SAN FRANCISCO — Bart Scott knows this defense. The Buffalo Bills linebackers weren't able to fully decipher Rex Ryan's complex blend of X's and O's that can change a split-second before the ball is snapped. A bad start led to bickering, doubt, defeats and, in the end, an empty 8-8 season.
But Scott played for Ryan in Baltimore, in New York and has seen this beleaguered defense fire on all cylinders.
On Monday, Day 1 of Super Bowl Week in California, the former pro didn't hold back.
“You need everybody to buy in," Scott said at the Moscone Center Monday. "Right? Everybody has to buy in. You know, Mario Williams didn’t buy in. But that defensive system had been successful there just two years before. Same defense, same philosophy, same everything. And everybody succeeded."
True, in Mike Pettine's 3-4 defense, this Bills defense finished 10th overall. And in Jim Schwartz's 4-3, it finished fourth. Then, under Ryan, the Bills regressed to historic lows. Their 21 sacks were the team's lowest ever in a 16-game season.
Yet Scott and Super Bowl-champion Bill Cowher both believe Ryan can turn this ship around in 2016. The two who are now analysts for CBS do not see a coach who's past his prime.
As Scott explained, "the NFL is changing." To him, the answer to the Bradys, Newtons, Rodgerses isn't releasing the hounds, isn't blitzing more. No, Scott believes it is more important than ever for defensive backs to tighten up in coverage.
"With all the pressure, guys are getting the ball out in 2.5 seconds," Scott said. "I think now — especially last week with what Wade Phillips did to Tom Brady — you get to quarterbacks who release the ball fast with coverage. Not with more pressure. Because the ball’s going to be out and your team’s going to be tired. Numbers aren’t always the indication of how good somebody’s playing. Teams are going to try to take away your strength.”
That's how quarterback after quarterback gave Buffalo's defense the arcade treatment early last season. Tom Brady, Eli Manning and Andy Dalton combined for 921 yards, nine touchdowns, one interception and a 105.1 passer rating in three Bills losses at Ralph Wilson Stadium that set the tone for the season.
Scott repeats that Ryan is not the problem. He refutes the notion that today's game has passed him by.
Rather, he sensed the lack of leadership in the locker room.
"One thing I know about Rex Ryan is he knows how to coach defense," Scott said. "I’m confident saying he’s one of the best defensive minds in the game today. So I don’t question his ability to coach and expire. Listen. The difference between the Buffalo Bills this year and Rex’s first year with the Jets is that he brought people over who could help deliver his message in the locker room. He didn’t bring a Jim Leonhard over. He didn’t bring a Marques Douglas. He didn’t bring myself over.
"So what happens is, if the road ever gets bumpy, who’s going to reinforce support for you in the locker room? You have no allies in the locker room.”
Players were not not shy voicing their displeasure with Ryan's scheme, of course. Scott sees Sammy Watkins and Tyrod Taylor as two players who did buy in.
As for Cowher, he turned the Pittsburgh Steelers into a instant, perennial contender with his own 3-4. Arriving from Kansas City, Cowher won at least 10 games in five of his first six seasons, churning out spitting-venom linebackers at a ridiculous rate. He insists it takes time for any defensive coach to fully install a system.
“It’s a new defense," Cowher said. "Sometimes, it’s getting a feel for the new defense. It’s Rex getting a feel for his players. I think you have to give him a period of time."
He points to Taylor, to LeSean McCoy, to Sammy Watkins as signs of hope for this team and asserts Ryan "will be fine in straightening out that defense."
Even if it's more confusing than the norm.
“It is complex," Cowher said. "And I think you’ll see a couple years in, they’ll have a better understanding of it. Sometimes, you try to do too much. I don’t know if that was the case with Rex — if he tried to do too much too soon and it becomes counterproductive. Again, if you create continuity it helps everybody from the standpoint of understanding each other and the development of your football team.”