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Sean McDermott’s discipline of Buffalo Bills RB James Cook sparks accountability concerns

Right or wrong, the appearance is that who you are matters more than what you do

NFL: Denver Broncos at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott once again sent running back James Cook to the doghouse, following a strip-fumble during the team’s first offensive play against the Denver Broncos in Week 10.

Cook would fail to see the field for almost the entirety of the first half. As alluded to above, this wasn’t the first time McDermott decided to make an example of Cook. As a rookie, Cook had the misfortune of fumbling his first play from scrimmage. We will forever only be able to guess whether it was due to nerves or lack of focus, but the message was clear back then — fumbling is unacceptable. Failing to produce where expected will not be tolerated. Perhaps then, and even against the Broncos, McDermott simply wanted to get him out to calm him down and help center his focus. It’s possible. But unlikely when you consider other players who don’t suffer similar fates.

That’s especially true when the focus shifts to wide receiver Gabe Davis. Once again, in a key moment Davis failed to reel in a catch (admittedly not the best pass ever thrown), and cost his team a turnover and chance at points early against the Broncos. But Gabe Davis wasn’t sent to the bench. And he’s never been sent to the bench because of failures to produce. What Davis is — a 2023 team captain, likely plays a bit into his longer leash.

Time and again, tight end Dawson Knox has produced unreliable hands in big moments. But instead of discipline, he’s been rewarded with a handsome new contract. Let’s not forget right tackle Spencer Brown, who struggled to block marshmallows often prior to this season. His head coach almost never held him accountable for any failure to produce, even if it was due in some part to recovery from injury.

It seems disingenuous as a leader for McDermott to continue holding only certain people accountable for their actions and performance. Yes, he’s pulled defenders at times, namely linebackers Dorian Williams and Tyrel Dodson, cornerback Kaiir Elam, and others on the defense. But for whatever reason, James Cook continues to find himself singled out.

With the news that the team relieved offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey of his responsibilities on Tuesday morning, it’s fair to say that McDermott has reached the hot seat and he feels compelled to save face where he can influence change. Benching the team’s best running back serves no good purpose for a struggling offense — and when Cook was allowed to play, he was one of the few players making a profound difference during Monday Night Football.

It’s one thing to send a message, to the player and those watching you with a prodding eye. Almost everyone will tell you, however, that benching a running back is counterproductive to their on-field performance. They need consistent reps to get into a groove. It’s another to sabotage your team just to hammer home a point. Were the pair of bad exchanges (one a near fumble and one a true fumble) due to the lack of reps for Cook? What did McDermott expect Cook to learn by his benching, that which he didn’t already understand?

Buffalo Bills legend Fred Jackson kept it real last night, stating:

Almost never can you say that a game is decided on the first play. So why treat a mistake — one that Cook couldn’t really prevent — during any game’s first play like it’s a matter of win or lose?

Furthermore, with the amount of turnovers due to Josh Allen, benching anyone who fumbles does little more than set a terrible precedent — one that could have long-lasting negative ramifications in the locker room.

Yes, turnovers are a major concern for the Buffalo Bills’ offense. I’ve written at length about the issue. But it’s not all due to James Cook. Why is he continuously held to a different standard, a more harsh level of discipline, than others? The NFL is a production-based business, but it’s fair to question whether Sean McDermott’s discipline methods are first fair for all, and second counterproductive to the team.