Aaron Kromer enjoys teaching.
It’s that part of the job the Buffalo Bills’ new offensive line coach identifies with most.
Last year, however, Kromer took a break from the job he had held for the previous 31 years – 11 at the college level and the past 20 in the NFL, most recently as the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive line coach and run game coordinator from 2017-20.
That meant more time at home, which was initially a good thing.
“I had a lot of family time,” Kromer said in an interview with The Buffalo News. “You work every fall. You don't get much time to see your parents or your siblings and those kind of things, so it was great to have that time to reconnect and be around the people that you love.”
Kromer, though, eventually got the itch to start teaching again. With his son, Zak, working as an offensive assistant with the Rams and his daughter, Brooke, working in real estate in Florida, the only one left in the house was his wife, Dawn.
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“When I started trying to teach my wife everything, she said, ‘You need to get a job. You need to go find somebody else to teach,’ ” he joked. “I was like, 'You've got a good point. I need to do this again.' So I was excited to have this opportunity.”
It’s a return to Buffalo for Kromer, who spent the 2015-16 seasons as the Bills’ offensive line coach under Rex Ryan. To say the franchise is in a much different spot now than it was then would be a colossal understatement.
“I believe that – not comparing the two – this team and organization now is really checking every box from the top down,” Kromer said. “They are making sure everything is done. Every ‘t’ is crossed, every ‘i’ is dotted, and with that they’ve created a culture of winning. They’ve gathered good players, good coaches. It's built a wonderful, successful program. Obviously, this is a good football team run by good people. You could tell how well things are being run at this point.”
Kromer might not want to make comparisons to the first time he was here, but they’re unavoidable. Simply put, the Ryan years were a circus. When the head coach wasn’t too busy coming to news conferences in helmets, he was forgetting to put enough players on the field. The Bills, who at the time had the longest streak of missing the playoffs of any team in North American professional sports, were a laughingstock.
Nobody’s laughing anymore. The Bills are on the short list of Super Bowl contenders entering the 2022 season.
“Everything's changed. There is only one player left on the team, not in my position, not on offensive line, but even on the team that was here before,” Kromer said, referencing long snapper Reid Ferguson. “No coaches. It's been great to get to know these guys and really see how they've created a successful program. It was just exciting to get back here. Shoot, we love the people in Buffalo. Everybody is so welcoming, and it feels like home when you come back, so it's been great.”
Kromer’s first time with the Bills was not without controversy. In July 2015, before his first season with the team, he was arrested in Florida and charged with misdemeanor battery that caused bodily harm after he allegedly punched a boy over the use of beach chairs. According to the police report, Kromer also told the alleged victim that he would kill his family if he reported the incident to police.
Charges in the case were dropped later that same month at the request of the accusers’ parents. Nevertheless, Kromer was suspended by the team for the first six games of the 2015 season. He has never commented publicly on the situation.
Kromer said the year away from football was a good chance for him to mentally reset.
“Very much so,” he said. I feel “100% different. You can clear your mind and find out what's important and what isn't important, and how you can fix things that shouldn't be as much of a stressor on you, that you make in your mind a big stress. You realize that it's not as big, and you can work through those things. Work on the boulders and not as much the pebbles.”
Kromer takes over for former offensive line coach Bobby Johnson, who followed Brian Daboll to the New York Giants. Given that the entire offensive line has turned over since he was here, Kromer has been playing catch-up on getting to know his players.
“I believe that this is a group that wants to be better and wants to work, wants to adhere to the techniques that we're teaching,” he said. “When it comes down to it, football is won with technique. It's one-on-one in a lot of situations, and somebody has to out-technique the other person. I think there's a lot of talent on the line, but I think there's a lot of work to be done with technique, and we're getting there.”
At this stage in the offseason, teams are limited in the amount of physical contact that is permitted at practice. Obviously, that limits some of what the offensive linemen can do, but Kromer said his group is still making significant progress.
“We're wearing helmets and shorts. Luckily, we teach a lot of hands blocking,” he said.
“Controlling your guys with your hands, so that works out well with no pads on, you don't have to smash into each other to get that done – no matter what scheme it is. We're really trying to build the fundamentals and the ideals of the offense right now and then carry it into the padded training camp.”
During his two seasons in Buffalo, the Bills led the NFL in rushing both years, averaging 152.0 yards in 2015 and 164.4 yards in 2016.
“I think it's a physical brand,” Kromer, 55, said of his preferred scheme. “I would tell you if you compartmentalize schemes, you can minimize what you work on. So if we're running a zone scheme, we're working on these things. This is the criteria that has to be right to make this play work. Then, you have gap schemes, and there are different ways to get the gaps, but if you compartmentalize that technique, what you're trying to get done, what the goal of the offense is, you can run multiple schemes.
“That's where I think we're at, and that's where I believe you have the most success, is when you can run gap schemes and zone schemes – whatever schemes you feel are necessary for your talent. You can't hit a round peg into a square hole and hope that you're going to run this zone play if that doesn't fit, or hope you're going to run this gap play if that doesn't fit. So, what's best for your people? What's best for your running backs, your quarterback? That's what you need to do best.”
“Every O-line coach is different,” center Mitch Morse said. “I know that's cliché and kind of, ‘of course.’ But he (Kromer) tries to work everyone's advantages and their strengths into their advantages. So maybe he doesn't coach me the same as he would have coached someone else just because physiologically we move differently or we're playing different positions. Now for every O-line coach, there's certain things that are undeniably what we're going to do as an offensive line. But at the same time, there are certain things that certain guys he’ll let do because they play to their individual strengths.”
Kromer is still in the process of figuring those out.
“The opportunity, obviously, was a great reason to come back. I enjoy teaching,” he said.
“Like I always tell the offensive linemen, we're not in charge of scoring, we're in charge of doing our job, blocking our guy, understanding what the defense is doing, taking advantage of that, using our technique and continuing to get better. Good things happen if you do those things. Don't worry about a guy catching a ball, dropping a ball, missing a pass, those things. Those are out of our control. When you focus in and realize what your responsibility is, it can ease your mind of a lot of the stress and allow you to have success in what you're in charge of.”
The Bills last year ranked sixth in rushing, averaging 129.9 yards per game. The line also gave up just 27 sacks, which ranked as the second fewest in the NFL. Both of those totals are greatly impacted by quarterback Josh Allen, who rushed for 763 yards, and escaped several would-be sacks with his elusiveness.
Kromer will be counted on to help build on the foundation the Bills have in place up front. At the NFL scouting combine earlier this offseason, Bills coach Sean McDermott called the addition of Kromer a “big-time hire” for his staff. In his career as either an offensive line coach or offensive coordinator, Kromer has helped 16 players earn 23 Pro Bowl appearances.
The early impressions of the work he’s done so far have been favorable.
“That’s my dog,” Pro Bowl left tackle Dion Dawkins said. “I like him. He is a real pro, true pro. Not to say that the other coaches weren’t like true pros – like ‘OG’ (Johnson), he was a dog, he was cool, too. But Kromer, he’s a different-style coach. He understands the room, he understands that everybody is drastically different, and he understands that everybody’s play is going to be drastically different. That’s what I love about him. He’s not trying to make us all look like robots. … With just hearing him say comments like that, I see the insight of his brain, that he understands that everybody is different, and as an O-line, even though everybody has to play in unison, but everybody will play their own form of that unison role, and I’m thankful for him. I’m happy for him.”