bit by bit, and ultimately become reduced to being deemed the scapegoat for any and all failures a team saw during his/her tenure. See: Brett Brown, the now-former head coach of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers who was never given what he needed to succeed. Never was he given shooters to surround his two non-marksman stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons—when he finally had one in JJ Redick, the front office traded him away for scraps—and never was he given credit when the team actually did perform. His front office failed him; in response, he has been painted the failure.

Also of note: Brett Brown’s playoff career with the Sixers spanned 26 games in which his teams went 12-14. Brad Stevens, the coach of the Boston Celtics, has coached 56 playoff games, and his teams have gone 27-29. Though the sample size is larger with Stevens—more trips to the playoffs with better-built teams—the disparity isn’t tremendous. Brad Stevens, however, has built a culture in Boston—one of disciplined defense and unselfish offense; Brown never got a real chance.

In football, culture certainly matters. Just as long as it’s a winning culture you’re fostering. In the NFL, you aren’t guaranteed a head coaching job unless you’ve won a Super Bowl or your last name rhymes with Pelichick. If you win games—and playoff games—you stick around, at least for a while. We mock Jason Garrett, Doug Marrone, and Bill O’Brien, but those guys all have playoff wins under their belts. Hell, Garrett and O’Brien both have two, and it took a Marvin Lewis-ish run of disappointment-laden seasons with Garrett on staff for Jerry Jones to fire him.

So while McDermott’s seat isn’t necessarily hot, it’s worth pondering how long he may have until it begins to singe. Does his extended working relationship with Brandon Beane make a big difference? What gets valued more in Buffalo today: raw success or hope? Because McDermott has certainly found a way to provide the latter; it’s the former that will keep the seat warmer turned off.

And if history is any indication—as it often is—time is of the essence.