Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine spent 11 years working as a defensive assistant under New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan.
He probably can finish most of Ryan’s sentences. He definitely knows Ryan’s defensive playbook.
On Sunday, he gets to match wits with his mentor when the Bills visit the Jets at the Meadowlands.
“I’d be a liar if I said this game didn’t mean more to me or I didn’t want to win it,” Pettine admitted after the Bills practiced Wednesday. “Coaches in the NFL, I think, are born with a competitive gene, a hyper-competitive gene, and you want to win at everything.”
That includes, Pettine said, the bean-bag toss-style games they’d play when they went on vacation together with their families.
“When I went on vacation with Rex and we were playing, throwing washers on the beach, I wanted to beat him just as bad as I want to beat him on Sunday,” Pettine said. “But, it’s a team thing. I can’t get drawn into the emotion of that. I have a job to do to put my players in the best position to be successful and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Pettine is off to a fine start as the Bills’ defensive chief. He might be the Bills’ “MVU” – most valuable upgrade. Buffalo held each of its first two opponents, New England and Carolina, to just two touchdowns. The Bills have nine sacks in two games.
More importantly, the Bills’ defense looks a lot more aggressive and creative than it has in many years.
“It looks like somebody’s borrowed our playbook,” Ryan said on a conference call from New York.
That’s just what Bills coach Doug Marrone had in mind when he hired Pettine away from Ryan. In Pettine’s four years as Jets defensive coordinator, New York ranked in the top eight in the NFL in yards allowed every year.
“We want to be an attacking defense and we want to cause turnovers, obviously,” Marrone said. “Right now we have a good mix of what’s going on.”
The Bills have blitzed – rushed five or more men at the quarterback – on 30.6 percent of opponent’s pass plays the first two games, according to News statistics. That’s double their rate of last season, when they blitzed a league-low 15 percent of pass plays. Last season the Jets ranked 11th in rushing five or more 34.1 percent of the time, according to FootballOutsiders.com.
“You can tell all of us love playing in this system,” said defensive tackle Corbin Bryant.
“Pet’s like the Mad Hatter,” said linebacker Jerry Hughes. “He’s just pulling the strings, calling the calls and we’re out there trying to execute it.”
Pettine, 46, left the Jets by his own choice. His contract ran out. He declined the chance to sign a contract extension before the 2012 season.
“I was given some good advice a long time ago by Mike Tannenbaum,” Pettine said, referring to the former Jets general manager. “He said, ‘You’re in a team business where team and loyalty is preached. But at the end of the day you have to be the CEO of yourself.’ ”
“And so that’s why when I was offered a contract the year before, on the advice of my agent, I just didn’t sign it and wanted to let the year play out and had a better opportunity present itself.”
The Bills, presumably, gave Pettine a sizable pay raise. Greater job security could have been another motivation for Pettine to leave. After two straight non-winning seasons, Ryan is widely viewed to be in a “must produce” season.
Pettine said wanting to get out of Ryan’s shadow was a factor. Because Ryan is a defensive-oriented coach, he gets a lot of credit for the Jets’ defensive success.
“I wouldn’t say it was a key part, I think it was maybe a benefit of it,” Pettine said. “I used to joke that Rex casts a large shadow literally and figuratively, obviously not so much now that he’s slimmed down some. But I never wanted to get caught up in that and I was never looking for credit.”
Both men say the parting has not affected their relationship.
“We’re basically like brothers,” Ryan said. “We spent a lot of time together obviously in football, but outside of football as well. We used to vacation together and everything else. We’re obviously very close.”
“He and I have been texting each other since I left there and that’s picked up even more so this week,” Pettine said. “Just funny things back and forth. Rex and I will be friends for a long time.”
“He’s a young guy that I think will be an excellent head coach in the near future,” Ryan said. “I’m counting on the fact that Pettine will get a job and hire my son one day as a quality control coach.”
The only way Pettine will become a head coach is if he strings together some good seasons with the Bills. That, surely, would mean beating Ryan with regularity.
How often did Pettine beat Ryan at the washer toss game?
“More than I can count,” he said.