The tyranny of Rex

The Bills' loss Sunday looked all to familiar to students of Rex Ryan's work

AP Photo

The ballad of Rex Ryan is a tragedy.

A tremendously likeable coach – and a good one at that – Ryan has inspired undying loyalty and adoration from fans and players alike at each of his NFL stops. In Baltimore, Ryan was so beloved, the Ravens declined to promote him to head coach for fear he would become too chummy with his players. After spending 2008 as John Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator, Ryan finally received his shot with the Jets, which began with back-to-back runs to the AFC title game before lurching off a cliff in agonizingly slow motion.

Upon arriving in Buffalo, Ryan found an instant connection. The people of Western New York are largely blue collar and wear their hearts and affection for the beloved Buffalo Bills on their sleeves. After the franchise cycled through coaches every few years for the better part of two decades, Ryan represented the potential for meaningful, long-term change. Most importantly, the Bills’ fans and players liked Ryan – a major step up from the paranoid and dictatorial ways of former coach Doug Marrone.

At his introductory press conference, Ryan promised fans he would end the Bills’ 15-year postseason drought, and he would do it this season. After the Bills demolished the Indianapolis Colts in Week 1, Ryan appeared well on his way. Buffalo’s defense, the most talented unit he’s coached in his NFL career, was swarming and unrelenting against the Colts and his decision to pick relative unknown Tyrod Taylor as the team’s starting quarterback appeared prescient. If only Ryan could secure a win over the hated New England Patriots, the Rex hysteria would reach a fever pitch, not only in Buffalo, but across the league.

The win, along with the newfound freedom in Buffalo, opened Ryan up like a belt buckle on Thanksgiving. Ryan and the Bills sauntered into Sunday’s game against New England with the swagger of an unbeaten prizefighter. The official team store even sold inflation pumps, an idea Ryan no doubt supported, even if he was unaware of it.

But the talk, like it has many times in the past, fell flat. The Patriots dropped a 40-burger on a baby-soft Bills defense, and for the most part bottled up Taylor and Buffalo’s offense until a late spree made the final score, 40-32, appear much closer than the game actually was. It was Ryan’s 10th loss in 14 games against the Patriots since becoming a head coach and his eighth since 2011. Ryan marked the Patriots as the team to beat upon his arrival in both New York and Buffalo; again, he was schooled.

When it was over, Ryan trotted out one of his familiar tropes from New York, taking the blame for the loss and admitting he was “outcoached” by Bill Belichick. While it was utterly true – Rex’s defense looked unprepared for New England’s up-tempo offense for the majority of the game – it also obscured the fact that Ryan’s Bills set themselves up to fail throughout the afternoon, thanks in large part to the sins of their teacher.

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Ryan is an emotional man and he coaches, often, from his heart instead of his head. He identifies with his players not as pieces on a board, but as friends and even family members. That attitude, led to a frathouse environment in the Jets’ locker room, where discipline was lacking and players lacked accountability.

In his final year in New York, no less than five players, including team leaders Demario Davis and Nick Mangold, publicly spoke about the team’s work ethic and poor practice habits. Quarterback Michael Vick admitted to not preparing for games and gave up his practice reps to third-string quarterback Matt Simms in the week before an embarrassing loss to the Chargers in which Vick appeared utterly uninterested.  Meanwhile, both quarterback Geno Smith and safety Calvin Pryor were late to meetings, with Pryor eventually acknowledging he didn’t take his job seriously in his first year. Despite this admission, Pryor continued to see starter’s reps for the majority of the season.

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Ryan’s teams in New York were also among the most penalized in the league, something he’s carried over to Buffalo. Through two games, the Bills lead the league with 25 penalties for 253 yards. On Sunday, the Bills committed penalty after penalty, particularly in the first half and almost always at the worst possible time — look no further than the illegal block on the Patriots’ first punt of the game, a hold on a kickoff two series later and two unnecessary roughness penalties on the same punt on the next drive. In between those calls, Ryan tried to challenge a play was that not able to be challenged and, if successful, would’ve still left the Bills in fourth-and-9 at that own 29-yard line.

But the most egregious failures, the ones that actually cost the Bills points that could’ve changed the entire outcome of the game, came in the final minutes of the first half.

With the Patriots facing third-and-8 on their own 22-yard line and 4:50 remaining, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus burst through the Patriots’ line to sack Brady for a loss of seven yards. Ralph Wilson Stadium was raucous, until a defensive holding penalty on rookie cornerback Ronald Darby erased the play and gave the Patriots a first down. New England drove down the field, eventually settling for a field goal and killing 2:50 off the clock.

After a touchback on the ensuing kickoff, the Bills started with the ball at their own 20-yard line. Buffalo, trailing 24-13, had three timeouts and 2:18 on the clock – more than enough stoppages and more than enough time to make a run trimming the deficit to three. Instead of playing aggressively, the Bills stuck to Ryan’s conservative tendencies. Roman called four runs and five passes, three of which went for less than nine yards. Ryan’s horrible game management skills also surfaced. By the time the Bills called their first timeout, Buffalo had gained just 26 yards and burned 1:27. Then, on third-and-14 from New England’s 46 and 16 seconds left, Taylor’s inexperience stung Buffalo. The former sixth-round pick rolled out of a clean pocket and into pressure. Instead of scrambling out of bounds, preserving the chance at another play or even gaining ground for a possible field goal attempt, Taylor hurled the ball off his back foot while fading to his left. It was picked off with roughly 10 seconds left and the Bills entered the half with no points and no momentum.

It was a classic example of a game Jets fans experienced time after time over the past five years. The gutsy talk in the leadup giving way to a restrained approach in crunch time, the penalties coming in waves and always at the worst time and a defense that’s seemingly unable to stop the same Patriots attack it’s faced twice a year for over a half-decade.

Ryan’s likeability often hides his flaws, especially early in his coaching tenures, but eventually the cracks show. As fun and bombastic as he can be, a smile can only go so far in the NFL.