The move from Dave Wannstedt to Mike Pettine was like going from bland chop steak to tender filet mignon for the Buffalo Bills. But now, they'll have to find another prime cut to run their talented, but occasionally, faulty defense in 2014.
After a solid season with the Bills, one in which the defense finished near the top of the NFL in most passing, sack and turnover rankings, Buffalo lost Pettine and his ultra-assailing, Rex Ryan defense to the Cleveland Browns on Thursday.
From Mobile, Ala. at the Senior Bowl, head coach Doug Marrone was quoted saying the following on The John Murphy Show before Pettine took the head-coaching gig in Cleveland: “Right now, I think he’s having an interview as we speak. If he does get it, we will be happy for him, but we do have a plan in place."
Now that Pettine's gone, what should the Bills do?
First things first—potential replacement options. While it's impossible to know who Buffalo's front office has on its defensive coordinator radar, this collection of coaches is logical:
|Name||Current / Most Recent Position*||Team|
|Jim O'Neil||linebackers coach||Buffalo Bills|
|Donnie Henderson||defensive backs coach||Buffalo Bills|
|Wade Phillips||defensive coordinator / interim head coach*||Houston Texans|
|Greg Schiano||head coach*||Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|Jim Schwartz||head coach*||Detroit Lions|
|Eric Mangini||offensive senior consultant||San Francisco 49ers|
|Pepper Johnson||linebackers coach*||New England Patriots|
|Jim Tomsula||defensive line coach||San Francisco 49ers|
|Rocky Seto||defensive passing game coordinator||Seattle Seahawks|
All are considered defensive specialists who are either unemployed at the moment or would be taking a promotion if they filled the Bills' vacant coordinator position.
The most seamless transition for Buffalo's defense and its personnel would be the internal hire of Jim O'Neil, the team's linebackers coach who's been with Pettine since 2009 with the New York Jets.
However, ESPN's Adam Schefter tweeted this noteworthy development regarding O'Neil's potential future:
Browns submitted request to Buffalo to interview Bills LB coach Jim O’Neil for Cleveland’s DC. O’Neil and Pettine worked together with Jets.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 23, 2014
That doesn't necessarily mean O'Neil will follow Pettine the 200 miles to Cleveland.
Well, O'Neil has found himself in a similar predicament to the one Pettine was in with Ryan for most of his time with Gang Green:
#Browns HC Mike Pettine said he expects to call defense's plays.— Nate Ulrich (@NateUlrichABJ) January 23, 2014
He'd be an apprentice in the shadow of a master without play-calling control and no real room to move up within the organization.
Sure, there's a chance O'Neil believes that, eventually, Pettine would turn over the reins of the defense to him, but remember, Ryan took the play-calling duties back from Pettine in 2012, so O'Neil knows the power struggle that can transpire.
If O'Neil is hired by the Browns to be their defensive coordinator, as shown in the above table, the Bills would have an assortment of options, from internal coaches with vast experience to external candidates with head-coaching pasts.
Many Bills fans would scoff at the idea of Eric Mangini because he failed during his most recent stay in the limelight, as Cleveland's head coach in 2009 and 2010 after an unsuccessful stint as the head guy with the Jets.
A Mangini hire by Buffalo would complete an unusual football triangle, wouldn't it?
The recently fired Jim Schwartz or Greg Schiano would be viewed as "blah" hires for the Bills, especially the latter.
Neither Schwartz nor Schiano had the appropriate personality or organizational philosophies to run an NFL team as a head coach, but both cut their teeth in professional football as defensive buffs.
So there's that.
Who ever the Bills strike a deal with to be the defensive coordinator must be willing to tailor his scheme to Buffalo's personnel.
How will the Bills defense be affected by Mike Pettine's departure?
With Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Alan Branch, Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams up front, there's plenty of room for scheme versatility, although 4-3 alignments better accentuate the collective skill and talent of the defensive line than the 3-4.
Kyle Williams and Dareus are both premier penetrative defensive tackles more so than block-eating interior mammoths, and part of the reason why Mario Williams decided to play in Buffalo—outside of fat pay check—was due to the 4-3 system in place that ideally suited the role he wanted to play— a traditional pass-rushing end.
Also, as evidenced from the stark contrast between Wannstedt and Pettine, the next Bills defensive coordinator can't be afraid to send extra rushers.
Most likely, he won't be has blitz-happy as Pettine but not as blitz-averse as Wannstedt.
From that, the sack numbers will likely decrease—Buffalo finished second in the NFL with 57 quarterback takedowns this past season—and the interception total will likely dip too.
But the run defense needs to be tightened up, that's obvious.
Some of that inconsistency was the result Pettine's hyper-aggressive defense and some was the result of hyper-aggressive rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso, who should get better with more experience.
Essentially, the next Bills coordinator just has to be significantly more creative, forward-thinking and attacking than Wannstedt was, and even if his blitz schemes aren't as complex as Pettine's, he'll be fine.
The next Bills defensive coordinator must be a resource for general manager Doug Whaley in identifying a thumping linebacker to place next to Alonso in base packages. Also, he might have to create a plan at free safety if Jairus Byrd bolts in free agency or isn't again smacked with the franchise tag.
The Buffalo Bills coaching staff took a hit earlier this week when Mike Pettine, one of the game's brightest defensive minds, left to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
But with many seemingly fine options to replace him and a cluster of highly talented defenders on the roster, they should be OK.