Rex Ryan came to town less than two years ago, full of the same bluster and bravado he was known for with the New York Jets.
A top-five defense? That wasn't good enough for the new Buffalo Bills' head coach. "That’s not where my expectations are. I know we’ll lead the league in defense," he said.
A 15-year playoff drought? "Get ready, man, we’re going. We are going," Ryan famously proclaimed.
But now, with that top-five defense a shell of itself and that postseason drought having reached 17 years, the Bills concluded that Ryan no longer is the right man for the job, announcing Tuesday that he has been fired.
Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn will serve as the team's interim head coach for Sunday's season finale against the New York Jets. He's expected to be a strong candidate to get the permanent job after the season.
The Bills announced that General Manager Doug Whaley will lead the team's coaching search, which should put an end to any speculation about his job status. Whaley will be involved in hiring his third head coach – that’s virtually unheard of in the NFL, and even more surprising given the reported friction he’s had with the two he's had a role in hiring, Doug Marrone and Ryan.
The changes might not stop there, either. A report Tuesday from ESPN said starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor will be benched for the season finale against the New York Jets and replaced by EJ Manuel. Such a move could be related to Taylor's contract status – he's guaranteed $27.5 million next season if he were to suffer a major injury in Week 17 and be unable to pass a physical in March at the start of a new league year.
Speculation had swirled in recent weeks that such a move could be coming at head coach, and owners Terry and Kim Pegula acted swiftly after Buffalo's 34-31 overtime loss to Miami on Saturday officially eliminated the team from postseason contention.
“I spoke with Rex earlier today and we mutually agreed that the time to part ways is now," Terry Pegula said in a statement issued by the team early Tuesday afternoon.
"These decisions are never easy. I want to take this opportunity to thank Rex for all his efforts and wish him all the best moving forward.
“Kim and I and our entire Bills organization share in the same disappointment and frustration as our fans, but we remain committed to our goal of bringing a championship to Western New York.”
The team also fired Ryan's twin brother, Rob, who carried the title of assistant head coach/defense.
Rex Ryan, 54, leaves the Bills less than two full seasons into a five-year contract that paid him $5.5 million annually. He's still due $16.5 million after compiling a 15-16 record as Bills coach, a .483 winning percentage that is actually the best of the seven head coaches (including Perry Fewell on an interim basis) who have followed Wade Phillips since the 2000 season.
Ryan, however, looked and sounded like a man who knew the end might be near when he spoke Monday afternoon.
"That’s about as painful of a loss as I can remember," he said of losing to the Dolphins, before later adding, "I hope it isn’t. If it is, it's something I got to live with," when asked if it might be the defining moment of his career in Buffalo.
The problems that plagued the Bills against the Dolphins were emblematic of the issues Ryan's teams have had the last two years. Miami running back Jay Ajayi rushed for more than 200 yards for the second time this season, including a 57-yard run in overtime that got the Dolphins into position for the winning field goal. On the play, the Bills had just 10 men on the field – an inexcusable miscommunication for a team with 27 assistant coaches on staff, well above the league average.
"The information should have been there. We should have had 11 guys on the field," an emotional Ryan said Monday. "That’s true. That’s a true statement, 100 percent true statement."
Ryan's decision to punt in overtime with his team facing a fourth and 2 on its own 41-yard line with just over 4 minutes left has also been heavily scrutinized. A tie meant the Bills would have been eliminated from postseason contention.
"We’d been doing a decent job on third down getting off the field and like I say, it’s easy to go back and trust me, I’ve gone back and went for it on fourth down 100 times," Ryan said. "But I know in my heart at the time that I did it, I thought I was making the right decision."
There will be no going back now.
"None of you, your livelihood’s not riding on it," Ryan told reporters Monday. "Where mine is. I’m with wins and losses, so whether I have to win this game or whatever, I’m just saying I’m paid for wins and losses. That’s how you get judged as a coach."
Asked if it was fair to be judged on that after less than two years, he added "The only person that it needs to affect, the only people, are Terry and Kim Pegula. That’s who’s going to make the decision on whether I’m here."
"That’s who makes that decision," he continued. "So, whatever they think is fair, that’s the only thing that matters as a coach. That’s why I said I’m going to try to win this game" at New York.
He won't get that chance.
Offseason changes fail
Rob Ryan was brought in before this season in an effort to improve communication on a defense that underperformed in 2015. That improvement has not come. The Bills rank 19th overall in total defense heading into the season finale, exactly the same position they finished last year.
That’s despite a slew of changes the team made in the offseason to rebuild the defense to Ryan’s liking. In addition to Rob Ryan coming aboard, Donnie Henderson departed as defensive backs coach, with Tim McDonald taking over in that role and former safety Ed Reed, who had a Hall of Fame playing career, being hired as an assistant defensive backs coach.
The Bills also used their first three picks in the NFL Draft on the defensive side of the ball, selecting Clemson’s Shaq Lawson, Alabama’s Reggie Ragland and Ohio State’s Adolphus Washington. Lawson and Ragland both have had their seasons shortened by injuries – in Ragland’s case, he’s been out all year – but veteran replacements Lorenzo Alexander and Zach Brown have exceeded expectations.
The Bills currently rank 28th in the NFL against the run – an embarrassment for a coach who has prided himself on his ability to stop opponents on the ground. In addition to Ajayi, Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell also had a 200-yard rushing game against the Bills, making Buffalo just the third team in NFL history to allow three 200-yard individual rushers in a single season.
“It’s definitely” a failure, safety Corey Graham said after the loss to Miami. “The guy really rushed for 200 yards again? Like, come on. That is what, the third guy to get 200 yards rushing? I’ve never been a part of anything like that. I’ve never seen anything like that. I don’t get it.
“I mean, we came in knowing that they were going to run the ball and we got eight, nine guys in the box sometimes – and we still couldn’t stop the run. I don’t know what to tell you guys.”
The Bills went 1-7 this season against teams with a record better than .500, with the one victory coming against the New England Patriots, who were without suspended quarterback Tom Brady and started rookie third-stringer Jacoby Brissett.
In critical December losses to Oakland, Pittsburgh and Miami, the Bills gave up an average of 33 points per game.
"You can question all you want. I've been pretty decent throughout my career," Rex Ryan said after the loss to the Dolphins. "Obviously this was a rough night, there's no question. We've had some tough ones, but I think the league is – I think offenses are pretty decent these days. They're able to move the football, but again, I'll let my reputation stand for what it is and you can challenge it all you want."
Ryan's reputation was formed largely thanks to back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances in his first two seasons as head coach of the Jets. In those years, 2009-10, New York finished first and third, respectively, in total defense and compiled a 24-14 record, including the postseason. Since then, however, he has a record of 41-54 in six seasons, with no postseason appearances. He’s just the sixth coach since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to miss the playoffs six years in a row.
Despite that mediocre track record, Ryan remained defiant. After beating his former team to end last season with an 8-8 record, he chided the media by saying “You guys know me. I’ve got a horrible résumé as a defensive coach. You guys are trying to point it out all the time, but the facts don’t back you up a lot.”
Of course, it’s not just the media who has questioned Ryan. Especially last season, his own players publicly called out the defensive scheme.
“I think I probably set a record on dropping today. Whatever’s called you have to go do it,” former defensive end Mario Williams said after a loss to Cincinnati in October 2015.
A few days later, while the Bills were in London preparing to play the Jaguars, Ryan responded by saying “All these guys want to do is help and they want to win and if they make a comment or whatever, that’s fine. … Shoot, I’ve been cussed at by better than them.
“I’ve never been looked at as a weakness of a football team before,” he said. “I’ve always been looked at as a strength. And you know what? At the end of the day, that’s where we’ll be.”
The Bills never got there in 2015, which is why Ryan was given every tool possible to rebuild the defense, including hiring his brother, who brought a less-than-impressive resume to Buffalo.
Before the 2016 season began, the Ryan brothers lost their father, Buddy, in June. As he drove to his dad’s funeral in Kentucky, Rex Ryan talked to Sports Illustrated about his father, and what the upcoming season would be like.
“This season means a hell of a lot to us,” he told the magazine. “Our name, our legacy, means a hell of a lot.”
Handwriting on the wall
Rumors that Ryan could be on his way out started to pick up after the Bills’ Week 13 loss in Oakland. In that game, the Bills gave up 29 unanswered points to blow a 15-point second-half lead.
Before the team’s next game at home against Pittsburgh, reports from both The Buffalo News and nationally from CBS Sports suggested Ryan’s firing was imminent.
It marked a stunning departure from the “continuity” message stressed by the Bills’ front office as key to turning around the longest playoff drought in North American major professional sports, and a quick fall from grace for a head coach whose brash style has its share of supporters – and detractors.
Ryan quickly won over the fan base, as evidenced by season-ticket sales soaring over 60,000 in 2015 – a franchise record. The coach drove around town with the Bills' logo plastered across his pickup truck, jumped out of airplanes and ate dog biscuits (for charity). He would show up to press conferences in a Clemson football helmet – his son, Seth, is a wide receiver for the Tigers – and was a constant presence at Buffalo Sabres games.
He said he wanted to live in the part of Western New York that got the most snow, and his hiring gave the Bills a national prominence that had been missing under former coaches.
But any support Ryan enjoyed among the fan base began to dry up when the results on the field were considered. When the coach fired offensive coordinator Greg Roman after an 0-2 start to this season, it became fair to wonder when the man in charge of the defense’s shortcomings would be held accountable.
What comes next?
Attention now turns to Ryan’s replacement.
Lynn has coached in the NFL since 2000, but had never been a coordinator until replacing Roman. The Bills currently rank seventh in the NFL in scoring, averaging 26.7 points per game, despite having the 31st-ranked passing attack. Buffalo leads the NFL in rushing for the second straight season.
Lynn has interviewed for head coaching positions in the past, with the Jets, Dolphins and 49ers, and was expected to be a prime candidate again this offseason. It's possible the Bills made the move now to ensure they can retain Lynn as the permanent head coach.
If he does get the job, it will be a big change from the way the Pegulas approached Ryan's hiring in January 2015. That marked the first major decision made by the family after it assumed ownership of the franchise in October 2014 and came after Marrone exercised an out clause in his contract at the conclusion of the 2014 season.
The Bills were coming off a 9-7 season under Marrone and finished fourth in the league in defense under Jim Schwartz. At the time he was hired, Ryan's experience appealed to ownership.
"I thought we needed to go to somebody who’d done it," Terry Pegula said at Ryan's introductory press conference.
How will the Bills, and the Pegulas approach it this time? That remains to be seen.