ASHBURN — When Ron Rivera was in his early days of rebuilding the Washington Football Team, he studied other teams around the league to see if he could glean any information that would apply to his new situation. Specifically, the coach turned to a former pupil in Sean McDermott.
McDermott had built a team on the rise in Buffalo, and so Rivera wanted to pick his former defensive coordinator’s mind to see how the Bills did it.
As the two chatted, much of Buffalo’s plan sounded familiar to Rivera — not just because he ran a similar model in Carolina, but because it reminded him of the lessons he learned under Andy Reid in Philadelphia decades earlier.
“This all goes way back to 1999,” Rivera said.
That year, after all, is when the Eagles hired Reid — one of the most innovative NFL coaches and a consistent winner with a long list of successful proteges, including Rivera, McDermott and Ravens coach John Harbaugh, among others. After overlapping for a few years with the Eagles in the early 2000s, Rivera hired McDermott to join him when he took over the Panthers job in 2011. McDermott left for Buffalo six years later, and has since helped turn the Bills into a contender.
McDermott’s success in Buffalo is why Rivera called the Bills a “measuring stick” for Washington when the two teams face off Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium. It’s easy to see why.
Coming off last season’s AFC championship game appearance, the Bills have a solid foundation with a franchise quarterback in Josh Allen and a talented supporting cast on both sides of the ball. These days, they’re largely seen as the model on how to rebuild on the fly — going from a team that barely limped into the playoffs in 2017 at 9-7 to a powerhouse that seems to consistently get better.
That improvement is reflected in the record under McDermott: The Bills have gone 9-7, 6-10, 10-6 and 13-3 in his four seasons at the helm. His only year below .500 came during Allen’s rookie season. The Bills took a temporary step back then to build for the future.
Rivera is trying a similar approach with Washington.
“What they’ve done, the way they’ve done it, they’ve been very methodical with how the plan — they’ve stuck to the plan,” Rivera said of the Bills. “They did the things they needed to do, put the players in place. He doesn’t have a lot of turnover on his coaching staff. Stuff like that. That’s the thing you look at and appreciate is that continuity that’s there.”
The Bills’ plan took time.
Under general manager Brandon Beane, a former executive in Carolina, Buffalo spent the first few years jettisoning players and clearing salary cap room. As part of the process, McDermott and Beane acquired players who knew what the duo wanted — creating a Carolina-to-Buffalo pipeline by bringing in familiar faces and former Panthers in Vernon Butler, Kurt Coleman and Star Lotulelei, among others.
Buffalo’s biggest hurdle was the quarterback — a position the Bills didn’t address until Year 2. In 2018, Buffalo traded up to grab Allen with the seventh overall pick. From there, the Bills put resources into furthering the young quarterback’s development — from acquiring receivers like Cole Beasley and Stefon Diggs to working on improving his accuracy.
Washington, of course, has held off on finding a quarterback of the future. The team used four quarterbacks in Rivera’s first season and now, in 2021, the team has already had to turn to backup Taylor Heinicke because of injury.
But Rivera said he’s tried to be patient even as Washington won the NFC East in 2020. Just as Buffalo was patient in not letting a playoff appearance in 2017 sidetrack them from the overall goal of building a consistent winner.
“That’s what we do as coaches,” McDermott said. “That’s what we do in this business, is try to learn from other people. It says a lot about Ron. … We’re all in this for the same goal here, and that’s to become the best we can.”
Rivera noted that people emulate Reid with good reason: His methods work. But Rivera knows that Reid borrowed from Mike Holmgren in Green Bay, who in turn learned lessons from Bill Walsh in San Francisco. The number of wins and championships between those men are, of course, notable.
Two games into this season, Rivera said his team is “trending” in the right direction. Washington is 1-1 and appears to have a number of young foundational pieces.
But bigger questions — like whether the defense can get back to an elite level and if the team can find an answer at quarterback — remain.
“I don’t expect things to happen overnight,” Rivera said. “Last year was a little odd, the whole year was odd. I try to remind myself, too, that we’re building, we’re in a process and we have to stick to the process. We have to stick pretty much to what the plan is.
“We’ll see how it goes.”