Usually when a team changes its coaching staff, those coming in must rebuild what’s broken.
Dennis Thurman, though, faces a different challenge in his role as the Buffalo Bills’ new defensive coordinator.
He doesn’t have to put anything back together. He just has to make sure the foundation that’s already in place stays strong.
“They did an excellent job,” Thurman said of the Bills’ defenders in 2014. “There is talent on this defense up front, at linebacker and in the secondary. Our job is to put that talent in the best position to give them an opportunity to be successful. That’s all we’ve ever tried to do.”
The Bills finished fourth in total defense last season under former coordinator Jim Schwartz, allowing an average of 312.2 yards per game. The team was also fourth in points allowed per game, at 18.1, third in takeaways (30) and led the league in third-down percentage (33.2) and sacks (54).
“That’s a credit to coach Schwartz and his staff,” Thurman said.
Schwartz, though, had his contract terminated by the team after Rex Ryan replaced Doug Marrone as head coach. That opened the door for Ryan to bring Thurman with him from the New York Jets.
“We have similar brains,” said Thurman, who has been Ryan’s defensive coordinator the last two seasons with the Jets. “We’re like-minded in a lot of things, in a lot of ways.”
What does that mean for Bills fans?
They can expect an aggressive defense that won’t be beholden to one specific scheme in 2015.
“Whatever the talent dictates,” Thurman said Tuesday, speaking with Western New York reporters for the first time. “We’ll play a 3-4. We’ll play a 4-3. We’ll get in the ‘46.’ We’ll get in an odd front. It’s whatever our guys do best. We’re going to play to their strengths.”
Starting with the three Pro Bowl players on the defensive line – Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams – there are plenty of strengths for Thurman to shape his scheme around.
Young linebackers Nigel Bradham, Kiko Alonso and Preston Brown help make up a solid front seven, while the secondary has a budding No. 1 cornerback in Stephon Gilmore, as well as talented safety Aaron Williams.
That doesn’t mean Thurman gets to kick his feet up until September, though.
“To a degree it makes your job a little bit easier, but you still have to teach your system,” he said. “You still have to teach the techniques and fundamentals that you want employed. There’s always room for growth and room for improvement when you’re looking at each guy as an individual.”
The Bills finished second in Football Outsiders’ defensive rankings, which measure a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every play to a league average based on situation and opponent. Only the Seattle Seahawks, going for a second straight Super Bowl on Sunday, were better.
But that gives Thurman a goal for 2015.
“Every week you go out there, there’s a certain amount of pressure that comes with the territory and comes with the job,” he said. “You wouldn’t get in this business if you weren’t used to handling pressure. So yeah, we have a tall order, but we never run from any of that.
“Our expectation has always been to be – if not the best defense in the league – one of the best defenses in the league.”
Thurman said the defensive play-calling will be a collaborative effort between himself and Ryan, but that “most of the words come out of Rex’s mouth first.”
“We game-plan together every week,” he said. “We set up our game plan and how we want to call the game the closer we get towards the game. We’ll get the whole defensive staff together and we’ll go in an office and we’ll sit down and we’ll collectively go through situations and what calls we like best in those situations. So we try to do things as much as a defensive staff as we can.”
Thurman, 58, had a nine-year playing career as an 11th-round draft choice by the Dallas Cowboys in 1978. He started coaching in 1988, spending two years with Arizona before moving to the college ranks. After eight years at Southern California, he joined the Baltimore Ravens in 2002 as a defensive assistant. That’s when he met Ryan for the first time.
“The first thing I remember about meeting Rex was that his dad, his team in Chicago in ’85, had come into Texas Stadium and beat us 44-0,” Thurman said. “We were good enough to win the NFC East that year and get to the playoffs, but nobody had beaten us that badly in Texas Stadium.
“So when I met Rex, I happened to mention that to him and he said ‘yeah, they were pretty good, but watch this.’ He’s always had a lot of bravado. He’s always had a strong belief in himself and what he’s capable of doing, and this friendship has been ongoing ever since.”
In introducing Thurman on Thursday, Ryan called him “one of the smartest guys I’ve ever been around.”
“He gets things quick,” Ryan said. “The players love and respect him. We’ve been together for a long time, and it’s because I need him. So, happy to have him here.”