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Examining Rex Ryan’s Reputation

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Spoiler Alert: The bombastic head coach thinks he’s much more successful than reality suggests.

I have had enough.

After watching the latest defensive embarrassment perpetrated against our Buffalo Bills while under the “guidance” of “defensive guru” Rex Ryan, something in me snapped a little bit. I can’t even say that I’m angry. Disappointed? Absolutely.

Somewhere, fifteen year-old me is ready to go smash things in my parents’ basement, upset about year 2 of a playoff drought after being spoiled for the duration of the ‘90s by a perennial contender; however, thirty year-old me is older, wiser, and numb to the ineptitude of the Bills of the aughts and beyond. So, when Rex Ryan kept talking about his reputation, saying that he’d “let [it] stand for what it is,” I decided to do a little digging.

Rex Ryan has been in charge of a defense, either as coordinator or head coach/playcaller, in every NFL season since 2005. His defenses have finished in the top-10 in yards allowed 9 times in those 12 NFL seasons. They’ve finished in the top-10 in rushing yards allowed 8 times, and in the top-10 in passing yards allowed 8 times, as well. His defenses have finished in the top-10 in points allowed 5 times.

Baltimore Ravens 2005 Headshots

All of these numbers sound pretty great, right? Well, let’s take a look at the last time his defense finished in the top-10 in any of those respective categories. Ryan’s defense last finished in the top-10 overall in yards...in 2014. Yes, the year he was fired by the Jets, he had a top-10 defense in terms of yards allowed. However, they were 24th in points allowed. The last time a Ryan team was top-10 in points allowed? 2010, which is also the last year a Ryan-coached team made the playoffs. When was the last time his defense was top-10 against the pass? This season, in fact—the Bills currently rank 7th against the pass in terms of yards allowed. You have to go back to 2012 for the last time prior to this year that his defenses finished in the top-10 in passing yards allowed.

It is worth noting that Buffalo has had the fewest number of passes attempted against them in the NFL—a fact worth noting because of Buffalo’s abysmal performance against the run (28th in the league at 2,003 yards). Not surprisingly, the Bills have faced the fourth-most rushing attempts in the league (438), and allow the fourth-most yards per carry (4.6). When was the last Ryan defense to finish in the top-10 against the run? Those 2014 Jets again.

When people think of Ryan defenses, the first thing discussed is almost always the pressure. The exotic scheming is something that almost certainly leads to a ton of takeaways, right? Well, the last time a Ryan defense was in the top-10 in the league in takeaways was 2011. In fact, excluding a 12th place finish last season, Ryan’s defenses have finished in the bottom half of the league every year since 2011. As Chris Trapasso noted earlier, it seems that a great deal of what once made Ryan’s scheme unique is no longer relevant. In a league where quick, short passes and spread offenses rule the day, it defeats nearly all of the elements of Rex’s defense that made it special just based on simple lineups and formations. If the defense has to declare its intentions due to the spread, it really becomes a scheme destined to fail.

For reference, the defense Ryan inherited in 2015 was 4th in total yards, 4th in points, 3rd in takeaways, 11th against the rush, and 3rd against the pass during the 2014 season. The last time Ryan’s defense was that highly ranked in all of those categories? 2009, his first year with the Jets.

New York Jets v Buffalo Bills Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Rex is living in a fantasy world. He lives in a place where he knows better than most others, where he is as good a defensive coach as there is in the league. In reality, he hasn’t been close to any of those things since President Obama had a Congress controlled entirely by Democrats.

My initial intent was to write this article as a mock press conference from the perspective of Ryan’s reputation; however, I would have caused myself serious injury trying to gain the same perspective that Rex must have if that’s what he believes about himself. At this point, the evidence is there in black and white, and it’s damning.

Rex Ryan has taken one of the best defenses in the league and turned it into a shell of its former self. The last time Buffalo’s defense finished 19th or lower was 2012, when Dave Wannstedt and his infamous vanilla defense was an eyesore for us all. The last time the team was this bad against the run? When former defensive coordinator and Ryan-disciple-turned-defector Mike Pettine ran the defense in 2013, the Bills finished 28th against the run, although they were 10th overall and 4th against the pass.

In a season filled with disappointments, the failure of what was supposed to be a great strength is certainly among the worst. If you stake your reputation on doing something well, and then you don’t do it well, and then you ask people to examine your reputation, you should probably make sure that your reputation matches your ego. The last time Ryan’s defense was truly as good as he thinks it is, it was 2010. Ryan has essentially become Uncle Rico, boasting about how things were way back when.

Even when comparing Ryan against other head coaches, there is little positive. Ryan has more losses than all but 7 current NFL head coaches. Of the 7 who have more losses than him, 3 are Super Bowl winners, and all have made the playoffs more recently than the last time Ryan did (2010). The 4 head coaches immediately below Ryan in the loss column (Sean Payton, Mike McCarthy, John Harbaugh, Mike Tomlin) all have something in common, too—a Super Bowl ring. When Jeff Fisher was fired, some people suggested that the number of career losses he had was actually a compliment—I heard Cris Collinsworth actually say that it showed how great a coach Fisher is, because it meant that people wanted him to keep coming back. Maybe Ryan can hang his hat on that compliment if (when?) the ax falls on him in Buffalo.

Miami Dolphins v Buffalo Bills Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

“Go check my reputation,” Ryan said.

I did, Rex. Like this season, and the one before that, and the one before that, it left a lot to be desired.