Sean McDermott may be the Buffalo Bills’ current head coach but the Ryan family’s fingerprints are still all over the team’s defensive scheme.
That’s impossible, some might argue. McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier utilize a base 4-3 front, not a 3-4 like Rex Ryan, his brother Rob and ex-defensive play caller Dennis Thurman favored, and blitz selectively rather than constantly.
While the above facts are true something else that is accurate is this – going back to 1995, the Bills have had either a head coach or defensive coordinator who have been directly or indirectly influenced by the late Buddy Ryan every year (except for a seven-season stretch in which Dick Jauron and Chan Gailey ran the club).
Let’s examine each coach here.
While the biggest influence on Wade Phillips’ career was undoubtedly his father Bum, a close second is likely Ryan. During Ryan’s time as the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles from 1986-90 Phillips served as Ryan’s first defensive coordinator for three years.
Ryan, of course, was the concocter of the fabled 46 defense, which featured a heavy dose of blitzing with man-press coverage, eight defenders at the line of scrimmage and one deep safety on the back end. While Phillips favored a 3-4 defense that asks his front seven to control one gap and play matchup-zone coverage behind it, it doesn’t mean that the two butted heads while in Philadelphia.
As a matter of fact, they each learned a thing or two from the other.
“I’ve added some stuff from everybody I’ve been with,” Phillips told Philly.com in 2010. “I went to Philadelphia to work with Buddy Ryan because his 46 was the hot defense at the time. I got an opportunity to learn Buddy’s philosophy. We still use some things from that.
“The last year we were there, I got him to play some zone because we had such a great four-man rush with Clyde (Simmons), Jerome (Brown), Reggie White and some guy named (Mike) Golic.”
Wade melded his approach with Ryan’s and became one of the NFL’s best defensive minds. In 1995 Marv Levy hired Phillips as defensive coordinator to replace the outgoing Walt Corey and instantly turned a unit led by Bruce Smith, Ted Washington and Bryce Paup into one of the league’s best for the next three seasons.
That continued when Phillips was promoted to head coach in 1998, culminating into the Bills’ defense becoming the best unit in the league a year later and a top-ten defense in both ’98 and 2000.
Gregg Williams/Jerry Gray
When Phillips left the Eagles in 1989 then-defensive backs coach Jeff Fisher, a former cornerback who played for Ryan in Chicago from 1981-1985, was promoted to fill that post. After two years in the City of Brotherly Love, he spent time with the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers before replacing Ryan as defensive coordinator with the Houston Oilers in 1994.
Already on staff was linebackers coach Gregg Williams, who had been with the Oilers since 1990. His career overlapped with Ryan’s when the latter was defensive coordinator in 1993, and while Ryan may have worked with Williams for just one year that lone season profoundly impacted Williams.
“I took George Allen, I took Buddy Ryan, I took Dick LeBeau. I took Bud Carson. I put them all together and now it’s kind of a Gregg Williams way that we do things,” Williams told NFL Network in 2016. “But there’s more Buddy Ryan in everything I do defensively, schematically, than anything.
“I’ve used his 46 defensive principles everywhere I’ve been and have expanded upon it greatly. It’s been somewhat intimidating to an awful lot of coaches, because they think it’s complicated when it’s not. We still call it the ‘Bear’ defense. Why? Because Buddy Ryan was with the Bears when he did that.”
Fisher became head coach of the Oilers midway through the ‘94 season and eventually tabbed Williams to lead his defense in 1997. The influences from Ryan became obvious to the rest of the league. The two unleashed an aggressive, blitz-happy unit that put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and enjoyed immense success with it, helping the franchise reach Super Bowl XXXIV in 1999 in their first season in Tennessee.
Players loved Williams’ attacking mindset. According to NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks, Williams is so aggressive that – like Ryan before him – he will use unsound coverage principles on the back end in order to get to opposing quarterbacks.
“From a schematic standpoint, Williams will use every front in the book,” Brooks wrote in 2014. “At his core, though, he’s a 4-3 over/under guy. He implements a defensive audible system that adapts to offensive formations, allowing his guys to be in the best possible call on every down. Although the complex nature of the scheme puts a ton of pressure on the linebackers and safeties to make adjustments, it is a system that produces outstanding results when mastered.
“On passing downs, Williams certainly isn’t afraid to mix in a variety of blitzes from exotic looks – including some Okie fronts (3-4 or nickel 3-3 packages) – as well as the standard 4-2-5 nickel front. He will order up Cover 0 all-out blitzes in any area of the field, which makes him the ultimate gambler as a play-caller.”
Two years later Williams got the Bills’ head coaching job and brought defensive backs coach Jerry Gray along with him to run his favored side of the ball. Following the 2003 season – despite the pair turning the Bills’ rebuilding unit into one of the league’s best – Williams was replaced by Mike Mularkey, who kept Gray on his staff and continued to have stellar performances again in 2004.
After seven years under Dick Jauron and Chan Gailey, the Bills hired new head honcho Doug Marrone in 2013 and Marrone promptly swiped then-Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine away from Rex Ryan in New York to run his own outfit.
The Ryan mindset was back in Buffalo and Pettine, who worked with Rex for ten years, intended to put his own stamp on the fabled defensive system. However he did acknowledge that Buddy Ryan was a heavy influence on not just his former boss in Manhattan, but himself.
“We say this is a copycat league but so much of his stuff you still see it today,” Pettine told Cleveland.com a year later. “It was not just the 46 part of it, but playing with swagger. We are going to attack people. He was one of the guys who pioneered making defense offensive.”
Pettine brought the same swarming defensive plays from the Big Apple to the Bills and helped turn them into the league leader in sacks with 57 and the 10th overall ranking in total defense – eventually landing him the head coaching job of the Cleveland Browns.
The departure of Pettine forced Marrone to make a choice – promote an assistant from his own staff or go with someone from the outside. He chose the latter, bringing in deposed Detroit Lions skipper Jim Schwartz.
Some cried foul, believing that Schwartz would undo all of the progress that was made under his predecessor. Those proved to be unfounded concerns.
Schwartz, like Williams, was also a disciple of Fisher’s but his approach was drastically different. Taking over as the Titans’ defensive coordinator from Williams in 2001, Fisher and Schwartz gradually reduced the amount of gambling in Williams’ former scheme and emphasized coverage in a league that was increasingly shifting its focus to the passing game more and more each year.
Not only did players, coaches and front office executives notice the changes in Tennessee, but ex-players turned broadcasters did too. In his book The Games That Changed The Game former ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski explained how Fisher reigned himself in:
“Jeff Fisher, at Tennessee, has dialed down much of the risk that was inherent in Ryan’s original defense. In Buddy’s scheme, you’d see unsound coverage principles at times, with potential receiving targets wide open, or in favorable one-on-one matchups. With the Titans, Jeff runs similar looks, but you don’t always get the same rush patterns after the ball is snapped.
“Fisher can start with something resembling 46 pressure and then will suddenly switch to a zone defense with people dropping back. It’s a more conservative 46, and over the long haul, it’s been very successful in Tennessee.”
Schwartz’s passive approach not only worked in Buffalo but flourished. The Bills once again led the league in sacks with 54 but the slight change in scheme also helped them finish fourth in points and yardage allowed, and they also improved from 28th against the run to 11th.
Rex Ryan/Rob Ryan/Dennis Thurman
Rex Ryan and Thurman came on board in 2015 following the resignation of Marrone (Rob Ryan joined them a year later). Along with those coaches came a switch back to more man coverage on the back end and also a change in alignment – from a 4-3 to a 3-4.
Rex’s approach while orchestrating dominant defenses in New York and with the Baltimore Ravens was considered revolutionary at the time. It was notable for having exotic blitz packages with just one down lineman and other linemen and linebackers walking around until the opposition tipped its hand – and then those front seven players would decide who rushed from where. It was also similar to his old man’s 46 scheme in its aggressiveness, especially in pass coverage.
According to Jaworski in his book The Games That Changed The Game: “Rex has a high volume of these kinds of pressure plays, much more than other teams. He will take some risks, however, and is sometimes willing to be fundamentally unsound in his coverages. Most coaches would do anything to avoid that. You’ve got to be a little bit crazy to do this, and Rex is just like his dad that way. But Ryan’s approach seems to be working.”
Rex’s beloved scheme, however, didn’t take to the Bills’ roster. For one, the Bills didn’t have the personnel in place for it to work – for instance, the coaching staff would frequently ask every-down pass rushers like Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams to drop into coverage, which was neither player’s strong suit, and demanded that its linemen control two gaps and read and react instead of playing aggressive and clogging just one. Essentially, the Ryans and Thurman attempted to stick a square peg into a round hole and failed miserably.
Secondly an incompetent front office made too many questionable transactions, leading to the downfall of both Ryan’s staff and general manager Doug Whaley’s. However this proved to be a blessing in disguise as owners Terry and Kim Pegula decided to hire a football department that was on the same page with one another.
Sean McDermott/Leslie Frazier
McDermott, Frazier and general manager Brandon Beane all came to Buffalo in 2017 and oversaw a defensive unit that struggled against the run and in yardage allowed. However, a ballhawking secondary helped the Bills finish second in the league in passing touchdowns allowed, sixth in interceptions and saw the team break a 17-year playoff drought.
That was just the beginning. Since that first season Buffalo has become dominant on that side of the ball – three out of the last five seasons they have been a top-five outfit. The importations of players like Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Harrison Phillips, Ed Oliver, Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano allowed the 2021 team to rank first in pro football in total yards, passing yards, passing touchdowns, points allowed and third-down defense and third in takeaways and interceptions. It was the first time they had ever led the NFL in points allowed and the first time since 1999 they paced the league in total and passing yards given up.
How do McDermott and Frazier have a connection to Buddy Ryan? Frazier was one of the starting cornerbacks on the 1985 Chicago Bears team that won Super Bowl XX – a team that had Ryan leading its legendary group. But McDermott’s indirect connection traces back to his days in Philadelphia.
When McDermott was initially hired by Andy Reid in 1999 to be the Eagles’ scouting administrative coordinator, two former players on that ’85 Bears team served as position coaches for the Eagles – Frazier as defensive backs coach and current Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera led the linebacking corps. The man who spearheaded the Eagles’ defense was the late Jim Johnson.
Johnson never worked for Buddy Ryan but he did cross paths with Vince Tobin, who succeeded Ryan in Chicago in 1986 and held down that post through 1992. Former Tobin colleague Dave McGinnis told Jaworski in his book The Games That Changed The Game: “Vince adapted these principles after Buddy was gone and began running the same schemes with zone coverage behind it. He then shared all this stuff with Jim Johnson, because they had played together in college at Missouri and were close friends.
“You could see Buddy’s fingerprints all over what Jim did during his many years as Eagles coordinator.”
While each was an assistant coach in Indianapolis – Tobin as defensive coordinator, Johnson as linebackers coach – Johnson learned about the 46 defense’s philosophy and then expanded its capabilities, first as Tobin’s replacement in Indianapolis and then as Reid’s defensive play-caller. For example, he concocted the Double A-Gap blitz, in which a pair of linebackers threaten to blitz on each shoulder of the center (the “A” gaps). The offensive line must then declare its intentions in pass protection, often leaving it – and the quarterback it’s protecting – in a precarious position.
McDermott, like Frazier, became the team’s defensive backs coach in 2007 and replaced Johnson when he passed away from cancer in 2009. Two years later he joined his former colleague Rivera in Carolina and led the Panthers to a berth in Super Bowl 50.
Frazier, meanwhile, took jobs running defenses for coaches like Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati, Tony Dungy with the Colts, Brad Childress in Minnesota and Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay (with a three-year stint as the Vikings’ head coach sandwiched in between). When McDermott filled the Bills’ vacant coaching position in 2017, he brought his former co-worker with him to the City of Good Neighbors.
Brooks took notice of the job McDermott and Frazier in 2018. “I was impressed with the Bills’ ability to use a variety of coverages while maintaining their scheme simplicity,” he wrote. “The defense primarily employs Quarters and Man-Free (Cover One) as its staple coverages, while mixing in some Cover Two, Two-Man and Cover Three, along with zone blitzes. This diversity gives the quarterback a lot to think about, especially when it is combined with clever pre-snap disguises by the secondary.
“The Bills’ pre-snap movement has been well-coordinated in each game, which makes it hard for even veteran signal-callers to decipher if the defense is bringing additional defenders from the second level….. (The Bills) have rushed four defenders or fewer on over 70 percent of their defensive snaps. Thus, they are electing to play coverage over pressure in most instances.”
While alignments (4-3, 3-4) and philosophies (man/zone coverage and blitzing) have come and gone since 1995, the common beliefs that have bonded each of these coaches have been aggressiveness and physicality. Through those concepts the Bills have likely made the forefather of their coaching tree – Buddy Ryan – proud of their accomplishments.