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#23 - When will the new schemes start to click?

Posted Jul 6, 2010

Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. With a new regime and practices at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the latest installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 28th and Sept. 12th

Whenever an NFL team undergoes change in its offensive or defensive philosophy there’s a learning curve to travel for each and every player on the roster. And all of those players navigate their way through that learning curve at different rates. That’s why it’s essential to have a veteran coaching staff to help the players through that process so come September they not only understand the scheme, but can execute it consistently at regular season game speed.

To expect things to be close to perfect in Week 1 of the NFL season might seem unrealistic considering the overhaul of changes to Buffalo’s offensive and defensive schemes. Just don’t say that to Bills head coach Chan Gailey.

“We have confidence that our system will put guys in position to make plays,” said Gailey. “You’ve still got to go make them, but I think we’re going to have guys that have some talent. We’ve got to make sure that they get the opportunity to go be special on the field and that’s what we’re working on. You try to have confidence without being cocky. If you don’t have confidence in this business you’re going to lose in a hurry.”

When asked if there’s a timetable when he realistically expects the offense and defense to be executing effectively Gailey made things plain.

“Yeah, there’s a timetable,” he said. “Game one. That’s what it’s supposed to be. You better be hitting on all cylinders when you get to game one. That’s always been my expectations. When they turn on the clock and start keeping score for real, you better be ready.”

The head coach has to set the tone so it’s not surprising to hear that Gailey’s expectations are for his team to be performing with consistency come Sept. 12 in the home opener against Miami.

History has said that getting 11 men on one side of the ball to do that right off the bat in year one of a new scheme is easier said than done. The good news is both offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins and defensive coordinator George Edwards have been in situations in their coaching careers where they’ve had to help implement new systems before. They know where the difficulties lie for players.

“I think probably the most challenging thing is the terminology,” said Modkins. “For the most part when these guys get at this point there’s probably somewhere down the line where they have run similar types of plays. But it’s the verbiage, it’s the terminology, it’s how we call things, how we do things. Then it’s the way we specifically work that you have to drill into them.”

Making sure players know not only what the play call is, but why that play is called can help to speed up the comprehension because they’re not just running plays, they’re applying that play call to a particular situation be it down and distance, area of the field or time and score.

“The biggest thing is getting them to understand what it is you’re trying to accomplish,” said Edwards. “Once everyone is on the same page and everybody understands where they fit on the run and everyone understands the coverage aspect of where they need to fit, then it’s okay. It’s a little bit uncomfortable because you’re doing something out of the norm of what a player has become comfortable with.”  

Through the course of the OTAs and minicamps the veteran players felt they developed a good handle on the new terminology and the offensive and defensive systems as a whole. That’s likely due in part to the fact that players like Lee Evans have been through a handful of different schemes in their time with the Bills.

“I’ve pretty much got a good grasp of the offense, understanding it, understanding what we’re trying to get accomplished,” said Evans. “I feel confident in it and now it’s just getting everybody else up to a level where they’re confident. It takes a little time with the young guys, but I think they’re picking it up well.”

On offense the athletic demands on players does not change all that much. It’s more about adapting to the new concepts and the way plays are called in the new offense as well as adjustments on the fly. So what Modkins has to be mindful of is when his players hit maximum capacity with respect to the mental side of the game.

“A lot of it is based on what they can absorb and how much they can handle out there on the field,” Modkins said. “If you have them look at too much some guys short circuit. You have to get a baseline on how much they can handle and they all learn differently. The guys here all learn differently and it’s our job to figure out how they learn, how much they can absorb and get the necessary information to them to put us in the position to win games.”

The situation is a bit different on defense where the former defensive ends now have to adapt to new responsibilities where the physical demands are considerably different.

“The biggest challenge is converting our defensive ends to outside linebacker,” said Donte Whitner. “Guys have to move some weight and learn different coverages and learn different schemes and be able to cover tight ends and slot receivers. We have all the interior guys, our linebackers were always able to run and our secondary can play whatever coverage in whatever defense. It was really the defensive end spot that we really needed to work on and guys are working hard. We’re not where we need to be there yet, but we’ll get there.”

“The big thing is what you’re asking them to do and does it fit the skill set of the player,” said Edwards. “Then you look at what the opponents are trying to do against you whether it’s leverage or mismatch in coverage or whatever. And you counter that with answers and try to anticipate other problems that come up so you have more answers ready.”

So although the systems on offense and defense have changed considerably, Gailey and his staff will not change so dramatically that it sacrifices consistent execution. They know it’s incumbent upon them to find ways to preserve quality play in the face of change.

“It’s easy to have a book of plays and try to make these guys run these plays because it’s what you do,” said Modkins. “It’s harder for coaches to be flexible and adapt. Coaches don’t like change in general. Coach Gailey’s strength is we’re going to make it fit the guys we have even if it puts more on us as coaches. Even if we have to think outside the box a little, even if we have to do something different from the way we did it last year. Whatever we have to do to make this guy successful that’s what we’re going to do.”

That approach appeared to be paying dividends already in the spring practices as players were developing greater confidence in executing their assignments at speed.

“We’re liking it,” said Whitner. “We’re still learning and there’s a lot of terminology. One guy moves and it changes the whole defense of what your responsibility is, but it’s exciting. We’re going to challenge some teams in the league this year.”

The only catch is the speed at which the players have to execute in OTAs and minicamps is not at the same level of speed when the pads are on at training camp. The speed at which execution must happen in the preseason is even faster, with the speed going up yet another notch come the regular season.

“That’s the next step,” said Gailey. “I think that’s all a fluid situation as you go through training camp and preseason games. There were days in the spring where I saw (execution) looking better than others. So I see glimpses of where we want to be and what we’re trying to get done. We’re not there yet. We won’t be there until the first game probably. But we’re getting there.”

League history says it will take time on the job during the season before both sides of the ball are humming for the Bills. But with a seasoned coaching staff to make the necessary adjustments to fit the personnel, Gailey’s goal of Week 1 might not be all that unrealistic.

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