Sean McDermott retrieved his defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier, from under the team bus on Wednesday. McDermott, who took away the play-calling duties from the veteran Frazier at halftime of Sunday’s 31-20 loss to the Chargers, said the two will collaborate on calling plays for the time being.
"Either way, Leslie is going to be a big part of what we're doing," McDermott said on Media Day at One Brills Drive. Frazier, meanwhile, explained that he and McDermott have been collaborating on calling plays all along and that "this really won't be any different.”
Well, they certainly need to put their heads together to fix a defense that is statistically near the bottom of the NFL through two distressing weeks. At the very least, it’s a concession to Frazier, who looked like a scapegoat when McDermott made the self-serving decision to take over the play calling last Sunday.
As McDermott said on Sunday, he’s called plays in the past. On Wednesday, he referenced other NFL coaches who have collaborated on calling plays in the past. Defense is his main area of expertise. Still, it did strike me as a transparent attempt by McDermott to deflect attention away from himself.
The defense couldn’t have been worse in the first half, that’s for sure. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was 15 of 16 passing in the first half. Melvin Gordon ran untouched for one TD and caught two other passes for scores. The Bills’ blitzes didn’t get to Rivers, who was a step ahead of the defense. The linebackers — especially rookie Tremaine Edmunds — were slow to react and often out of position in coverage.
Things improved radically in the second half. Whether that was the natural course of events in a one-sided game, a surge in effort by the players, or McDermott’s play-calling genius, is hard to say. What’s clear in the first six quarters of the seasons, the defense was as bad as any Bills defense in history.
I didn’t conduct any scientific study, but I researched some of the worst defensive seasons in franchise history and couldn’t find another example of a Buffalo team allowing 10 touchdowns over a stretch of six quarters. Not in the 1984 season, when they went 2-14 and allowed a franchise-record 435 points. Not in 2012, when they gave up 50 points or more three times. Not in either of Rex Ryan’s two seasons.
Wait, I did find another example: It was last year, when the Bills allowed 10 touchdowns over six quarters of the Saints and Chargers losses, which was part of a three-game stretch when McDermott’s maiden Bills team allowed 135 points during a three-game losing streak at midseason.
As Lorenzo Alexander explained Monday night in an appearance at Dos on the Lake, the Bills feasted on turnovers and were tough in the red zone in their wins last year. But when they weren’t taking the ball away or stopping teams close to their own goal, they were a mediocre defense. Thus far this season, they’ve been horrendous in both areas.
The Bills have allowed nine touchdowns in 10 opponents’ trips inside the 20-yard line this year. The first seven such visits resulted in TDs. They have one takeaway, a meaningless fumble recovery against the Ravens (they’re only 1 of 6 recovering fumbles). They haven’t picked off a pass and have just three sacks.
They’re tied for last in points allowed with 78. They’re 31st in opposing quarterback rating at 128.7. They’re 31st in opposing QB’s completion percentage at 75.4. That’s pretty bad, and troubling when you consider that defense, particularly the secondary, was expected to be the team’s strength and would keep them in games.
It’s not all Frazier’s fault. Whoever calls the plays, the first two weeks are a ringing indictment of Bills' leadership, and the so-called vision of general manager Brandon Beane and McDermott, the head coach who came to Buffalo as the most empowered coach in team history and has a big say in personnel decisions.
It was McDermott, given charge of the draft soon after his hiring by the Pegulas in 2017, who decided to bypass Pat Mahomes and Deshaun Watson and trade back for a cornerback, Tre’Davious White. Every new Bills head coach since Marv Levy has drafted to his speciality with his first pick, and without a real GM in place (Doug Whaley was fired the next day), there was little chance of McDermott going offense.
In this past offseason, most of their resources were spent on defense: They signed tackle Star Lotulelei for five years, $50 million and end Trent Murphy for three years, $22.5 million. They gave defensive back Vontae Davis a one-year, $5 million deal, only to see Davis retire at halftime of the home opener, citing his diminished talent and desire not to expose himself to further injury.
The first two games have been a poor return on investment. McDermott acted as if it were no big deal, but when he took the play calling away from Frazier, it brought back memories of two years ago, when Rex Ryan fired offensive coordinator Greg Roman two games into the season — after owner Terry Pegula huddled with a few of the team’s offensive stars to give them a chance to stab Roman in the back.
Frazier is taking the high road here. He’s a respected, long-time NFL assistant who was a head coach for three years with the Vikings. It’s too bad he has to go back to Minnesota after this sort of embarrassment. He was the DC when the Bills broke the playoff drought. Did he get stupid all of a sudden?
McDermott’s move smacks of desperation, and he should be desperate. He was supposed to clean up after Ryan’s mess. While he got the Bills to the playoffs, his defense was 26th in 2017 and they allowed the exact number of points (359) as in Ryan’s first season in Buffalo, which was correctly deemed a failure.
They allowed 379 points in Ryan’s second season. After two weeks, it looks as though McDermott’s guys will struggle to do that well. Next up: Road games against Kirk Cousins and Aaron Rodgers. Does it really matter who’s calling the signals?