Bills defensive coordinator George Edwards has worked under several proven coaches in the NFL and the college ranks. Names like Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban, Dave Campo and Mike Zimmer, Dom Capers and Marvin Lewis. A lot of Edwards’ defensive philosophies were shaped by the experience he gained under all of them. Where those experiences figure to help him most with the job at hand in Buffalo are the times when he was part of changing the defensive approach.
Edwards faces the tall task of revamping Buffalo’s defensive philosophy of the past nine seasons from that of a 4-3 front to a 3-4 scheme. Fortunately for the Bills defensive play caller, he’s been through it before.
In fact two different times in his NFL coaching career alone, Edwards was part of a defensive staff that had to completely change the approach on defense. During his stint as linebackers coach in Dallas (1998-2001) he saw a defense that had played a 4-3 system since the days of Tom Landry, change to more of a 3-4 scheme.
“The personnel changed a lot so any time the personnel starts changing and you’re losing guys like Leon Lett and getting younger up front with Greg Ellis coming in for example. Guys on the back end were getting older. We had to adjust to the skill set of the new players we had. So we went to more of an under (3-4) defense. It was a new philosophy for them.”
Working under the Cowboys defensive coordinator at the time Mike Zimmer, Edwards and the rest of the staff saw how Zimmer had to play a bit of a hybrid system the first year of the switch to cater to the strengths of the personnel. Some of the players on the roster were still best fit for the previous 4-3 system, while some of the newer personnel were better suited for the 3-4 scheme.
Edwards also saw a two-pronged approach under Marvin Lewis in Washington in 2002 where they had to lean more to the middle of the spectrum between the 4-3 and 3-4. It’s a relatively common approach for teams just beginning to make a system switch, but might not be equipped personnel-wise to run it full time.
“It was just seeing a different way to do it,” said Edwards of his time under Lewis. “We were sort of a hybrid in Washington. It was a big mix.”
After a year of running that defense himself as coordinator in Washington the following season and then spending a year on Cleveland’s staff in 2004, Edwards was hired to work on Nick Saban’s staff in Miami in 2005. He was about to witness another seismic shift in defensive philosophy.
“They had been a 4-3 defense and Zach (Thomas) and Jason (Taylor) had been in a 4-3 and they were very successful. They had been to the playoffs every other year,” Edwards said. “We come in and next thing you know we’re running a 3-4. Zach was reluctant at first, but the big thing was you see the multiplicity of things you can get accomplished out of the 3-4 and that appealed to him.”
The Dolphins new 3-4 scheme was tweaked a bit when Saban left and Dom Capers started running the defense. It afforded Edwards the opportunity to see a different variation of the scheme with different solutions to the weekly challenges that opponents would present during the season.
He saw still another approach to the 3-4 when Tony Sparano was named head coach of the Dolphins a year later and brought components of Wade Phillips’ defensive scheme to Miami from Dallas.
“Fortunately for me I’ve had the luxury of being in three different 3-4 systems and have seen the philosophies of all of them,” said Edwards. “Being in all three of those variations has been a benefit.”
It’s that kind of exposure that undoubtedly makes Edwards an even better defensive coordinator than he was seven years ago in Washington. He knows what it takes to convince players that a major shift in defensive philosophy, when warranted, is what’s best for the team.
“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 its okay. It’s a little uncomfortable for them because you’re doing something out of the norm of what a player has become comfortable with.”
With the Bills, Edwards has pledged to cater the defensive system to the strengths of his players much like some of his mentors. But perhaps the greatest asset that Edwards possesses as a coach is the knowledge of the many counter moves a defensive coordinator needs to neutralize a creative adversary.
“Being in all of those variations of the 3-4 has been a benefit just to address different problems and see how each of those systems addressed different problems,” he said. “You can be a little more objective to different ideas and how to handle things differently. Each system was different in the way they went about finding answers.”
And Edwards intends to have those answers at the ready on Sundays.