Fifteen seconds into the conversation, Preston Brown cuts to the chase. He’s been too quiet, too introverted, too darn nice.
Well, not anymore.
Nice works on a date. Nice works in a job interview. Nice works at family reunions. But, no, nice does not work at middle linebacker. So in 2016, peoples’ feelings will probably get hurt. Confrontation will be welcomed. And Brown? He’ll be the one setting the tone.
“I’ve been holding back my emotions,” he said. “But this year, there’s no more sitting back, not saying anything. I’m going to say what I have to say. And if I’m right or wrong, we’re going to work it out.
“I’m going to go out there and be me.”
A disconnect between Rex Ryan and his players drained the life out of one of the NFL’s best defenses last season. The pass rush sagged. Big plays vanished. Unrest grew. End Mario Williams literally complained his way out of town — and he wasn’t the only unhappy employee. Several say coaches didn’t fully take player input until the final two weeks.
Yet the Bills were also lacking a decisive voice in the middle of the defense, an extrovert pushing all of the right buttons. Brown was supposed to be that player, that force Ryan could rely on and by season's end his play-calling duties were stripped away.
Asked point blank if Ryan wants him to be The Man next season, Brown didn’t hesitate with a “Definitely — I know they have confidence in me.” Still, Ryan’s message to Brown this offseason is loud and clear: Be loud and clear. In this defense with an encyclopedia of checks on checks on checks, one motion changes everything.
Brown must take ownership of it all. He vows he will take ownership.
“I was stepping back a little bit and letting other guys say stuff,” he said. “But now it’s time for the defense to play the way it’s supposed to play. I need to take charge and lead the way this year.”
Remember, Brown is only 23 years old. Since starting Day 1 as a rookie, older vets have been scattered all around him. In Jim Schwartz’s simplified scheme — when the Bills’ ranked No. 4 in the NFL, when they had a league-high 54 sacks, when they dizzied MVP Aaron Rodgers — he didn’t need to shout instruction nearly as much pre-snap, didn't need to set a tone during the week. Brown camouflaged into a bigger picture.
In Ryan’s scheme? A take-charge linebacker is a necessity. Sure, the Bills may draft one next month, but Ryan can’t count on a rookie mastering his playbook.
Brown it is. Teammates better be ready.
“Last year, I was trying to stay away from confrontation a little bit with some of the older guys,” said Brown, who finished with 120 tackles, two interceptions and one forced fumble. “But we’re all grown men and we can deal with it. So I need to take charge. If people get their feelings hurt — and we’re winning games — I’d rather win games with people running around with their feelings hurt.
“So I’m going to do what we have to do to win games this year.”
In truth, this was the 2015 Buffalo Bills’ No. 1 problem. While players were brutally (and refreshingly) honest — Sammy Watkins wanted the ball, Mario Williams wanted to rush, Boobie Dixon cited a lack of leadership — they weren’t brutally honest with each other. They held zero player-only meetings, they didn't address pressing issues. Hence, Watkins saying on Dec. 20 after an ugly loss at Washington that players must "forget about anybody’s feelings" and "call people out.”
On a disjointed defense, especially, confrontation is the perfect prescription.
“We were kind of relaxed,” Brown said. “It’s kind of good to have a little bit of that crazy. A little bit of confrontation doesn’t hurt anybody. It brings the competitive spirit out of all of us. I’m pretty sure this year, we’ll have some confrontation — but we’ll get the defense running the way it’s supposed to.”
Because Brown won’t have it any other way. If a player starts doing his own thing, he'll reel him back in. If a play doesn’t look right in practice, he’ll demand that play be run again. The Bills will repeat a call “until it’s perfect.” That wasn’t the case last summer when a fragmented unit was blistered by Tom Brady (466 yards, three touchdowns, 105.6 rating), Eli Manning (212, three, 91.6 rating), Andy Dalton (243, three and a 118.6 rating) out of the gates and, two days later, Hall of Famer Jim Kelly was even scratching his head in London.
Sure, as Brown said, “everybody learns on different levels and speeds.” But in Year 2, he insists there no excuses. Once the season begins, it's on him to make sure everyone understands their job.
Every call, every check. every week. He embraces the responsibility.
Of course, this all raises a critical do-or-die question: Does Preston Brown have it inside of him? Can this linebacker with the infectious smile flip a switch? At the owners meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., Ryan himself called Brown a "very quiet individual." Brown points to his collegiate career. Back then, Louisville coaches wanted him to speak up more into his junior season.
“Then, I was able to be me,” Brown said. “Sometimes, it takes me longer to adjust."
Oh, former Louisville defensive coordinator Vance Bedford remembers the transformation. Brown was quiet, “in the back seat” until… he wasn’t. Once he was challenged, thrust into greater role, Brown responded. He stepped into the Cardinals’ cutthroat inside-running drill, a 9-on-7 test of will, and left players with bruises. Head coach Charlie Strong encouraged full contact, so Brown took on pulling linemen and drove them five yards into the backfield.
All underclassmen, the ones Brown needed to lead took notice.
“All of a sudden, all eyes were on him,” said Bedford, now at Texas. “That’s how he did things. He had a certain way — just his physicality as a player first, leading by example. And then after that, he took charge as a vocal leader. That was Preston’s nature.”
Even an ultra-generous, ultra-friendly kid like Brown can get mean. Louisville’s linebackers coach, Brian Jean-Mary, would often stare down Brown at practice, shout and Brown barked back.
“Get him going,” Bedford said, “get him p---- off and all of a sudden he wants to tear everybody’s head off in practice. Yeah, he has that mean streak.”
The one training with Brown this offseason sees this side, too. Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott sees the drive daily in Cincinnati and it reminds him of the 2014 NFL scouting combine. When all other prospects went to bed, Brown bolted out of the hotel in his Louisville hoodie to run two, three miles through downtown Indianapolis. He knew he needed to trim weight.
Thus, if Brown says he’ll speak up, Elliott 100 percent believes him.
“Preston’s the kind of guy that’s not vocal,” Elliott said. “He will go out there and lead by example by not speaking but just going out there and doing it. But if they want him to be more vocal, he can do that. This is his third year and he’ll be a lot more comfortable.
“He’s ready to go.”
In Green Bay, Elliott adds, Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers always know precisely when to speak up. That's the presence Buffalo lacks.
No, the volume of Brown's voice pre-snap won’t be a problem. Rather, it's about shouting the details of every play more often. Formations. Tendencies. Everything. If an offense motions, what’ll happen? Who trades receivers in coverage? Who blitzes?
Punishing wins over Dallas and the New York Jets to close the season offer hope. Brown believes coaches will be more open to their mid-week suggestions.
“They want it to be our defense, so every week they go in and ask us which plays we like and don’t like,” Brown said. “So when we see something we know we can succeed at, we have to let the coaches know and speak up and go out there and run it. Because they give us the playbook and give us what we want to run.
“They definitely opened up, compromised and found a good balance.”
He doesn’t expect play calls to be transmitted to his headset late anymore, either. That problem was fixed.
There’s justified skepticism in Western New York. The Bills’ offense is stocked with playmakers, but the defense — a Rex Ryan-led defense, at that — is clouded with questions. This salary cap-strapped front office couldn’t sign a savior. The draft will help, but won’t totally cure a unit that dropped to 19th overall and had only 21 sacks.
The greatest improvements must come from within, from the one running the show. Preston Brown repeats it again in case you didn’t hear him.
“I can’t afford to be nice if we’re not winning those games,” Brown said. “So I have to step it up, go out there and win these games.”
He intends to lead because, yes, he knows the stakes.
"If I want to be playing for that defense and those coaches, I have to be that kind of player.”