Rex Ryan’s honeymoon with Buffalo Bills fans hasn’t simply ended.
It has been reduced to a pile of smoldering ashes.
Nearly three quarters into his first season as the Bills’ coach, the man whose hiring last January helped drive record ticket sales is now the object of considerable second-guessing and ridicule.
Backlash from his challenge-flag gaffes and other questionable coaching decisions in Sunday’s 30-22 loss at Kansas City reached levels that would make one think the Bills are far worse off than having a 5-6 record and showing at least a faint pulse for a wild-card playoff spot.
More than a few fans have actually taken to social media to call for Ryan’s firing, which has virtually no chance of happening after only the first year of a five-year guaranteed contract paying him $5.5 million per season.
Ryan’s blend of tough talk and stand-up comedy during news conferences no longer seem quite as inspiring/entertaining to the masses as they were upon his arrival and through much of a 5-4 start. After back-to-back losses, his impassioned promise to put an end to a 15-year playoff drought is being dismissed as more false advertising from a franchise that has long specialized in the art of selling hope.
The new narrative on Ryan is mainly about whether he has the coaching acumen, and especially the attention to detail, necessary to navigate through waters made increasingly rough by injuries and inconsistent play. Defense, which is supposed to be his baby, has been more of a liability than an asset.
Ryan’s players are well aware of the public heat he is taking. They’re pretty much taking it in stride.
“I think we’re all held to a pretty high standard,” fullback Jerome Felton said Tuesday. “We had a lot of high expectations coming into the season and, obviously, it’s not over. But whenever you don’t perform up to those expectations, you’re going to take some heat. And we do as players and they do as coaches. I don’t get mad at the fans or anything like that. It’s just part of the job.”
In a sampling of player opinions, on and off the record, the support for Ryan is unwavering.
Not that that should come as any sort of shock. He’s the consummate players’ coach. Veteran members of the team have repeatedly expressed their appreciation of the fact he treats them more like men than his predecessor, Doug Marrone, did.
Ryan also has proudly boasted that, just as during his six previous seasons as coach of the New York Jets, he doesn’t believe in putting “muzzles” on his players. They have the freedom to be themselves and speak their mind. Does it stop with directing criticism toward coaching? Not necessarily, given some of the public venting Mario Williams and other defensive players have done about the line’s more passive approach to getting after the quarterback.
But so far, no one among the ranks will go down the road of questioning Ryan’s leadership.
“Man, I have a hundred-percent faith in Rex,” defensive tackle Corbin Bryant said. “And I’m sure everybody in this locker room that you talk to would say the same thing.”
“Guys on this team want to play for him,” said linebacker Preston Brown. “He definitely brings that each day to work. He comes in excited and everybody loves how he carries himself. Some of the media don’t like how he portrays himself in the media, but it’s fun for us. We love the guy and we love to play for him.”
Although much of the public perception of Ryan is influenced by his bombast in front of cameras and microphones, the heavy criticism that he and his coaching staff are receiving stems from what happens on the field. Too many penalties. Too many big plays allowed by quarterbacks not named Tom Brady. Not enough sacks. Not enough targets to Sammy Watkins.
And then there were those plays in the Chiefs’ game that should have been challenged and weren’t or should not have been challenged and were.
In the eyes of the players, however, pinning most of the blame for the Bills’ struggles on Ryan is more a function of his title than anything else. They readily accept their share of the responsibility.
“We’ve got to fix some things and do some better things as players,” Felton said. “It’s not just on the coaches. We’ve got to take some responsibility, too. But I think he’s doing a good job.”
“Everything that goes on can’t be just put on Coach Ryan,” said cornerback Ron Brooks. “A lot of people, the first person they want to blame is the head coach. As players and as an organization, we all take part of that, so it’s not just going to be put on Coach Ryan. We all take responsibility for the things that go on in the games and even in the organization.”
And while guarding against allowing outside opinions to infiltrate the locker room, the players are maintaining perspective. They realize that, invariably, losing leads to lashing out.
“That’s just what fans do,” Bryant said. “When the team is up, the fans love you. When the team is down, the fans go in a different direction. Our head coach, Rex, he faces that. We face it as well.
“All we have to do is get the ball rolling again, get some consecutive wins, and the fans will be all right.”