INDIANAPOLIS -- It is nearly two months since the end of the 2015 season and Rex Ryan is still having a tough time coming to grips with the way his defense played in his first season as the Buffalo Bills head coach.
When Ryan met with the media at the NFL Scouting Combine, he was flippant in some of his answers to questions about what went wrong last season when the Bills ranked 15th in points allowed, 19th in yards allowed, 31st in sacks, all of which led to an unsatisfying 8-8 record and a 16th straight season without a playoff appearance.
"We were terrible," Ryan said with a smirk. "And I can't coach defense anymore for some reason. We'll see what goes on. I don't know, we were 8-8. That's obviously not where we want to be. We realize there's a ton of work in front of us."
He played this whiny I-can't-coach card a few times during the season and it has grown tiring, especially now when it's time to turn the page and move on. The Bills have some huge decisions to make in the next two weeks, and the likelihood is that Ryan is going to lose two key pieces to his defense. Defensive end Mario Williams will almost surely be cut in a salary-cap move, and linebacker Nigel Bradham is expected to hit the free-agent market because the Bills -- who have no salary-cap space right now -- need whatever money they can scrounge up to re-sign offensive linemen Cordy Glenn and Richie Incognito.
Of course, this might not be a bad thing for Ryan. Williams never really bought in to Ryan's scheme and had perhaps the worst season of his career. And while Bradham may have bought in a little more than Williams, he never seemed comfortable in the defense and it became clear he's a better fit as an outside linebacker in a 4-3, the position he played in 2014 when Jim Schwartz was Buffalo's defensive coordinator.
If both of those players move on, Ryan can target players -- whether it-s a mid-tier free agent or someone in the draft -- to take their place. Remember, he inherited this defense and the only player that was new in 2015 was cornerback Ronald Darby, Buffalo's second-round draft pick who turned out to be one of the NFL's top rookies. Everyone else was a 2014 holdover and Ryan had to mold those players to fit his scheme. In year two of his tenure, he can seek out better fits.
"Will there be some things that you'll tweak? Of course, that's every year, you're looking at ways to get better," Ryan said. "You try things, throw things out, do whatever."
Ryan said it at his season-ending press conference, and he reiterated the point at the Combine that he tried to incorporate some of the Bills' 4-3 concepts from the Schwartz defense into his hybrid 3-4 and the result was, well, Ryan's worst defensive ranking ever.
"I tried to combine and that was a mistake," he said. "I think we've got to be all in. It's kind of like being half pregnant; forget that, we're all in, we're fully pregnant now."
No one was quite sure what that meant, though what he was probably trying to convey is that the Bills have to stop living in the past and accept doing things the way Ryan wants them done because - as Ryan is never slow to remind anyone - his system has worked everywhere he's been.
"We know we have to get better on defense and I truly believe we will," said Ryan, who acknowledged that in the last couple weeks of the season he reverted solely to his defensive calls and the Bills responded favorably in wins over the Cowboys and Jets. "The thing I'm super encouraged about is the communication. It wasn't just player to player, it was player to coach, and coach to player. I felt like we finally figured it out and that's what I'm excited about, taking off from that point."
--Bills general manager Doug Whaley acknowledged the severity of Buffalo's salary-cap situation, but he remains confident the money guys can make some magic in the effort to retain free agent offensive linemen Cordy Glenn and Richie Incognito.
"We've always been able to do what we needed to do to get to where we want to go," Whaley said at the Combine. "We won't be able to sign everybody, we have a wish list, and I feel confident we'll be able to get our wish list. Can I give you a guarantee? No. Until they sign on the dotted line, you never know, but I feel confident."
Of course, in order to do that, there are several moves that will have to be made, first and foremost, the release of defensive end Mario Williams which would free up nearly $13 million in cap space. That move alone would create the money necessary to use the franchise tag on Glenn, if the Bills need to do that, which is currently projected at $13.7 million for one season. There have been reports that the Bills are trying to restructure the lucrative contract they bestowed on Charles Clay just last season as he counts $13.5 million against the cap this year. And other players who are candidates for restructured contracts are cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Corey Graham, and defensive tackle Kyle Williams.
The Bills were able to carry about $4.4 million of unused 2015 cap space forward to 2016, so there's a little bit of relief. Still, Whaley is probably going to have to cut some players, and perhaps not offer tenders to some of the Bills' seven restricted free agents.
"Because of the system you can't keep everybody, you can't sign everybody, but you have to sign the right guys and make the prudent decisions," said Whaley. "I think it's a good issue to have that we have good players and we can't keep them all. Is that a bad thing? It's a bad thing that we can't keep them all."
--Ryan said the Bills are not in the position of needing to draft a quarterback, but that doesn't mean they won't.
"I don't think we have to pick a quarterback up, but we're not going to exclude ourselves from that," he said. "If there's a great player and we feel good about him, we'll take him, regardless of the position. And this looks like an interesting draft for quarterbacks. You have some guys who are pretty good, so I'll be excited to talk to some of those guys."
Tyrod Taylor is in the final year of his contract and the Bills do not seem willing to extend a long-term extension at this point, but Whaley said the Bills have "reached out to Tyrod's representatives and we'll see where it goes." That was interesting because at the season-ending press conference, Whaley indicated the Bills would most likely wait and see how Taylor played in 2016 before engaging in discussion on a long-term deal.
"If it makes sense, and it's a good deal for them and the Buffalo Bills, it wouldn't preclude us from doing it," he said.
It seems prudent to see if Taylor can improve on a solid but unspectacular 2015 season -- his first as a full-time starter -- even though they could risk losing him next year as a free agent. Backup EJ Manuel is also in his final year, and it's clear the Bills realize he is not starter-worthy (maybe not even backup worthy) so they have to do something at the quarterback position. With almost no money to play with in free agency, drafting a quarterback may be the only way to add to the depth chart.
Former Bills general manager Bill Polian thought Taylor played pretty well in 2015, but what concerns him is the injury factor. Taylor missed two full games and was dinged up most of the season.
"I thought he did what you would expect him to do," Polian said. "The question I would ask is, based on what they know after a year with him, is he a 16-game quarterback or do we have to presume he's a 12-game quarterback? Because of his size, all the orange flashing lights that surround injury with a smaller guy and a running guy. As a GM, I would say to the coach, 'Is he a 12-game guy or do we have to have a guy ready to play four, and if that's the case, who is he?'"