Rob Ryan Thinks He's a Lot Better at Coordinating Defenses Than He Actually Is

Rob Ryan thinks he's had unfair treatment as a defensive coordinator, but the numbers show that he hasn't been very good.

If there’s one thing to say about the Ryan brothers, it’s no one is ever left in the dark about how they’re feeling. It doesn’t really matter what setting they’re in, they’re ready to tell anyone exactly what’s on their minds.

The latest form of this comes from a sit down with Jenny Vrentas of The MMQB and a discussion of Rex and Rob now working together in Buffalo.

Rob isn’t the the defensive coordinator under his brother with the Bills, but his past stints as a coordinator for other teams became a constant topic in the conversation -- specifically his most recent job with the New Orleans Saints. On his job with the Saints, Ryan said “I was hired to be in a multiple system in New Orleans, and I did a damn good job and got fired for it.”

Over the past two seasons, the Saints' defense was the worst in the league by almost any metric -- the Saints gave up a lot of yards and a lot of points. As a result, the defense ranked 32nd both years by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric.

NEP, for the uninitiated, measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to perform in each scenario using historical data.

Ryan did have an explanation for why the bad play came, especially after the Saints were the 10th-best defense in the league by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play in 2013 -- Ryan’s first year in New Orleans. He claimed he was forced to make a defensive shift to a Seattle-like scheme instead of utilizing the multiple fronts he was running throughout his career.

Here’s one of Ryan’s statements on the matter:

"I have coordinated in college and in the pros. And the biggest history of improvement ever in the league, I coordinated that defense [the 2013 Saints]. The defenses I have taken over were ranked, like, 31st. Oh, 'my numbers aren’t too good.' You take over the 31st group and see how you do. And you’re given about two years to do it. There are two years that don’t have my signature on them, and it’s the last two years in New Orleans. And that’s just the truth."

There are a few things we can look a from this statement: (1) the state of defenses before Ryan took over, and (2) whether his signature on those defenses was any good.

So, please, come on this journey looking team by team through Ryan’s career as a defensive coordinator. We’ll look at team ranks in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play overall, against the pass and against the run.

Oakland Raiders (2004-2008)

YearTeamAdj. D NEP/PAdj. D Pass NEP/PAdj. D Rush NEP/P
2003OAK (pre-Ryan)27th29th22nd

So the first part of Ryan’s statement is true. The first defense he took over after four years as the linebackers coach for the New England Patriots was bad. This shouldn’t be much a surprise, as teams are generally looking for new coordinators because the previous one wasn’t very good. Ryan took over the 27th-ranked defense by schedule-adjusted Defensive NEP per play and had some ups and downs during his five year stint.

YearTeamAdj. D NEP/PAdj. D Pass NEP/PAdj. D Rush NEP/P

It took Ryan three years, but he got the Raiders to a top-10 unit in 2006. Unfortunately, the offense was comfortably the worst in the league that season by NEP, and Oakland went 2-14.

The next year, the defense dropped back into the 20s in Adjusted NEP per play, and there were rumors Ryan would be fired and join Eric Mangini coaching the Jets. It was then reported Al Davis overruled head coach Lane Kiffin and Ryan was retained as coordinator.

The defense improved in 2008 to about league average, but the rest of the team again fell apart in Oakland. Kiffin was fired after Week 5 and replaced by Tom Cable. Ryan’s contract was up at the end of the season and he decided to move on.

Cleveland Browns (2009-2010)

YearTeamAdj. D NEP/PAdj. D PassNEP/PAdj. D RushNEP/P
2008CLE (pre-Ryan)22nd26th20th

Ryan finally joined Mangini’s coaching staff, but this time it was in Cleveland instead of New York. Like the unit in Oakland, the Cleveland defense was among the league’s worst the year prior to Ryan’s arrival.

YearTeamAdj. D NEP/PAdj. D Pass NEP/PAdj. D Rush NEP/P

Unlike the Raiders, there wasn't much improvement in defensive efficiency while Ryan was in charge of the Browns. He only got two seasons in charge, but Cleveland never ranked above 24th in any defensive category by Adjusted NEP per play.

Everyone on the coaching staff in Cleveland was only given those two years. Magnini, along with his staff, was let go following the 2010 season.

Dallas Cowboys (2011-2012)

YearTeamAdj. D NEP/PAdj. D PassNEP/PAdj. D RushNEP/P
2010DAL (pre-Ryan)27th27th12th

Despite the two lost seasons in Cleveland, Ryan was still well regarded around the league. Following the 2010 season, he even interviewed with the Carolina Panthers for their head coaching job. Luckily for the Panthers, they went with Ron Rivera, which turned out pretty well for them. Ryan was then hired by the Cowboys to be Jason Garrett’s defensive coordinator in his first full year as a head coach.

YearTeamAdj. D NEP/PAdj. D Pass NEP/PAdj. D Rush NEP/P

In his first season in Dallas, the Cowboys made a bit of an improvement from 27th in Adjusted NEP per play the year before to 19th. But in his second season, the defense regressed to 25th. There were a few injuries that played a part in the 2012 disappointment -- both Sean Lee and Jay Ratliff played in only six games -- but there was overall inconsistency throughout the season. Giving up 562 yards in an overtime loss to the New Orleans Saints during Week 16 with a shot at the playoffs was likely the final straw. Ryan was fired after the season and replaced by a 73-year-old Monte Kiffin, who hadn’t coached in the NFL since 2008.

After his firing Ryan infamously stated he’d be “out of work for like five minutes.”

New Orleans Saints (2013-2015)

YearTeamAdj. D NEP/PAdj. D Pass NEP/PAdj. D Rush NEP/P
2012NO (pre-Ryan)26th24th31st

About a month after getting fired by the Cowboys, Ryan was hired by the team that had a hand in causing his firing the previous season. In a statement after the hiring, Saints head coach Sean Payton praised how tough it is to prepare for a Rob Ryan defense and the challenges brought by different looks and pressures featured. At least at one point they were on the same page about Ryan's use of multiple looks. Again, Ryan was tasked with turning around a defense that was not good the previous season.

YearTeamAdj. D NEP/PAdj. D Pass NEP/PAdj. D Rush NEP/P

Ryan led a turnaround of the Saints defense that was truly impressive. The defense was the 10th best by Adjusted NEP per play, just Ryan’s second top-10 defense as a coordinator. The Saints were good in a way that wouldn’t be considered unsustainably fluky. Payton’s praise of pressure came to fruition as the defense was fourth in sack rate on defense after being 29th the year before. The pressure was the main cause of efficiency because the Saints were just 24th in turnover percentage on defense.

Now here’s where Ryan stops believing the Saints became his defense, and there is a clear difference in how the team played on the field. The Saints dropped to 23rd in sack rate in 2014 and 28th in 2015. Meanwhile, the Saints still weren’t forcing turnovers -- 25th in 2014 and 18th in 2015 -- and were allowing yards at historically bad rates.

He was fired midway through 2015.

It’s clear something changed in the defense from Ryan’s first season to the final two. Maybe it was something forced on him, but it also could have just as easily been his doing. In his 12 years as a coordinator, Ryan only had two years with an above-average defense by NEP. It’s possible his hands were tied with the Saints, but his track record also doesn’t lend much to the hope of sustained success if he had full control.

He’s now with his brother in Buffalo, and he still won’t have full control of the unit -- he’s officially assistant head coach/defense -- and for the future of the Bills’ defense, that might be a good thing. Rob Ryan has a lot of confidence in his abilities as a coach, but the on-field results have rarely backed up those claims.