At times during the 2015 season, Rex Ryan seemed to be losing control of the Buffalo Bills.
The repeated public shots that his defensive players were taking at his pride and joy, the defensive scheme that helped launch him to NFL prominence, increased with intensity as the Bills faded out of the playoff picture. The basic message that what they did in 2014 was so much better than what Ryan was forcing them to do was widely read as a coach putting his ego ahead of the team.
A picture of anarchy was being painted for the outside world. And Ryan was looking like anything but a strong leader.
On Friday, Ryan wanted to make it clear that he was taking back his team.
He used a news conference to discuss the three recent additions to his coaching staff and to explain that one of those moves – the hiring of his twin brother, Rob, as assistant head coach/defense – was particularly designed to help him take it back. How? By providing reinforcement of the defense they both know better than anyone else and by allowing Rex to step away from that side of the ball more frequently and pay greater attention to other areas.
“This is my football team,” Ryan said. “That’s how I’m approaching it. It’s not that I’m just a defensive guy. No, this is my team. It’s offensive players … every offensive player, every special-team player, every offensive coach, special-team coach, this is it. This is all about who I am. I think (hiring Rob) will help me to really tie in more to this football team.”
Ryan interlocked his fingers twice to make his next point.
“Because we’ve got to be like this,” he said. “For us to be at our best, we have to be like this. I think some of the moves I’ve made will allow me to bring it even closer.
“We brought my brother in just to add to what we have and to have other eyes in it. I think it’s going to allow me to be more involved in the team, even if it’s just for supporting my coordinators and things, and I’m going to be right there for them.”
Ryan made two other attention-grabbing hires: Ed Reed, one of the best safeties in NFL history, landing his first coaching job as assistant defensive backs coach; and Kathryn Smith, becoming the first full-time female coach in NFL history in the role of quality control-special teams.
But no move has brought more criticism than Ryan’s hiring of his brother. It prompted accusations of nepotism rather than a legitimate move to upgrade the team. Rob was fired as defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints during the 2015 season because their defense was performing at a historically bad level.
He also hasn’t had a whole lot of success statistically at any of his four stops (including Oakland, Cleveland, and Dallas) during nearly 12 seasons as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, despite Rex saying “he’s been successful all those years.”
“He’s as much of a grinder as you’ll see,” Rex said. “He knows the value of preparation and bringing that to this football team. And his expertise is really something that I’m excited about. … I really think it’s going to be a great thing to have him in our building.”
For Ryan’s sake, it needs to be an even better thing when the 2016 season begins. He will be under tremendous pressure to reverse the fortunes of a team that finished 8-8 in his first season as its head coach largely because the defense, expected to be its strength, fell from fourth in 2014 to 19th.
The Bills desperately need to find a way to recapture the pass-rushing prowess that the ’14 defense showed in leading the NFL with 54 sacks – 33 more than it had in ’15. However, Ryan insisted, it won’t do so by replicating the scheme that former defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz used and multiple members of the Bills’ defensive line said was a better fit for their skills.
Ryan said he made that mistake in the Bills’ first game against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots last season, a 40-32 loss, by running “nothing but the defense that was played the year before.”
“And I knew better,” Ryan said. “I thought going in, I was like, ‘You know what? That’s not the way you play this guy. But I get it, we’re this way.’ And he lit us up to the tune of 550-some yards. And I was like, ‘That’s not the best thing for us.’
“We’ve got to move forward and we’ve got to be all in. I’m going to be a team that’s miserable to prepare for and take advantage of our players and things like that … because this isn’t just me. I’m not just ram-rodding this system. I’ve always had a system that relies on the players.”
Ryan wanted it known that he took that approach last season. He also wanted it known that, for some reason, his defensive players didn’t provide direct feedback to him about their discomfort with the scheme until the final two weeks of the season, victories against Dallas and the New York Jets.
“When I ask specifically about, ‘What do you not like? What are you uncomfortable with?’ I finally, at the end of the year, started getting some answers,” Ryan said. “Like, ‘Oh, yeah, hey, some feedback. Yeah, this, this.’ I don’t know what it was. So making adjustments on the sidelines, I felt a little more trust as the season went on. So I feel great about that.”
In a clear swipe at disgruntled defensive end Mario Williams, who was the most vocal about being required to drop into coverage and having fewer chances to rush the quarterback, Ryan said his defense is “not just built for one man. It’s built for all 11 men, and I think that’s what they’ve got to understand.
“Now, moving forward, I can’t wait. I can’t wait to see Jerry Hughes now that I really know who Jerry Hughes is. Jerry Hughes is a multitalented player. I get it now. I see it more. He’s not just a hand-in-the-dirt, rush-the-passer (guy). He can do so much. There are so many different things that our guys can do. I’m so excited to come back in. Let’s make this thing go.”
Ryan also cleared a cloudy picture by saying Dennis Thurman will remain the defensive coordinator, with Rob Ryan serving as assistant head coach/defense.
A report from Fox Sports said, in light of Rob’s hiring in the departure of defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson, Thurman would now devote most of his attention to the defensive backs. Rex vaguely addressed that, only saying the addition of his brother would give Thurman greater flexibility in his job.
“This will allow Dennis freedom to go, if he wants to spend more time with the secondary, with whatever, that’s fine,” Ryan said. “But Tim McDonald’s our secondary coach, and I feel great about that.”
Ryan said the fact there are two former coordinators (the Ryans) and Thurman on the staff doesn’t mean there are “too many cooks in the kitchen” on defense.
“When the plan comes in and the call comes in, it’s a Buffalo Bill thing, and we’re all in it together,” Rex said. “I love having opinions, having voices. My brother and Dennis Thurman are really smart. I know it’s debatable and been well-written that I’m not that sharp, so I get it.”