New Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott brought three former Panthers players with him to Buffalo, creating a Carolina-Great Lakes campus in his first head-coaching stint.
But the one guy McDermott couldn’t take to Buffalo was his MMA sparring partner who would go at it with McDermott in the Panthers’ weight room in the pre-dawn workouts last season in Charlotte.
Looking for a workout that wouldn’t wear out his knees, McDermott – a champion high school wrestler growing up in Philadelphia – turned to mixed martial arts.
The sparring sessions often ended in blood, sweat and ... tears – of laughter when Panthers players would wander into the weight room and their defensive coordinator grappling.
“It was cool because the players would see me doing it, the tail end of it. Obviously that was the end of the workout,” McDermott said. “They saw me getting my butt kicked and they’d give me a hard time about it. Those were fun mornings.”
It’s been a fun three months for McDermott since the Bills hired him to succeed Rex Ryan.
Speaking with reporters Tuesday at the owners meeting during an early morning coaches breakfast – not as early as his MMA sessions – McDermott sounded like a teenager turned loose on the new Kong ride at Universal Studios (or a man freed from his first Buffalo winter).
“It’s not even a job that we do,” McDermott said, beaming. “We’re in Arizona right now.”
Still new to town
It’s still the honeymoon period for McDermott and his wife, Jamie, who sold their house in south Charlotte and are looking for a home in Buffalo.
McDermott, 43, has yet to oversee his first practice with the Bills. But he plans to be ready when OTAs and minicamps begin this spring, mentally and physically.
McDermott, an all-conference safety at William & Mary, is that rare NFL coach with less body fat than his skilled-position players.
“They’re in great shape, in peak conditioning. I can’t be out there out of shape,” McDermott said. “I like to run with them out there.”
McDermott will be running with three Panthers’ expatriates after the Bills signed fullback Mike Tolbert, receiver Philly Brown and cornerback Leonard Johnson this month in free agency.
McDermott believes all three can help a Buffalo franchise that hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since 1999. But McDermott also is confident all three will contribute in ways extending beyond the field, particularly the fun-loving Tolbert.
“What he does in the locker room – just keeping the guys loose, playing the music, his touchdown dances. That makes it fun and the players kind of rally around that,” McDermott said. “That’s the chemistry part. ... All the good teams have chemistry and Mike brings that. And Philly no different.”
McDermott has a soft spot for Brown, who – as his nickname suggests – grew up in Philly.
“So he’s automatically tough because he’s from Philadelphia,” McDermott said, laughing.
Building a career
After college McDermott returned to work for his hometown Eagles, beginning as a glorified gopher and working his way up to defensive coordinator under Andy Reid.
“You knew he was thorough right from the get-go,” said Reid, now the Chiefs’ coach. “A very hard worker ... (with) all the intangibles – and he’s smart.”
He was smart enough to steer clear of controversy Tuesday, saying he and general manager Doug Whaley are on good terms despite a CBS report last week to the contrary.
McDermott interviewed Panthers quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey about a position in Buffalo and was interested in bringing Carolina linebackers coach Al Holcomb in as defensive coordinator. Both ultimately stayed in Charlotte.
McDermott will run his 4-3 defense in Buffalo while hitching his offensive fortunes to quarterback Tyrod Taylor and a rushing attack led by LeSean McCoy and two new fullbacks.
At a position some think should be on the endangered list, McDermott signed Tolbert and former Falcons fullback Patrick DiMarco to open holes for Shady and pick up tough yards.
“We believe in running the football. We believe in physical play at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball,” McDermott said.
That physicality was evident at William & Mary, where McDermott was a small but fearless safety who lined up at practice everyday against a rangy receiver named Mike Tomlin.
The Steelers coach remembers McDermott drilling him in the back on a crossing route during a spring practice, but also called him a “good above-the-neck player” who logged plenty of hours in the film room – and weight room.
So Tomlin wasn’t surprised Tuesday to learn of McDermott’s MMA sessions.
“He brought that to his tackling in school. The physicality of the game, the combat element of it appeared to be right up his alley,” Tomlin said. “That doesn’t surprise me at all.”
While his wife searches for a house, McDermott hopes to find a replacement for Charlotte sparring partner Ryan Hoover, who’s also trained with Panthers coach Ron Rivera, tight end Greg Olsen and other Carolina players.
“He and I would kind of go at it in the mornings and do some sparring. I enjoyed it. It was a heck of a workout,” McDermott said. “I haven’t found that in Buffalo, yet. But I’m sure in due time that’ll open itself up.”