The bravado doesn’t flow quite as freely from Rex Ryan as it once did.
The Buffalo Bills head coach tries to choose his words carefully, perhaps mindful that after five straight seasons of missing the playoffs, braggadocio is a bad look.
But whether it’s arrogance or ignorance, Rex just can’t help being Rex.
Just last week, while complimenting inside linebacker Ramon Humber for how quickly he’s learned the system, Ryan slid in a response to one of the criticisms of his scheme last year when he said, “Don’t tell me how difficult this defense is, the guy’s had one day and he’s calling it.”
After the Bills’ second preseason game, he was asked an innocuous question about Jerry Hughes’ performance.
“Well, you know, I’m sure he’d do better in a standard 4-3 defense,” Ryan shot back.
Sarcasm has become the coach’s default response to criticism. At the NFL Scouting Combine in February, he told reporters “We were terrible and I can’t coach defense anymore for some reason.”
Going all the way back to Jan. 3 and a feel-good win against his former team, the New York Jets, Ryan said “You guys know me, I have a horrible resume as a defensive coach. You guys try to point it out all the time, but the facts don’t back you up a whole lot.”
Forget a chip, that’s a boulder Ryan is carrying around on his shoulder. It’s clear the pressure to win is mounting externally − at the end of last month, ESPN published an article saying Ryan was squarely on the hot seat in 2016. Not only has he failed to reach the playoffs in five straight seasons, he hasn’t produced a single winning record in any of those years.
It’s pretty much unheard of for a coach to go six years in a row without making the postseason, which is why Ryan − as he always seems to be − is squarely under the spotlight again as the 2016 season begins.
“He earned that pressure,” said Rob Ryan, Rex’s twin brother who is on the coaching staff this year as the assistant head coach. “The fans had a right to be excited with Rex Ryan coming to town. He’s had those great defenses. He went to two AFC championships as a head coach. He plans on doing the same thing here, but better. So the pressure’s absolutely going to be there. But I think, if you’re in the NFL long enough, you’re so used to it, I think you enjoy it.”
Carrying on tradition
It’s not just external pressure.
The Ryan brothers lost their father this offseason. Buddy Ryan was a mastermind who reinvented how defense was played with the Chicago Bears in the 1980s. He passed on that passion for coaching to two of his three sons, and they’re determined to honor their dad.
“This season means a hell of a lot to us. Our name, our legacy, means a hell of a lot,” Rex Ryan told Sports Illustrated in June. “Our dad is recognized as being one of the great defensive coaches, probably arguably the best, in the history of the game. You can’t say he’s not in the top five, certainly. And we’ve been pretty successful through the years ourselves, but nothing like we want to be. We have won five Super Bowls as a family, but we want to win our sixth at some point. And I want to win it as a head coach, because that has never been done in our family.”
That challenge starts Sunday, in a most fitting place. Baltimore might not have been Rex Ryan’s first coaching stop, but it’s where he made a name for himself.
“On my own, I guess in my first NFL deal away from the nepotism thing, getting hired by my dad, I guess you can say that,” he said. “I feel great about the 10 years I spent in Baltimore. I think it really helped me, you know, grow as a coach.”
During Ryan’s tenure − the first six years as defensive line coach and the final four as defensive coordinator − the Ravens had an incredible run of success. Their Super Bowl-winning 2000 defense is regarded as one of the top five of all time. From 1999 to 2008, the Ravens finished outside the top six in yards allowed just one time and led the league in 2006.
“We had a whole bunch of guys who understood the defense, understood our responsibilities, and just understood how to play winning football,” said Bills assistant defensive backs coach Ed Reed, who had a Hall-of-Fame playing career at safety under Ryan.
Even though it’s been eight years since Ryan last coached in Baltimore, his impact is still being felt, according to those who were there at the time.
“Some people will always be Ravens,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs told the Baltimore Sun this week. “Rex is one of them. … It’s the mentality he taught. It’s the mentality we have. It kind of went hand-in-hand when he was here. That’s why he was so successful, we were so successful, and that’s why we continue to be successful around here.”
For a time, that success followed Ryan to New York. Those back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances, which came with Mark Sanchez at quarterback, cemented his “defensive mastermind” status.
A fading legacy?
But that mystique was significantly splintered last season. Ryan inherited a defense that finished fourth overall in 2014 and watched it plummet to 19th. The Bills set a franchise record for fewest sacks in a season, with 21, just one year after setting the franchise high with 54.
Everywhere Rex turned in the offseason, some form of the question “What the heck happened?” followed. Finally, that ends Sunday in the place it really started for Ryan.
“I can only imagine the amount of emotion that’s going to go into this for him,” Hughes said. “As players, we want to go out there and win this one for our coach. We want to show we’re not that defense. There’s been a lot put in front of us and we have to answer those questions. Wherever we finished last year, that’s not where Rex Ryan defenses are historically. We understand that.”
Getting back to his customary spot in the top 10 might require Ryan’s best coaching job yet. The two biggest offseason additions to his defense − first-round draft pick Shaq Lawson and second-rounder Reggie Ragland − will miss extended time because of injury. In Ragland’s case that means the entire year, while Lawson will miss at least the first six weeks following shoulder surgery. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcell Dareus is out the first four games, as well, because of an NFL-imposed suspension for violating the league’s drug policy.
Those three players were supposed to be part of the great rebuild. Without them, the blueprints are redrawn.
Even if it’s by smoke and mirrors, Ryan will have to figure how to manufacture a pass rush. After all, his reputation precedes him.
“I expect a lot,” Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said this week of the Bills’ defensive game plan. “It’s Rex. I don’t want to be disappointed by him.”
That’s the type of expectation that has been set: An opposing quarterback saying he doesn’t want to be “disappointed” by what he sees across from him.
“He wants to get the quarterback seeing ghosts and delay in his decision process just that little bit,” Flacco said. “When you can do that to a quarterback it throws the whole offense off. It doesn’t necessarily mean he has to get a million sacks, but if he’s not sure what he’s looking at and can’t make the decision quite as quickly I think that’s when he feels they have a good shot to win.”
There were examples of those dizzying displays last season. A win over Indianapolis in the season opener and a narrow loss at New England demonstrated Ryan’s scheme at its best. But that success couldn’t be maintained.
With so many key players missing, improvement must come through better understanding of the scheme. It’s why Ryan emblazoned “All In” across Bills hoodies this offseason.
“Guys have to be committed,” Reed said. “It’s washing away what last year was about. Guys weren’t as committed to doing the things they’re doing this year. Coach saw it.
“It’s on everyone, top to bottom, to perform. It’s not just Rex. It’s on every coach to make sure their players know what they’re supposed to do. It’s on the players doing their part, studying tape. A lot of the stuff the players are doing this year, they didn’t do last year. They’ve admitted it. So it’s not just on Rex, even though that’s who you see.”
Asked about that pressure, Ryan spins the answer a different way.
“I think mine is not a pressure. I look at things as an opportunity,” he said. “I have an opportunity here to coach this football team, a team that I truly believe in. I think we’re going to do a lot of really good things this year. I think we’ll improve.
“I’m fortunate to be surrounded by the players that I have and around the coaches, and really this whole building. I think everybody is committed to − you know we had that saying, that ‘All In’ slogan and I truly believe it. I sense it in our entire building. So I feel fortunate.”
Amazingly enough, this is the first time since 2010-11 under George Edwards that the Bills will play the same defensive scheme in consecutive years.
“Now that we have another year under our belt, it’s going to be a lot better this year,” defensive tackle Corbin Bryant said. “As long as you have a system that everybody knows what they’re doing, that’s playing hard and on the same page, that’s a recipe for a great defense.”
Will having everybody in the boat rowing in the same direction ultimately get the Bills to their desired destination?
“I really think so,” guard Richie Incognito said. “I think that this is a pretty cohesive unit. We have guys that are real hungry, real competitive. You see that energy in the building.
“It starts with Rex. He’s got an infectious spirit that trickles down to us as players. He’s got that swag about him, that chip on his shoulder that we identify with. He’s a straight shooter. He wants us to show up and be physical and play hard. That’s what we respect about him. He’s one of us.”
Ryan’s hiring of his brother, as well as the additions of Reed and defensive line coach John Blake, has reinforced the “All In” approach. If he fails, it will be with his guys, his way.
“It doesn’t seem like he’s under any pressure when he’s talking to us,” Bryant said. “He’s his usual confident self. He comes in with a lot of fire every day. With the defense he’s installing, he’s making sure we’re all on the same page. I don’t feel like he’s feeling any pressure.
“You’ve got to know Rex. He’s always that confident guy. No player wants to play for a coach who feels like he’s on his heels.”
Just days after that Jets game, The Buffalo News reported that owner Terry Pegula had given Ryan and General Manager Doug Whaley what amounted to a “playoffs-or-else” ultimatum for the 2016 season.
Pegula moved quickly to deny that report, but for a team with the longest playoff drought in North American professional sports, reaching the postseason is clearly the goal.
If it doesn’t happen?
“I think Rex will probably be looking for another job,” Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, told radio host Jim Rome in June. “I think everybody knows that, including Rex.”
Perhaps not wanting to have a repeat of the situation in New York − where he had a public disagreement with Jets quarterback great Joe Namath − Ryan took the high road.
“I think if you ask Jim, Jim knows I’m a hell of a coach and a good coach for this team and this community,” Ryan said. “I think he would tell you that. I hope he would.”
Nevertheless, when one of the faces of the franchise lays it out like Kelly did, it’s game on.
“We know what the expectation levels are,” Incognito said. “There’s pressure on us all. We have the talent to do it, the coaching staff to do it. Now it’s time to take it to the field Sunday and start earning those victories.”