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Sean McDermott Apologizes For Motivating His Team With The Inspiring Story Of The 9/11 Hijackers

Sean McDermott looks confused or perhaps awed.
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Where possible, you want to avoid situations that require you to clarify to a scrum of local and national media that you regret having handed it to the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. This wisdom applies even in circumstances where the humiliating public mea culpa might conceivably need to be delivered as the professional football team for which you serve as head coach is preparing for a crucial contest. This can seem restrictive—are we not a nation founded on the principle of freedom of speech, you are asking, heatedly and more than a little bit worryingly, given the context—but I assure you this maxim will never steer you wrong. No point that you wish to make about buy-in and perseverance is worth the headache of having to explain why you chose some of modern history's most infamous mass murderers as your paragons.

This is a lesson that Sean McDermott, embattled head coach of the Buffalo Bills, has unfortunately had to learn the hard way. Thursday afternoon, less than 72 hours before the Bills face the Kansas City Chiefs on the road with their season slipping away, McDermott found himself at the center of an unscheduled and hastily organized press conference, explaining in somber tones to assembled media that he of course apologized to his players, during a 2019 training camp talk, immediately after he'd asked them what best practices they might glean from the operational success of Sept. 11 hijackers.

The report that broke news of this incredibly bizarre motivational speech comes from a three-part reported feature on McDermott from Go Long, the football newsletter of journalist Tyler Dunne. Dunne lays out persuasively his case that the Bills head coach, for all the success he's had leading the franchise's resurrection after a long period of deep shittiness, might be stunting his team's ability to clear that final hurdle and win a championship, and in certain ways actively corroding his team's foundation. As Dunne and a number of his sources have it, this season's disappointing 6–6 record, the team's perplexing habit of self-injury, and its growing track record of clutch anti-heroics in big games can all be traced back to McDermott's twitchy micromanagement, his evident discomfort with do-or-die scenarios, and his refusal of personal accountability.

A representative example comes from the hours after the Bills lost in an all-timer of a contest to the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round of the 2022 AFC playoffs. The Bills took a three-point lead inside the final 13 seconds of regulation. According to Dunne, Bills special teams coordinator Heath Farwell wanted to follow the go-ahead touchdown with a squib kick, forcing the Chiefs to field the ball in play and burn a few seconds of clock, leaving Pat Mahomes with time for only one offensive snap and something like 70 yards of field to cover for a score. McDermott preferred to kick the ball deep, even if it meant a touchback that would take no time off the clock. The back-and-forth between the two coaches led to confusion among players, but ultimately McDermott's call was the one heard by kicker Tyler Bass, who then booted the ball through the end zone. The rest is history.

It's not so much that McDermott may have made the wrong call—obviously things might've gone just as sideways on a squib, although Farwell's reasoning was certainly sound—as it is how he processed the outcome. Dunne says McDermott chose to focus his public comments on the play's "execution," which left Bass and Farwell feeling that they'd been scapegoated for an excruciatingly painful loss. Worse, behind closed doors McDermott attempted to shift some blame for the improbable sequence of events onto, of all things, Buffalo's offense:

[W]hen his decision to kick a touchback and his defense doomed Buffalo against the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs, there was zero accountability. To delusional proportions. One assistant coach remembers McDermott saying in the locker room that the offense scored too fast and left the Chiefs too much time. 

“It was such a ludicrous statement,” the coach said, “that it didn’t move the needle.”

The next day, McDermott continued to point the finger. “You guys need to get away,” the assistant recalled the boss saying. “Recharge, reflect, and figure out what you can do better to avoid that happening again.” With that, he walked out of the room.

Go Long

So clearly McDermott struggles to craft motivational messages for his assistants and players. That's probably true of lots of successful head coaches, many of whom may excel at the complex and demanding duties of the position through effective delegation and assorted management best practices, without necessarily having an instinct for messaging. But probably most of those coaches' difficulties with person-to-person communication do not rise to the cartoonish levels described in Dunne's reporting. Bills players didn't know what the hell to make of McDermott's bizarre and excruciatingly interactive case-study reference to Sept. 11 hijackers during what should've been a very normal training camp practice. One player told Dunne he felt like he "blacked out" during the speech, which is understandable to me because I think I blacked out while reading about it:

At St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, N.Y., McDermott’s morning address began innocently enough. He told the entire team they needed to come together. But then, sources on-hand say, he used a strange model: the terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. He cited the hijackers as a group of people who were all able to get on the same page to orchestrate attacks to perfection. One by one, McDermott started asking specific players in the room questions. “What tactics do you think they used to come together?” A young player tried to methodically answer. “What do you think their biggest obstacle was?” A veteran answered, “TSA,” which mercifully lightened the mood.

A coach who spoke to Dunne said McDermott initially "couldn't believe that it was a big deal" when the players who squirmed and muttered and possibly suffered brain damage during this surreal monologue were "losing their minds" about what they'd just heard; Dunne says it took the calm intervention of a visiting outsider to help McDermott to understand why his message might not have gone over very well. One Bills player took McDermott's "fucked-up" message to be that "if evil can accomplish this" through uhh working together and sticking to the plan—"this" being an act of astonishing world-historic evil—then imagine what the Buffalo Bills football team could do with the same resolve. When McDermott later came out to the practice field and apologized to the team, at least one player felt that rather than expressing sincere contrition, McDermott's clarifications amounted to doubling down on the intended message.

This is not the only example in Dunne's reporting of McDermott pulling personnel together so that he could absolutely flummox them with incomprehensibly wrong-headed motivational sessions. There was also the time that McDermott researched and planned out a speech about the Coast Guard working tirelessly to coordinate the rescue of a woman who drove her car into Niagara Falls, without considering what it might do for morale for his players to learn at the climax of this speech that the event concluded with the woman drowning to death. But the regrettable 9/11 talk was for sure the one that was most likely to eventually prompt Thursday's mortifying coda, featuring an ashen-faced McDermott assuring assembled media that he definitely realizes that 9/11 hijackers did a bad thing, in part because he personally lost a "good family friend" in the event.

"My intent that day was to talk about the importance of communication," explained McDermott. It can be difficult to find stirring examples of good communication that do not feature the deaths of thousands of civilians, but this is one of those times when that extra bit of digging can make all the difference. A good lesson in the benefits of extra digging can be taken from the diligent London workers who in the 14th century toiled to make an eight-foot-deep trench in Farringdon, using only the crude tools available at the time. Because of their perseverance, the remains of the dozen or so nameless victims of the bubonic plague that were then buried in the hole were not found for a whopping 600 years. Just think about what that kind of effort could do for the next head coach of the Buffalo Bills, when he is rooting around for a way to inspire his players through a day of practice.

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