clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Should Bills look to stick with a 4-3 defense?

The Buffalo Bills' coaching search marches on. If you believe NFL analyst Mike Lombardi, that search might end soon, as he reported Thursday evening that he believes "have their guy in mind." If you believe ESPN's Tim Graham, GM Buddy Nix will continue the search through the weekend and into next week, as he believes that Nix has more candidates to interview.

While rumors and speculation continue to swirl from every frequented and obscure corner of the Internet, we'll add a bit of our own to the mix. Does it seem to anyone else that the Bills are targeting candidates that are proponents of a 4-3 defensive scheme?

Clearly, this isn't an exact science, and every coach will have different schematic preferences. What we do know for sure, however, is that the Bills have formally interviewed two candidates: former interim head coach Perry Fewell and Minnesota's assistant head coach and defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier. Both cut their coaching teeth teaching 4-3 defensive systems.

Those are the only two coaches that have, to this point, been reliably linked to Buffalo's job opening - the only current coaching job up for grabs, by the way. The list of candidates that have been linked to the position by experts is much lengthier, and while the Bills have had contact with only one of those men, a pattern is developing.

The man most Bills fans are interested in, Bill Cowher, employed coordinators who ran a 3-4 defense during his long tenure in Pittsburgh. Although it's considered likely that, if he were to land a job, he'd prefer the 3-4, Cowher comes off as a coach who lets his assistants employ their schemes, much like Cowher let Dick LeBeau use his blitz-happy scheme in the Steel City. Buffalo reportedly had a stealth meeting with Cowher last week, and while rumors have circulated about his imminent arrival in Buffalo all week, nothing anywhere near the realm of concrete has surfaced.

Marty Schottenheimer has been rumored to be a candidate despite his insisting repeatedly that he'll stay retired. ESPN's John Clayton speculated yesterday that one phone call from Nix to Schottenheimer could coax the 66-year-old out of retirement. Schottenheimer has been a proponent of the 3-4 defense as well, employing men such as Wade Phillips as his defensive coordinator.

One other experienced coaching candidate has been linked to the job - Brian Billick. He's an offensive coach (the first one mentioned here, if you'll notice), and while in Baltimore he employed coordinators that ran an aggressive 3-4 defense, with hybrid looks built in. That may have been the easiest decision he's ever made, as he inherited one of the league's most dominant units when he came to Baltimore from Minnesota. It's unclear which defensive system Billick would prefer.

It should be noted here that Billick has confirmed to WGR 550 that he has not been contacted in regards to the coaching vacancy. The same goes for Schottenheimer, though that could change at a moment's notice. Cowher has that stealth meeting in hand, but again, he's viewed as an unlikely candidate here.

Of current assistant coaches, Ron Rivera is widely viewed as the most likely candidate, given his ties with Nix in San Diego, however brief. He employed a 4-3 defense in Chicago, and when he inherited the 3-4 defense installed by Phillips and Ted Cottrell in San Diego, he incorporated 4-3 and hybrid looks into the system. Norv Turner told assembled media Wednesday that the Chargers have not yet been contacted by Buffalo seeking permission to interview Rivera. That would need to happen by the end of this week.

Philadelphia defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is a Jim Johnson protege, employing the same aggressive, blitz-happy 4-3 look that Johnson rode to fame. He has not been contacted by the Bills, and appears to be a longshot for the job; his name was mentioned by's Jay Glazer.

The same goes for Arizona assistant head coach and offensive line coach Russ Grimm. He's a former employee of Cowher's that played in Washington, coached in Pittsburgh, and now works for an Arizona team that employs a hybrid look. He's been around both defensive systems, and it's unclear which he prefers. Grimm has reportedly rebuffed attempts on Buffalo's part to interview him, though he would not be able to do so until next week anyway.

Brian Schottenheimer is currently the Jets' offensive coordinator, and the teams he's been around - his father's 3-4 teams in San Diego, and Eric Mangini's and Rex Ryan's 3-4 and hybrid defensive schemes in New York - could influence his preference as well. Schottenheimer told reporters on Tuesday that he's had no contact with Buffalo, though again, he wouldn't be able to interview until next week, per league rules.

Lastly, Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh is a former quarterback, and unlikely to have a scheme preference as a head coach. His Stanford team runs a 4-3, but he also played for a Baltimore team that ran its 3-4 look. Harbaugh was mentioned as a "stealth candidate" for Buffalo's coaching position by on Thursday.

Clearly, any time you assemble a coaching list, you're going to be looking at coaches with differing philosophies. From all appearances right now, Buffalo has zeroed in on candidates that at least have some background in a 4-3 defensive alignment. That could change if Buffalo's list of interviewees expands, of course, and it's also true that circumstances have played a pivotal role in who the Bills have interviewed to this point (Fewell, Frazier).

If you ask me, however, I like the approach. I'm completely fine with Buffalo talking to as many coaches as they please, but if they are targeting coaches that run a 4-3, I'm thrilled with that, too. Most Bills fans are adamant that a change to the 3-4 system is necessary, but as I've always said, scheme is irrelevant. In this day and age, you need to be able to throw in alignment wrinkles anyway - and as the NFL is a cyclical league, the 3-4 is very popular at the moment, but how long will it stay that way?

I'm not a proponent of scheme; I'm a proponent of style. Buffalo needs a more aggressive, assertive, physical defensive outlook. You can achieve that playing a 4-3 or a 3-4. Given Buffalo's current personnel, however, I'd be much more inclined to hire a coach with 4-3 experience if I were Nix. I'm all for a re-build, but I also want to win as quickly as possible, and Buffalo's current defensive personnel is best suited to play immediately in a more assertive 4-3 look.

Ultimately, defensive preference is meaningless. I realize that. Buffalo needs to hire the best head coach it can, and if that coach wants to switch to a 3-4, so be it - the re-build will just take longer. If Buffalo can bring in a coach that wants to run a 4-3, however, I'll view it as an added bonus.