Ashley Fox | ESPN.com
Sean McDermott’s time is coming. The Carolina Panthers‘ 39-year-old defensive coordinator is going to be one of the hot head-coaching prospects for 2014.
McDermott’s defense, which held San Francisco to nine points last week and faces New England on Monday night, is that good.
A few years ago, McDermott was a castoff, fired by the Philadelphia Eagles, the only NFL team for which he had ever worked. McDermott was a grinder. He started as an entry-level scouting administrative coordinator for the Eagles in 1998 and worked his way up as an assistant to Andy Reid, then a quality-control coach, then an assistant defensive-backs coach and then the linebackers coach.
After the great Jim Johnson died before the 2009 season, Reid promoted McDermott to defensive coordinator. Following a legend is never easy, and McDermott worked in the long shadow of a masterful coach known for his creative blitz packages and stingy, dominating defenses.
McDermott’s defenses didn’t live up to expectations. In 2010, the Eagles allowed 377 points, their most since 1974, and struggled in the red zone. Despite the fact that the Eagles went 21-11 and made the playoffs twice during McDermott’s tenure, it wasn’t enough. At that time in Philadelphia, it was Super Bowl or bust. After two seasons, McDermott became a sacrificial lamb, one of several as Reid’s Eagles slid into a decline that ultimately cost Reid his job, too.
“It’s humbling to have gone through what I’ve gone through, to be honest,” McDermott said. “But what I went through in Philadelphia has made me a better coach. It happened at a young time in my career. I was trending up, going from one job to the next, getting more and more responsibilities. What I went through really helped me to say, ‘Hey, take a step back and understand what’s made me successful.’
“I’ve continued to learn and put my signature on a defense from scratch.”
The day after he was fired, McDermott had “multiple job offers,” he said. He decided to reunite with Ron Rivera, with whom he had worked for five years in Philadelphia.
Given his background as defensive coordinator in Chicago and San Diego, Rivera has been involved in defining the Panthers’ defensive identity, but he has also encouraged McDermott to be his own man. He hasn’t had to try to be Johnson.
McDermott stressed several core values to be effective at playing what he calls “good, old-fashioned football.” Run to the ball. Tackle. Be fundamentally sound. Create turnovers. Be stout in the red zone. Don’t give up big plays.
And McDermott subscribes to Johnson’s philosophy that if the defense can limit opponents to 17 or fewer points, the team should win the game.
Incrementally, as the Panthers used high draft picks to bolster the defense, Carolina improved from 28th in total defense in 2011 to 10th in 2012 to first this season, allowing 283.3 yards per game. The Panthers are among the league leaders with a plus-8 turnover differential and are tied for fifth in red zone touchdown percentage (64.3).
During its five-game winning streak, Carolina is second in points and yards allowed and has forced 21 turnovers. It held Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson to what was then a season-low 62 yards, limited Atlanta to 10 points and held the 49ers to 151 total yards and an average of 2.9 yards per play in San Francisco.
To a man, the players credit McDermott for his creative play-calling, which keeps offenses guessing.
“In Philly, we used to joke he never went home,” said Panthers safety Quintin Mikell, who played for the Eagles for eight seasons. “He was always studying and sleeping in the office. He’s probably doing the same stuff here.”
Mikell has played with McDermott as both his position coach and his coordinator, and he sees a man who is now more comfortable as a coach.
“When you had the situation in Philly and guys who had been doing things one way for so long, it was hard for Sean to put his imprint on it because things had been done one way for so long,” said Mikell, whom the Panthers picked up in free agency this year. “He had an opportunity to get that experience, but at the same time, it wasn’t exactly the way he wanted it do be. He couldn’t make the decisions.
“Now, you see he’s got his own ideas, his own way of doing things. A lot of it makes sense. It’s cool to see the growth in him in just a short amount of time. He’s definitely gotten the guys to buy in and do whatever it takes to win.”
Despite the way he left Philadelphia, McDermott said he still speaks to Reid weekly. He is part of Reid’s rich coaching tree that includes Rivera, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier, former St. Louis coach Steve Spagnuolo and former Vikings coach Brad Childress.
When told that word around the league is that McDermott will be a sought-after head-coaching candidate when the inevitable carousel starts turning, Reid said in a text: “He deserves it. Hard working. Smart. Honest. Good person.”
“As hard as it was, getting out of Philadelphia is what I needed,” McDermott said. “It really was. I take a lot of pride in what I did there. The experience was great, and there’s no substitute for experience. I think I’m better as a coach, a husband and a father because of my time in Philadelphia.”
McDermott aspires to become a head coach. It is one of his goals, “at the right place and at the right time,” he said.
Given what he has accomplished with the Panthers, the right time could be right around the corner.
- ESPN.com NFL columnist
- Joined ESPN in 2011
- Has also worked at Sports Illustrated, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Louisville Courier-Journal