Not since Rex Ryan roamed the sidelines have the Buffalo Bills employed a head coach who called the plays on defense. Sure, that may have just been one coach ago, really — it’s true despite how long ago that tenure seems. But it is worth pointing out that in the six seasons the current Bills head coach has led the team, he has not been Buffalo’s defensive play caller — beyond the infrequent weeks where he’s done so for drives, halves, or games per a specific competitive situation.
Okay, so the last head coach to direct Buffalo’s defense was its last head coach, and the current head coach has done so from time to time. Why is this news?
You may recall that defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier has stepped away from his post for the 2023 NFL season. His plans aren’t to retire, yet rather to return coaching for the 2024 season. That leaves a lot of wiggle room for how to handle things within One Bills Drive.
Does Frazier get his job back when/if he returns, and should he? Does it make sense to replace him with someone else on the defensive staff when they know their role as DC might be one and done? If it does, then who has the most experience and ability to call the defense that Frazier’s led the last six years?
That’s why a tweet on Monday morning by WIVB sports director Josh Reed sent this author’s synapses into a sparked frenzy.
Bills head coach Sean McDermott is leaning heavily toward calling plays on defense this season. At the combine, I spoke with multiple people around the league who say they would be very surprised if that’s not the case.— Josh Reed (@4JoshReed) March 6, 2023
It makes the most sense considering all things from a 30,000-ft view for McDermott to run the defense in 2023. For year now, the Bills’ defense under the tenure of Sean McDermott has been tied to his name, either in tandem with Frazier or in lieu of mentioning the esteemed assistant head coach with 24 years of experience coaching at all levels of the NFL.
Whether McDermott calling the defense is a good thing presents an entirely different subset of questions. There are documented concerns about McDermott’s ability to handle the minutiae of responsibilities that fall on a head coach in critical moments during game days. Those include how and when to utilize special teams units, playing chess with time outs, and knowing how to call his opponent’s bluff during the most critical plays of each half. That’s not to say that he fails to make the right decisions more often than not, but for any head coach of a team suddenly in the NFL spotlight, the rays always reflect back brighter to a much larger audience.
To McDermott’s credit with Buffalo — his first as a head coach — he never deflects, never blames, and only ever owns his mistakes while vowing to improve on them moving forward. But for a team that’s now well into its current Super Bowl window, handling the small details in big situations is paramount to the lofty goals sought by Bills Mafia and within the walls of One Bills Drive.
Certainly, Sean McDermott has experience as a defensive play caller, given his stints as defensive coordinator for six seasons with the Carolina Panthers, and the 12 years prior to that with the Philadelphia Eagles under Andy Reid — where he served as defensive coordinator from 2009-2010. While with the Panthers, McDermott led his units to a top-10 finish four out of six season. For his efforts in 2009 with the Eagles, McDermott was named the NFL’s top defensive coordinator by Pro Football Weekly.
Those experiences should provide McDermott with more than enough leverage to take on the duties vacated by Frazier for this coming season. It’s sometimes easy to forget just how great of a defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was prior to joining the Bills, especially when the man who McDermott appointed has carved out his own impressive and historic legacy. Despite the turmoil it seemed to create when the new broke of Frazier’s temporary departure, there should be little reason to think Sean McDermott can’t continue building on his own legacy of success by calling the Bills’ defense in 2023.