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A refreshing face for the franchise, Ryan cements the Bills’ defensive strength while joining forces with Greg Roman, a brilliant offensive coordinator. The last time he had a young-but-flawed quarterback and a defense this good, he went to back-to-back AFC Championship Games

By Andy Benoit
January 15, 2015

The popular response to Rex Ryan joining the Bills has been one of incredulity. Why would he sign up to coach yet another team that has questions about its young quarterback? And why would the Bills, who ranked fourth in points and yards allowed last season, bring in a defensive-minded coach when things were working so well under now-departed coordinator Jim Schwartz?

First, let’s address the question from Ryan’s side. The simple answer is he joined the Bills because there were only six head coaching jobs open (this was before Denver parted ways with John Fox), and likely less than half of those jobs were actually open to him. Ryan’s next likeliest gig was as an analyst for CBS. He need only look at his former boss, Brian Billick, to see how hard it can be to get back into the league once you’re out doing TV.

Had Ryan spent a year or two cashing checks from Les Moonves, he would have still found a defensive coordinator job upon re-entering the NFL. But a big personality and single-mindedness toward defense would have made Ryan a precarious head coach candidate in the minds of many owners. Buffalo, he probably realized, could have turned out to be his last opportunity.

Besides, who’s to say Buffalo isn’t Ryan’s ideal job anyway? Last time he had a young-but-flawed quarterback and a defense this good, he reached back-to-back AFC Championship Games. Ryan’s recent woes in New York weren’t because of quarterback issues—he’d always had those. The woes were because Ryan no longer had the personnel to run his defense. When Darrelle Revis vanished, so did the backbone of Ryan’s scheme.

Fourth-year cornerback Stephon Gilmore can make a good backbone in Buffalo. He’s not quite Revis (who is?), but he’s lanky, strong, athletic and smart. Gilmore has played the right corner position for most of his career; he now must prepare to move around and follow opposing No. 1 receivers.

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Or at least follow No. 1 receivers on the outside. Inside, the Bills have one of the league’s best slot defenders, 22-year-old Nickell Robey, whose greatest attribute is his blitzing acumen. Aaron Williams and Da’Norris Searcy (assuming he re-signs) are versatile safeties—an overlooked but extremely critical piece in Ryan’s system. Factor in a front seven that’s as good as any Ryan had in New York—and better than any he had at rushing the passer—and you have a reinvigorated head coach.

And we know that Ryan’s scheme can work with Buffalo’s players because it did two years ago, when Ryan’s understudy, Mike Pettine, coordinated this defense and it finished 10th in yards allowed.

What really makes the Ryan hire intriguing is that it comes with offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Two years ago Roman was on every head coaching short list. In Buffalo he’ll have almost total autonomy. Roman is an innovative designer of power-oriented rushing attacks—an approach that jibes well with a defensive-minded head coach.

For new owner Terry Pegula, Ryan is a refreshing face for the franchise. This team, like the city it plays in, is not easily spotted on the map. Before Ryan the Bills had Doug Marrone, and before that Chan Gailey, Dick Jauron and Mike Mularkey. Just try to come up with a more boring Mt. Rushmore. Those guys didn’t have the personalities that inspired ESPN to air live press conferences. With the exception of Jauron, the aforementioned previous coaches all had offensive-slanting mindsets. Instead of bringing in a new coach to fix the team’s weakness, Pegula hired one to cement its strength.

Jim Tomsula — 49ers

Jim Tomsula on the 49ers’ sideline in 2012. (Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB) Jim Tomsula on the 49ers’ sideline in 2012. (Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

He might be a no-name hire to fans, but inside league circles, Jim Tomsula, 46, has long been regarded as one of the best teachers. The 49ers’ defensive line has had tremendous success under him, especially in recent years.

Aside from a 2006 stint with the Rhein Fire, Tomsula has never been a head coach. And his only coordinating experience came in 2004-05, with the Berlin Thunder. This doesn’t mean Tomsula is ill-prepared for the Niners’ head job. But it does mean we don’t know much about his football philosophies, at least not at the schematic level.

At first glance Tomsula’s core football values are old-school. He’s been blamed for server interference at the 49ers’ headquarters because he doesn’t think to check his e-mail. He prefers a phone call instead, and he doesn’t let a call go unreturned. In studying film, he draws up each play on a piece of paper, which he presumably pins on the wall. He also loves his players (though maybe that gets put to the test now that his direct charges have expanded from roughly 10 to a 53-man roster).

Little else might be known about Tomsula, but remember this: The organization that knows him best is the same organization that chose him as its next head coach. Now he just needs a staff. The 49ers are calling this a “continuity hire,” yet every assistant except running backs coach Tom Rathman is being let go.

Jack Del Rio — Raiders

(Steve Nehf/The Denver Post/Getty Images) (Steve Nehf/The Denver Post/Getty Images)

True, Jack Del Rio was not atop many head coaching searches. And true, the Raiders were not atop many coaching candidates’ destination lists. That doesn’t mean this can’t be a good match. Many remember Del Rio’s ugly ending in Jacksonville, where questions about his work ethic and commitment went public. But recall that in Years 2-5 of the Del Rio Era, the Jaguars posted win totals of 9, 12, 8 and 11.

Del Rio, like Rex Ryan, is a defense-oriented guy. His decision on who will run his offense will play a big role in determining whether this becomes the Raiders’ first successful coaching hire since 1998 (Jon Gruden). It helps that Derek Carr gives the offense more hopefulness at quarterback than it’s had at any point since Rich Gannon.

There’s also the question of what kind of defense Del Rio will employ. He inherits a talented trio in defensive end Khalil Mack, linebacker Sio Moore and cornerback D.J. Hayden, all 24 or younger. This defense under Dennis Allen was groomed for a hybrid 3-4/4-3, deception-based scheme, an enormous undertaking that didn’t have enough time to fully materialize.

Del Rio employed a similar scheme as the defensive coordinator in Denver. Will he keep a version of this in place? Or will he install a vanilla Cover 2 foundation that brought him success in Jacksonville but has fallen out of vogue in today’s NFL? Whatever he does, it mustn’t require GM Reggie McKenzie to overhaul big chunks of the roster. Lord knows there’s been enough of that in Oakland.

Todd Bowles — New York Jets

Todd Bowles. (Ross D. Franklin/AP) Todd Bowles. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

His defensive schemes have been the NFL’s most aggressive—and arguably the best—over the last two years. But for Bowles to replicate this in New York, he’ll need top-level man-to-man cornerbacks like he had in Arizona. The closest thing the Jets have to this are some old Antonio Cromartie jerseys buried in an equipment bin somewhere.

Boles doesn’t have to run an attack-oriented defense; he served on more conservative staffs as the defensive backs coach in Philadelphia and Miami. Of course, the latter part of his time with the Dolphins was under coordinator Mike Nolan, a blitz aficionado. And before that Bowles was in Dallas, coaching under coordinator Mike Zimmer. So “pressure” is what he’s been brought up with.

Bowles has also been exposed to some good head coaching role models: Bill Parcells in Dallas, Andy Reid for the 2012 season in Philadelphia and, most recently, Bruce Arians in Arizona. Presumably, Bowles had multiple head coaching jobs to choose from. He went with the team in need of the most work.


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