What does it take to build a good football team? This, ladies and gentlemen, is the million dollar question. Well, it's more than that; this is the NFL, after all. It's the billion dollar question, and there's no one blueprint that gets it done, time in and time out.
Hired to re-build the Bills two years ago, GM Marv Levy is choosing to form a coaching staff and a roster much as former Bills GM, current Colts GM and a friend of Levy's, Bill Polian, has done in Indianapolis. The similarities between the two rosters are uncanny, but is this the right way to build the team? Talk to some Bills fans, and they'll say we need a more assertive head coach, or new schemes, or just patience. Here's why the Polian/Levy approach to building a team is the best blueprint (and we'll address some similarities between the two franchises as well):
It Starts with the Head Coach
Tony Dungy is in his sixth year as head coach of the Colts; Dick Jauron is in his second year in the same post with Buffalo. Since taking over in Indy, Dungy has guided his Colts to a 69-22 record; Jauron is 12-15 in just under two years. Dungy inherited a team with young stars (Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James); Jauron inherited a rebuilding project. There is no comparison between the two in terms of coaching success. Otherwise, they could be long-lost brothers.
Both coaches prefer conservative game-planning, relying on sporadic big plays and no mistakes to win football games. Thus, they use zone defensive schemes, to make their defensive pressure as safely as possible. They are gentlemen, and their personalities allow them to relate to their players and work well with their front offices and coaching staffs. There are fewer franchises with players as loyal and hard-working as the ones in Indianapolis in Buffalo. That's a reflection on the two coaches, and that's why once the personnel is upgraded in Buffalo, we'll begin to see that Dick Jauron was a great hire by Levy.
Best Defense is Good Offense
Over the past few seasons, the Colts have seen a defensive resurgence - something that hamstrung Indy early on in Dungy's career there, especially in the playoffs. The talent on Indy's defense has increased greatly, but rest assured that no player is more valuable to Indy's defensive success than Peyton Manning. With a dominant offense for the better part of a decade, the Colts routinely are playing games from ahead - an answer to defensive prayers for his team. With the lead, the Colts are able to pin their ears back and play all-out, making plays left and right. In close games, they struggle a bit more - but again, that's something that's improved as the talent has improved.
Levy may be following in those footsteps. When Levy was a head coach here, his teams boasted an explosive offense (Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, etc.) and a defense that had a lot of playmakers, but would give up big points from time to time. That was a 3-4 scheme, but the principle is the same - they could play loose with leads. This past off-season, Levy added three offensive linemen, a stud rookie running back and a potential QB of the future, while adding just one defensive piece (Paul Posluszny) and a few journeymen. Expect that trend to continue; as of right now, it appears that Levy's first goal is to piece together a consistent offense that will allow Buffalo's aggressive defense to play up to their potential.
Free Agency vs. The Draft
Polian, as has been his M.O. for quite some time, built the Colts largely through the draft. Players like Joseph Addai, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis and Bob Sanders were all draft picks that blossomed in the scheme; his drafts were never graded highly, but the players have done nothing but produce. Meanwhile, he's let a few free agents walk (LB Marcus Washington, CB Nick Harper, and our own DT Larry Tripplett).
Levy, once again, is following suit. He let CB Nate Clements and LB London Fletcher walk, and traded away RB Willis McGahee and LB Takeo Spikes. He brought in some free agents, sure, but the bulk of his success has come through the draft; in just two years, Buffalo has added 10 one-time starters that will likely have bigger impacts in subsequent seasons. Again, this is a trend that is likely to continue - the Bills have double-digit draft picks coming up this April. Levy built his old ball-club through the draft, and he's going through the same process this go-round.
Why It Works
Schemes are debatable. Does the 3-4 work better than the Cover-2? Coaching styles are debatable. Do you need a motivator like Bill Cowher, or a quiet leader like Tony Dungy? The only thing that matters on a nearly case-by-case basis, however, is patience. Marv Levy drafts well, and he's got a smart coaching staff and a smart roster. He's building his team his way, and the Bill Polian way. We're in good hands.
Jauron is the right coach for this franchise. The offensive and defensive schemes will work with time and experience. The fact that the Bills are near .500 in Jauron's tenure despite new schemes, massive roster turnover and devastating injuries tells us one thing, and one thing only: Levy and Jauron are doing this the right way. They've been in the playoff chase for two years now; once they get the roster built up to where they want it, this team will begin to turn heads. Possibly very quickly.
This season isn't over, and the "cagey" Jauron (as Rich Eisen affectionately refers to his as) is pushing buttons already. Ride the Trent Edwards wave - he may just be the QB we've been looking for since the retirement of Jim Kelly. It's going to be a bumpy ride, and I count myself first amongst Bills fans that may be becoming too negative with the streaky nature of this team. The way I'm dealing: constant reminders that the Indy blueprint works. Trust in Marv, and more importantly, trust in Dick. We're so close to getting there.