Rex Ryan to the Buffalo Bills: Same Old Story

Like a worn out recording of a favorite song, Rex Ryan just wants to replay his New York greatest hits in Buffalo.

Rex Ryan is a man who likes many things: green bean casserole, exotic blitz packages, “gosh darn snacks,” and feet. Yet, sometimes it’s the simplest things that make folks like Ryan happy, and -- no -- I’m not talking about his delightful sweater vest collection; I’m talking about comfort, familiarity. When someone presents you with the decision between stepping outside of your comfort zone and taking on a challenge, or remaining safe and warm inside a nice, wrapped-up bubble, many of us will opt for the cozier path. It’s what we know.

And what we know is that Rex Ryan will be in the same position in Buffalo as he was in while with New York.

Think about it: still on an AFC East team in New York state, still in an unwinnable division so long as Bill Belichick makes his monthly Faustian mortgage payments, and specifically still with a team with a top-level defense and an absolute mess at the quarterback position. Oh Rex… It’s like you never left us. Can Rex Ryan figure out how to cultivate an offense in his second crack at this? Or will Bills fans be left wishing for something new?

If You Like Piña Coladas…

I wrote up a brief piece about Rex Ryan in our review of the top NFL head coaching candidates recently. While it might be bad form to quote one’s self, I wrote this: “Ryan’s coaching credentials are legit. Give him a strong offensive coordinator or unit and a competent general manager, and Ryan will lead that team to success. He has the strong will to lead a team, has proven success in this league both in game-planning and in execution, and I believe his is the strongest case for a new job very quickly.”

Sure enough, Sexy Rexy was indeed the first head coach hired this offseason, but it was to one of the worst possible destinations for him. I can show you exactly why this is terrible for Rex through our extremely descriptive and wonderfully comprehensive signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps to show us a fuller image of not just what players or teams tally up in the box score, but how they actually advance their chances of scoring and contribute to their team’s success.

By taking a look at Ryan’s defensive NEP scores in his time in the NFL, we can see that he has done a stellar job assembling and coordinating that side of the ball for a decade now. The table below shows Ryan’s defenses and their rankings by Adjusted Defensive NEP (adjusted for strength of opponent). Ryan has been one of the best defensive minds in the league since 2005.

YearTeamRoleAdj. D NEP RankAdj. D Pass NEP RankAdj. D Rush NEP Rank

As I noted in the brief about him, Ryan has helped coach or assemble a top-five overall defense half of his time in the league, leading the league four of those seasons. In six out of his 10 years, he’s had a top-10 pass defense by Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP, and in seven out of 10 a top-five rushing defense by Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP.

There’s no disputing his prowess with defenders, and in Buffalo he will have a wealth of amazing defensive players at his disposal. To this point, the Buffalo defense has led the league in sacks the last two seasons, and has been in the top-10 both years in turnovers forced and fewest yards allowed. The table below shows the Bills’ past two years in Adjusted Defensive NEP ranks, to describe the defense Ryan will be inheriting.

YearDef. CoordinatorSchemeAdj. D NEP RankAdj. D Pass NEP RankAdj. D Rush NEP Rank
2013Mike Pettine3-48th5th17th
2014Jim Schwartz4-32nd2nd9th

This is any defensive-minded coach’s fantasy. With Rex Ryan at the helm and 2014 defensive coordinator and 4-3 defense aficionado Jim Schwartz out the door, they will return to a 3-4 front and likely look more like the 2013 iteration. Still, behind the destructive force of edge rushers Jerry Hughes and Super Mario Williams, as well as a host of other amazing talents in the front seven, the Buffalo Bills have wrecked NFL offenses over the past two years, and will likely continue to do so.

… Then You’ll Get Caught in the Rain

If all this is true, why am I so convinced Rex Ryan was the wrong guy for the job in Buffalo? Simple: Ryan has been atrocious at developing the offensive side of the ball since he first donned the sweater vest. Remember, this is the head coach who wasn’t even listening to the offensive channel on his headset during a crucial fourth down offensive play call against the Green Bay Packers this year, resulting in a fiasco that essentially eliminated the Jets’ game-winning touchdown pass.

But we don’t have to rely on the narratives of Rex’s numerous offensive blunders in order to see this play out. We can simply look at the numbers. The table below shows the Jets’ ranks in Adjusted NEP during Ryan’s tenure with the team.

YearAdj. NEP RankAdj. Pass NEP RankAdj. Rush NEP Rank

Oddly, the year he got fired was his second-best season by Adjusted NEP ranking. It’s worth noting that Ryan’s famed “ground-and-pound” approach did earn his Jets top-10 rushing billing by Adjusted Rushing NEP in his first two years with the team, but one of those years was with the resurgent LaDainian Tomlinson, so Ryan’s contributions have to be taken with a grain of salt. Yet we have to question why he was never able to assemble an offense that ranked in the top half of the league even once, and a passing attack (in a passing-driven league) that averaged a 26th-place finish in the league over the course of his time in New York.

It’s not as though the team didn’t have chances to replenish the offense. In 2009, New York traded up to select quarterback Mark Sanchez fifth overall in the draft, and in 2013, the Jets selected quarterback Geno Smith in the second round, 39th overall. In 2014, most notably, they passed on quarterbacks Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, and Derek Carr, instead opting to select defensive back Calvin Pryor. In fact, their last six first round picks have been defensive players, and it seems the Jets’ evaluation process barely considered the offense over the last five years.

Ryan can’t be wholly blamed for that; former general manager John Idzik made some notoriously terrible personnel decisions over his two years in charge of New York’s roster. Still, a good coach can make something out of not much, and we’ve seen this happen with Bill Belichick’s impotence at wide receiver evaluation and Jim Harbaugh’s reconfiguration of the mess in San Francisco. When it comes to coaching up the offense, Ryan seems to be mediocre at best, completely lost at the worst. To make this very clear, I offer to you the yearly average NEP data of Ryan’s two “franchise quarterbacks” in his time with the Jets.

PlayerYears StartingPass NEPPass NEP/P
Mark Sanchez2009-2012-47.22-0.09
Geno Smith2013-2014-31.65-0.07

There’s no way to spin this to make it look at all acceptable. Essentially what this shows is that Mark Sanchez cost his team nearly seven more touchdowns per season on average in the passing game than a replacement-level quarterback. Smith has been hardly better, costing the Jets just over four touchdowns per season when dropping back to pass. Sure, Smith played markedly better by our metrics in his sophomore season (5.25 Passing NEP in 2014, compared to -68.55 in 2013), but he was so bad that he was benched at points for the over-the-hill Michael Vick this year.

We can argue that Buffalo passer E.J. Manuel has more natural talent and fits a Rex Ryan offense -- whatever that is -- better than Sanchez or Smith ever did, but the fact remains that Manuel was beaten out by Kyle Orton this year and has had his development stunted because of that. Ryan’s best fit this offseason might have been the Atlanta Falcons, where the offense was already set up and he could have focused his attention on fixing the defense. As for the Bills? They should have begged Kyle Shanahan or Darrell Bevell to rejuvenate this squad and their young quarterback creatively.

What both Ryan and the Bills got instead was name recognition, comfort, and stagnancy.