Boy has the tenor changed on Bills head coach Rex Ryan in Western New York.
He was inheriting an elite defense and an offense with a collection of new shiny toys. THIS was the year. Fast forward 11 months — Buffalo will miss the playoffs for the 16th-straight season, and many want Rex fired. What happened?
These are some thoughts on where Rex went wrong, his future in Buffalo and the state of the Bills moving into 2016.
On Rex’s Defensive Scheme
No question about it — Rex’s installation of his complex, responsibility-loaded, blitz-happy scheme had a negative impact on a fine collection of defensive players in Buffalo in 2015.
With Jerry Hughes, Mario Williams — we’ll get to him later — Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, Rex had an embarrassment of riches in his front four… a quartet of defensive linemen with well-established work history of disruptive backfields and sacking quarterbacks.
Rex, like basically any other head coach would, added wrinkles. Buffalo’s defense was going to have his stamp on it. But the assortment of creative play designs overcomplicated things.
That’s part of what the Bills agreed to when they hired Rex. They weren’t getting a yes man who’d stoically stand on the sidelines as a figurehead for the powers-that-be above him. They knew — heck, everybody knew — they were getting a head coach oozing with bravado, confidence and a relatively strong track record of fielding above-average to elite-level defenses.
We'll have one cheese pizza with extra Rex, please. #WelcomeRex
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— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) January 13, 2015
However, there were / are two foundational issues with Rex incorporating his old-school array of zone blitzes that come with added and usually awkward duties for defensive linemen:
1. With the Jets for the past three or four seasons, Rex had to “scheme” pressure. Muhammad Wilkerson was a stud on the defensive interior the moment he stepped foot on an NFL field. The same goes for Sheldon Richardson. But New York really never had anyone terrorizing off the edge. Heck, a good portion of the league has two productive, 1-on-1 edge-rushers these days. After Calvin Pace passed his prime — in about 2010 — the Jets were barren at one of the game’s most indisputably vital positions and never improved at that spot from a talent perspective.
Therefore, Rex almost had to get super imaginative with his pressure packages to manufacture free runs at the quarterback. Why he failed to realize he had a group of amazing 1-on-1 disruptors on his Bills defensive line and didn’t need to “scheme” pressure anymore is beyond me. But I think his over-reliance on exotic blitzes in New York seeped into his overarching defensive philosophy.
2. Rex’s blitz-crazy scheme is outdated and becoming obsolete. When quarterbacks were (still) routinely taking five- and-seven-step drops as Rex came up in the NFL coaching ranks in the early- to-mid-2000s, sending the house in an assortment of ways was brilliant. With quarterbacks focusing on their detailed footwork on deep drops, the variety of rushers destroyed timing of most passing games and consistently forced quarterbacks to get rid of the football before they wanted to. Today, the NFL is almost exactly college football as we witnessed it from about 2008 – 2012.
Think about it. Things are wide open.
The majority of NFL offenses are shotgun-based, while a few teams run “pro-style” — which really just means “old” — attacks. Uptempo offenses are everywhere. Yards-after-the-catch is emphasized. And, probably most importantly, quarterbacks are coached to get rid of the football fast, fast, fast. Get it to the quick slot guy in space. Dump it to the speedy air back with the linebacker in coverage. Throw the slant to Odell Beckham.
As Bills fans have watched often in 2015, blitzing comes with increased risk, and it typically leaves back-seven players in man-to-man coverage with a lot of turf around them. Or, it leaves one side of the field completely “uncovered.” Neither of those are good things for a defense given the way offenses are run today and how quarterbacks are told to play the position. If they were still mostly taking deep drops on long-developing routes, Rex and exotic blitz-aficionados in NFL coaching positions would still be universally lauded as aggressive schemers who dictate to their opponent.
But a plethora of twists, stunts, zone drops and delayed corner blitzes simply don’t have the time to get home anymore. I’m not insinuating NFL quarterbacks have “solved” the blitz once and for all, but the goals of their offensive systems simply make it significantly easier for them to “beat” the blitz… because much more often than not, they plan to throw a quick pass whether a defense throws a three-man rush or the kitchen sink at them.
Jim Schwartz’s scheme is about as simple and straight-forward as it comes in the NFL, and it was tremendously successful in Buffalo in 2014. While every team endures many injuries every year, it’s important to note how fortunate Schwartz and the Bills defense was last season.
Buffalo had defensive starters miss a combined 13 games a year ago. Yeah. 11 players missed a grand total of 13 games. That’s it. A major outlier.
When the 2015 campaign wraps in two weeks, the Bills defensive starters will have missed over 40 total games this season.
(Biggest of them all was Kyle Williams, who missed the final 10 games of the year.)
If you don’t want to use the Bills’ injuries an excuse for their struggles down the stretch against other teams with comparable IR situations, that’s fine. But when comparing Schwartz’s 2014 to Rex’s 2015, the injury disparity is so drastic it can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.
On Mario Williams
Rex’s defense — and basically all “3-4” or “3-4 hybrid” defenses — occasionally ask defensive linemen to control two gaps, which essentially leads to those players becoming block-occupiers for players behind them.
And obviously, Rex shouldn’t have rendered the Bills defensive line stars into block-occupiers. Fundamental mistake.
The criticism firestorm surrounding Rex asking Mario Williams, Dareus and Co. to do more than just get upfield on each snap would make it seem like they dropped into coverage 60 percent of the the time. That’s not true. But those defensive linemen ran plays in which they were not supposed to rush upfield 5 percent to 25 percent more than they were asked to do so last year in Schwartz’s 4-3 defense.
Even that slight increase was unnecessary tinkering.
However, Mario is the prototypical 3-4 defensive end who should be two-gapping a good amount of the time. He’s 6’6” and 295 pounds. No 3-4 outside linebackers or 4-3 defensive ends who are “one-gappers” are that big.
I’ve watched Mario on every snap he’s taken in a Bills uniform. He’s gotten less dynamic off the snap and become more of a power, run-stopping defensive end each season. Outside of a few matchups against below replacement-level offensive tackles over the past two seasons, Mario rarely won 1-on-1 battles with anything other than a bull rush on a long-developing pass play.
Knowing Mario’s size and watching his film — I don’t blame Rex for asking him to two-gap more in 2015 than he did in 2014. That’s what Mario should do at this point of his career, and that’s fine. He can be a defensive-line anchor in a 3-4 defense. He’s arguably the best edge-setter in the league — a duty crucial on runs to the outside — and he’ll play almost every snap.
In fairness to Mario though, defensive linemen don’t want to be two-gappers. It’s not flashy. It’s not where headlines are or the money is. Sure, a strong, two-gapping defensive linemen who can occupy a blocker (or two) and control multiple run lanes can be vital to a defense, but the teammates he frees who ultimately take down the quarterback and / or make highlight reel tackles in the backfield are the ones who’ll sign the lucrative extensions and endorsement deals.
That’s why Mario — and other Bills defensive linemen — haven’t been thrilled with the defensive changes Rex instituted.
Mario has a right to voice his opinion on how he’s being used. He’s been an effective player for a long time. But in doing that, he has to be ready to face push back from the team and, in some instances, his coach.
The soap opera drama that has already started and will probably continue after the season — leaked speculative “reports” on his lack of effort or “purposely” missed meetings — is neither here nor there. Basically, Mario would have had to set the single-season sack record to return to the Bills in 2016. He’ll be 31 on January 31st and was set to make $19.9 million next year.
A restructure is technically always an option and has been suggested as a solution in this case, but it’s just nifty accounting that actually pushes more money into future years of a player’s contract. Remember, money matters more than anything in the NFL, and it’ll be the biggest contributing factor to Mario’s eventual release from the Bills.
I can’t fault Bills fans for their extreme frustration with the team’s penalty woes in 2015. But it’s not on Rex. His “player’s coach” reputation and the “loose and fun” atmosphere he demands doesn’t magically make defensive linemen jump offsides repeatedly in a game.
Could the “we’re building a bully” talk have amped Bills players a little too much to start the season? Maybe. But we can’t be naive to think Rex just never discusses penalties or reprimands players which then leads to those guys “not caring” about committing them on Sunday.
Rex’s Jets were not routinely in the top third of the league in penalties. In 2012, New York was hit with 96 flags, the third-fewest in the league. In 2013, they were tied with the Bills with 122 flags, the ninth-most in the NFL. Last year, the Bills were flagged 144 times, while Rex’s Jets were penalized 126 times.
Team flag figures are basically random from season to season, and I’d venture a guess Rex gets as livid about a false start on 3rd and 3 as every Bills fan in America.
He’s not coaching a group of high-schoolers learning the game or college kids trying to find their way as players and people. He’s coaching the cream of the football crop. Professionals. Stefan Charles knows the opposing quarterback is probably going to try to draw him offsides on fourth and short. Or at least he should.
As the head coach, however; Rex deserves some blame for the personal foul flags, the late hits and the downright idiotic penalties the Bills have taken often this season. But I just can’t give him even close to all the blame for his players’ flag-warranting actions on the field. Too often we lay blame on coaches in the NFL for players missing tackles, dropping passes, throwing interceptions and jumping offsides.
On Rex’s Future
So, uh, where does Rex go from here? First, I’ll say I firmly believe he shouldn’t be fired after one season. No way. What kind of message does that send to your next hire? Remember when the Browns fired Rob Chudzinski after one year as head coach the scrambled to hire Mike Pettine on a Hail Mary attempt after they were turned down by basically every head-coach candidate?
Terry Pegula’s an incredibly successful business man. Hopefully he understands it’s not smart to make a rash decision a calendar year after buying everything Rex and selling it to his rabid fan base.
From a football standpoint, Rex won’t drastically alter his defensive philosophy — getting pressure on the quarterback will always be effective for a defense — and I don’t think he should.
But he needs evolve like the rest of the NFL.
He must acknowledge the fact that the quickest way to a quarterback is a defensive lineman beating an offensive lineman in a traditional 1-on-1 battle in the trenches.
Sure, blitz. But make it simple. Send an extra linebacker straight up the gut. Shoot a cornerback from the slot. While dropping your nose tackle and right defensive end to send your outside linebacker and strong safety may confuse an offensive line and quarterback on a few occasions, in the long run, it’s not the way to accumulate sacks on a regular basis. And, really, that style will only continue to be used by teams with weak defensive-line talent and stellar linebackers.
Hughes and Dareus are outstanding defensive centerpieces. They’re in the prime of their careers. Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby are sound, man-to-man cornerbacks.
Get some gritty, low-cost defensive linemen to two-gap if you’d like, but let Hughes and Dareus rush and rush often.
Fortunately for Rex, the Bills offense will head into 2016 with an unprecedented head of steam.
Comprehensive analysis of it is for another column another time, but quickly — it’s the best offense the organization has had in a very long time, and while Tyrod Taylor’s play hasn’t screamed “FRANCHISE QUARTERBACK,” it’s been plenty good enough for that position not to be a top priority for Buffalo for the first time in like a decade.
Bills fans don’t adore Rex like they did last January, and it’ll take a lot for that unbridled love to return. But I still think his outspoken, never-back-down, blue-collar coaching personality is a perfect fit for the city of Buffalo.
But as Rex stated himself, some changes need to be made.