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In My Opinion

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Carolina Panthers coordinator Sean McDermott lacks celebrity, but not talent

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.
PANTHERS0728_29
Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, left, and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott discuss a drill during a July practice at Gibbs Stadium on the campus of Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C.

The candidates rumored to be in contention for the Washington Redskins coaching job are not celebrities.

Redskins owner Dan Snyder hires celebrities. There’s a segment of football fans in Charlotte, and I don’t know if they’re great in number or they’re great at sending emails, but every time there is an opening real or imagined for a Carolina Panthers head coach, I hear from readers who want a celebrity.

They don’t want the next good coach. They want the coach who is good or once was good and whose name they know. They want TV star and, before he was fired, Super Bowl winner Jon Gruden. They want TV star and former Super Bowl winner Bill Cowher.

Snyder plays fantasy football with real coaches. He has since he bought the Redskins.

This is why Sean McDermott, Carolina’s defensive coordinator, is such an odd candidate. McDermott excels at what he does, but he’s not a celebrity. Except for his weekly Monday afternoon interviews at Bank of America Stadium, where there are often cameras, he’s not even on TV.

McDermott will interview with the Redskins in Charlotte on Saturday. I don’t know where, but I have an idea.

What’s the most famous and desirable place in Charlotte? That would be the place that’s the toughest to get into. What’s the toughest place to get into in Charlotte? That would be Bank of America Stadium on Jan. 12.

McDermott had a rough start in 2011, his first season. He was dealt a defense that was constantly injured and he rarely was able to start the same players on consecutive weeks. The players didn’t abandon him, though. This season they are the NFL’s second-ranked defense.

McDermott has taken a variety of parts, several of them new, and merged them. His touch on blitzes has been uncanny. The Panthers are not blitzing fools. With their defensive line, they don’t have to be. When they do blitz, it always seems like a surprise, a pleasant surprise for Carolina.

I was introduced to McDermott before his first season. We were at Auburn on Cam Newton’s Pro Day. I asked what part of Charlotte he settled in. He told me and asked me where I lived. I asked him if he had kids. He told me and asked if I did.

If you’re a celebrity, and you realize you’re a celebrity, you might answer questions. You might. But you don’t ask them.

Talking to McDermott was like talking to a person who had a great new job but did not think he was important because of it.

One season I misinterpreted a mistake the Panthers made and, in my column, attributed the mistake to McDermott. The mistake, however, was not his. This makes the mistake mine.

After he finished with the media, I told McDermott what I wrote and apologized. He said he hadn’t read the column (probably he was saving it so he would have something to look forward to). McDermott patted me on the shoulder and told me he appreciated me coming to him.

Those are the words of an anti-celebrity.

Snyder has hired five head coaches since he bought the Redskins.

The first was Marty Schottenheimer, an ESPN analyst who was 101-58-1 in the regular season with Kansas City. He never won a Super Bowl, but he had been on TV. He went 8-8 in 2001 and was fired after one season.

The second was South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier. Everybody wanted Spurrier. The Panthers courted him. Snyder landed him. (The Panthers hired John Fox instead.)

Spurrier went 12-20 in two seasons, made a lot of money and came south to build a South Carolina program where there had been nothing but ashes and red clay.

The third was Joe Gibbs. He had won three Super Bowl championships with the Redskins, and two in NASCAR, when Snyder hired him. He went 30-34 in four seasons.

The fourth was Jim Zorn. He was famous for not being famous. After Gibbs retired, Zorn was hired as offensive coordinator. When a coaching search was unsuccessful, and the Redskins were rejected like a sportswriter at last call, Zorn was promoted. He went 12-20 in two seasons.

Mike Shanahan was famous. In 1997 and ’98, he led the Denver Broncos to victories in the Super Bowl. He also owned a giant house in Denver. He lasted four seasons in Washington and had a record of 24-40. He was fired Monday.

Maybe Snyder has learned that it’s not about hiring the most famous coach or the guy who used to be good. It’s about hiring the guy who will be.

If so, McDermott is entitled to a long look. Shame he hasn’t done more TV.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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