During the Bills’ press conference on the day after the season ended, General Manager Doug Whaley disputed the widely held notion that he had been at odds with Rex and his coaching staff, dismissing it as so much “tabloid journalism.”
Whaley said he loved working with Ryan and had faith in the coaches. He said he was eager to get back to the business of improving a team that had finished a disappointing 8-8. He insisted that everyone in the football department was “on the same page.”
Last week, it would have been nice if they were in the same place. Whaley was in Mobile. Ala., at the Senior Bowl, scouting college talent and, to use his words, “putting his nose down and working hard” to get ready for the NFL draft.
Where was Ryan, the man we’re supposed to believe is working arm-in-arm with Whaley to get things right? In Hawaii at the Pro Bowl, enjoying what appeared to be a nice vacation after guiding the Bills on their latest heroic run to a .500 season.
There must have been a good reason for Ryan to be sipping mai tais in Honolulu, instead of evaluating players in Alabama. Maybe he was there to cheer for Tyrod Taylor, or to convince guard Richie Incognito to give the Bills a hometown discount in free agency.
Ryan always has an explanation, however rambling, repetitive or unconvincing it might be. Not every NFL coach attends the Senior Bowl, though Ryan went a year ago. He might feel the job was in good hands with Whaley and the scouts.
But you might have expected Rex to behave like a coach in crisis, a man who had been issued a win-or-else edict by the Pegulas and was heading into one of the most crucial years of his coaching life. If any coach should have been there, it was Rex.
If for appearances’ sake alone, it would have made sense for Ryan to take part in the first big personnel bonanza of the new NFL season. He and Whaley should have been joined at the hip, supporting the idea that they’re unified and that reports of a strained relationship have been overblown by local and national media.
Appearances aside, there was serious scouting work to be done in Mobile, too. The upcoming draft will be a vital one for the Bills. Whaley has said the team won’t be active in free agency, mainly because they sank so much guaranteed money into a roster that underachieved last season.
Whaley has to build his team from within and through the draft, and in a hurry. He needs to hit some bull’s-eyes in this year’s draft. That means finding rookies who can contribute right away, the way cornerback Ronald Darby and running back Karlos Williams did this past season.
That’s especially true on defense, where there are holes to fill. The Bills will almost surely cut Mario Williams, leaving a huge pass-rushing gap. They might not be able to sign free agent inside linebacker Nigel Bradham. There’s no guarantee that defensive tackle Kyle Williams or safety Aaron Williams will return to full health next season.
I’d hate to be accused of practicing tabloid journalism in a broadsheet, but Ryan should have been in Mobile looking for defensive help. This draft could help save his job. You’d think he would have felt the urgency to check out some of those stud college defenders.
Remember, Rex’s belief in his defensive system − which came under attack from his own players last season − is unwavering. He was allowed to double down on it by bringing in his twin brother, Rob, a career mediocrity as a defensive coordinator.
There were plenty of top defenders on display in Mobile: Among them were defensive ends Jihad Ward of Illinois, Shawn Oakman of Baylor and Bronson Kaufusi of BYU. Alabama defensive tackle Jarran Reed, and Florida linebacker Antonio Morrison.
The apologists will suggest that the Senior Bowl is a minor slice of the extensive scouting process. Heaven knows, the evaluation of prospective NFL players is a cottage industry these days. How’s your mock draft? Rex will have ample time to examine the talent.
But this is no ordinary offseason. We’re led to believe that Ryan’s defense is so complex, it takes extra time and a profound football intellect to play it. Considering what’s at stake, and the lingering doubts about his schemes, you’d expect him to take every opportunity to find players with the skill and acumen to play for him.
That’s the problem here. Ryan doesn’t act like a desperate man, a coach whose reputation is on the line. Next season, he could become only the fourth head coach since the NFL-AFL merger to miss the playoffs in six consecutive calendar years − and one of them coached an expansion team.
Rex seems awfully comfortable for a guy with a losing career record. There were times during his press conferences last season when I thought to myself, ‘Boy, he sounds like someone with a guaranteed five-year, $27.5 million contract.’
I imagine when you have that sort of financial security, along with the knowledge that you could walk into a lucrative TV job the minute you’re no longer employed as an NFL coach, you can afford to be cavalier and dismissive of criticism.
One of Ryan’s pet expressions is that he knows how things are going to end. Of course, he said that about his defensive numbers last season and they never came around. But he’s telling us he knows how things will work out in the 2016 season, when his system is more entrenched and he can tap into Rob’s twin brilliance.
You’d think five straight years without a winning season would humble the man. But it’s hubris, not humility, that drives Rex Ryan. He seems unaware that his myth is crumbling all around him and he needs to justify it very soon if he hopes to have a long future as a head coach in the NFL.
Sometimes I wonder if Ryan is resigned to the fact that his coaching career will be brief, and that he’d just as soon move on to something easier. There’ll be plenty of time for lying around on the beach if he doesn’t get it right this time.