Certain elements of Rex Ryan’s failure in Buffalo this year were predictable. Attention to detail has always been a problem, and he was unchanged in that regard: Buffalo saw his usual blizzard of stupid penalties, incomprehensible challenges, and blown timeouts. None of this stuff is helpful, but nor is necessarily fatal. (The Bills will probably not break the penalty record held by…the 2014 Seahawks.) On a bigger picture level, the way Ryan failed in 2015 was rather strange and unpredictable ex ante. The biggest barrier for the Bills going into the year was that a coach who had shown little ability to develop offensive players was going to have to use either a 6th round pick with little NFL experience, a busted 1st round pick, or a proven veteran who’s proven he’s not an NFL-caliber QB. Only Tyrod Taylor proved to be a very capable player. More than capable, actually, this year: 9th in DVOA, 6th in QBR, tied for 5th in the NFL rating. If you had told me Taylor would play that well, I would have set the floor for the Bills as a 6 seed. But the problem is that the Bills defense, bellyflopping from 2nd in DVOA to 29th without an unusually large number of injuries. For Ryan to fail in this way is in fact pretty shocking.
Some people will undoubtedly argue that Ryan is just a complete fraud, but I don’t think that this claim can be justified by his record. In Baltimore, his defenses ranked 6th, 1st, 5th, and 2nd in DVOA. Sure, he was promoted within an established system with a lot of talent, but 1)it is not inevitable that talent on paper will keep producing (cf. the 2015 Bills), 2)no better as a DC than Marvin Lewis or Mike Nolan is still pretty damned good, and 3)by 2008 Ray Lewis was 33 and Ed Reed 30; I don’t think you can say that the defense was effective solely because he had the core Lewis won the Super Bowl with. And then, taking over a Jets team that had ranked 14th and 25th in DVOA the previous two years, he transformed the Jets into the an elite defense (#1 in DVOA in 2009, #5 in 2010) and won four playoff games in two years with Mr. Mark Sanchez. Granted, the run in 2009 was a little fluky — they only made the playoffs because the Colts called off the dogs in Week 16 and beat unimpressive Bengals and Chargers teams in the playoffs. That’s still pretty good for a team with a rookie QB with unimpressive credentials. And the 2010 team was just flat impressive — 11-5, beat Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on the road in the playoffs. With Mark Sanchez. Yes, that was his peak with the team — Sanchez never developed and Idzik was brought in to strip the team to the studs — but Ryan had an excellent track record as a defensive coach coming into 2015. There was nothing in his history that would have made what happened to Buffalo’s defense this year foreseeable. He’s done a lot more with a lot less talent in the past.
What happened? In the Football Outsiders Almanac this year, the guy who wrote the Bills section observed that the team manages personnel as if they carefully studied what Bill Belichick does and then tried to do the exact opposite. I think part of the problem was that Ryan seemed to adapt this philosophy to the coaching level. Belichick, as is well known, does not scheme and gameplan based on a System; he relentlessly focuses on the available talent and the matchups presented in a given week. The reports out of Buffalo — particularly with respect to Mario Williams — seem to suggest that Ryan spent the year trying to squeeze square pegs into round holes because that’s the way he wanted to play. I’m sure that’s part of it, but I don’t think that can explain how badly the Bills defense collapsed. Assuming the Bills keep Ryan, I’m sure it will improve substantially next year, although whether it will be enough to end the Bills playoff drought I don’t know. Taylor seems like an NFL QB but I doubt he’s as good as he looked this year.
Did the Bills make a mistake in hiring him? Possibly. It’s easy with 15 games in the books to look at the Jets, who in Todd Bowles seem to have gotten Ryan’s pre-2015 defensive mind with a higher level of discipline and professionalism, and argue that the Bills blew yet another easy one. But I think it’s more complicated than that. Ryan, as I’ve shown, really does have a strong track record as a defensive coach, and while Bowles was a hot coordinator so was Dan Quinn and that didn’t work out very well for Atlanta. I’m not sure there’s any way of telling before the fact which good coordinators will work as head coaches and which won’t. And after a look at this list of the 10 best non-Chip coaching prospects allegedly out there (
Hue Jackson #1! (see comments; on reflection, Jackson is actually a really good prospect) Josh McDaniels #3!) I’d bring Rex back for another year.
A final point. As might have been expected, a lot of reports have surfaced suggesting locker room discontent in Philadelphia, leading some to suggest that Chip Kelly can’t hold an NFL locker room. Is there something to that? Possibly. I’m not wild about hiring coaches with exclusively minor league experience, as working with NFL players is a different and more difficult task than working with NCAA players. (And, obviously, giving full coaching and personnel control of your team to someone with 2 years of NFL experience is insane.) But I’m not sure that Kelly’s style can’t work in the NFL, either. He still had two winning seasons with poor quarterbacks to work with, and as Ryan shows their are equal perils in the “player’s coach” style too. I think Kelly’s inability to make talent judgments was a much bigger source of failure than his distant, authoritarian personality, which doesn’t seem all that different from the best coach in the sport. (I may be wrong, but the reports I read don’t suggest that Kelly treated his players as unprofessionally as some of the master’s lesser disciples.) Coaching professional sports is just a really hard job, and no matter what your style it’s hard to “hold your locker room” if you don’t win.