From the moment Chan Gailey hired old friend Dave Wannstedt a year ago January, this scenario seemed to be a case of when and not if.
When Wannstedt was fired as football coach at his alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, in December 2000, George Edwards was already in place for his second season as the Bills’ defensive coordinator.
But Wannstedt’s title with Buffalo — assistant head coach/inside linebackers coach — was hard to ignore.
Part of it, of course, was deference to role reversal.
His reputation as a defensive guru under Jimmy Johnson, first at Oklahoma State, then at the University of Miami and finally with the Cowboys earned Wannstedt the head coaching job with the Bears and ultimately for the Dolphins.
It was in the latter position that he hired Gailey, on reputation alone, to be his offensive coordinator. And in both the seasons before Gailey was named head coach at Georgia Tech, the Dolphins went 11-5 and made the playoffs.
In football, because of the sheer volume of assistants, coaches have a tendency to hire assistants with whom they’ve worked and had success, if only because of their familiarity with the boss’ system.
SO WHEN Gailey returned the favor, and without the option of a defensive coordinator opening, Wannstedt, not surprisingly, was conferred the title of assistant head coach.
And when the Bills’ defense after a solid start — surrendering 18 points a game as Buffalo opened the season 5-2 — imploded over the final nine games, eight of them losses, giving up 32 per start, Edwards’ fate was sealed.
The Bills couldn’t effectively rush the passer — only 29 sacks — gave up nearly 140 yards per game on the ground and won the takeaway/giveaway battle by only one.
Thus, when the season ended, even though Edwards was a victim of a defensive front seven that did not have the skill set to play his preferred 3-4 alignment, he was summarily dismissed within a week of season’s end.
Wannstedt was immediately hired as his replacement.
And, on Thursday afternoon, he met with the Bills’ media to discuss his new defensive plan, starting with the adoption of a 4-3 base alignment.
OF THE SWITCH, Wannstedt allowed, “From the few guys that we do have, our two inside guys (Marcell) Dareus and Kyle (Williams), I think it will give those guys a chance to make some plays
“We played last year about 65-percent of our snaps in nickel personnel where we actually had four down guys in the game with their hand on the ground. Whether we had five defensive or six defensive backs, it really didn’t matter. The point was that if you looked at us we were doing a lot of things that are a carryover within the 4-3 scheme and most teams do that.”
Of the 4-3, he added, “In a lot of instances it’s going to be the same guys maybe playing a little different position. There will be a little bit of a learning curve. The OTAs and the extra days that we can get just to walk-through and talk with the players in the offseason is going to be very, very important to us. With five rookies playing last year on defense we’re counting on those guys making significant steps upward this year.”
When asked if the switch required new personnel needs, Wannstedt added, “Whenever you go from a three down look to a four down look the obvious are defensive linemen. But we have a lot of needs. Going to three off-the-line linebackers, obviously that’s going to be a need, too. And, depending on what happens with free agency, we’re going to be looking at the secondary. Everybody is being evaluated right now. We’ll look to try to make some changes going from a 3-4 to a 4-3, but also just from a production standpoint.”
“(We need) the four down and three linebackers that can run, not the big 3-4 linebacker. We’re looking for guys that run and make plays. When you reflect back on the defenses that I’ve been responsible for, the guys up front have been playmakers and we expect (them) to make plays. We want it to be a defensive line-friendly scheme. It's really trying to put those guys in the best position where we can use their talent, where they can play fast and give them the opportunity to make plays.”
AND WANNSTEDT wants to accomplish that with a minimum of switching.
“The thing you want to try to avoid is situational players as much as you can. Every guy can go out and play defensive end and can play the run and play it very good. How the defensive end position in my mind gets separated are the guys that can rush the passer.”
But that also includes Dareus, a tackle by trade.
“Marcell is dominant,” Wannstedt said. “He will be and needs to be for us to get where we need to be. He needs to be a dominant player inside. He showed a lot of promise last year that you better double team him ... he can’t be blocked one-on-one. That’s got to be his mindset
“He’s got enough athletic ability, that’s the great thing. You’re not talking about a 330-pound big, stiff guy inside that can play the run. He’s a pass rusher, he’s an athlete. From a coaching standpoint that gives us a lot of flexibility. We expect him to make a lot of plays.”
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com)