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Coaches with the most to prove: Rex Ryan’s job depends on 2016 success

Buffalo coach Rex Ryan has mastered the art of mediocre finishes, making his need for a winning season with the Bills at an all-time high.

Let’s start on a positive note about Rex Ryan: the guy has never been afraid of pressure. Remember when he burst onto the scene with the Jets seven years ago, full of confidence and swagger that few were used to and many scoffed at coming from a first-time coach, and declared he was not here to kiss Bill Belichick’s rings? It seems like an eternity ago now.

Ryan has toned down his bravado over the years, as is wont to happen after multiple stints with mediocrity and the occasional brush with flat-out failure. Though his current NFL situation has changed since 2009, including the AFC East team he’s in charge of, the pressure he’s under has never really subsided. As soon as he uttered those words, he put himself in a must-prove situation right off the bat.

And now, as he heads into his eighth season as a head coach and his second with the Buffalo Bills, his need for a winning season at an all-time high. His job depends on it—and this time, he probably isn’t going to get a second chance.

Normally I’d say it’s misguided to make claims about an NFL coach’s bleak future after just one year with his new team, especially when that one season wasn’t even a bad one—the Bills finished 8­–8 and hung around the wild card race in 2015. But in Ryan’s case, the claim has some backup from a much more important voice: Bills owner Terry Pegula, who reportedly told the coach and Buffalo GM Doug Whaley back in January that they have one year to make the playoffs… or else.

It may not be fair to give up on Ryan so quickly, but if Pegula does, it’s because he’s chasing a semblance of sustained success—something Ryan has so clearly lacked in his time as a coach. Ryan brought a flawed Jets team to back-to-back AFC Championship Games in his first two years, and followed up that impressive feat by never reaching the playoffs—or finishing over .500—again.

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When Ryan arrived in Buffalo last year, it seemed like the perfect place for him to start over after a disastrous end in New York. He would play six games against teams he already knew very well, and he could use his brilliant defensive mind to elevate an already excellent defense and smother the rest of the AFC East. Unfortunately, Ryan only brought disappointment in 2015, and topped it off with some highly publicized drama with the now-departed DE Mario Williams.

Part of Ryan’s grand plan to turn things around this year is to bring in another guy with the last name Ryan, who also has much to prove. His brother, Rob, who the Saints fired as defensive coordinator mid-season after their defense ranked last in total defense and yards allowed per game, will try to redeem himself as the Bills’ assistant head coach for defense alongside his brother. Maybe the chemistry between the two will be the boost that defense needs, but as of right now, it looks like a blatant display of nepotism—the brothers will likely either rise or fall together.

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Still, as much fixing as the defense may need, it’s never going to be Rex’s main problem. The issue he’s faced since the beginning of his time with the Jets has been his inability to generate a truly threatening offense. That problem begins with the fact that he’s never had a stable quarterback—with the Jets, his signal callers were Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith, so the blame certainly can’t all fall on the coach. But now it’s time to build on that and move forward.

Bills finished 13th in the league in total yards in 2015, which is a solid start, but this brings us to Tyrod Taylor. The 26-year-old has more upside than Sanchez and Smith, and he just may be Ryan’s last hope at saving his job (and, appropriately enough, he was featured in last week’s QBs with the most to prove series). He was a capable enough player last year in his 14 starts, but he’ll need to have a breakout year to prove he can be a real difference-maker in this league.

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Wide receiver Sammy Watkins and running back LeSean McCoy provide Ryan with explosive weapons he didn’t really have with the Jets, but he must learn how to maximize their production. With the Jets, his biggest failure was not ever having true control over the situation. He didn’t bench Sanchez when he should have, then he didn’t bench Smith when he should have. He is a players’ coach through and through, but sometimes that means he lets his players have too much leeway at the expense of the team’s overall success. That can’t happen this year. If Taylor happens to have a string of dreadful games early on, Ryan must show he can make a confident decision when it comes to the long-term future of his offense. And it better be the right decision.

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Let’s conclude with some more good news on Ryan: He’s the master of the feel-good ending. In Dec. 2013, he was showered with Gatorade by his Jets players for finishing … 8–8. Despite missing a playoff spot, that season ended on a high note because the Jets knocked the rival Dolphins out of the postseason in the final game, which ultimately saved his job for one more year. Then, in Week 17 of the ’15 season, he got his triumphant revenge on the team that fired him, spoiling the Jets’ playoff hopes and leading his Bills to—surprise!—an 8­–8 finish.

But the Pegulas are tired of celebrating mediocrity, and I’d bet Ryan is tired of it too. He has a chance to make an impactful declaration about his future in this league, but it must come from his team’s performance on the field. We’ll see if he can end the 2016 season with a Gatorade shower that’s actually deserved.