This is the last of a 10-part series that examines how well the Buffalo Bills have addressed each position during the offseason. Today’s installment looks at coaching.
It took only one season for Rex Ryan to determine that significant changes were needed on his coaching staff.
Not surprisingly, the major moves were on defense, the area he has made it his mission to improve. And if you ask the head coach, he'll tell you the No. 1 way the Bills have upgraded that side of the ball is with the hiring of his twin brother, Rob, as assistant head coach/defense.
It's easy to dismiss the hiring as blatant nepotism, as brotherly love so strong that no amount of eye-rolling or criticism it has prompted -- and there has been plenty of both -- matters. But Rex sincerely believes he did much more than provide a job to an out-of-work relative, and is willing to put his own future with the Bills on the line to prove his decision was nothing short of a stroke of genius.
He has frequently gushed about Rob's football knowledge, coaching skills, experience as an NFL defensive assistant, and career accomplishments. He has gone as far as to say that Rob is more of a workaholic than he is, that Rob pretty much doesn't have a life outside of work, and will, therefore, provide more attention to detail in preparing for each opponent. Rob also is known as more of a hands-on teacher than Rex.
Perhaps the Bills needed much more of those qualities in 2015, when the struggles that led to the fall from fourth to 19th in overall defense seemed to have more to do with the coaches' inability to get players to understand the many nuances of the scheme and how to counter offensive strategies than with a lack of talent.
During this week's OTA work on and off the field, Rex insists he already sees signs that communication within the defense, cited by several players as a huge problem last season, is better.
"I just think it is in the classroom, and listening in the classroom, and how it is being taught, the back and forth from players to coach and all that," the head coach told reporters Tuesday. "I think it is a great understanding, we have some great teachers."
Yes, the Bills did a talent overhaul as well, saying goodbye to Mario Williams and Nigel Bradham and using their top three draft picks on immediate starters in outside linebacker Shaq Lawson (once he recovers from shoulder surgery), inside linebacker Reggie Ragland, and tackle Adolphus Washington.
But they also revamped their defensive staff. Besides his twin, Rex also hired two assistants with whom he has a long history: former standout safety Ed Reed (assistant defensive backs) and John Blake (defensive line).
Here's the breakdown at coaching:
Returning: Rex Ryan, Greg Roman, Dennis Thurman, Anthony Lynn, Aaron Kromer, David Lee, Sanjay Lal, Tony Sparano, Chris Palmer, Jason Vrabel, Pat Meyer, Tim McDonald, Bobby April III, Jason Rebrovich, D'Anton Lynn, Jeff Weeks, Eric Smith and Danny Crossman.
Newcomers: Rob Ryan, Ed Reed, John Blake and Kathryn Smith.
Better, worse or the same?: For now, we'll go with slightly better, but there's a decent chance for this to become much better.
Rob Ryan's addition is controversial for multiple reasons, not the least of which is that he was fired during last season as defensive coordinator in New Orleans because the Saints' defense was posting historically bad numbers. Rob also has had other NFL stops as a defensive coordinator and position coach, with some good results and others that weren't so good.
It's fair to speculate that Rob just might be exactly what Rex needs to implement his defense -- someone who shares his vision and passion and will reinforce the belief that the Ryan Way is the only way to go. “We brought my brother in just to add to what we have and to have other eyes in it," Rex said in January. "I think it’s going to allow me to be more involved in the team, even if it’s just for supporting my coordinators and things, and I’m going to be right there for them.”
Strangely, for all of the touting Rex does about his brother, the Bills have so far kept him off-limits to the media. He can be a bit of a loose cannon, but even with his long-haired, goatee-wearing, big-bellied, biker-guy look, how much looser could he be than Rex?
Dennis Thurman remains the defensive coordinator, although, based on what could be gleaned from one OTA practice, that appears to be more of a figurehead title because Rob looks to be doing the bulk of the defensive oversight in practice.
Reed's credentials as a player destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame give him instant credibility. He also displayed natural leadership as a player, which Rex saw first-hand when they were together with the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets, that Rex is convinced will translate well to coaching.
"Ed obviously knows the system inside and out," Rex said in January. "He’s played in this system for two different teams, so that’s a big help. But I really think (his knack for thoroughly studying opponents and attention to detail are) what he’s going to add to our players in taking their preparation to a different level.”
However, Reed is new to the coaching grind, which includes long hours, far less pay and attention from fans and media, and potential frustration over trying to get maximum results from players who don't share his great talent or desire to be the best.
One of the stranger offseason moves was the March firing of Karl Dunbar after only one year as the Bills' defensive line coach. By March, most coaching staffs are set and there was no reason for Dunbar to expect to be let go. In fact, the Bills were known to have already added a year to his original two-year contract, meaning they were committed to pay him through the 2017 season.
But there have been rumblings throughout the NFL of members of the defensive line, most notably tackle Marcell Dareus, complaining that Dunbar's coaching contributed to the team's sharp decline in sacks, going from a league-best 54 in 2014 to only 21 last season (with a mere 14 by the line, which had 40 in '14). Apparently, those complaints were heard at the highest level of the organization, and Dunbar was sent packing. He has since been hired as defensive line coach at the University of Alabama.
Blake is considered a good defensive-line mentor with a strong grasp of Ryan's defense, but he has some baggage. In 2010, he resigned from a defensive line coaching job at the University of North Carolina, where he had been since 2007, after an investigation into players’ relationships with an agent, the late Gary Wichard, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2011.
Blake was suspected of being an employee of Wichard and receiving cash benefits from the agent. In 2012, the NCAA determined that Blake had received personal loans from Wichard and failed to disclose them to UNC, while also misleading NCAA investigators, and banned him from college coaching for three years. Wichard formerly represented Ryan.
Here's more food for thought: The other noteworthy addition to the staff is Kathryn Smith (quality control-special teams), because she's the first full-time female assistant coach in NFL history. But her forte is research, and one place where she could make an immediate impact is in providing teaching material, through video clips and statistical data, that helps special-teams coordinator Danny Crossman reduce the 25 special-teams penalties the Bills had last season.