Carolina Panthers

Sean McDermott is architect of Panthers' defense

jperson@charlotteobserver.comJuly 31, 2013 

— For the past seven months, a lot has been written about the hand-off of the Panthers’ offensive coordinator post from Rob Chudzinski to Mike Shula.

Meanwhile, the architect of the NFL’s 10th-ranked defense in 2012 has barely been mentioned.

Sean McDermott is not complaining.

“I love it,” said McDermott, the Panthers’ third-year defensive coordinator. “I don’t like attention on me. I like attention on our team. I think that’s good, as long as we keep the team first.”

Flying below the radar is nothing new for McDermott, a two-time, national-champion wrestler who turned down wrestling scholarships to walk on to the football team at William & Mary.

McDermott, an undersized safety, started out at the small school in Virginia playing in the shadow of Mike Tomlin and Darren Sharper, who went on to successful NFL careers as a coach and player, respectively.

McDermott was all-conference by his senior year.

McDermott’s coaching career has followed a similar progression. As Andy Reid’s assistant in Philadelphia, McDermott performed chores as menial as picking up players at the airport to more challenging tasks like managing the salary cap.

It was a long 12-year slog with the Eagles – from assistant to Reid, to assistant position coach, to position coach to defensive coordinator. That chip-on-his-shoulder mentality is a badge that both McDermott and his defenses wear proudly.

“He’s very intense. He acts like me a little bit. He’s got little-man syndrome,” said Captain Munnerlyn, the Panthers’ 5-foot-8 cornerback. “He’s so competitive. He wants to win every single down. If the offensive coordinator’s calling the play, he wants to win that down.”

Working his way up

McDermott is 5-foot-10 and weighs about the same as he did in high school when he was a national prep champ in the 171-pound weight class and had a record of 64-0 his final two seasons. McDermott, whose father was a Division II football coach for a couple of schools in the Philadelphia area, still loves wrestling.

“I think there’s so many things in wrestling that you learn from – mental toughness. You’ve got nobody else to blame but yourself,” he said. “You’re out there with 10 other guys in football. In wrestling it’s you and the guy and the ref, and one spotlight on the mat.”

But dropping weight every week, besides draining him physically, also caused his grades to drop, he said. So despite drawing interest from the wrestling programs at Penn State, Virginia and George Mason, McDermott went to William & Mary for football.

“I was not a decorated player. I just tried to do my job and do it the best of my ability. A lot of guys got a lot more recognition than I did,” McDermott said after a training camp practice last week. “That’s why I’m a coach, right?”

He nearly was an accountant. He accepted a position with Price Waterhouse Coopers in the fall of his senior year. But when his William & Mary coaches approached him in the spring about joining their staff, he followed his father’s career path.

The next year McDermott was hired by his hometown Eagles. As a college student, McDermott helped with security at the Eagles’ training camp at West Chester, one of his dad’s coaching stops.

McDermott’s first coaching role in Philadelphia was as defensive quality control coach. He assisted Ron Rivera, the Panthers coach who was then the Eagles linebackers coach.

“He was a very sharp kid. You knew that he was eventually going to become a coach,” Rivera said. “He’s willing to start from the bottom and work his way up. That’s probably the most important thing.”

McDermott eventually became the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, inheriting the post following the death of Jim Johnson, a revered figure in Philly known for his aggressive, blitzing defenses.

McDermott was 35 when he succeeded Johnson, and did OK in his two seasons in charge. The Eagles led the league in takeaways in 2009-10, and finished 12th in total defense in 2010.

But after the Eagles lost to Green Bay in the wild card round of the playoffs that season, Reid fired him.

“My two years there, we won 20 games and were in the playoffs both years,” McDermott said. “The No. 1 defense the two years combined in takeaways, and did some other good things. We had success there.”

Dramatic improvement

McDermott’s first season in Charlotte was rough. The Panthers struggled defensively after losing three starters to injury before Week 3.

Carolina was among the bottom six teams in total defense, points allowed, third-down efficiency and takeaways. The Panthers appeared headed for a similar finish last season until Luke Kuechly replaced the injured Jon Beason at middle linebacker in Week 5.

They gave up 60 fewer yards a game with Kuechly in the middle, improving from 24th in the league in total defense to 10th. In addition to the play of Kuechly, the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, the Panthers got monster seasons from defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who combined for 23.5 sacks.

With Kuechly leading the linebacker corps, and a pair of high draft picks bolstering the defensive line, most observers expect the Panthers’ front seven to be stout. The secondary, which lost its best cover cornerback in Chris Gamble, is more of a question mark.

McDermott pointed out that his corners are expected to do more than cover.

“We ask them to tackle. That’s part of the job description,” he said. “When your corners tackle, that’s an identity for your defense. It says a lot about who you are.”

During the first week of training camp, the Panthers’ first-team corners were free agent acquisition Drayton Florence and Munnerlyn, who agreed to a 1-year deal during the offseason to stay with Carolina.

“I love him, I really do,” McDermott said of Munnerlyn. “I love the way he plays. I love his work ethic. I love his attitude. You talk about an identity for a defense, his toughness is one of the things that stands out about our defense.”

McDermott laughed when asked whether he relates to Munnerlyn.

“I do,” he said. “Here’s a guy that’s probably been told he isn’t this and wasn’t this, wasn’t tall enough or whatever. And I was told that a lot. I think life’s about proving people wrong.”

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