INDIANAPOLIS — Rex Ryan hears the criticism. And when he gets questioned about his defense, he usually answers with biting sarcasm.
"We were terrible," Ryan said at one point during his news conference at the NFL scouting combine. "And I can't coach defense anymore for some reason."
One season after the Bills led the NFL in sacks, they had the fewest ever in franchise history during a 16-game season. Ryan's unit finished 19th in the NFL. Several players cited the lack of rush opportunities up front, noting that compromise on scheme was finally met the final two games when the Bills defeated Dallas and the New York Jets with a disruptive pass rush.
Ryan wasn't thrilled about that word — "compromise" — on Wednesday, pointing to "communication" improving between players and coaches those final two weeks more than anything.
"I mean, sometimes when you look at this, the compromise... as the year went on, everybody looks at the fact that were 18th, 19th in the league in defense, 15th in points," Ryan said, "we get all the numbers and obviously that isn't something we thought was going to be. But at the end of the year, the thing I was really encouraged about was, you know what, we're going to run our defense but the communication part of it improved more than anything. The last two weeks, we had five starters out but we played a lot better because the communication was a lot better."
Which was, effectively, a compromise. Coaches and players talked about the game plan more together and what works best.
"Not the communication you would normally think — player to player — but, no, it was more player to coach and coach to player," Ryan said. "I think that bodes so well for us moving forward and I'm excited about it. We put Manny Lawson in a spot he shouldn't be playing, inside linebacker. But, you know what, we let him do it because he ran the whole show. He was vocal. That really helped us. You have to be. You have to be that confident and run it. And he did. So those are the things we can take as a positive last year from our defense. Being together and going through the growing pains we did will benefit us moving forward."
Ryan said that he'd love to have defensive end Mario Williams back next season, though admitted he wasn't sure how realistic that'd be. The Bills can save $12.9 million by releasing Williams and the veteran wasn't much of a fit in his defense.
Williams' No. 1 gripe was that he didn't get to rush as much as he did in seasons past. He wasn't alone, either. Multiple players up front wanted to do so.
Still, when asked if he should've let his front players rush more often, Ryan cited injuries.
"Well, our front guys played five games together last year," he said. "I don't know if you guys remember that or not. But they were together for five games. So, yeah, I'd like to see them rush more together. Absolutely."
Williams might be gone and it'll be difficult for the Bills to make any sort of splash in free agency.
But Ryan has added his twin brother, Rob, to the staff as an assistant.
"We haven't fought each other yet," Ryan said, "so we're getting better. He's been phenomenal. To add him to our team will be huge for us. I know the players will be excited about it but the coaches are excited about it. Here's a guy who's been a coordinator for the last 12 years. He's obviously been on championship teams as a position coach but his experience and knowledge and his work ethic, his passion is hard to match in this league.
"He's excited. It's like, 'God we should've done this a long time ago.'"