The signs were certainly there. A defensive unit with a lot of the same pieces the last four years capably handled the changes made by new defensive coordinators in 2012, 2013 and 2014. The results weren't always league leading, but by midseason execution on the whole was consistent. In 2015 however, that hasn't been the case.
In fact entering their Week 16 matchup with Dallas, Buffalo's defensive players are still talking about getting everyone on the same page. Outside observers have blamed Rex Ryan and his coaching staff. On Tuesday players admitted it wasn't the coaches. Their defensive unit is fragmented with some players unable to let go of the successful scheme they ran a season ago.
"I don't think it has anything to do with effort. I think guys are trying, it's just guys have got to buy into the system, especially on the defensive side," said LB Preston Brown. "We don't really know how good we could've been because everybody wasn't doing what they were supposed to do on each play. We can't say it was the scheme or everybody is not playing with effort. Mentally everybody wasn't there."
Veteran defensive back Corey Graham agreed. He's not surprised their performance has slipped this season in light of the uneven play on their side of the ball.
"To be honest we've just got to all get on the same page," Graham said. "We're in Week 15 or 16 and we're still talking about the same things. We're just not all on the same page. One guy is playing this and one guy is playing that. We might not know what's going on. When we're not all on the same page, we're not going to make plays."
Brown, who calls the plays for the defense, admitted the defense had trouble playing as an 11-man unit because some players weren't ready to part with last year's defensive system. Even though head coach Rex Ryan tried to blend some concepts of last year's scheme into his this season, it wasn't enough to keep some players from doing what they thought was best in games instead of executing their assignment.
"It's something that we have to handle," said Brown. "We have to understand that everybody has to be working as one and we haven't done that this year. Everybody has been kind of doing their own agenda on our side of the ball. So it's something that we need to get covered and handle these last couple of games and years down the road."
Players on the offensive side of the ball could apparently see what was going on with the defense and were hopeful things would change. After being eliminated from playoff contention last Sunday, Sammy Watkins had enough. He said the team needed more leaders who would hold teammates to a higher standard. He never singled out a side of the ball, but his message was clear and it was supported by Tyrod Taylor.
"We definitely can't have division from within," Taylor said. "We want to go out there and lay it all on the line for each other. The more leaders, the better the team. Guys have to find a way to lead in their own way and just hold each other accountable."
Preston Brown took a step in that direction Tuesday. Even though it's too late for the postseason, he will be pushing for full conformity to Ryan's system in these last two games.
"Everybody keeps saying last year we were a top four defense and everybody was still thinking about last year," said Brown. "We've got to get over that. It's not last year and guys were still thinking, 'Oh we did this last year.' Well we're not doing that this year. So we've got to understand that we're doing a different scheme and a different system and it works if everybody does it the right way."
Unfortunately on the whole that didn't happen this year. There were times when the players chose to execute the assignments in the scheme and it worked in games against Miami, Tennessee and the second matchup with New England, but rarely did it carry over from one week to the next.
"It just didn't come together throughout the whole year. It seemed like as soon as we started to find our stride we'd go all the way back to day one," said Brown. "Guys felt they knew what we should be doing. In the grand scheme of things we could've brought it together in time to make things work and we just didn't.
"Throughout the year we're supposed to get better and we still have the same mistakes that we had Week 1 and that's something you usually don't see in a defense. We had time and we had games where we could've brought it together, but it just didn't work this year."
Players acknowledged the coaching staff tried to fix some of the inconsistencies on defense caused by player deviation from the system's design, but it wasn't enough to keep the group from underachieving this season.
"There have been times where we've simplified things and there have been times where things were difficult," said Corey Graham. "We're trying to figure out who we've got and what we've got. When it's all said and done we've just got to execute."
Missing the playoffs served as the painful lesson for Buffalo's defensive players who would not fall in line with the defensive scheme.
"This whole year was a year of learning," said Brown. "It was a different situation with such high expectations going into the year and to go out there and not do what we wanted to happen. It's just not the year that we all envisioned. We've got two more games to prove that we can be that defense we wanted to be. We know it's too late, but we still have to go out there and play the best we can play."
Brown has only been in a Buffalo uniform for two seasons, but he knows, much like Watkins, that if they want to experience success they need to step forward and take on a more demonstrative leadership role in the years to come. His future and Watkins future are secure with this team, but the same can't be said for everyone with Rex Ryan all but promising changes this offseason.
"We're all fighting for our jobs each week trying to get better. We've got to come together," Brown said. "If we want to have success next year we have to show that we have promise. We can't go out there and keep doing the same things where it's like, we're not improving and we're not getting any better so what's the point of still trying. We've got to go out there and show that we can get better at what we're doing."
"I can't put it on the coaches," said Watkins. "I think it starts with grown men and with ourselves. We've got to come together as a locker room and find out what fits for us. I'm pretty sure there are going to be a lot of changes in the locker room. I'm with Rex. If he has to be hard on us and do whatever he has to do, I'm fine with that. I'd rather be the best team, the disciplined team, the best 'in shape' team and win games, rather than having a great team and having great coaches and putting it to waste."