The Bad Vibes in Buffalo
There was no Black Monday this year. Five NFL head coaches have been fired so far this season, and all five were dismissed before the 256th and final game of the regular-season schedule kicked off on Sunday night. A sixth, Gary Kubiak, told his team that he was retiring over health concerns.
But there was still the tradition of Black Monday press conferences, when teams with failed seasons tried to explain what went wrong. Of all those press conferences, one stood out for all the wrong reasons: There was Bills general manager Doug Whaley, alone at a podium, responding to questions about the decision to fire Rex Ryan by saying he was “not privy to the conversation” between the coach and ownership.
That part is true. Ryan was fired last Tuesday during a private conversation with Terry Pegula. The topic that brought the dismissal to a head: the team’s decision not to play quarterback Tyrod Taylor in Week 17.
According to multiple people with knowledge of the conversation, Ryan, Pegula and Whaley had had their standard weekly conversation last Tuesday. That’s when Ryan learned of the organization’s decision to bench Taylor, the starting quarterback the past two seasons. The Bills were already eliminated from playoff contention, and there would have been a financial risk to playing Taylor. His $27.5 million salary for 2017 is guaranteed for injury only, so if he suffered a significant one in the season finale, the Bills would have been on the hook for money they may not want to pay. They also wanted to see the other quarterbacks on the roster, EJ Manuel and Cardale Jones, get some game action.
Both were obvious signs that the Bills were not committed to Taylor—or to Ryan, who had handpicked Taylor to be his quarterback. So Ryan, who for a few weeks had been hearing reports of his impending firing, asked to speak to Pegula one-on-one. Ryan had made a promise to Taylor, telling him that he’d be the Bills starting quarterback as long as Ryan was the coach. Ryan didn’t want to break his word, and he was worried how the team would respond. If you are already planning on firing me next Monday, Ryan told Pegula, then you might as well fire me now.
So Pegula did.
Pegula has not held a press conference since Ryan’s firing, but the owner told the Associated Press in an interview on Monday that he made an “executive decision” to fire Ryan when the coach asked a “point-blank question” about his future. The two accounts jibe—but Pegula left out the part about Taylor.
Ryan wasn’t fired because of this exchange, but the context of how the firing happened gives insight into the Bills’ current situation and what’s next. It seems highly unlikely that Taylor will play in Buffalo next season, unless interim head coach Anthony Lynn, who has expressed a desire to continue to work with Taylor, is hired on a permanent basis. This also confirms that Ryan was left twisting in the wind for a few weeks, and it paints a picture of an organization that isn’t concerned about the message being sent to the locker room by benching Taylor, who a week earlier set a franchise record for total offense and would have given the Bills the best chance of winning its final game against the Jets.
After the events of last week and especially after Whaley’s press conference on Monday, it’s never been more obvious that the Bills—who haven’t been to the postseason since the end of the 1999 season and have finished above .500 only twice over the past 17 seasons—need an organizational plan, a blueprint, of how they will seek to become a winning franchise. They’ve shown no indications that they have one.
It’s OK if the power structure is such that the head coach and GM both report to the owner; that is how many other NFL franchises operate. But if that’s the case, then the Pegulas shouldn’t send Whaley out to explain a firing that wasn’t his call. There should also be a clearer vision going forward. It’s fine if you don’t think Rex Ryan is the right coach to turn things around, but at least tell your fans (and prospective hires) what you are looking for. Whaley said that critical organizational pillars, such as who controls the 53-man roster, will be hammered out in the interview process. And if you don’t want to move forward with Taylor, that’s OK too. But you shouldn’t sideline him or marginalize him in the locker room without having a plan for who will take over at the most important position on the field.
The Bills’ head-coaching job might be a tough sell for prospective candidates. And the conversation that consummated Ryan’s firing is a window into the reasons why.
THE FINE FIFTEEN
1. New England (14-2). LW: 1. Tom Brady’s 28:2 TD:INT ratio is the best in NFL history. At age 39, he’s had as good a season as he’s ever had—and the upside of the four-game suspension he served to open the season is that he’s had four less games of a beating than his fellow QBs.
2. Dallas (13-3). LW: 2. The Cowboys had a successful strategy for the last two weeks of the regular season after wrapping up the No. 1 seed in the NFC. They didn’t totally rest their starters and escaped pretty healthy.
3. Kansas City (12-4). LW: 3. Pretty remarkable feat by the Chiefs in sweeping the formidable AFC West. Winning the division title and earning a first-round bye is huge for several reasons, including the extra rest time for Justin Houston. Having him healthy enough to be effective in the playoffs will be a big boost from last year’s postseason.
4. Pittsburgh (11-5). LW: 4. Mike Tomlin “feels great” about his team’s health entering the postseason, something he hasn’t been able to say the last couple years. Last year they went to Denver with Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown already ruled out.
5. Atlanta (11-5). LW: 5. The Falcons’ bye gives Kyle Shanahan time to have a busy HC interview slate, but if there is anyone who can give advice on balancing a postseason run with job interviews, it’s Dan Quinn.
6. Green Bay (10-6). LW: 7. Back on top of the NFC North and hosting a playoff game, just like we all expected at Thanksgiving.
7. Seattle (10-5-1). LW: 6. The Seahawks managed just 87 rushing yards against the woeful 49ers in Sunday’s unconvincing win. Somewhat concerning for a team whose past postseason runs were all rooted in a strong ground game.
8. Giants (11-5). LW: 8. If the Giants win this week, no one will be talking about the wide receivers' Miami vacation. If they lose, it becomes the Cowboys’ Cabo circa 2008.
9. Detroit (9-7). LW: 9. You feel for Matthew Stafford, having the season of his life even without Calvin Johnson, only to be hampered by a finger injury. It’s hard to win at Seattle; it’s even harder when your QB is not at 100 percent.
10. Oakland (12-4). LW: 10. The first game after losing Derek Carr was going to be the worst one. At least that’s what Jack Del Rio has to get his team to believe.
11. Baltimore (8-8). LW: 11. First on the Ravens’ offseason list: An offensive coordinator who believes in the run game.
12. Miami (10-6). LW: 12. The Dolphins haven’t ruled out Ryan Tannehill for this week’s playoff game four weeks after his knee sprain. But Adam Gase has been fiercely protective of his QB since he got the job; expect him to be the same way when it comes to his health.
13. Denver (9-7). LW: 13. The Broncos have a tough task ahead in replacing Gary Kubiak, but they have the advantage of having the most attractive head-coach opening in the league right now.
14. Washington (8-7-1). LW: 14. I wrote last week that Kirk Cousins deserves a multi-year contract in Washington whether they make the playoffs or not. I still believe that, but Sunday’s performance in the season-ending loss will make negotiations even more complicated.
15. Buccaneers (9-7). LW: 15. The good news for the Bucs is that they can say what a lot of teams that missed the postseason can’t: They look like they are headed in the right direction.
Also receiving consideration:
16. Houston (9-7). LW: 16.
17. Tennessee (9-7). LW: 17.
18. New Orleans (7-9). LW: 18.
19. Minnesota (8-8). LW: UR.
20. Arizona (7-8-1). LW: UR.
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