Hiring charismatic Rex Ryan pushes Bills close to must-watch territory
Rex Ryan led the New York Jets to the AFC title game in his first season at the helm in 2009. He repeated the feat in '10, posting an 11-5 record in the regular season and falling just six points shy of a Super Bowl trip.
Despite Ryan's fiery presence, the wheels fell off after that. Saddled by never-ending issues at quarterback and some highly questionable personnel decisions from the front office, Ryan's Jets managed a combined 26-38 record from 2011-'14, leading to the two sides cutting ties last month.
"We’re in the win business," said Jets owner Woody Johnson in announcing Ryan's firing, "and we’re not winning."
It did not take long for Ryan to land another shot. As reported Sunday morning by several outlets, Ryan is expected to be named the Buffalo Bills' next head coach. Like a touring company of a Broadway play, Ryan will shift his office from New York (well, technically, Florham Park, N.J.) to Buffalo -- a move that keeps him in a familiar AFC East surrounding and immediately pushes the Bills close to must-watch territory.
With Marrone opting out of his Buffalo contract on New Year's Eve and Jim Harbaugh off to Michigan, the number of appealing options for Buffalo in its coaching search were limited.
Ryan had to be atop the list. Not only does he know this division well -- his matchups against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have been nothing short of tantalizing -- but he meshes well with the current Buffalo roster. It has been five years, however, since Ryan produced an above-.500 record, a dismal streak catalyzed by his inability to churn out a consistent offense.
The Bills team awaiting Ryan's arrival resembles his former Jets roster -- that is, the Jets' roster from 2009-'10, which Ryan took to those back-to-back conference championship games. There are far fewer trouble spots in Buffalo than there were, and still are, back in New York.
Of course, the area that helped lead to Ryan's undoing with the Jets -- quarterback -- will be priority No. 1 for Buffalo this offseason. Veteran starter Kyle Orton opted for retirement following an up-and-down 2014, leaving '13 first-round pick EJ Manuel as the de facto quarterback for the moment.
Don't plan on Manuel being there for too long. Although the Bills don't have a 2015 first-round draft pick because of last year's trade for WR Sammy Watkins, GM Doug Whaley (who is responsible for that Watkins-inspired roll of the dice) has no choice but to explore all quarterbacking options in the coming months. The draft may not help much, but there are some intriguing free-agent names and guys like Jay Cutler and Nick Foles could find themselves on the trade block.
In case any reminder is needed, Ryan's 2009 and '10 Jets teams found their success with one of the soon-to-be free agents, Mark Sanchez, at the helm. Sanchez's subsequent battle with Geno Smith, and then Smith's head-to-head with Michael Vick, proved fruitless. Will the Bills be able to do any better than Manuel vs. a veteran journeyman?
If the answer is yes, then there may not be much separating the Bills from ending their 15-year playoff drought.
They came close in 2014, with Doug Marrone at the helm and the Orton-Manuel combo slogging through at quarterback. Ryan's arrival guarantees that Buffalo will continue to lean on its defense, which finished fourth in both points and yards allowed during the regular season.
DE Jerry Hughes (10.0 sacks) and LB Brandon Spikes are impending free agents. The rest of the Buffalo defense could return more or less intact, with standout linebacker Kiko Alonso expected back from the ACL injury that cost him the season. Ryan reportedly will retain defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, another outspoken personality but one that proved more of a fit as an assistant than a head coach.
The challenge of pushing the Bills' offense forward will fall to ex-49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, according to multiple reports. Roman has relied in the past on a run-heavy approach, which pairs well with the talent he will inherit in Buffalo.
How well Roman performs in his offensive-coordinator duties and who his quarterback will be are the variables that will determine how well this Ryan-to-Buffalo marriage works.
We've already seen Ryan thrive as an NFL head coach with decent quarterback play. We've also seen him falter badly with subpar performances there, especially this past season when the talent-starved Jets defense failed to implement Ryan's usual aggressive scheme with much aplomb.
Will Ryan's second take as a head coach, under somewhat familiar conditions, be any more of a success? Perhaps not, but the Bills have to be excited about their starting point as Ryan takes charge.
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