TEMPE, Ariz. – As an NFL head coach or defensive coordinator, Dave Wannstedt never has been in charge of a defense that ranked worse than 20th in yards allowed.
Wannstedt’s career average ranking is 9.9 in total defense.
But his Buffalo Bills rank 31st entering this afternoon’s game against the Arizona Cardinals in University of Phoenix Stadium.
The Bills have allowed 1,201 yards the past two weeks – two of the three worst games in franchise history and a total that hasn’t been seen since the 1950 New York Yankees.
The Bills are allowing opponents to do things previously unheard of in the NFL. The San Francisco 49ers last week became the first team to run and throw for 300 yards in the same game.
Buffalo’s defense was expected to be vastly improved, not a laughingstock.
Mario Williams and Mark Anderson were supposed to fortify the pass rush.
They, along with defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, were hypothetical run-stuffers. Before the season, Jairus Byrd and George Wilson looked like the best safety tandem in the AFC East. Youngsters such as first-round pick Stephon Gilmore were prime clay ready to be molded.
What does Wannstedt have to say about all this?
One of the most frequent questions I field in chats and my email inbox pertains to why we never hear from Wannstedt. We actually do, but the interview process doesn’t lend itself to audience fulfillment.
The NFL media policy mandates coordinators be made available to reporters at least once a week. The Bills, unlike many clubs, allow access to all assistant coaches – not just coordinators.
But the designated time each week is Friday afternoon, when people tend to disconnect from the media, stop obsessing about the NFL and focus on their weekend plans until they check their fantasy lineups Sunday morning.
There’s a reason companies and politicians disseminate unpleasant information on Friday afternoons. Nobody’s paying attention.
As such, Bills fans wonder why they haven’t heard from Wannstedt as much as General Manager Buddy Nix or even CEO Russ Brandon, executives with weekly radio shows on WGR.
With all of the interest regarding Wannstedt’s defense, I prepared several questions for a potential Wannstedt interview. Bills coach Chan Gailey and Wannstedt declined The Buffalo News’ request for a one-on-one interview with the veteran defensive coordinator.
But as part of his weekly NFL obligation, reporters were given about nine minutes with him Friday afternoon on the Arizona State campus, where the Bills practiced all week.
Wannstedt, unshaven and looking haggard, maintained a stern, optimistic tone in claiming his defense is on the right path and ready to strike today against the Cardinals.
Here is the interview session in its entirety.
Question: How are you holding up?
Dave Wannstedt: I wish this next game was three days ago. I was ready to play again Sunday at 6 o’clock.
Q: How confusing has this season been for you so far?
DW: You know what? The inconsistency has been probably the most frustrating thing for us all. We came out of the, obviously, preseason feeling good. Solid, obviously. There was a transition with a new system and new players and everything. And then [we] got into the season and really felt good. After the Cleveland game and even as far as halftime of the New England game we felt like we were right on track and making progress. And then, you know, we’ve had a game and a half of disappointment to put it bluntly.
Now, the good news is it’s basically the same guys as what we played early in the year. We had a good week of practice. We’re refocused. We have to come out here and play as good as we can play this week. And I expect us to. I think we’ll play good. I really believe that.
It doesn’t take much to lose confidence in this league – as an individual, as a group, as a team. You can get your confidence back, though, just as fast. And you don’t get your confidence back, really, on Sunday. To me, you get your confidence back on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. You’re going in to take that exam on Sunday, and the better prepared we are, the more confident we are, the better we will play.
Q: To what degree are you concerned that if this continues, you will lose the players or they will lose confidence in the system?
DW: No, I expect us to bounce back this week and play good. I mean, we have proven that we are capable of that both run and pass and pressures and everything that’s involved with it. And we just got to get back to doing it; that’s all.
Q: What have you been through before that compares to this?
DW: You go through something like this probably every year you coach, to be honest with you. And I know this: From a defensive standpoint, if you continue to give great effort and you know what to do and you got guys that care about it, you’re going to play good defense. And we had a great meeting – as disappointing as it was – on Monday, and we went through all the plays and double-checking and making sure that everybody’s on the same page.
We’ve got to go out and play, and we’ve got to finish the game. We’ve, obviously, given up over 40 percent of our points in the fourth quarter. There’s a lot of reasons for that, but we’ve got to finish. Sometimes guys get anxious and want to do more than their job. But I’m confident. We’ve had a good week, and I’m looking forward to playing.
Q: You mentioned that a coach will go through this every year, but the statistics from these last two games haven’t happened since 1950.
DW: Yeah, well, I mean, the numbers maybe. But the emotions of it, whether you lose by a Hail Mary pass or you lose by three touchdowns, in my mind you respond to it the same way. That’s the key. How are we going to respond? That’s what’s really going to affect our season, you know?
Q: You’ve been a coach practically your whole life, but you’re also a human being. Does doubt ever creep in that “Maybe I don’t have it anymore,” or, “Maybe I just don’t understand the game like I used to?”
DW: No. No. That’s never been a factor, and it won’t be. No.
Q: How do you handle this personally?
DW: Just stay the course. Just stay the course. Just keep at it, and we’ll get it turned around.
Q: Where’s your patience level?
DW: I’m not one to stand up here and say this thing bothers me any more than it bothers George Wilson or it bothers Kyle Williams. I mean, that’s selfish. Everybody is hurting the same way and disappointed, I should say. That’s why you get it back.
We’ve put in defensive systems in five places. The numbers and the results speak for themselves. I mean, things haven’t changed. You still stop the run, and you still tackle well and you still rush the passer and cover guys. Whether you’re a three-man front, a four-man front, two-man front, it doesn’t really matter. All that stuff is really, in my opinion, blown out of proportion.
Q: How much do you pay attention to rankings?
A: I really don’t. I mean, winning is the most important thing. I don’t know where New England and Green Bay were last year, but they ended up winning a lot of games, and at the end of the year that’s all that really matters.
Q: Then to what extent would be OK if ...
DW: We’ve got to win. We’ve just got to find a way to win the game.
Q: If you were to win 45-43, that’s OK with you?
DW: We’ve got to find a way to win the game. That’s the most important thing for our team right now.
Q: How clean has the transition been to the 4-3, given personnel and everything?
A: It has been. I mean, it has been. And I’m going to base it off of it looked pretty clean to me [against] Kansas City – if anybody was at the game. And it looked pretty clean to me the first half [against] New England. We had three turnovers in the game, and they got no points. We go into New England and they got seven points on the board [at halftime], and they got the ball three extra times.
So our defense, we got the same guys, and we’re going to do the same thing. We’re just going to do it better and faster and for 60 minutes.
Q: How concerned are you that Mario Williams isn’t getting the type of pressure you might have envisioned when he was acquired?
DW: He’s working, and he is committed and he is on board, and that’s all you can ask from a guy, you know? You’ve just got to believe that if you stay and he continues working like he’s going to, the numbers will come, you know? Obviously, you want them all right now. But he’s had a good week of practice, and he’s looking forward to playing on Sunday.
Q: To what degree has youth impacted the defense?
DW: On the outside it is. Aaron [Williams started] six games last year. We all know that. And then Stephon [Gilmore] is a rookie. You try to protect those guys, but there’s only so much ... I mean, drop six into coverage and five of them are going to be one-on-one, you know? Last week was a little bit disappointing because I really thought that leading up to that, again, that those guys were coming on. Stephon played really good against New England, you know?
So that’s all a part of it. Everybody plays with rookies and young players. We’ve just got to keep coaching them up and go from there. Go get a win. A win cures a lot of things.
Q: With social media as it is, fan feedback is instantaneous. One of the frequent questions is “Why don’t the Bills blitz more?” What is your philosophy on that?
DW: Last week was as much as we’ve blitzed probably in the last three games if you really want to know the truth. And, you know, if the situation fits, we will. We have it all. It’s just a matter of how much. You’d like to be able to create as much pressure as you could with your four [defensive linemen] to help out those young corners and be able to give them some help and not keep them one-on-one. So there’s more to it, than just saying, “Blitz,” you know what I mean?
Q: Chan Gailey has said he’s fine with the defensive game plans, and he’s satisfied with the practices. How much do you consider the past two weeks and take it personally?
DW: The last game and a half has been disappointing for a lot of reasons. I’ve already said that, and I expect us to go out this week and play good.
Q: From a personal standpoint ...
DW: Personal what?
Q: Do you need to do better?
DW: Always. Unless we’re winning every week, you’re always having to do better.
Q: Is there an example you’d like to share of how you can do better?
DW: No. Not really.