Rex Ryan Never Backed Up His Own Expectations in Buffalo

Ryan's firing was just a matter of time. What does it mean for the franchise moving forward?

Rex Ryan is out as head coach of the Buffalo Bills.

Like the Jeff Fisher firing earlier in the season, the only surprising thing about the coaching change is that it took this long.

Since coming in as the Bills’ coach for the 2015 season, Ryan talked a big game, but the team rarely backed it up with their play on the field. So, basically, they’ve been standard Ryan-coached teams post-New York Jets AFC Championship Game appearances.

The Ryan hire was questionable when it happened, and little that’s happened over the past two seasons has made the reasoning clearer. His biggest downfall in Buffalo was taking a team that was rolling on defense before he got there and turning it into a below-average unit.

That’s not what’s expected of a coach who is supposed to specialize on the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive Indifference

In 2014, the Bills had one of the best defenses in the league by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric.

Under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, the Bills ranked second by opponent-adjusted Defensive NEP per play, while also ranking fourth in points allowed per game, third in yards allowed per drive, and first in points allowed per drive.

But when then-head coach Doug Marrone decided to leave Buffalo, Ryan was brought in, and Schwartz was let go due to the differences in defensive philosophies.

In Ryan's introductory press conference, he stated the Bills would lead the league in defense.

In two years, Ryan not only never got close to the level of the 2014 defense under Schwartz, but the unit also got significantly worse.

Here’s how the Bills fared in a number of defensive categories along with their league ranks over the past three seasons.

YearAdj. D NEP/PAdj. D Pass
Adj. D Rush
2014-0.05 (2)-0.06 (2)-0.05 (9)18.1 (4)1.37 (1)25.2 (3)
20150.06 (16)0.08 (12)0.08 (32)22.4 (15)1.81 (14)29.7 (12)
20160.10 (22)0.13 (17)0.06 (27)23.2 (15)2.05 (22)31.7 (19)

The more control Ryan got of the defense and personnel, the worse it performed. That doesn’t even include the decision to bring in Rob Ryan and his questionable defensive coaching record before the 2016 season as an assistant head coach for the defense.

Controlling the Team

Ryan’s inability as a coach isn’t just from the execution for plays between the whistle -- there are constantly times when the Bills just didn’t seem prepared before the play, on both sides of the ball.

Buffalo was second in the league for delay of game penalties this season on offense with eight. On the defensive side of the ball, the Bills tied for the league lead with 12-men-on-the-field penalties with four.

Maybe worse than being flagged for having too many men on the field is not getting flagged for having too few defenders in one of the biggest spots of the season. On Jay Ajayi’s 57-yard run in overtime of the Week 16 game, the Bills had 10 defenders on the field.

The play before the run was another strike against Ryan’s instincts as a coach.

With the playoffs on the line and with a tie being as bad as a loss in eliminating the Bills, Ryan punted on fourth-and-2 from Buffalo’s 41-yard line with 4:09 remaining in overtime. If that’s not the time to trust your team to stay on the field and go for the win, when is?

Earlier in the season, this looked like it might have been the season everything was put together in Buffalo. The Bills ranked 4th in our nERD metric before Week 7, and even now, they still sit as the 13th-best team in the league.

But that wasn’t enough to make the playoffs, and it wasn’t enough for Ryan to keep his job.

A Blurry Future

While the Bills are getting a head start in evaluating the team and future head coach prospects, there are a lot of questions facing the franchise going forward. Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynnwill take over as the interim head coach in Week 17, and he’s been a favorite of many in Buffalo since coming aboard.

Lynn was promoted to offensive coordinator just two weeks into the season after Greg Roman was fired due to a slow start. Whether the offense was Roman’s fault during that two-game stretch can be debated, but Lynn has overseen one of the best rushing offenses in the league this season.

Buffalo ranks second in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play behind the Dallas Cowboys by the slimmest of margins. One game as an interim won’t be enough to judge Lynn as a head coach accurately, but it is more than offensive coordinators Ben McAdoo and Dirk Koetter got before their respective teams promoted them to head coach last offseason.

The next Bills head coach will also have a decision to make at quarterback. Shortly after the news of Ryan’s firing, Adam Schefter reported Buffalo would bench Tyrod Taylor and start E.J. Manuel for the season finale. That decision had less to do with Taylor’s performance than saving him from injury and the option on his contract automatically kicking in.

Taylor has not been as impressive as he was in his first year as a starter, but the Bills’ struggles this season have not been all his fault. But the Bills will have to make a call on that option, which will guarantee Taylor $40.5 million should it be picked up in the offseason. A new coach might want to look at another quarterback, whether it be Cardale Jones or someone else in the possibly interesting quarterback carousel this offseason.

By most accounts, general manager Doug Whaley will keep his position, though the Bills might want to move on there, too.

If Whaley gets to be in charge of the coaching search, it would be his third head coach as general manager. Whaley was not yet general manager when Doug Marrone was hired, but as assistant general manager, he was being groomed to take over for Buddy Nix and was promoted shortly after Marrone was named head coach.

Teams usually hire a head coach whose expertise is the opposite of the man before him, which could give Lynn an advantage as an offensive coach, though there are plenty of highly-coveted offensive coaches who are likely to be looking for head coaching gigs in the offseason.

Moving on from Ryan was the right choice for the Bills, but it raises a number of questions for where this team might be headed in the future.