Rex Ryan’s Last Rodeo?
The Bills brought the Rex Ryan era in Buffalo to an end a game short of two full seasons. What went wrong, and what’s next for the team and the coaching lifer who was supposed to turn around the franchise
When Rex Ryan arrived in Western New York less than two years ago, he came in making several bold statements, as is his nature. One of those declarations was that the Buffalo Bills’ head coaching job would be his last stop. His final job.
That prediction might very well turn out to be true. It’s far more likely that you'll see Ryan on one of the network studio shows in 2017 than on an NFL sideline—and that’ll be as much his call as that of a team looking for a coach. He’s not likely to get another head-coaching shot anytime soon, and though he has a proven track record as one of the most imaginative and resourceful defensive coordinators in the NFL over the last decade—he won’t want to step back into a coordinator’s role. So TV: Here comes Rex.
The Bills announced late Tuesday morning that, with one week to go in the season, they have fired both Rex Ryan and his twin brother, Rob, who this past winter joined Rex in Buffalo as assistant head coach/defense. The writing was all over the wall the past few weeks. Ryan looked as defeated in his press conferences as he had back in 2014, when he knew he was in his final days as the Jets head coach.
The final straw for the Pegulas was evidently the Bills’ performance in their Christmas Eve loss to the Dolphins, when Ryan came under fire for blundering an attempt to call time out on Miami’s tying field goal at the end of regulation and deciding to punt on a fourth-and-short late in overtime of a must-win game. Then the Bills defense had only 10 men on the field for the 57-yard Jay Ajayi run that set up Miami’s winning score in OT. The Dolphins won, despite the Bills amassing 589 yards of total offense. Buffalo’s playoff drought extended to 17 seasons.
What went wrong in Buffalo? It starts with the fact that the Pegulas are bottom-line owners. They are willing to devote as many resources as are needed, but they need to see results. They gave Ryan a $27.5 million contract to come to Buffalo, made his assistants among the top-paid coaches at their positions in the NFL, and this past offseason agreed to expand the staff even further, creating positions for Rob Ryan and Ed Reed, members of Rex’s inner circle. But when Saturday’s loss ensured that this would be the second straight season without a winning record under Ryan, they acted.
The other main reason is the driving force behind many firings in this business: division within the organization.
There’s no question that the last few years have taken a toll on Ryan. Looking back, he would have been better served taking a year off after he was fired by the Jets. Certainly there are examples of coaches who do well going directly from one NFL head coaching job to the next, like Andy Reid. But there are plenty more who have benefited greatly from a gap in between, like Tom Coughlin and Pete Carroll. Bill Belichick benefited from going back to being a coordinator for a few years after his first head coaching stint, in Cleveland.
The story of what happened in Buffalo extends back to the end of Ryan’s tenure in New York. The last two seasons with the Jets wore on Ryan, from his belief that the organization was pulling away from him, to the clashing with general manager John Idzik. I believe he took the Bills job for two reasons: 1) They made him feel wanted and 2) his loyalty to his assistant coaches. Ryan signed a multiyear extension before his final year in New York, but the organization reneged on its promise to similarly extend his assistants. Many were left on one-year deals for that final season with the Jets. When Ryan was fired from the Jets, he would have left his staff hanging if he didn’t take another job again right away. So he jumped at a gig that was too similar to the last—still in the same division as Belichick and Tom Brady, without an established quarterback and with another coach-GM arranged marriage. He had also interviewed with the Falcons and was waiting for a call back for a second interview but fixated on the Bills job when he realized their interest was real, not wanting to risk being left out in the cold.
Ryan brought some of the New York baggage with him to Buffalo, even if it was not immediately apparent. And the task of turning around a franchise whose playoff drought is now old enough to drive was a probably a bigger undertaking than he or those around him initially realized. Do I believe that two years is enough to do that? No, especially not with a roster lacking a healthy core of homegrown players, as thoroughly detailed earlier this month by The Buffalo News’ Tim Graham. The Bills had fewer of their own draft picks on their roster than any other team in the league, making it harder to withstand injuries or build in a consistent direction. Considering the Bills roster this year, calling a 7-9 or 8-8 finish underachieving seems unfair.
But the Pegulas’ actions say that they saw enough from Ryan in two years to believe that giving him more time would not turn this operation around. A big factor is the performance of the defense, which folded in a few key games, like the losses to Oakland and Miami. In Baltimore and New York, Ryan’s strength was loyalty from his players and how he could creatively bring out their strengths. There were very public signs, though, that he never established that same dynamic in Buffalo. One of the Bills’ best players, Jerry Hughes, was benched for the start of the Week 14 game against Pittsburgh for a non-injury reason. Ryan also enumerated in a press conference some of the mistakes cornerback Stephon Gilmore made in the second Patriots game, a loss. Both were a departure from Ryan’s normal way of business—and a indicator of strained relationships with some of his most important defensive players.
On the other hand, Bills DT Leger Douzable, who played for Ryan in both New York and Buffalo, railed against the organization’s decision to fire Ryan, writing on Twitter that it’s “hard to build a winner if the coach changes every two years.”
The fact that the Bills allowed three 200-yard rushers this season was perhaps the biggest sign that, for whatever reason, Rex Ryan never got his defense working the same way it has at every other place he’s coached. Rushing yards had always been the greatest point of pride for Ryan, a former defensive line coach. Remember when he fired the defensive line coach midway through his first season as the Jets head coach and would sometimes get in the trenches and coach himself? It's been years since Ryan had that same kind of day-to-day involvement in the defense, as he wrestled to find the right balance between sitting in the head coaching chair and immersing himself in defensive schemes.
There was also the perception that, by Ryan adding his twin brother to the staff and having essentially three defensive coordinators, there were simply too many cooks in the kitchen. During the Bills’ four-game winning streak early in the season, Ryan said defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman had assumed play-calling duties; but Ryan also said Rob was responsible for red-zone calls; then a few weeks ago, Ryan said he himself had been making calls all along. If they were winning, it wouldn’t have mattered, but when calls got in late, or players appeared to be confused about their assignments, this only heightened the scrutiny. You can understand that Ryan wanted to help rehabilitate his brother’s career, but instead, it ended up playing a role in hurting his own.
But as mentioned above, one of the most common reasons for owners to make a coaching change is division within the organization. The friction between Ryan and Whaley was not a secret. Quarterback was one dividing line. Tyrod Taylor was Ryan’s hand-picked guy, while Whaley would have liked to see EJ Manuel, his first-round draft pick, get another shot. Ryan and Whaley also seemed to have different views on the kind of defensive players the team needed. This spring, in an interview with The MMQB, Ryan made the point that the Bills picked Reggie Ragland in the second round because “that was a Ryan defensive player, going back to the days when our dad was coaching the Bears.” In other words, that was Ryan’s pick. Whaley might have had other ideas.
In that same conversation in May, Ryan also seemed to hint at concerns that not everybody in the building believed in him. “I don’t know all the business people yet,” he said then. “They should be ‘all in,’ but I don’t know.” The feeling of betrayal he felt during his last few years in New York never left him. Likewise, the strained relationship Ryan had with his previous GM, Idzik, likely impacted Whaley’s relationship with Ryan. Whaley had a hand in picking Ryan, but this was yet another arranged marriage. Now, it will go down as another failed arranged marriage. The Bills’ struggles predate Ryan, but he will be the one paying the consequences now; the team announced that Whaley will lead the search for the third head coach of his GM tenure.
Anthony Lynn, the assistant head coach/running backs coach who was promoted to offensive coordinator after Week 2, will serve as the interim coach and has a chance to hold onto the job. By firing Ryan before the final week of the season, the Pegulas are giving Lynn a brief audition for the role. If they keep Lynn as the permanent head coach, they will be following a path similar to the one the Bucs took last year, letting Lovie Smith go and promoting Dirk Koetter to maintain some continuity.
As for Ryan, this was not he had in mind when he said Buffalo would be his last coaching gig. But that’s a bold statement that may indeed come to fruition.
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