It’s time to wrap up our Buffalo BIlls drought retrospective by looking at the defensive coaches from the last 18 years. The results here are better than the offensive group, but there were still a couple names who were left off the list due to their lousy performance. You should be able to find a favorite, so be sure to vote below!
Gray was a Titans defensive backs coach who joined Gregg Williams in the trip from Tennessee to New York in 2001. He spent five seasons as Buffalo’s defensive coordinator, lasting two coaching regimes before the Bills cleaned house after the 2005 season. His tenure saw two bad defenses, two excellent ones, and one solid season. One area where Gray’s teams struggled was in generating turnovers (with one exception) - from 2001-2003, the Bills ranked dead last in that statistic by a healthy margin (not counting the 2002 expansion Houston Texans).
The 2003 and 2004 seasons were his highlights; thanks in part to a strong core of talent, his team ranked second in yards against in both seasons. The 2004 defense was an absolute terror, leading the league in takeaways and net yards per attempt, ranking third in yards per carry, and recording 45 sacks. It was arguably the best defensive performance of the drought.
2005 saw the run defense regress with Takeo Spikes’ Achilles injury, and the team turned in a lousy performance across the board. Gray wound up in Washington after the season ended, reuniting with Williams (Washington’s defensive coordinator in 2006) as the ‘skins’ defensive backs coach.
When the Bills hired Dick Jauron, they signed former Bears defensive backs coach Fewell to coordinate the Tampa-2 defensive scheme. Fewell would spend three and a half seasons as Buffalo’s defensive coordinator, adding a midseason promotion to interim head coach and a 3-4 win-loss record before the Bills changed direction.
Fewell’s defenses were typical for the style of Cover-2 defense—solid passing defenses and a permeable front line that occasionally lost its battles against the run. The best performance came in 2009, when a rookie Jairus Byrd wowed with nine interceptions. The Bills ranked second in net yards per attempt, passing yards, interceptions, and passing touchdowns that year. His game plans were solid but not extraordinary, but he made the most of some woeful talent and bad injury luck along the way.
Pettine came to the Bills with Doug Marrone, on the heels of Chan Gailey’s firing and Dave Wannstedt’s awful throwback defense. Working largely with the existing players on the roster, plus rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso, undrafted rookie Nickell Robey-Coleman, and journeyman linebacker Manny Lawson, he turned Buffalo’s defense into one of the best in the league.
The Bills set a franchise record for sacks that season, ranked sixth in takeaways, and had a top-five passing defense in the league. Pettine’s aggressive, shifting scheme made great usage of the athletes in Buffalo’s front seven, and after the season ended he was named the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
With Pettine’s departure, Marrone looked to the recently-fired former head coach of the Detroit Lions, Jim Schwartz. Schwartz had struggled to manage his team over five seasons in Detroit, but still held a strong reputation for running a defense. His scheme had a streamlined, attacking philosophy, a strict 4-3 with the wide-9 technique opening up pass rush lanes for his defensive ends. It was a perfect match for Buffalo’s high-paid defensive line, and the team came close to breaking its sack record from the previous season.
The Bills again had a top-five passing defense, and improved in takeaways, but the run defense also took a step forward. The Bills ranked fourth in total yards against and fourth in points against, and surrendered the fewest passing touchdowns in the league. Schwartz had a short-lived tenure in Buffalo. After Marrone absconded, the Bills interviewed him for head coach, but went with Rex Ryan as their next leader, and Schwartz was incompatible with Ryan’s management. After a year off, he joined the Eagles as their new defensive coordinator.
Thurman was pretty much a proxy for Rex Ryan, having spent two years as Ryan’s defensive coordinator for the Jets before taking over in that role when they joined the Bills. The new scheme didn’t mesh well with the players on Buffalo’s roster, and early on the performance took a step back. The Bills were 19th in yards against, 15th in points against, and 12th in takeaways in his first season, respectable numbers but not great ones. The sack rate nosedived, with the Bills only notching 21 sacks a year after hitting 54 sacks.
Performance didn’t improve in 2016, and the Bills surrendered three 240-rushing-yard performances as teams realized they could grind down Buffalo’s defense on the ground. Free agent addition Lorenzo Alexander had a positive impact in this scheme, leading the team with 12.5 sacks to help resuscitate the pass rush. After Ryan was fired, Thurman coached the final game of the 2016 season, and has been unemployed since.
So, who deserves to coach our All-Drought defense? Will you go with a one-year wonder like Pettine or Schwartz? Do Gray or Fewell deserve a vote for their longevity and the occasional strong result? Make your choice, and we’ll be back soon to sum up the whole team.
Who was the best defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills playoff drought?
This poll is closed