Rex Ryan tried to rationalize it. He said he trusted his defense. He said every football coach in America would have done the same thing.
Ryan has had plenty of practice explaining away his mistakes through two seasons in Buffalo, but there was no doubt Saturday that punting late in overtime was the absolute wrong call.
The Bills set a franchise record by gaining 589 yards of offense. Their stats surpassed Jim Kelly's teams. They were more prolific than O.J.-era Bills.
The Bills’ defense was correspondingly terrible. It allowed a single rusher to gain 200 yards for the third time this season, which only two teams in NFL history had ever done.
A win was vital for the Bills’ playoff chances, and perhaps for the coach whose seat is growing ever hotter. A tie was the same as a loss.
But faced with fourth and 2 from their 41-yard line with 4:09 left in overtime, Ryan went conservative and punted the ball back to the Dolphins.
“I believed we’d get them stopped,” Ryan said. “I just thought that was the right move, pin them deep and get the ball back again.”
Ryan’s defense has had a hard time stopping anything all season and failed again Saturday. On Miami’s first play after the punt, Jay Ajayi ran 57 yards into field-goal range while more defensive communication issues led to only 10 defenders taking the field. Andrew Franks hit the winning kick shortly after to give the Dolphins a 34-31 victory.
The decision to punt was as frustrating as it was familiar. It felt reminiscent of Doug Marrone, the ex-Bills coach with a penchant for punting. (His Jaguars, coincidentally, beat Mike Mularkey’s Titans on Saturday in the Coaches Who Quit on the Bills Bowl.)
One of Marrone’s most infamous punts came against the Dolphins in 2014. Both teams badly needed a win to keep their wild-card hopes alive. The Bills trailed, 19-9, with 10 minutes left when Marrone punted from the Dolphins’ 47 on fourth and 6. He was skewered for making another gutless call.
Ryan’s decision may have been worse. His Bills own the league’s best rushing attack by a wide margin. They moved the ball at will Saturday. Their possessions after halftime were touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, end of regulation, and missed field goal. Even if Miami wasn’t able to score, the Bills certainly weren’t guaranteed to get the ball back with enough time to do anything.
If nothing else, go down with your best players swinging.
“At that time, I even told our offense, I said, ‘We’re going to ride you guys if we can,’” Ryan said. “But in that situation, I was like, we’re going to pin them down deep; if we get a stop we’re going to have time to get in field-goal range to win the game, so that’s what I thought.”
Ryan was asked point blank why he didn’t trust his offense after gaining 589 yards.
“Well, it’s certainly a consideration," Ryan said, "but I thought I’d pin them deep and then get the ball back. I knew exactly how many yards we had. But every coach in America would have done the same thing backed up in your end, one first down away. And it’s easy to sit back up there when your livelihood’s not riding on it and say, ‘Hey, I’d go ahead and do this and this.’ I’m sure you would.”
Ryan said he would’ve gone for it if it was fourth and 1, as if the extra yard made any difference.
Players were hesitant to criticize their embattled head coach for punting, but few agreed with it.
“That’s not my call,” running back LeSean McCoy said. “That’s what the coaches decided to do, so as a player we just roll with it.”
“I mean, of course I pouted and got upset,” receiver Sammy Watkins admitted, “but during the game, you can’t – I mean, you don’t know what the situation is. What if we don’t get it? Even though that’s not our mentality, but that’s coach’s call.”
It was a bad one. Punting wasn’t the sole reason they lost the game – repeated defensive blunders didn’t help, and two missed field goals from Dan Carpenter, who left without talking to reporters, only made things worse – but on a day when the Bills’ playoff drought reached 17 consecutive seasons, it was another feeble decision this city has gotten to know all too well.