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Opinion: Sean McDermott turtled when he needed to be aggressive

The Bills played to survive when they needed to play to win

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

All year long in 2020, the Buffalo Bills and head coach Sean McDermott left hardly anything to complain about for those who monitor things like going for it on fourth down. Earlier in McDermott’s tenure with the Bills he was criticized for punting in situations where analytics vet out going for it, or settling for field goals when pushing for the touchdown statistically led to better outcomes. Not so in 2020.

In fact, the Bills received praise from regular critics like Football Outsiders on their “smart” aggressiveness. It became almost instinct for Bills fans to know whether or not a fourth down was going to be a go-for-it situation. The best parts about it were that it often worked, and it felt good. It felt good to not be afraid of the other team.

There were no such feelings to be had for Bills fans in the AFC Championship game.

  • 4th-and-3 on the KC 33-yard line on the opening drive. McDermott kicks a 51-yard field goal over trying to continue the drive.
  • 4th-and-goal at the KC 2-yard line down 21-9, McDermott kicks a field goal rather than going for a TD with 11 seconds left in the half.
  • 4th-and-3 at the KC 8-yard line down 12-24, McDermott kicks a field goal rather than going for a TD with 5:49 left in the third.

McDermott did go for it on 4th-and-1 twice during the game. The first time came on the Bills’ opening drive, just 2:15 into the game. They succeeded with a nifty pass play to Knox—and then McDermott decided not to try his luck again that drive (bullet-point one above). The second instance came when the team was down 15-31 at the start of the fourth quarter with a nifty little jet sweep with Isaiah McKenzie at the KC 42. But I’m left wondering if that same situation were earlier in the game and the Bills’ backs less against the wall, would McDermott have punted despite never doing such a thing all season.

The Bills’ pass protection was manhandled by the Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive line and blitz packages. Buffalo’s defense had quite literally zero answers to stop the Chiefs. These things were completely evident early on in the game, certainly at least to fans and one would hope to McDermott too. Rather than fuel the aggressiveness needed to fight back, the Bills and their head coach turtled up like they knew they were outmatched and wanted to just try and steal the game at the end if they were lucky enough to be close. McDermott coached like someone who was afraid.

Fans can read their emotions into the games they’re watching in ways that don’t reflect reality. Maybe that’s all this column is. But it sure felt to many fans like the game where the Bills needed to be their absolute best, smartest, and most aggressive selves, they played to survive rather than win. And they did neither.