The latest talking point for Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan centers on communication.
Namely, how much better it will be in 2016.
“I think we are a zillion miles ahead of where we were last year,” Ryan said this week, serving up a healthy dose of hyperbole. “That goes without saying, especially in the communication part on defense. The way that we’re disguising coverages, all that type of stuff.”
Ryan then proactively answered the logical next question.
“I admit, I should have done it last year,” he said. “But here this year, I am extremely confident we’ll be a lot better than we were last year defensively.”
May is a time for that type of pie-eyed optimism, particularly in the land of no playoffs. September is when the proof will come.
In the mean time, though, Ryan has his players echoing the company line.
“Defense is night and day from last year, where we are at this point,” safety Corey Graham said after the Bills completed their second spring practice. “They’re doing a great job as coaches, installing everything, making sure everybody understands everything. It's a lot – I wouldn't say simpler – but it's just, easier to understand. Everything is going pretty smooth. Guys are picking it up. I like where we're at right now.”
By now, the ugly details of last season’s defensive effort don’t need to be revisited. It’s well known that Ryan’s first year in charge was a failure. Graham has seen a different approach from the coaching staff in response.
“They simplified some things, but also, we got a lot of new calls in that makes sense,” he said. “They explained them to us, so now we know exactly why we're doing things. It's just a lot better.
You could tell the coaches spent a lot of time going over what we did last year. What they liked from last year, what they didn't like from last year. They just got the defense set now to where we're doing a lot of things we like to do, a lot of things we feel we can be successful at.”
From an individual standpoint, Graham also feels better about where he is now compared to this time a year ago.
“It's a lot easier for me now than it was last year,” he said. “Last year I was learning everything on the fly, especially playing cornerback my whole life, then going to safety. Being in such a complex defense like that, it was very tough. Being the second year, it's a lot easier for me now. I understand things, I understand why we're doing things, I understand what we're trying to get accomplished and I feel like I can be a lot better at it.”
In his first year as a safety, Graham started all 16 games for the first time in his nine-year career. He blew away his career single-season best with 127 tackles (previously it was 91 with the Chicago Bears in 2008) and made two interceptions, returning one for his first career touchdown.
But along with that good came plenty of bad. The analytics website Pro Football Focus ranked Graham 35th out of 88 qualified safeties last season. That included a ranking of 78th in pass coverage and seventh against the run – an odd pairing considering Graham had spent the first eight seasons of his career at cornerback.
“Some things you look at on film, you're like, ‘oh my God.’ I couldn't believe I did that,” he said. “To me, personally, I've got to be a lot better. I expect to be better at everything. Communicating, playing, everything. I know I had a lot of tackles and things like that, but there are a lot of plays I wish I could have back.”
Graham’s tackling, in fact, ranked No. 1 among safeties, according to PFF. He had a “tackling efficiency of 35.7, a number that records the total number of attempted tackles per each missed tackles. Graham’s score was nearly double that of the next best.
However, his 1.03 yards allowed per cover snap, as tracked by PFF, ranked 85th among 92 qualified safeties.
Entering his 10th NFL season and carrying the 11th-largest salary-cap hit on the team, Graham’s roster spot was the subject of speculation earlier in the offseason. He restructured his contract to provide the Bills with an extra $600,000 in salary-cap space, but the team could save an additional $3.125 million in space by releasing him.
“To be honest, I don't really get into all that type of stuff,” Graham said about hearing the chatter about possibly being in jeopardy. “I've been in this league a long time. A lot of stuff is out of your control. I don't really worry about what's going to happen and things like that. Whatever happens, happens.
“If you get released, you've got to go somewhere else. That's just how this game is. ... I don't really care, to be honest with you. If one team hates you or one team gets rid of you, there are a lot of other teams that may like you. … If it happens, it happens. You've just got to find a new home.”
Of course, being that he is home, Graham wants to stay. The former Turner-Carroll product is getting an opportunity to play for his hometown team that a very select few ever get to experience.
Playing for the Bills has been one thing, but helping the team overcome its maddening 16-year playoff drought would be another. As a Super Bowl champion with the Baltimore Ravens, Graham knows what postseason success feels like. That’s why he’s hungry to erase last year’s narrative, both individually and as a defense.
“We're mad,” Graham said. “Obviously I’m mad about it. Whenever things don't go the way you planned, you're mad about it. We've got to put in the extra work to get back to where we were, or even better."