Rex and Rob: The Battling (and Babbling) Buffalo Bros
Grand plans, tied hands and lap bands. The chatter is fast, furious and full of bad words as the Ryan twins discuss their 2015 failures, their sideline reunion and how the Bills will beat the big, bad Belichick once and for all
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Rex Ryan has many famous boasts. Among them, is that he has never lost a fight, because he always had his twin brother with him. It doesn’t take long to recognize that is exactly the reason Rob Ryan was hired at One Bills Drive in January.
Sitting together on a leather couch in Rex’s office one afternoon this week, the brothers didn’t hold back their regrets from last season. Rex, for his defense and team taking a step back in his first season as Bills head coach. Rob, for “sitting on my hands” as he lost control of the Saints defensive scheme, ultimately leading to his midseason firing as coordinator. They haven’t coached together in more than two decades, not since Buddy Ryan’s 1995 Arizona Cardinals staff, purposely choosing to pave their own paths in the business. But now, facing perhaps the greatest scrutiny of both of their coaching careers, they wanted—or needed—to take up the fight together.
Rex created a position on his staff for Rob, assistant head coach/defense, which raised plenty of questions. Yes, Dennis Thurman is still the defensive coordinator. No, Rob is not just here out of cronyism. Despite what all those fiery sideline GIFs may indicate, Rob may fill the role of voice of reason to Rex—except when it comes to their diets. Both have a lot to prove in 2016. And in typical fashion, they want you to know they plan on f---ing proving it.
VRENTAS: After more than 20 years, why did you decide to work together now?
ROB: For me, and I’ll speak for myself on this, I have an extra hunger. I have always been a guy who is going to work my tail off, and I think I have always advanced the head coach’s plan. But at the end of the day, the last two years in New Orleans were a waste of time for me. I want to give everything I have to a team that I want to be a part of, with a head coach I want to be a part of. Not only is Rex a great head coach, but he is also a great defensive coach. He’s going to be the best coach that I can work for, anytime. And I have worked for Belichick, who is the best head coach in football, in the history of the game. But we’re going to beat him, and we’re going to beat him together. And it’s going to be an awesome challenge. I need to be in a multiple system. I was hired to be in a multiple system in New Orleans, and I did a damn good job and got fired for it. I am more hungry now than I have ever been. So I wanted to go with the right guy. And the right guy is someone I have 100 percent trust in and 100 percent faith in.
REX: He talks about the hunger that he has. That’s because he had the lap band removed.
ROB: I did. I am excruciatingly hungry right now.
REX: That dude is starving right now.
ROB: I am. I am starving. But you know what’s funny? I heard this one the other day: Well, it’s nepotism. Nepotism? I’ve been in this league 20 years. I have coordinated the last 12 years in a row.
REX: And won two Super Bowls as a linebackers coach.
ROB: I have coordinated in college and in the pros. And the biggest history of improvement ever in the league, I coordinated that defense [the 2013 Saints]. The defenses I have taken over were ranked, like, 31st. Oh, “my numbers aren’t too good.” You take over the 31st group and see how you do. And you’re given about two years to do it. There are two years that don’t have my signature on them, and it’s the last two years in New Orleans. And that’s just the truth.
ROB: Right. And I’m tired of saying it was. It wasn’t.
VRENTAS: Were you forced to run a different system?
ROB: No, I’m not going to say I was “forced.” I advanced the plan to the best of my ability. All of a sudden, we let some good players go; we changed the system after we finished fourth in the league in defense. I don’t know, it just seems strange to me. But I have a lot to prove, and I’m going to prove it. And that’s why I came to Buffalo, to be “all in,” right here. People can throw stones, but we will be throwing them back at them. They better be watching out.
VRENTAS: If you weren’t running your defensive system the past two seasons in New Orleans, what were you running?
ROB: Everyone wants to run Seattle’s defense. They should have hired a Seattle coach. I did the best job I could. Under the circumstances, trust me, I did the best job I could. I’ll be better anywhere else. (Pause). I’ll be great anywhere else. But it was unfortunate. When you move as many times as I have moved, I want to take my family where we can have a chance to win. Later on in your career, you pick those teams. I picked out of five teams the first time I moved to Dallas; I picked out of three others [in 2013]. I am used to picking my spots, but this time, I had one choice. When I was fired by the Saints, I came here to look at it. Rex loves this team, he brags about this team, so I wanted to be around it. After I did that, for one week, I was like, Damn, I’ve got to be here. I don’t care who was going to offer me a job. I wanted to be a part of this. Rex brought me in, because of nepotism … (pause) … and I’m glad he did.
REX: We are going to see things one way, and we are going to do it our way. That’s what it takes to win. There is a certain style of defense that wins, a certain style of play that wins in this league, and nobody understands that more than we do. Our family has been to six Super Bowls as coaches, and we know it takes a physical brand of football and it takes physical players. I said I was going to build a bully, it wasn’t the appropriate word, but I want to be physical. I think we are getting it right. We brought in Richie Incognito, all he does is go to the Pro Bowl. Doug Whaley and company did a great job in the draft. Shaq Lawson is a physical player. Reggie Ragland is the most physical linebacker in the draft. That was a Ryan defensive player, a linebacker, going back to the days of when our dad was coaching the Bears, and even before that.
I can’t stand being around negative people. I can’t stand it. There are people that, I know for a fact, don’t believe in me; they don’t believe in the direction of the football team. That’s fine and dandy. I believe in it, and I am surrounding myself with people that believe in it also. People who are smart enough to believe in it. Because the Ryans are going to get it done. You’ve gotta credit Dennis Thurman, too. It’s hard to bring in a Rob Ryan to be the assistant head coach/defense and, oh by the way, the coordinator is still here. The coordinator is Dennis Thurman. We’re not twin brothers, but we are brothers, and we have been together for 14 years.
VRENTAS: It sounds like you both feel that you were under attack last year. Did you need to join forces now?
REX: Well, we never lost a fight in our life. Ever. And we ain’t losing this one. And that’s a true statement. Not just because we are badasses—because we are, individually—but collectively, it’s a lot different. To this day, no man is going to whip me. Why? Because I’ve got my brother with me. And I’ve got my brother, Dennis Thurman, with me. Ed Reed is here for a reason. These players are going to be like that, too. We want to fight like brothers. I don’t know if we have 100 percent buy-in from even the entire building. I don’t know yet. But the people directly with me, my coaching staff and the players, that’s where it starts. I don’t know all the business people yet; they should be “all in,” but I don’t know. There’s times when the doubt part, that can be driven through the media. But I’m going to surround myself with the very best, and I’m going to win.
“The Saints should have fired me,” Rob admits. “Now I’m going to move my whole family over here to Buffalo for a reason: to go kick everybody’s ass, including theirs.”
VRENTAS: Rob, what are your day-to-day responsibilities?
ROB: I get to be a part of the defense. With Rex, it has already been established here, our core beliefs. I am a new guy coming in, so the first thing I did is learn the defense. Now, whatever I can add to it, it is easy to talk to Rex and Dennis, and say, here’s something to look at. Rex gives me projects to do that are going to help our team in the long run, a lot of research to hopefully make a simple solution for situations we need to get better in. I attack those wholeheartedly. Any people I can help on this team, I am going to help. I am not going to sit on my hands, like I did in New Orleans. The biggest mistake I think I made in New Orleans was sitting on my hands and collecting a paycheck, instead of going in, knowing it was wrong and fixing it. When we wanted to change the philosophy of the defense, I should have…
REX: Well, he should have balked at it.
ROB: I should have been a d--- like everybody else would have been. That’s the truth. Instead, I tried to toe the company line: I’ll do it, I’ll advance it, I’ll slow the plan down because we’ve got new players here. But that’s not what I believe. That’s not who I am. Hey, I did it to myself, too.
VRENTAS: After you placed fourth in the NFL in defense in 2013, you are saying there was a decision to change the philosophy. Where did that come from?
ROB: I am not real sure. Maybe a respect for Pete Carroll or something by upper management. And the Seahawks have done a fantastic job in their system. They believe in it. I believe in being a multiple defense, an attacking defense, a physical defense. That’s no slight on Seattle by any stretch. They are a very physical defense; they play a very simple scheme and let their guys play. But I don’t think that’s why you hire a Ryan. I think you hire a Ryan to get the best out of your players and put an enormous amount of pressure on an opposing team. We are going to do that mentally and physically. You lose half the game when you take it off mentally. It is better when you are more multiple. That’s what I believe in. That doesn’t make it right, but that’s what I believe in, and some of the great coaches in this league have done that, too. Seattle has been great, but all the other teams doing [that scheme] are finishing sh--ty like I did. Right there next to New Orleans is Atlanta, Jacksonville. That’s not sour grapes. That’s me getting pissed off. Because I am great.
VRENTAS: Who made the decision to run a version of Seattle’s defense?
ROB: I think everything starts with the head coach and goes higher than that. They signed players; they signed a free-agent free safety [Jairus Byrd in 2014], and said, we are going to keep him in the middle of the field like the goalpost. Well, that’s great. He’s not going to make one play back there, and now we have changed the entire defense for one signing, and it ruined us. He’s a great kid. But the truth of the matter is, you let an All-Pro safety walk, Malcolm Jenkins, and lost your two best leaders on the team, him and Roman Harper. We changed the entire style of play. It was strange. But hey, I did the best job I could. And it wasn’t good enough. They should have fired me. They probably should have fired everybody that made that decision to go in that direction. Now I’m going to move my whole family over here to Buffalo for a reason: to go kick everybody’s ass, including theirs.
VRENTAS: Rex, you also have said you didn’t run your defense 100 percent last year?
REX: Well, but that’s my fault. That was the difference. That was a mistake that I made. It was the exact opposite of that. Nobody told me to do this. I screwed up, and that’s totally on me. So if people lost a little faith in it, or whatever, I can understand. I should be doubted, because I made a mistake in judgment. But just go back and look at the history. You are going to get the real deal this year, and we’ll see how it goes. I know how it has gone my whole career.
ROB: Well, the highest-rated defensive coach in the history of the league is you.
ROB: We can pretend there is somebody else, but there’s not. Hey, my numbers are what they are. Now, I took over some pretty lousy jobs, but that’s OK. But no one’s numbers are better than his. I’m talking about Dick LeBeau’s; I’m talking about Belichick; I’m talking about all of them. Hell, even our dad. Who is the best that ever laced them up? Well, I’m just saying. To be the best defensive coach in football, I’ve got to learn from the best, so I came here. It’s been how many years since we’ve been together? He’s not learning anything, but I am. Look at some of his protégés. Bob Sutton is doing a fantastic job in Kansas City. Chuck Pagano was with Rex. He spun off a ton of great coaches, and it is going to be fun to be a part of that.
VRENTAS: People assume your schemes are identical but…
REX: They’re not. They’re fraternal.
ROB: They’re going to be identical, though.
VRENTAS: Speaking of that, how are you guys possibly fraternal twins?
REX: See, now this two egg thing, there is no chance, right? Two identical eggs. Maybe that’s what it is.
ROB: Honestly, there could be a mistake.
REX: I’ll see a picture of us when we were kids, and I have no idea who it is.
ROB: Back when we really looked alike, you can’t tell.
REX: We sound exactly the same, we are the same kind of people, we like the same foods, we look at things the same way. And we are in the same profession.
“I have only put on 30 pounds since we hired Rob,” Rex says. “I was going to get his weight down to mine. No, no, my weight started going up to his.”
ROB: And we love the profession. This is the profession. Unfortunately you have to take a look sometimes, when you get released, well, what else can I do? Ah, that would be nothing. I’m going to coach. But it’s a love of this job. We love the grind, we love the players, we love the competition. Speaking for both of us, there’s no way we could do anything else. We wouldn’t want to do anything else.
REX: Nobody grinds the way Rob does. Bill Belichick hired Rob for one reason: He knew he was a freaking great football coach, and he could grind. That’s it. If you are going to be with Bill Belichick, you better be a grinder. You look at Brian Daboll; you look at Josh [McDaniels]; you look at some of the guys they’ve had. They are real football coaches. A lot of them come from coaching families. He wants the grinders. Just like when I gave Rob these projects to work on. He sleeps here half the week, in his office, in the offseason. Honest to God.
ROB: Well, I got nowhere to go. My family isn’t here yet.
REX: Nobody wants him, but that’s another story. Here’s one of my favorite stories of all time. We are getting ready to play in the Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2000.
ROB: This is a good one.
REX: I’m the defensive line coach. We talk as twins do, well it used to be every day, but it was a couple times a week. We’re practicing, doing all the preparation, before the Super Bowl. There’s no bigger game than the Super Bowl. So I’m going home, and I’m calling Rob, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ He is in the office. Now, his team hasn’t played for five weeks.
ROB: Right, we have the worst team in football. We’re 5-11.
REX: He’s doing some project for Belichick.
ROB: Oh yeah. On the Colts. And we got to them pretty good the next season; we mastered them pretty good.
VRENTAS: You were the studying the Colts for next season in January?
REX: That’s what people don’t understand. That’s what I can’t stand. It’s disrespectful to me that people don’t understand who they have in the building now. Like, “nepotism?” That’s some idiot making a comment like that.
REX: I brought in a real football coach. Not a 9-to-5er, a real football coach whose life and passion is the NFL. The name Ryan means something. If you are a fan of the Buffalo Bills, thank your lucky stars he is here, and myself. To me, that’s what we added to this team. When we talk about “all in,” we’re going to do everything we can in our power to help our players succeed. And that’s why we made some of the changes that we made.
VRENTAS: You mean the changes to your roster and coaching staff?
REX: Player-wise, sometimes the salary cap kind of influences you. Look, I like Leodis McKelvin, Nigel Bradham. Mario Williams, yeah, but he is making $17 million dollars [in Miami]. Guess what, it wasn’t going to happen. Now look, with some of the comments [he made], do I wish him well? Not really. But, he’s on Miami. If he would have gone somewhere else, maybe. He’s a good kid, but I am used to some mean motherf---ers that play out there. The Terrell Suggs, Jarrett Johnsons of the world. I screwed them, too; I had them drop [into coverage], too. Not one of them bitched. Von Miller [dropped into coverage] in the Super Bowl. Why? Because that’s what’s asked of him; that’s what his job is. Your job is to play. Coaches spend a hell of a lot more time studying tape and everything else. They are trying to put the team in the best position to be successful, not an individual. Terrell Suggs, he has been the defensive Player of the Year in this league. Ed Reed has been. Ray Lewis has been. You can go right down the line. Trevor Pryce had 14 sacks as a defensive tackle. One of the most unselfish guys you’ve ever seen. That’s what it is about. I’ll never forget, I used to have Ray sell out for maybe the 11th guy on defense. Ray Lewis is going to be one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the game, if not the greatest. That’s when you’ve got something special, and that’s what we are trying to build here.
VRENTAS: Back to your “fraternal” defensive schemes, how have they evolved over time as you worked in different places?
ROB: First I was in New England, and back then, it was a 3-4 scheme that was extremely multiple and similar to Rex’s. When I spent five years working for Al Davis, I went there knowing the job, knowing that he is a post safety guy, knowing that these are the parameters you have to work your scheme in. I was excited about working for a Hall of Fame person, a Hall of Fame owner, and I learned a ton from him. Then I got back with Eric Mangini [in Cleveland], more multiple 3-4, mixed in some of the Oakland stuff. Went to Dallas, and I did the best I could with the multiple thing. Sh--, we were in the top 3 ‘til we lost the entire team with six weeks to go. That defense was fixed, and I had taken over for the great Wade Phillips, which shows that people have bad years, whatever. That defense was coming, but then we lost the entire roster and we were 8-8, so I got fired. Then I go to New Orleans. I had my choice there, and I wanted to get back to a multiple scheme, which is more like what Rex has done. And then it changed, right in the middle of it. To come here now, there is so much more to it now than I have ever done. There is multiplicity in zone pressures, things like that. There is no one more multiple in this league than Rex. You run everything here, not just one front, one coverage. This is the cutting-edge defense you want to be a part of, and it is fun to get back in there and challenge myself mentally, because I have been in charge for the last 12 years.
VRENTAS: Both of your defenses came under a lot of fire last year, from players and the media, for being disorganized, undisciplined, too complicated. How do you respond to that?
REX: Well, I get it, because that means you never had the results everybody was thinking we were going to have. This was the first time in my life I have ever come into a situation where the defense got worse. And so that was odd. That was different. No excuses. But I’ll stand by my record; I’ll stand by everything I have ever done in this league statistically. Put the numbers up. Do you want to look at one year, or a 15-year window? I specifically said I probably shouldn’t have tried to combine systems last year. I should have just gone for it, this is it, blunt-force trauma, and bring in some players that knew the system and can help run it. That’s what I did with the Jets. We added three players and went to No. 1 in the league in one year. So how does it work? Well, I took a guy named Jim Leonhard, we got him off the scrap heap in Baltimore, pretty good player. Marques Douglas, defensive lineman, played 12 years in the league and played for me two or three times. And Bart Scott. It’s funny, all three of those guys were college free agents. Now did I do that with a plan? I brought them in letting people know that it’s your work ethic, your passion for the game, the fact that you can study. Those were the things that were important to me when I went to the Jets. When I came here, I made an assumption that, well, we’ll just run whatever. I should have done like we are doing right now: This is the defense, and the system works because it has a track record. When you can put an MVP as an outside linebacker, an MVP as a middle linebacker, an MVP as a safety, that’s probably a pretty good start.
ROB: And an MVP as a corner, because Darrelle Revis…
REX: He should have been. Darrelle Revis should have been the [defensive player of the year], and I don’t care that he never won it, that’s the biggest crime ever. So, you could have won the MVP playing every position. If you are really a great player, you ought to kill to play in this system. It makes good players great; it makes great players phenomenal. But you’ve got to buy in. I think for us, I’m not saying we didn’t buy in [last year], but the commitment wasn’t … the whole thing wasn’t working. I think sometimes when you are a head coach, you lose some of the interactions with the players that maybe you had in other roles. When I went to the Jets, I brought those three players in because they would tell the other guys, oh no, you can talk to the head coach. This is Rex; you can talk to him. That was the biggest mistake I made. There are two of them. Not having somebody that said, You can talk to the head coach; you can actually trust him; you can come in and see him. I think that hurt us. And the other thing is not selling out and saying, this is who we are and fully turning the page on defense. Put [the previous system] in the rearview mirror, and let’s focus on what’s in front of us.
ROB: Can I get the question on the undisciplined thing and being too multiple? There is no way anybody accused us of being too multiple the last two years in New Orleans. (Pause). The undisciplined thing goes with the name Ryan. Three different teams I coordinated were the least penalized defenses in football: Cleveland, Dallas and New Orleans. Now, last year, we stunk. We couldn’t stop anybody, running or passing. Did we have a lot of penalties? Absolutely. I think the style of play we were playing leads to that. No knock on the players—they tried, I tried, and bottom line is it didn’t work. But the undisciplined thing travels with us like luggage. At least it does with me. Rex doesn’t travel much.
VRENTAS: Rob, you won both of your Super Bowls under Rex’s greatest coaching nemesis. Do you know all the Patriots’ secrets?
ROB: Absolutely not. All the respect in the world for Bill Belichick. That was fantastic training working for him for four years, and I learned a ton. Look, he is the No. 1 nemesis of every coach in this league. So it’s not just Rex. Now, I think if you ask their offensive staff, the worst they ever play is against Rex. People say, “well, he hasn’t beat them [nine out of the last 10] tries.” Yeah, well, he has beat the hell out of that offense. I am sure the respect is mutual. But I know one thing, we are going to beat them. We are together, we’re going to beat the best. It’s two against one. Him one on one against any coach in the league, that guy is pretty damn good. And he’s also got his best buddy Tom Brady with him. He trained him, and he single-handedly made him great as well.
VRENTAS: Did you speak to Dennis Thurman before you came on board the Bills staff, Rob?
ROB: Oh yeah. And the biggest thing I know is DT is comfortable in his own skin. He knows he doesn’t have to worry about me. He is not looking over his back. I am the biggest advocate of Rex Ryan and Dennis Thurman. We are coaching defense, and wherever I can help, I am helping. My goal is to make everybody even better. And maybe it is not just on the defense. Maybe I can make this offense better.
VRENTAS: In New Orleans, you worked closely with Dennis Allen last season, who ended up replacing you as defensive coordinator when you were fired. How did that outcome impact you moving forward?
ROB: We all knew what the situation was. I wasn’t fired [the year before] for one reason, because I think it would have probably looked bad for Sean [Payton], losing another coordinator. So they made an easy move. That doesn’t make Dennis Allen a bad person. Dennis Allen was coming in there to coach secondary, and the secondary was atrocious. But it’s all on me. That’s OK. The only thing I regret is two years ago, when this [scheme change] was going to happen, I should have gone into Sean and talked to him. Sean is a good person. I didn’t, and I just let it happen, so I deserve what I got. Look, I have been fired before. But I get pissed in New Orleans because I know I am better than that. I am a way better coach than I was allowed to be, and that’s just the truth. Oh, we are dead last in defense. Well, yeah, you are going to be dead last playing this bullshit defense. But it is my fault because I didn’t say anything. I never stood up and said, F-- you, I ain’t coaching this. I promise you I’d say it now. When it starts to trickle down to your kids and starts hurting them, then it’s like, damn, I should have done better here. I am tough enough to take it. But my family has to pack those bags and move. Quite frankly, [my wife] Kristin is getting angry about moving.
REX: We are loyal as hell, and right or wrong we are going to advance the plan. We grew up that way. But loyalty isn’t one a one-way street. It is supposed to be a two-way street. And I think that’s what I am figuring out. It is supposed to be, Have people earned my loyalty? You’ll get my best, but will you get my loyalty? I don’t know about that. Through the years, I have learned that I am going to speak up. Rob talked about it there. If I know something is wrong, I’m going to mention it. I’m at least going to speak my mind to the appropriate people. Whatever happens, happens, but at least I’ll have my say.
ROB: You learned that, too, in New York.
REX: Absolutely. I think that’s what I mean. Whatever happened there is in the past, but you know what, I was loyal. Just like Rob. I guarantee you he’s loyal as s---. All the way to the end. The day he walked out of the Saints building, when he had to do a meeting when he knew he was going to get fired, he was loyal as s---.
ROB: I was already fired, and I had to run a meeting.
VRENTAS: Did you really get the lap band taken off?
ROB: Oh yeah. There may be another adjustment coming later.
REX: Maybe go to the [gastric] sleeve or something.
ROB: I was 260 there for a minute in Dallas, down from 320, looking good. The regret I have isn’t the fact that I got fired in Dallas, because, look, at 8-8, with Jerry’s passion and all that, someone had to go. They had a great young head coach there; Jason [Garrett] does a great job. So I am the obvious choice, that’s fine. My regret wasn’t there. It was loosening the band and going to Turks and Caicos. And then I get hired by New Orleans, so I put on 30 pounds in a month. Now I can't get it off. So that was the worst thing I did. And then my band was so tight, I almost died. It was so tight, my esophagus was working as my stomach. All you can eat is sugar, and I drink the hell out of wine. But that’s all I could really eat and drink, so I was getting enormous again. Rex said, We’ve gotta tighten it. I was like, Dude, there is no way I can get it tighter.
REX: So we go in to look at it. Oh my god, the stomach was going up through the band, and the esophagus was like 10 times the size it should be.
ROB: My stomach was completely shut off. If I don’t go in in two months, I’m dead.
REX: There could have been a major, major issue, so that’s why he had to take that thing out. Isn’t that crazy? Now, I have only put on 30 pounds since we hired Rob.
ROB: And I have put on 24.
REX: I was going to get his weight down to mine. No, no, my weight started going up to his. So that’s really what happened there.
VRENTAS: What does your dad think about the two of you coaching together?
ROB: He’s struggling (health-wise). That’s another reason…
REX: …we’re going for broke, man.
ROB: Because, who knows? He’s not going to be able to watch us coach for much longer, I don’t think. But hopefully he can see this one, because we have got big plans. Bring Belichick on. We got him.
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