When the Bills signed Jim Schwartz to lead their defense in January last year, he was taking over for the rising Mike Pettine who had accepted the top job in Cleveland. The head coach in Buffalo was an offensive specialist with his hand-picked assistant at his side. While there wasn’t a whisper in the media that Schwartz might outshine the Marrone/Hackett duo, to steal a phrase “a funny thing happened on the way to the forum” when Schwartz far outperformed his coaching peers on the Bills. The results continue to make waves across the NFL.
Small market teams like the Bills face more daunting challenges than their larger market counterparts- perhaps nowhere more so than in player acquisition. A GM in a small market has less chance of landing the best or most ideal pieces to fit strict offensive or defensive schemes and must instead find ways to bring in the most likely players to contribute. In turn the coaches in smaller markets must adopt personnel flexibility if they hope to excel. In 2014 Bills’ GM Doug Whaley brought in the best talent he could find from the draft, free agency, waivers and practice squads around the league. That talent added to the Bills was used well on our special teams unit and most effectively by the defense.
Jim Schwartz integrated the first defender taken in our draft by coaching 3rd rounder Preston Brown into the team's top tackler. CB Corey Graham was put to use immediately and effectively, ending the season 1st in defended passes and 3rd in tackles. Free agent Brandon Spikes was used situationally as a key to improving our rushing defense by a whopping 17 spots overall in the league. Other contributors brought in during the season made immediate contributions. Jim Schwartz did all this from a collection of players predominantly put together to play a wholly different scheme. In his first year Jim Schwartz took the Bills defense from 10th in the league to 4th. Grading the Schwartz performance anywhere south of an A would require ignoring the tremendous improvement of his unit.
Offensive line “guru” Doug Marrone and his sidekick Nathaniel Hackett told a much different tale. The heavy offseason focus of the Bills was put on adding more talent to the offense and our draft included the 1st round picks in both 2014 and 2015 in exchange for a wide receiver who ended up tied for 2nd on the team in receptions, a 2nd round offensive lineman who saw limited action in just one game on an offense struggling most obviously at the guard position and a 5th round offensive guard who was unable to overtake a previously benched tackle. Overall the Bills added 3 Olinemen via the draft and another starter via free agency. With all that added help of 4 new bodies including a 2nd round pick and a starting guard all given to supposed Oline specialist Doug Marrone, the single most ineffective unit on the 2014 Buffalo Bills was the Oline. Perhaps as troublesome as the offensive line's performance was the trade for wide receiver Mike Williams who had averaged 64 catches and 8 TDs a year during the 3 full seasons of his career. On an offense struggling to score TDs in the red zone Doug Marrone took one of the deadliest end zone receivers in the league and “held him” to 8 total catches and unbelievably a single TD. With all the added help given to coach Marrone and Nate Hackett in 2014, they managed to take the league’s number 19 offense and "coach it down" to a finish at 26th. Without even factoring in the poor sideline decisions made on gamedays during 2014, it is very difficult to get anywhere past the D range when grading Marrone and Hackett based on the measurables of their offensive unit’s performance in 2014.
The best NFL coaching job in Buffalo this past season was clearly, by every measure, put in by Jim Schwartz. He took the players at his disposal and substantially improved his unit, resulting in very difficult days on the field for the likes of Aaron Rogers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady*. This offseason is taking some exciting twists and turns that are far from over- but the best news for Bills' fans to date is that the one coach deserving our applause for his 2014 unit's performance is still under contract!
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