When Rex Ryan was introduced as the Buffalo Bills' 18th head coach on Jan. 14, he brought everything one would expect from him to his opening press conference: confidence, brio, and the promise of a physical, intimidating team that would challenge for a postseason berth sooner than later. Music to the ears of Bills fans, who have gone the entire new millennium without a playoff game for their team, and certainly feasible given the talent the Bills already had on defense, and the pieces to put in place on offense.
“I'm not going to let our fans down. I'm not going to do that,” Ryan said. “I know it's been 15 years since the Bills made the playoffs. Well, get ready man. We're going. We are going. The guarantee? Hey, am I going to guarantee a Super Bowl? I tell you what I will do, I will guarantee the pursuit of it.”
Ryan said that he was going to “build a bully” (no surprise there), and intimated that Buffalo was where he was going to make his last stand as the big brain of an NFL team.
“I have one more shot to be head coach and I have to get it done. I understand I won't have another opportunity and don't want another opportunity. This is the shot that I want.”
As usual, it was a ”drop the mic and walk off the stage” performance from one of the most entertaining and genuinely good guys in the league in any capacity. And this was a Bills team with perhaps the NFL's best front four, an underrated linebacker corps, and a secondary on the verge of potential greatness—just the perfect raw clay for Ryan's undeniable defensive genius. Many thought that under Ryan, the Bills could surprise just as his 2009 and 2010 Jets did in Ryan's first years there, going to the AFC championship game in both seasons. The trade of linebacker Kiko Alonso for ex-Eagles running back LeSean McCoy was supposed to establish consistency in the run game, and the three-year, $3.35 million contract given to ex-Ravens backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor in March looked like the NFL's steal of the season when Taylor came out and looked like the second coming of Michael Vick at his best with his mobility and easy deep throws.
But even before Taylor's knee started giving him problems, leading to the sad inevitability of EJ Manuel at quarterback, there were unexpected issues. Though individual members of that defensive line featuring tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams and ends Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams played well at times, and rookie cornerback Ronald Darby quickly established himself as one of the NFL's best at his position, the entire defense wasn't coming together, especially against the run. And that was a real oddity, given Ryan's legitimate and underrated history as a defensive coach (for all his talk, Rex has always backed it up on that side of the ball). Going into Sunday morning's game in London against the Jaguars, the same Bills front that had been marvelous against the run with defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz in 2014 was, for lack of a better term, falling apart. Through six games and a 3-3 record, the 2015 Bills had fallen from third in Football Outsiders' defensive line yards metric to 27th, dropping precipitously in power situations, and short-yardage and goal-line instances.
This was not the Rex Ryan defense we expected. And as it turned out, it wasn't the Rex Ryan defense his new charges expected, either. The dissent started a few days after the Bengals shredded that defense in a 34-21 win on Oct. 18. That tired defense had more penalties than stops, and for the first time all season, the players seemed to point the fingers back at the coach.
“When we’ve got four guys rushing, we can do some different things,” Mario Williams said after Buffalo failed to sack Andy Dalton once. “Some of the calls that we had, we just didn’t have four guys out there rushing in certain situations, things like that. You know, you’re just playing the call.
“We don’t make the calls as players. We’ve got to execute whatever’s called. If it’s three guys going, it’s three guys going and we’ve got to figure out an opportunity, a different way to get there faster.”
Williams said that in the Bills' current 3-4 gap defense, the linemen are tasked to create openings for the second-level rushers, which seems a fairly colossal misuse of a lot of front-line talent. And he chipped in with the notion that he “probably set a record for dropping into coverage.” Not really Williams's strength, and if there's one thing Ryan has been known for in the past, it's putting his defensive players in positions to succeed. That's one reason his defensive players have always adored him.
Sadly, the honeymoon ended pretty quickly in Ryan's new home. Dareus also had things to say about the new scheme.
“We want to make some plays. We don't want fans looking at us crazy,” the All-Pro tackle said last Tuesday, backing up Williams's postgame complaints. “We like making plays. We like getting sacks, just being out there exerting a lot of energy and having fun.
“But when we're dropping, when I'm not out there on third down or just I'm dropping or Kyle [Williams] is dropping or Mario is dropping or Jerry [Hughes] is dropping ... . It's not been a lot of times where there have been all four of us, full-tilt, ears pined back and we're going after it. We haven't had a lot of that this year.
“Hopefully Rex is going to implement it. There's nothing we can do.”
Odd talk from anyone coached by a man as habitually aggressive as Ryan has been throughout his long career, and the coach addressed it a day later.
“Well I would say I probably agree with them when you look at it,” Ryan said last Wednesday. “Should we have rushed more this past week in particular? That is probably true. I am not perfect as a play caller and all that and I know that surprised you guys, but I try to do [my] best. If I am going to make a mistake it is going to be something I feel strongly about but if it doesn’t work out at the end of the day, that happens. You know I get it, a lot of times… and I am going to say this, Mario Williams did a tremendous job of dropping when we put him in coverage, and he takes a lot of pride in it and I thought he has done a great job of it. Obviously you know when you look at it you get paid to rush the quarterback, but you also get paid to win. What I was trying to do was get the guy [Dalton] out of rhythm initially. Initially I think it was working pretty well, but I think I lived in it too much. And so I don’t necessarily disagree with Marcell's and Mario’s views.”
So, he was asked, what happened to the attacking defense that was promised?
“I think every game presents its own challenges. But like I said, there could be some truth to it. It is not something I have gone in and said, ‘Well, we are going to cut out the blitzing,’ or something like that. I don’t think I have gone in and done it. I just look at when you try to put a package together for a game and stuff like that, we are a multiple defense that is going to change from week to week.”
That has been true of Ryan's defenses. He'll do everything from jailbreak blitzes to three-man rushes with eight guys dropping back in quarters personnel.
But having his own players question the game-planning? That was a new embarrassment, one that you might assume would be cast aside against the Jaguars in London. But nothing seemed to go right for the Bills. Manuel was awful, apparently hampered by headphones that didn't work consistently due to battery issues that the team was supposed to take care of. Receiver Percy Harvin wasn't there because he was concerned about his future after multiple injuries and had gone AWOL to one degree or another. And the Jaguars got out to a 27-3 lead in the first half before the Bills made things competitive enough with a fairly impressive comeback, holding a 31-27 lead until Jags quarterback Blake Bortles hit receiver Allen Hurns with a 31-yard touchdown pass with 2:16 left in the game. That 34-31 loss sent the Bills back home with a losing record, and several ghosts of failures past.
After the game, the usually confident Ryan sounded morose, out of answers, and almost contrite. That's an emotion he's generally not been familiar with to this point in time.
“Heck, we found a way to get out,” he said. ”We found a way to keep fighting, found a way to come back. Not only come back, but to come all the way back and take the lead. That's the thing, it just kills you right now.
“The guys, we just kept playing. I'm proud of the effort, there's no question about that. This team will stick together. There's no doubt about that. Man, I mean, I can't even begin to describe the feeling that we have in our locker room.
But the braggadocio sounded hollow. Ryan seemed to understand the situation he and his team were now in.
“I’ll tell you what, when we get this team back to full strength, with having Sammy Watkins, Percy Harvin, Tyrod Taylor, our right side of the line, that would be a heck of a start. Defensively, hopefully you get the Williams back, both of them. I think that will help us...the competitiveness and the spirit, that's what we've got to have. We'll have that. We said that from day one, this will be the type of team we will have.
“We expected better results right now. We haven't gotten them quite honestly. I know our fans deserve better than 3‑4. There's no question. But this team deserves our fan base to stay by them, which they will.”
Yes, injuries have been an issue. Yes, the Bills would likely be in a much better spot had Taylor not gotten hurt, and there's hope he might be ready after the Week 8 bye to take the field again when the Bills take on the new-look Dolphins on Nov. 8. A Dolphins team, led by an interim head coach in Dan Campbell who has added a new toughness and resolve.
Not unlike the toughness and resolve the Bills thought they were getting in January. It's too early to write the team and coach off just yet, but where has the old Rex gone? The new Rex seems a mere shadow.