The Buffalo Bills must once again find a new defensive coordinator after Mike Pettine was hired as Head Coach of the Cleveland Browns. Those running the show at One Bills Drive can’t afford to sit and wait. If the team wants to build on its defensive improvements from 2013, they’ll need to act fast in 2014 for the best shot at success with or without Pettine.
Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine had a meteoric rise in 2013 thanks to his revival of a previously awful Buffalo defense. In 2012, Buffalo’s weighted defense hovered between 27th and 30th for most of the season. They ended 2013 ranked 5th. This isn’t about biting fingernails though. Doug Marrone has already made moves along the staff in preparation for a potential departure. But will new Defensive Assistant Jeff Hafley bring to the defense what Pettine did, should he depart? And is Hafley being brought to Buffalo to lead the squad or to slide in somewhere else after he promotes a different assistant from within? Add in the rumors that Buffalo wants to make an outside hire and you have a quagmire of possibilities to wade through. The Bills have a few internal candidates for the job, so let’s start there.
Donnie Henderson. Aaron Williams and Leodis McKelvin had career years in 2013 under Henderson’s tutelage as the Defensive Backs Coach while Stephon Gilmore and Jairus Byrd continued to excel. The Bills ranked in the top five for pass defense, but some of that should be attributed to the team’s fierce pass rush and its weakness against the run. Teams either couldn’t pass against Buffalo or didn’t need to. Should that hamper the resume of a guy with over a decade’s worth of NFL experience? Maybe. Of all the internal hire candidates though, this is the safest choice.
Anthony Weaver. As the other side of the pass defense coin, Weaver’s defensive line finished 2nd in the league in sacks for. The Bills defensive line was their defense this year. If Marrone wants that to continue, maybe he promotes the guy who’s dealt with this unit the most.
Jeff Hafley. And we come back to the new hire. Hafley fits the organizational mold in that he’s a young, up-and-coming assistant, but at 34, Hafley might be a bit too young to lead an entire defense, seeing as how he hasn’t done it before. I still feel like he’s here just to complement the unit in general and Buffalo is looking outside or to the previous names for the D-coordinator job.
So that brings us to the potential of an outside hire, which is a trickier prospect to predict. Not only would Doug Marrone be gleaning from what’s left in the Fired Head Coaches and Defensive Coordinators heap, but Marrone could be looking at assistants and other guys he knows from his years in the business. The biggest thing to keep in mind with established names is that the coach has to be suitable to the scheme. The Buffalo defense is in an improvement stage as opposed to a rebuild stage. There’s no more room for the New Guy Walks In and Changes Everything, which is pretty much how the Bills defense has been run every year for the last 5-14 years. The defense has an identity and the coach needs to work with that. With that in mind, here are a few possible names (admittedly, they’re among the more obvious because we could go on all day looking for names).
Jim Schwartz. This is an intriguing look because of the role Schwartz played in building that Lions front four into a dominant force. He’d have a similar structure in Buffalo and could likely thrive with a renewed focus on just the defense. I would not consider Schwartz a downgrade in any way to Pettine. The question then would be whether the Bills are willing to pay Schwartz’s likely high price tag.
Pepper Johnson. This could be my new favorite choice and a reason the Bills should act fast. Johnson left New England with the intention of becoming a coordinator and the Bills would be wise to at least interview Johnson. He’s coming from more of a 3-4 scheme in New England, but if Johnson wants to build something while proving his old boss wrong, Buffalo would be the ideal spot.
Gregg Williams. There are many reasons to object to this move, but none of them involve performance. Admit it or not, Williams has always been an excellent defensive coordinator. Obviously there’s a level of heat that comes with taking the guy who told his players to ‘Kill the Head‘, but one must assume that Williams has learned his lesson and won’t be inciting the team to bountied bloodlust. At least, that didn’t seem to be the case in Tennessee this year. As for the objection to bringing back an old coach, well, so what? Unless there’s some bad blood between Brian Moorman and Gregg Williams from their time together, there should be no lingering ill will between a guy hired 13 years ago and the team now. If he’s game, I’m game, and you should be game too.
EDIT: Let’s also toss Wade Phillips in the mix! I can’t believe I forgot him on the first go round. As long as Wade is cool with a hybrid scheme, he would be a good hire.
Enough gaming around though. We could go on for days like this, and well, just no. There are big candidates and there are point and click approaches like going after anyone on this page just because.
Any way you slice it, a lack of continuity is rarely a good thing, but in the NFL it’s unavoidable. Mike Pettine deserves a shot at the big chair and the Buffalo Bills will have to move on and not only make sure they have a good replacement to sustain their success from this season, but to build on it next year.
Cory Buck is the AFC East Division Leader at The Penalty Flag. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Facebook/Twitter @TheBuckMopsHere.