By Jason Keidel
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Stop me if this feels familiar…
A coach struts into town and promises pro football glamour, gets the natives in full-throated fury, then fizzles out and limps out of town.
The good news is Rex Ryan didn’t have to travel far to fail a second time. After his endless epic promises, visions of Lombardi Trophies bulging from the Jets’ facilities, the team and the town booted him to Buffalo, where he cracked open the recycle bin and boasted about his brilliance.
You know the rest. But perhaps the football bug in this reboot was how lousy the defense played under Ryan. If you watched the Bills’ last game, which was also Ryan’s last game as their coach, you saw an NFL defense that either didn’t know how to tackle or didn’t care to. Defenders were routinely bouncing off Jay Ajayi and Kenyan Drake, failing to drive into runners or even wrapping arms around them.
Too often the camera would pan over to Ryan, only to see his trademark, slack-jawed, baffled look, while he gawked at the big screen to watch a replay of his tanking team. A man known for his passion and worship for football, for the purity of a bruising defense, it had to be doubly troubling for Ryan to see his own defense play with such abject apathy.
There’s something about Ryan that doesn’t fit on the sideline, at least as boss. Perhaps he’s too close to being one of the guys. Perhaps he’s too much of a players’ coach. Perhaps the players see Ryan as the 54th man on the roster.
To quote George Karl, Ryan is a conundrum. Some coaches are canned and players form a funnel to whisk him out of the building, party hats and champagne for all. But players love Rex Ryan, and so do we, on some level.
Sports are a business, especially football, where players and coaches are reminded daily about the meat-hook realities of employment. But football is also entertainment. And Ryan is wildly amusing. Maybe he’s not meant to be a head coach, but he belongs on a sideline, or within some proximity of one.
Surely, ESPN will lead the conga line to sign Ryan to a TV deal. If Rex can modify his F-bombs per hour, he’ll be perfect for the booth. His face alone makes for great television. He has no filters, and no one doubts his attachment to the game, or his knowledge.
It’s a stretch to call the Ryans a royal football family, especially when juxtaposed with the Mannings. But it’s hard to think of a more devoted NFL tribe. The old man, Buddy, was bold and brash, and he literally spawned two clones in his likeness. And, like the patriarch, the sons are not quite right as head coaches.
Maybe we forget that Rex Ryan was a package deal. Not only did he get fired as head coach, his brother got fired as defensive coordinator. Rob, the twin brother, got his pink slip at the same time, in case you wondered if they simply swapped places. (Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn will wear the headset this weekend.)
It’s always awkward to fire a coach, especially one as likable as Rex Ryan. Doing it with one game left in the season makes no sense. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that bad teams consistently make those kinds of moves, like the Rams dropping Jeff Fisher with two games left. Why fire your coach five days before the season ends? Name one positive goal it reaches. Rex Ryan was 15-16 as Bills coach. At least give the man a crack at .500.
There’s a certain, sour irony to the timing. Ryan did not get to end his head coaching career at his ancestral home, MetLife Stadium, where the Bills play their final game, against Rex’s former team in the Jets. It would have been fitting, if not comforting to see it all end where it began.
Pro football is better when Rex Ryan is part of it. It’s a shame the one job he adores isn’t the one suited for him.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel