There’s been a predictable pattern in Rex Ryan’s weekly press conferences lately. If you listen closely, you’ll hear Rex speaking out of both sides of his mouth. The Bills’ embattled head coach is humble one minute, defiant and sarcastic the next.
Like a clown at a kid’s birthday party, Rex does his best to entertain. He was in classic form Wednesday morning, clad for the holidays in an unsightly red, white and blue sweater vest. He said it was “Ugly Sweater Day” in the football offices at One Bills Drive.
His attire was almost as ugly as his defensive statistics, which are drawing increasing national attention. The Bills are now 20th in overall defense, 22nd against the pass and, most amazing of all for a team that led the league last year, 30th in sacks per play.
A day earlier, Manny Lawson and Marcell Dareus had continued a season-long trend of key players questioning Ryan’s system. Lawson admitted the players hadn’t bought in at the start and Dareus essentially said Rex should have left well enough alone.
With that in mind, I began the presser by asking Ryan if he felt he had failed his players.
“My God, that’s a great question to start out,” he said. “The numbers aren’t where we wanted them to be, there’s no question about that. I think it just comes down to coaching, so you’re probably right.”
Ryan continues to maintain that the players are picking up his schemes, that things are getting better and the numbers can be misleading. He said they’re playing hard, as if that were some badge of honor for NFL players being paid up to $1 million a game.
It’s a convenient picture for both sides, isn’t it? Ryan has an easy out because the players were too dumb to pick up his scheme – which got his first Jets team to first overall in defense, by the way. The players’ excuse is that the coach tried to fix what wasn’t broken.
But in the end, the ultimate blame lays with Ryan, who came to town last January with gums blazing, saying the NFL’s fourth-rated defense would be No. 1 in the league this season and it was time to saddle up for the first playoff berth in 16 years.
The defense has been a bigger flop than the Jeb Bush campaign. At times, Ryan seems to be scoffing at all the criticism. He has the understandably self-satisfied demeanor of a man with a guaranteed, five-year, $27.5 million contract.
“I think I’m an above-average coach, maybe,” Ryan said. “But for whatever reason, we haven’t had the results we were looking for. So I get it. I’m the guy it should fall on. There’s nobody else.
“I know my players play hard,” he said. “If they didn’t play hard, I would absolutely say, ‘We don’t play hard enough.’ I’m not going to say that, because it’s not true. Are we perfect? No. But I’m not going to point fingers at somebody else. I point it at myself.”
Actually, I don’t believe Ryan would ever say his team wasn’t playing hard. No coach says that. For the last 16 seasons, Bills coaches have stood up there in December and said at least the guys didn’t quit. Ryan is a players’ coach. If they don’t quit, it reflects well on him.
As for Ryan being an above-average coach, it’s true if you’re talking about defensive coordinating.
But the numbers suggest he’s barely average as a head man. His overall record as a head coach is 52-57, 56-59 if you include playoffs. His father, Buddy, was 55-58-1, by the way.
Rex is wandering into some rare territory. Barring a minor miracle, this will be his fifth consecutive season missing the playoffs as a head coach. Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, only three head coaches have missed the playoffs in six straight calendar years.
One was Jack Patera, who coached Seattle in the first six years of the Seahawks’ existence. Bart Starr, with no previous coaching experience, missed his first seven years as the Packers’ head man. Chuck Knox missed the playoffs his last six years with the Seahawks and Rams.
I’m not saying Ryan is a bad coach, but he’s been living off his first two years in New York for five years. He’s a proven success as a defensive coach. But running the show seems beyond him at times. Even he admits it’s tough to keep up with a constantly evolving sport.
“I’ll try to get better,” he said. “There’s no question about it. This league changes. There’s different offenses, different challenges you face each week. But the stats, it’s ugly. We don’t expect to get numbers like that. It’s certainly not what we expected.”
That’s the first time Ryan has admitted that it’s been a challenge to keep up with changes in football. He’s still holding on to a somewhat antiquated model for winning football: Run the ball half the time and play great defense.
His 2009 Jets team was first in the NFL in rushing and 31st in passing. They were first in defense. They barely squeaked into the playoffs with a 9-7 record.
This year’s Bills are third in rushing and 28th in passing. If that sounds familiar to Bills fans, it ought to. Doug Marrone’s first Bills team in 2013 was second in rushing and 28th in passing. Chan Gailey’s last team was sixth in rushing and 25th in passing.
So in many ways, it’s the same old thing in Buffalo, with more colorful wrapping. The Bills are 6-7. They haven’t been better than 7-6 after 13 games in any season in this millennium. They have, to quote the head guy, a “snowflake’s” chance of making the playoffs.
“This is the first time I’ve been considered the weakness of a team, the way I coached defense,” Ryan said. “But we haven’t been up to what we anticipated, any of us – that’s the fan base, myself, players, everybody. I get that.”
That’s one of Ryan’s pet phrases: “I get it.” I’m beginning to wonder. But he and Doug Whaley have some major decisions to make in this offseason. If Rex insists on playing this defense, they need to dump the guys who don’t get his defense – or want to get it – and find difference-makers who’ll buy into his program from the start.
Otherwise, it could get very ugly around here next season, and I’m not talking about sweater vests.