“I watched his personal growth as a person more so than as a coach,” Rivera said at the NFL Scouting Combine Thursday. “I love his leadership skills. I love his ability to walk into a room with presence and seriousness.
“But there is some self-deprecation. He’s the first one to laugh at himself, so I think he’s got the characteristics you look for in a quality leader.”
Rivera never forgot what he witnessed during those five seasons, 1999 to 2003, that he and McDermott worked together on the coaching staff Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid put together in Philadelphia.
Reid, too, was a big McDermott fan, praising his intelligence, attention to detail, and teaching skills. He put McDermott in an extremely tough spot in 2009, when he named him to replace Jim Johnson as defensive coordinator after Johnson lost his battle with cancer. Rivera knew that it was likely to not turn out well for McDermott, but he never lost an ounce of faith in him.
Then, in 2011, when Rivera became head coach of the Carolina Panthers and McDermott had been let go as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, Rivera promptly “jumped on” the chance to make McDermott his DC.
“When he first got to Charlotte, he had the opportunity to build his own defense,” Rivera said. “He inherited one when Jim Johnson passed in Philadelphia. So we got together, we talked about the things that he should do and he went out and did it.”
In six seasons under McDermott, the Panthers’ defense ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in yards allowed four times. In 2015, when the Panthers went 15-1 on the way to the Super Bowl, the Carolina D finished first in takeaways and sixth in yards and points allowed.
Reid’s staff was a fertile training ground for future NFL head coaches. Besides Rivera and McDermott, there was Doug Pederson (Philadelphia), John Harbaugh (Baltimore), Leslie Frazier (formerly with Minnesota and now the Bills’ defensive coordinator), Pat Shurmur (formerly with Cleveland and now offensive coordinator in Minnesota), Brad Childress (formerly with Minnesota and now a Reid assistant in Kansas City) and Steve Spagnuolo (formerly with the Rams and now defensive coordinator with the New York Giants).
“I think that if you go back and you talk to all of them, talk about hard work and the ability to listen to what people say, the ability to be creative, to be understanding, those are all things that — having worked with Andy — we all took with us as we moved on to different places in our career,” Rivera said. “I think Sean has those qualities.”
One area where Rivera believes McDermott has excelled is in assembling his coaching staff. Rivera told McDermott the chore would present a tremendous challenge.
Rivera is especially pleased that McDermott did something Rivera failed to do after becoming head coach of the Panthers — hire a former NFL head coach. Rivera sees Frazier as being valuable because he’s someone McDermott “can lean on and go to.”
Rivera also stressed to McDermott the importance of finding players that fit his offense and defense, and “being upfront” with those early decisions on replacing many of the players on the roster he inherited.