The Rex Effect
After a turbulent final act with the Jets, Rex Ryan is starting fresh in Buffalo, infusing the franchise with qualities that have been in short supply since the Bills’ Super Bowl heydey: personality, excitement and optimism. Brash? He’s OK with that, too
A version of this story appears in the April 20 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — A few minutes after 7 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, the most conspicuous truck in western New York pulls into a Tim Hortons parking lot less than a mile from Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Small iced cappuccino, with whip, coming right up.
Rex Ryan stops in every morning on his way to work, and he doesn’t have to place his order anymore. Loni Rivera, the regular behind the counter on the early shift, starts making his drink as soon as she spies his Bills pickup—a custom-wrapped Ford F-250, royal blue, with a giant charging buffalo on either side, as subtle as its driver. “Coach,” she says, “a gentleman who works here has a piece of the stadium, goal posts, from the 1990s. He wants you to have it.”
Ryan has been the coach of the Bills for three months, but already he’s the new face of the franchise. Throughout greater Buffalo, his arrival has done much to erase the agony of the 15 years that have passed since the team’s last playoff appearance—the longest drought in the NFL. If anyone knows how to feed hope, it’s Ryan, who in his introductory press conference issued orders that the Bills and their fans should start getting ready for January football.
Well-known for having made a Super Bowl guarantee during his Jets tenure, Ryan may have made his boldest declaration yet when he arrived on the shores of Lake Erie: Despite inheriting a roster that lacked an established quarterback, despite remaining in the same division as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, and despite taking over a team that had churned through seven head coaches—none lasting more than 31⁄2 years—since Marv Levy left after 1997, the 52-year-old Ryan decreed that this will be his final head coaching job. “Three years?” Ryan says. “Hell, I’m blowing the roof off of that. By a bunch.”
After six tumultuous seasons with the Jets—that Super Bowl guarantee never did pay off—Ryan was so certain he’d found his true home in Buffalo that he accepted the Bills’ offer 12 days after being fired by New York, without knowing how much the Bills would pay him. His five-year, $27.5 million contract was negotiated only after he committed to Terry Pegula on Jan. 10, during a second interview in the owner’s South Florida business office.
In the weeks that followed, Ryan bought a house near the Bills’ stadium and updated the tattoo on his right arm; the pin-up rendition of his wife, Michelle, wearing a number 6 jersey now sports Bills blue instead of Jets green. Season-ticket sales have risen from 47,482 last season to nearly 53,000 so far, putting the Bills within striking distance of their high-water mark, 57,132, set in 1992 during their run of four straight AFC championships. Ryan might be nearly 400 miles from the tabloid headlines and sports-talk chatter he once dominated, but he’s still lording over the Empire State, and beyond.
“We’re not only a national brand, we’re starting to be a destination because of Rex and what we’re building here,” says general manager Doug Whaley, who credits Ryan with luring players such as free-agent wideout Percy Harvin. “We’re trying to be a serious contender.”
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If there’s a tie that binds Ryan and the Bills, it might be their respective failures to deliver a Lombardi Trophy to a rabid fan base. Buffalo, stocked with future Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith, was a Super Bowl bridesmaid each year from 1990 to ’93, the franchise’s only Super Bowl appearances. Ryan’s Jets, after back-to-back AFC title game appearances in his first two seasons with New York, failed to finish above .500 over the next four years. Steadily, the opportunity he’d waited so long for slipped away from him.
The Jets had seemed like a perfect fit. Ryan’s father, Buddy, spent eight seasons as the Jets’ defensive line coach and was on staff when they won Super Bowl III, around the time that a six-year-old Rex first dreamed of being a football coach. When the Jets’ job became available, Rex, who had overseen a perennial top-10 defense as the Ravens’ coordinator, would have walked the length of I-95 from Baltimore to New York to accept it. He brought with him an outsized personality perfectly suited to the New York market.
Ryan thought his 2010 team should have been his Super Bowl squad, and he wanted to keep it together for one more run. But the Jets lost some key free agents, and in 2011, Ryan’s third season, they finished 8–8 and were essentially eliminated from playoff contention following a Christmas Eve loss to the local-rival Giants. Not long after, Ryan says he began to feel he was losing sway within the organization.
In April 2012 the Jets hired a new team president, Neil Glat. That season the team went 6–10, and general manager Mike Tannenbaum subsequently was replaced by John Idzik. Despite having put on a good face, Ryan says he felt like a “leftover” under the new GM, half of an arranged marriage “who could be replaced at any time.”
“I wasn’t the boss anymore,” Ryan says. “I was just a guy. Whether they want to say it or not, all of a sudden I became less important to the team.”
“They were trying to pull away from me, like it was my fault that people identified the Jets with me, and that was a bad thing. From that point on I knew I wasn’t long for the job.”
A meeting at Jets headquarters in April 2013 troubled Ryan. The league office encouraged teams to hold organization-wide branding exercises, and the Jets’ new senior vice president of marketing and fan engagement built theirs around three words: bold, electrifying, united. One of the slides during the presentation parsed the differences between brash—an adjective regularly attached to the head coach—and bold. Ryan, who was sitting in the room, says he felt singled out.
“They were trying to pull away from me,” he says. “Like it was my fault, somehow, that people identified the Jets with me, and that was a bad thing and not a good thing. I was just being who I was. From that point on I knew I wasn’t going to be long for that job.” (A Jets spokesman told SI: “It’s surprising and disappointing that Rex feels that way. There was no effort by the organization to move away from him in any way.”)
The Jets finished 8–8 and missed the playoffs in 2013, but that may have been Ryan’s best coaching performance, as he worked with a depleted roster. After the season finale, a 20–7 win over the Dolphins, owner Woody Johnson announced that Ryan would return in ’14. Ryan was also given a multiyear contract extension. But the organization didn’t extend his assistants, leaving many of them on one-year deals.
“Everybody knew then we weren’t going to make it [as a staff],” says Dennis Thurman, Ryan’s defensive coordinator in New York and now in Buffalo. “We could have gone and packed our houses, apartments, whatever, and moved, because we knew we were done. We tried to put a good face on, and we coached our butts off. But they didn’t want us. We weren’t their guys. We played out the string, and it was frustrating. And I think the players felt our frustration. Because toward the end I think they knew too.”
Going into the 2014 season, the Jets had deficiencies at critical positions, including cornerback and receiver, but Ryan believed those holes could be mended to make the team competitive. The agent for All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis called the Jets about his returning to the team, but the Jets weren’t interested in their onetime star. (A year later they brought him back on a $70 million contract.) Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie visited with the Jets but left without a deal and signed with the Giants. According to multiple members of Ryan’s Jets staff, frustrations ran high when the team didn’t pursue free-agent wideout DeSean Jackson and when pleas to select Clemson receiver Martavis Bryant on the third day of the draft were ignored. (The Jets drafted two receivers in the fourth round before the Steelers took Bryant, who had eight TDs as a rookie: Oklahoma’s Jalen Saunders, who was cut in September, and UCLA’s Shaq Evans, who spent 2014 on injured reserve.)
Even before the season began, Ryan was worried about the Jets’ ability to compete. Last summer he bought a house in the Nashville suburbs. “When the draft and free agency didn’t go the way I would have liked it to, I was concerned,” Ryan says. “That’s why I bought a house in Tennessee. I didn’t know what the hell was going to happen, but I knew I would need someplace to live. That I was probably going to get fired.”
A few weeks into the 2014 season, he became more than just concerned—he felt there was a master plan in place. He got a call from a friend who told him a high-ranking member of the Jets’ scouting department was on the road telling reps from other teams that they weren’t spending money because they were getting a new head coach in 2015.
The Jets stumbled to a 4–12 record, and Johnson fired Ryan on the Monday morning after the season finale. That same day Johnson cut ties with Idzik. (Now a Jaguars consultant, Idzik declined through a team spokesman to be interviewed for this story.) A few hours later Rex and Michelle flew to Orlando to watch their youngest son, Seth, a receiver for Clemson, play in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Then Rex abided by his tradition of taking a season-ending trip to Hawaii. This time, though, he packed an interview suit.
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The Big Tree Inn, favored watering hole of the ’90s Bills players, is where Ryan had his first beer as the coach in Buffalo: a Bud Light on the house. He was back at the bar last week with Kelly—whose life-sized wood-carved likeness stands outside the door—and Thomas, both of whom still live in the area and remain close to the Bills organization. Co-owner Brian Duffek approached Ryan with a cold beer and a warm handshake. “Thank you for being here,” he said. “It’s huge for the city. I really mean that. You’re a Buffalo guy—you just never knew it when you were coaching the Jets.”
Maybe it’s because he drives a pickup and drinks beer; or because his favorite local Mexican restaurant, El Canelo, sits in a strip mall; or because he wore a throwback Thurman Thomas jersey at the combine; or because he orders a plate of wings, even though his lap band won’t let him eat more than one or two during a sitting. Whatever the reason, Ryan has already won over the fans and the franchise’s legends.
“Mm-hmm. He fits Buffalo,” Thomas says, letting out a satisfied chuckle. “If this had been his first head coaching job, he’d still be here.”
Though the Bills went 9–7 last year, their first winning season in a decade, the progress wasn’t unfettered. While the defense finished fourth in yards allowed, the offense ranked 26th and endured an EJ Manuel/Kyle Orton quarterback controversy. Buffalo failed to string more than two wins together for the third season in a row, and coach Doug Marrone opted out of his contract after two years on the job.
One member of the Bills organization described a “180 degree” difference between Ryan and the buttoned-up Marrone. Thomas sees the same. “I don’t think it was a good fit,” he says of the former coach. “It got to the point where I didn’t want to come around because he was the head coach, but I still came around because I know a lot of the players.
“Hell, we love being around Rex. You can just feel like a big cloud has been relieved from the pressure players were going through. It’s a fun atmosphere now.”
Ryan had spent only three days in Hawaii when it was time to figure out his next step. His agent, Jimmy Sexton, had arranged for an interview with the 49ers on Sunday and another with the Falcons on Tuesday. Ryan was also set to take a meeting about TV opportunities.
“You’re a Buffalo guy,” Duffek, the Big Tree owner, tells Ryan. “You just never knew it when you were coaching the Jets.”
The Bills, meanwhile, had a list of 12 candidates to replace Marrone. They started their interviews on the West Coast, talking to Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, and Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Ryan was scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 8, at Pegula’s business office in South Florida.
That conversation focused on Ryan’s big-picture coaching philosophy. Whaley, a pro personnel director for the Steelers when Ryan was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator, liked what he heard: Rex wanted a tough, physical, defensive-minded team that runs the ball well. “That’s my background, and that’s how we envisioned building this team, especially without having a franchise quarterback,” Whaley says.
Ryan returned to New Jersey on Thursday night. Barely 12 hours later the Bills called to set up a second interview. Team president Russ Brandon also texted Ryan the next day: “The owner likes red wine.”
They want to hire me, Ryan realized. It was a far cry from an arranged marriage. And Ryan liked what he saw—an organization that appeared to be unified and willing to spend money, and, despite the hole at quarterback, a talented roster that included three Pro Bowl defensive linemen and budding stars Sammy Watkins at receiver and Stephon Gilmore at cornerback.
The Falcons, who’d passed on Ryan in 2008, didn’t schedule a second interview, their search postponed by the death of team owner Arthur Blank’s mother and a restructuring of the front office. By the time Ryan got back on a plane bound for South Florida on Saturday morning, he’d made up his mind: He wanted the Bills job.
During a break in his Saturday interview, Ryan turned to Whaley as they walked toward the bathroom. “Everybody thinks I’m either going to do ESPN or Atlanta,” he said. “We’re gonna shock the world when they hear about this.”
The second interview focused on details, ranging from how Ryan would build his staff to how he’d assign seats on the team plane. When the meeting wrapped up, Whaley, Brandon, Pegula and his wife, Kim, met privately. This is our guy, they agreed. Don’t let him leave. Meanwhile, Ryan had turned on his phone and saw about 20 text messages from NFL teams, including one offering him a job, as well as several more texts from his agent.
Too late. Within minutes, Pegula offered Ryan the Bills job, and he accepted without using the other teams’ interest as leverage. They all went out for a steak dinner in Boca Raton, celebrating what Jim Kelly recently described as “a new identity, a new tradition—and the first part of that tradition is having someone who can lead the team.”
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Rex Ryan wants to make one thing perfectly clear: Getting fired hasn’t changed him. Bold? Electrifying? United? Brash will do just fine.
On April 6, Jets tight end Jace Amaro reflected on his rookie season and told Sirius XM NFL Radio that Ryan’s 2014 team lacked accountability. To which Ryan says, “He’s full of s---, and I’ll remind him of that when we play him. Look, we weren’t perfect, and I never said we were going to be perfect. But that’s a f------ b.s. comment. But, hey, he’s happy that he’s got a different coach in place. We’ll see how happy he is when I play against him.”
Ryan’s goal hasn’t changed, either. “I want to win the damn Super Bowl,” he says. “That’s what drives me. I don’t want to just be known as good. I want to be special. For our team, for our franchise here in Buffalo, that’s what we want.”
The first steps of that journey were taken in West Palm Beach in early March, on Pegula’s yacht, Top Five. Whaley, the GM, and Brandon, the team president, were there, along with Ryan and the top lieutenants of his new coaching staff: Thurman, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, special teams coordinator Danny Crossman and assistant head coach and running backs coach Anthony Lynn. Everyone quickly adopted Ryan’s confidence, believing they could make a run to the top of the AFC East this season.
“We’ve never been afraid of the Patriots,” Thurman says, “and we’re not afraid of them now.”
Confidence rose higher on the third day of the retreat. The group had just wrapped meetings and were on the back deck, drinking cabernet and smoking cigars, when Whaley’s phone rang. “Any interest in LeSean McCoy?” a representative from the Eagles asked.
Philadelphia was looking for draft picks, and without a 2015 first-rounder the Bills didn’t have much ammo to make an offer. But Whaley told the Eagles rep, “Just do me a favor and look at our roster.” The Eagles called back and told him, “Kiko Alonso.” The straight-up deal—Alonso, a promising young linebacker who missed ’14 with an ACL tear, for McCoy, a two-time All-Pro running back—took 30 minutes, start to finish. “I’m not a red wine guy,” Ryan says, “but that day I drank red wine.”
McCoy, who’s comfortable running out of both the shotgun and a traditional I-formation, is the kind of player the NFL’s 25th-ranked rushing offense needed. Buffalo also added complementary weapons, signing Harvin to a one-year deal worth $6 million and breaking the bank with a five-year, $38 million contract for tight end Charles Clay. Ryan’s promise at his opening press conference to “build a bully” got awkward with the signing of guard Richie Incognito, who’d been out of football since the 2013 Dolphins scandal, but Ryan says Incognito will be “on a short leash.”
At quarterback, Manuel, a 2013 first-rounder who’s 6-8 as a starter, will compete with journeyman Matt Cassel, acquired in a March trade with the Vikings, Tyrod Taylor, Joe Flacco’s former backup in Baltimore, and Jeff Tuel, who started one game for the Bills in 2013 and was on the practice squad last year. Roman, who spent the past four seasons as the 49ers’ offensive coordinator, isn’t panicking over the uncertainty at his most important position. “I’ve been down that road before,” he says. ““When I got to San Francisco, how many people do you think were calling to congratulate me? Nobody would touch Alex Smith with a hot poker. They said, ‘You’ve got no chance.’ Well, not so fast. We’ll figure it out.”
“I want success for Woody Johnson, I do. But don’t kid yourself—we’re gonna try to kick the s--- out of them when we bring our team in.”
As in San Francisco, Roman will duplicate drills on multiple fields during practice to maximize reps for his quarterbacks. His offensive vision dovetails with Ryan’s: Control the line of scrimmage and be more physical than your opponent. An assistant offensive line coach for the Ravens in 2006 and ’07, Roman tried to create a mirror image of Ryan’s defenses on his side of the ball, embodying Ryan’s “organized chaos” principle. Says Roman, “He did call me at one point and say, ‘The biggest mistake I ever made was not bringing you to New York.’ ”
It’s not Ryan’s only regret. He says he always believed Woody Johnson “wanted me to be his coach for 100 years.” But after the four-win season in 2014, Ryan realized the Jets owner had no choice but to fire him. He says he wished he had spoken up when he first felt himself slipping into a power struggle.
“The minute I felt uncomfortable, I should have said something to Woody and made sure he knew exactly how I felt,” Rex says. “But when hires are made after you’re hired, I didn’t want to question that. How can I preach that I’m all on board if I do that?”
Now, though, Ryan is moving on, full steam ahead, like the charging buffalo on his truck. “I want success for Woody Johnson, I do. But don’t kid yourself—we’re gonna try to kick the s--- out of them when we bring our team in. We’re going to try to whip your ass. There are people in that organization who are going to be lifelong friends to me. But this is my damn football family now.”