By Jason Keidel
Just as we were putting the postmortems on Rex Ryan’s head-coaching career, his Buffalo Bills ripped-off four straight wins. Those of us who live around New York City have seen this before — a boost just as the nails were being drilled into Ryan’s vocational coffin.
A few years ago, the Jets were in a midseason free fall, only to hit a similar streak and finish the season 8-8. A tearful Jon Idzik (the Jets’ general manager) announced to the party-hearty locker room that Ryan would return as the Jets’ coach. The rest didn’t go so well.
Another former Jets coach — or HC of the NYJ, as he famously wrote — is playing Ryan’s Bills in Buffalo this Sunday. It’s a tale of two towns, teams and coaches.
And just as it’s hard to think of two more different places than Buffalo and the Big Apple, it’s hard to ponder two more different coaches than Rex Ryan and Bill Belichick. The Bills rely more on their legs, those of Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy. The Patriots rely on the arm and mind of Tom Brady, who is merely adding pages to his first-ballot Hall-of-Fame resume.
Any mention of the Bill/Brady tandem is almost gratuitous. We know who and what they are.
Rex Ryan is another matter. He is, by all accounts, good for football, a goofball and NFL lifer. And son of another lifer, Buddy, who was equally stubborn and volatile. Part of what made them great defensive coordinators, but perhaps made them wholly unsuitable for the top job.
Like papa Ryan, Rex is largely viewed as a defensive guru who doesn’t quite fit in the head coach’s headset. At least not well enough for yearly job security.
Just in his second year as coach of the Bills, Ryan has blisters on his rear end from squirming on the hot seat. The Bills’ defense was quite ornery in 2014, leading the league with 54 sacks. Since hounding the QB is a Ryan forte, it figured the Bills would only further pound opposing quarterbacks.
Yet the Bills were surprisingly passive in 2015. They plunged to 31st in the NFL in sacks, with a paltry 21, an astonishing 33 fewer than the prior year. And after an 0-2 start this year, bad press was pouring on Ryan as though he stuck his head in Niagara Falls.
But Rex may be getting his swagger back. His Bills are second in the NFL in turnover margin (+8) and have surrendered the ball on offense just four times in seven games. They’re also allowing a modest 18.7 points per game, eighth in the NFL. They allow 236 yards passing per game, but allow a woeful 125 yards rushing per game (27th out of 32 teams).
On offense, the Bills have a prehistoric passing game, averaging 175.1 yards through the air, next to last in the league. But they mostly make up for it with the league’s second-best ground attack (152.3 YPG).
The Bills goofed by keeping all-world RB LeSean McCoy in the game last weekend in Miami with a tweaked hamstring, while his counterpart Jay Ajayi got his Jim Brown on for the second straight week.
Now McCoy’s status is unclear for this Sunday’s showdown against New England. With a skeletal, 16-game schedule, every NFL game is vital, especially those against divisional foes. But it’s silly to suggest that a game against Miami carries equal heft, at home, against their eternal tormentors from Foxborough. A win against the Pats does more than gain a game in the standings; it imbues the Bills with mojo and momentum.
This isn’t a trap game for the Pats. Considering how good they are, their schedule is pillow-soft the rest of the way. After Buffalo, just two of their remaining eight opponents currently have a winning record (Seattle, Denver). Buffalo has it slightly tougher, with games against Seattle, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Oakland, with three of them on the road.
Ryan is clearly coaching for his job, if not his career. At 4-3, the Bills are in the thick of the playoff picture. Ryan also doubles as a case study in coaching styles. Unlike his iconic, laconic counterpart (Belichick), whose hobo-chic wardrobe and low-key regularity speak to the mad-scientist motif, Ryan has a heart that pumps from his sleeve. He hasn’t met a four-letter word he doesn’t adore and relies on the affection and loyalty of his players more than the 46 Defense that made his papa proud and revered around the sport.
Will the Bills rally around Ryan? Or do the emotional, F-Bombed speeches have an expiration date? Equal parts character and a character, Ryan is a throwback, a loud, proud member of an old, NFL family. He paces, red-faced, down the sidelines with his twin brother in tow, keeping the family tree planted in one backyard. It’s a nice look. And no matter his record, Ryan makes for great copy and fun Sundays.
The distance between coordinator and head coach is only a few yards, but feels like galaxies apart. Just ask the conga line of coaches who couldn’t make the transition from wingman to pilot — Joe Philbin, Wade Philips, Jim Tomsula, Norv Turner, Dick LeBeau…
We can all agree that Rex Ryan is good for pro football. But is he good for the Buffalo Bills?
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.