ASHBURN — Steve Wilks remembers the first head-to-head meeting between Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott.
Then-Carolina Panthers coach Rivera had promoted Wilks to defensive coordinator in wake of McDermott leaving to become the coach of the Buffalo Bills. And just two weeks into the 2017 season, the Panthers and the Bills faced off.
The result was a low-scoring affair: A 9-3 victory for the Panthers.
“I knew it was going to be a close game,” said Wilks, now the defensive coordinator at the University of Missouri. “They knew our personnel. They knew our scheme. And likewise, we knew theirs.”
Wilks wasn’t surprised because, beyond the familiarity, Rivera and McDermott shared a defensive-minded philosophy — as great as their teams may be on offense, the men would ultimately emphasize “they have to win it on defense.”
Sunday will mark the second regular-season faceoff between Rivera and McDermott — a battle of mentor versus mentee — but this time, the circumstances are much different. For one, Rivera is no longer at Carolina, with the coach now trying to build Washington (1-1) into a contender. And McDermott has transformed the Bills (1-1) into one of the league’s best teams, a juggernaut that Rivera said would be a “measuring stick” for his squad.
McDermott’s success is such that publications from Sports Illustrated to Pro Football Focus actually listed McDermott ahead of Rivera in offseason rankings of the NFL’s top coaches. The Bills, after all, are coming off an AFC Championship appearance and have been above .500 in three of four seasons with McDermott at the helm.
But according to those who know both men, Rivera and McDermott are very similar in terms of approach to the game — and McDermott credits Rivera deeply for shaping his journey to become a head coach. The two spent six seasons together in Carolina and before that, they overlapped for a few years as assistants in Philadelphia under Andy Reid.
“They both are very detail-oriented guys,” said Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who’s also Rivera‘s good friend and convinced the coach to go into coaching. “They really like to plan things out. I can see that influence that Ron had in Sean from an organizational standpoint. They’re very similar in that way.”
McDermott called Rivera one of his “biggest mentors in the business.” And Rivera‘s influence extended in ways that McDermott said he didn’t even realize initially as an assistant. For example, as a coordinator in Carolina, there were times when McDermott asked for extra reps in practice and was denied — only for Rivera to grant the same request when the offense asked. McDermott said he didn’t understand the logic then, but a funny thing happened when he took over in Buffalo: The coach found himself doing the same thing. He realized Rivera was trying to make it “tougher” on the defense.
McDermott said until one becomes a head coach, there are things that assistants just don’t understand. “You don’t always get the why or get the big pictures of things,” he said. But that perspective changes as soon as the role expands.
“My respect for Ron Rivera has grown exponentially since becoming a head coach myself,” McDermott said.
Rivera likes to often say he tries to empower his assistants. At an NFL coaching seminar in July, he told assistants on the video call that it was important for a head coach to ultimately “set the standard” for a team — but that it was vital to handle each assistant differently and delegate authority.
Wilks saw that happen in Carolina. Wilks said Rivera “was never afraid” of letting his assistants address the group as a whole in team meetings — and not just when Rivera was unavailable to do so. Wilks called that time “instrumental” in helping prepare for becoming a head coach, with Rivera allowing his assistants to become comfortable in speaking in front of a team.
Rivera was also “very approachable” and did a great job of listening. With the Panthers, Rivera called the defensive plays on the sideline, but he incorporated many of McDermott’s plans and concepts into the game-plan. And years went by, Rivera ceded those duties to other defensive coordinators. Wilks called the plays for Carolina in 2017 and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio does the same for Washington now.
Wilks sees McDermott applying a lot of the same principles from their days in Carolina to the Bills. That’s not just related to football Xs and Os — though there are overlaps scheme-wise — but also by the type of players that Buffalo brings in. McDermott and Rivera, Wilks said, each focus on adding quality, high-character guys that allow a team to sustain a winning culture.
That’s easier said than done, Wilks said. He knows firsthand. In 2018, Wilks was hired to coach the Arizona Cardinals — but was fired after one season. Wilks didn’t get the chance to help remake the Cardinals to his liking. Not the way that Rivera and McDermott have for their respective teams.
“It takes time to really establish and build that culture,” Wilks said. “You know, you’ve got to have a great team to be able to do that. Coaches and players alike. It starts up top with ownership and the [general manager], and I think, Ron and Sean both have that support. … They’re quality coaches, man, who understand exactly what it takes.”
There are differences between Rivera and McDermott, of course. Frazier said Rivera is a lot more “stoic” on the sidelines than McDermott. On a smaller scale, they also have different times in which they like to work out: McDermott is a morning person, while Rivera goes to the gym around lunch, Wilks said.
But they share a mindset. When Rivera fired hired McDermott in 2011, he told him that they would build the Panthers together. And they did just that over the course of six seasons — including a 15-1 campaign in 2015 that resulted in a trip to the Super Bowl.
“I was very fortunate to have him as long as I did,” Rivera said, “because he did a heck of a job.”