This final image of the 2015 Buffalo Bills was part euphoric, part maddening for the 70,000 in attendance at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Euphoric because this 22-17 win was everything they dreamed of. There was pressure, more pressure and three straight interceptions ending the New York Jets’ season. Maddening because, well, where was this all season?
As he cleaned out his locker on Monday, inside linebacker Preston Brown faced the cold, hard reality.
“They were saying we’re supposed to be one of the best defenses ever," Brown said, "and we went out there and laid an egg throughout the whole year. It’s as simple as that. So we definitely take on the blame and that’s what’s going to happen. When you’re supposedly a good defense and have a defensive-minded head coach, to go out there and not be one of the top defenses in the league is definitely not a success.
“So we have to go back to the drawing board and come back next year.”
The key Sunday was the key to basically anything in life, be it political gridlock, marriage or frustration with a new defensive scheme: Compromise. By late December, the players and coaches finally met in the middle.
“We all knew we were out of the playoffs,” Brown said, “so these last two games were just focusing on us, finding a way to get better, and I think we did that.”
So here’s your too-little-too-late result. Despite missing four of their original starters, the Bills hit Ryan Fitzpatrick five times, flustered him often, forced three picks and the quarterback finished with a 42.7 passer rating. Don’t hold your breath for any cannonball splashes in free agency. General Manager Doug Whaley even joked that reporters should take the first week of free agency off.
The Bills’ defense fell from fourth to 19th in total defense. After seasons of 57 and 54 sacks, Buffalo finished with 21 in 2015 — the team’s lowest total since 1977. And in that 1977 season, Buffalo faced 286 fewer pass attempts. Mind-boggling, really. But coach Rex Ryan is here to stay, at least through the 2016 season.
So fixing this all, right now, must come from within. The current group must get it right.
Where do they start? With compromise. Sunday was proof that maybe the Bills can find answers in house.
“We definitely found a compromise with the coaches in what we feel we’re good at and what they feel we’re good at,” Brown said. “So it’s definitely good to see that happen the last two weeks. We had a lot of success so that’s something that’s good to see. So hopefully throughout the offseason, them getting to learn us and we get to learn them a little bit more, we’ll understand what plays we both agree on.”
Those three words — “last two weeks” — will make fans cringe. Players were very public with their concerns as early as Oct. 7. Defensive linemen questioned then how they were being used. After a 34-21 loss to Cincinnati on Oct. 18, Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus openly questioned Ryan’s defense — raising the question if Ryan would listen to his players.
Williams later criticized the coaches for constantly switching personnel as offenses broke the huddle. There was the bizarre sight of Dareus dropping into coverage on two Kansas City Chiefs touchdowns. Brown, the one with the radio in his helmet, said calls were coming in late from the coaches’ booth. To which, defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman had no answers. Veteran Manny Lawson, so often the voice of reason, admitted players had "a big playbook thrown at them" and the group’s “Aha!” moment arrived too late.
Quite possibly, it took the Bills failing to 6-8 to truly get it right. By Week 16 and 17, the players and coaches met in the middle.
All season, Brown said, the defensive line wanted to rush out of a four-man look.
“And not that often did we do it,” Brown said. “But when they get chances to do it, it’s definitely hectic for the offensive line. But we have different ways of showing different things to get them their rushes. So it’s something that we just aren’t always going to go out there with a four-man rush. We’ll show six, seven, all different types of things.
“So we finally understood what was going on, on the defense and you could see it starting to go.”
Above all, Ryan inherited one of the NFL’s best defenses and changed how each player must think before and during a play. With defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, Brown could only change a coverage. Every player up front knew exactly what he was doing… and attacked. What was called, was called. Under Ryan, a play could have six, seven, eight different checks, which often led to rampant miscommunication.
The mission here is to have the perfect defense for any look. To disguise, to confuse, to get the quarterback seeing ghosts through pressure and — most importantly — simulated pressure.
As Brown said, “This is like an offensive playbook.”
Yet very rarely was Ryan’s defense poetry in motion. A 27-14 win over Indianapolis, a 20-13 loss at New England and Sunday's win were the group's finest moments.
No, the blame should not completely fall on Ryan, a coach who has guided some great NFL defenses. Players had opportunities. It’s not Ryan’s fault when a defender squares up a ball carrier, point blank, and misses a tackle. And it’s not his fault when Mario Williams, the team's highest-paid player by more than $11 million, is quite possibly mailing it in.
As one anonymous teammate told The News, Williams “doesn’t care about anybody but himself,” and “totally checked out” this season. The player added that Williams "takes two steps and stops.” Releasing this square-peg-in-a-round-hole end is one place for Whaley to start and would free up $12.9 million in cap space.
Brown hopes to stick around as the man in the middle, calling this "the best job in America." Also, the Bills could welcome back all four of their missing starters — tackle Kyle Williams, safety Aaron Williams, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and free agent inside linebacker Nigel Bradham.
Then, it’s all about striking a compromise. Against the Jets, the Bills' defense didn’t run nearly as many plays. Simplicity reigned.
“We kind of just ran a couple plays and stuck with it,” Brown said. “We had success with it so we didn’t find a need to change. So we sent pressure when we needed to but we also just let the D-Line do what they do best. They had a lot of hits on the quarterback so it was definitely good to see that happen and know that we can just rush four and have success.”
Brown does put it on the players, too. Players, he said, “started to buy in” and know to run what’s called.
And as Nickell Robey detailed, players are "interchangeable" in this defense. Robey covered. He blitzed. He dropped into zones. In his fast-talking, adrenaline-pumping tone, the nickel cornerback still sounds excited talking about the possibilities of Ryan's scheme. In this defense, ends can masquerade as dropping linebackers and linebackers can masquerade as safeties, such as A.J. Tarpley on his interception against Dallas.
True, this can all be a beautiful thing. In doses.
Brown admits the volume of the playbook might’ve been too much for some players because they all learn on different levels.
“With the checks,” Brown said, “everybody wasn’t on the same page at all times. That’s why you see the big plays in the run and in the pass. It’s on my part as middle linebacker to make sure everybody knows what’s going on. So I definitely have to take some of the blame for that.”
So he describes this entire season as a learning experience — for the coaches, for the players, for himself. Brown was suddenly directing teammates who were six, seven years older. When should all four up front get the green light to rush? When should the Bills disguise and confuse? For most of this 2015 season, players and coaches were something like Republicans and Democrats on different sides of the aisle.
Then, things changed. Then, they knocked out the Jets.
For one game, this defense struck a balance.
“They started taking our advice,” Robey said. “Asking us what we like to play. Asking us what we want to do. But also just mixing the calls up — just doing things that we know better than most teams.”
Unfortunately for Buffalo, it was all too little, too late.