With a win-and-in scenario in front of the Jets in Week 17, the only thing standing in the team’s way is former coach Rex Ryan and his Bills team that already beat the Jets earlier this year. For the Bills it has been a tough season of nearly’s, almost’s, soaring highs and crushing lows that are all too familiar. Below I’ll look at Buffalo’s main talking points including their role as spoiler, the good and the bad of Ryan’s first season impact, and what might be his last chance to get it right as a head coach next season.
Upon taking over the Bills head coaching job, Rex Ryan immediately talked the familiar big game to Bills fans that got Jets fans so excited back in 2009. When it works, it works wonders: he temporarily galvanized the Jets fan base in such a way no one has in recent memory and the team rode belief into an unlikely AFC Championship berth in 2009 and a remarkable AFC Divisional win against the Patriots. The goodwill Rex established on the back of these feats still holds him in high regard with some Jets fans. When the promises backfire though, things can get ugly pretty quickly. When playoff hopes slipped away late in 2011 and 2012, the Jets ended the season on notorious duds. 2011 was the infamous Santonio Holmes implosion and 2012 was a performance befitting that entire season, a 28-9 loss to the Fitzpatrick-led Bills in which the only points for the Jets came from the boot of Nick Folk.
So what does this Sunday have in store, with Rex’s playoff hopes reduced to keeping a divisional opponent and his former team out of postseason play? A similar scenario played out in 2013 when the Dolphins just needed a win versus the 7-8 Jets in order to make the playoffs. Rex’s Jets played spoiler and Woody Johnson in a hammed up video told his team that Rex would be returning to coach the team in 2014. Everyone smiled from ear-to-ear, cried, hugged and sang, except John Idzik. Are Buffalo’s players as behind Rex Ryan as the Jets players were at that point? On one hand you have players calling this game their “Super Bowl” while on the other Rex Ryan is addressing his disappointment in receiving criticism from his own players. There is no doubt that Rex wants this one badly, but these teams are different than the last time they came together, and not necessarily in a good way for the Bills.
It was not just one thing that saw Rex Ryan wear out his welcome in New York. Take your pick from the incredibly inconsistent week-to-week performance levels, how little command he had over the Jets offense despite several tries to get it right with new coaches, or simply his boisterous act that brought the wrong kind of attention. For me though, his biggest flaw is that he had no methodical approach to team building. The Jets were built to win when he took over, so he made a few short term splashes in an attempt to push forward and saw relative success.
It’s the Madden franchise approach – spend all you can, make some trades to get the team as good as you can as quickly as possible, and win that Super Bowl ASAP because you’re not really going to play more than two years of franchise anyway. There was no foresight however that every good organization has, especially the ones that are equipped to win right away. There were less picks to foster young talent, disastrous salary cap commitments, and even factoring less picks the Jets were not doing a great job developing the young talent at his disposal. When the Ryan era came to a close in New York, I concluded that the only way to really create something worthwhile with Rex Ryan as your head coach is to have a GM that handles all things personnel related, assists in building a staff(particularly offensively), and to leave Rex Ryan to do what he does best as a defensive schemer. Six years of coaching in New York still makes me inclined to believe that, but Rex has earned himself a few gems in Buffalo.
The moves Buffalo made to improve this offseason have Rex Ryan written all over them, and for the most part have actually been quite good. There are still warning signs like the gross overpayment for tight end Charles Clay or the LeSean McCoy acquisition which looks increasingly unnecessary, but in shopping for familiar faces and foes he also added the fantastic Richie Incognito and most importantly Tyrod Taylor. Taylor, who has developed a dynamite combination with Sammy Watkins, has a real chance to be Buffalo’s quarterback well into the future. The Bills appear to have hit in the draft with two classic Rex style players as well, Florida State’s cornerback Ronald Darby and running back Karlos Williams. Darby may take defensive rookie of the year honors and played a great game against Brandon Marshall a month ago. Williams has been an x-factor whenever he’s been able to touch the ball, averaging 5.7 YPC and has six touchdowns on just 87 carries.
Just as it was here though, the measure of Rex Ryan’s ability to build a team will come over a number of years with his ability to show resist the impulse to add any “heckuva football player” he sees in the market and to instead consistently find and develop young talent.
Big Play Bills
There’s not an offense in the NFL right now that relies on chunk plays like the Buffalo Bills. No team has more than Buffalo’s 19 runs of 20+ yards and with 4 runs of 40+ yards the Bills are firmly in the top five of that category as well. In the passing game the Bills are middle-of-the-pack in 20+ pass completions and 7th in 40+ yard pass completions which may not seem that impressive, but the Bills are 30th in the league in pass-attempts-per-game with 29.1. On a per-dropback basis, Buffalo is looking for explosive plays.
Their running game features a host of talented runners, including of course quarterback Tyrod Taylor. The foundation of any great running attack that can boast several productive runners is the offensive line, and Buffalo has one of the best run blocking units in the league. Below, you’ll see Mike Gillislee’s touchdown from midfield against the Cowboys. Just like his 60 yard touchdown against Washington, linemen and secondary blockers both seal the way to the outside and Gillislee scampers to pay dirt completely untouched.
In the passing game, the Taylor to Watkins connection has really taken off over the second half of the season. Watkins has 7 of his 9 touchdowns in this period as well as most of his yardage. Their relationship particularly thrives off the deep pass, with 12 of Taylor’s 20 touchdown passes coming on completions over 20 yards and 8 of Watkins’ 9 touchdown receptions coming in the same fashion, per Pro Football Focus. Of all the surprises Tyrod Taylor has caused this season, his astounding deep ball accuracy has to be at the top of the list. Below, he hits Watkins in stride from midfield with a perfectly timed strike while Watkins blows the top off the Washington secondary.
Fans typically hate the sound of playing bend but don’t break defense, it is usually seen as coach speak for playing “not to lose.” In the case of against Buffalo though, it looks the most logical way to handle them. Buffalo leads the league in touchdowns outside of the red zone per ESPN, whereas they’re 26th in the league in converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns.
A Different Defense
By far the biggest surprise in Buffalo since Rex’s arrival is the regression of the team on defense. The Bills last season by any measure were one of the very best units in the league. They were a particularly tough outing for opposing quarterbacks, with the second-best passer rating against in the NFL of 74.5. Buffalo has fallen to 12th in the NFL with an 86 passer rating against, and have taken a hit against the run as well, giving up 4.3 YPC as opposed to last year’s 4.1.
The schematic differences for one are playing a factor. As previously mentioned players have complained to Ryan about the complexity of his scheme, but another issue is that it is simply very different from what worked so well last season. Jim Schwartz’s scheme relies a lot less on blitzing and more so on utilizing the quality of Buffalo’s front four. With their prowess, he was able to do creative things with the strength in numbers in the back end. Rex Ryan, as we all know, loves to manufacture pressure through overload blitzes and lock things down on the back end with man-to-man coverage. In the short term at least, going from Schwartz to Ryan and expecting a similar level of quality just didn’t make sense.
It would be unfair to put it totally down to scheme, however. Rex Ryan has actually gotten quality corner play from 2012 first rounder Stephon Gilmore and rookie Ronald Darby to help smooth that transition over. There are real problems stemming from the very same group that led a top-tier Bills defense in 2014. Buffalo is still getting disruptive play from Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes, but the two Williams’ have not matched their 2014 output. In the case of Kyle Williams he literally cannot, having been placed on injured reserve following an injury Week 6. In the case of Mario Williams however, the production simply has not been there. Whether it’s signs of decline, a lack of desire to perform in the new system, or lingering effects of a foot injury he has dealt with, the 96-million dollar man is in danger of being cut in a few months. The 2006 1st overall pick who has posted double digit sack seasons each of his three years in Buffalo will go into the final game with just four sacks on the season, a career low if it stays that way.
It has not been the year Rex Ryan imagined when he took over a Bills team with a winning record last year. Similar to his first year with the Jets, he had to have felt with the right additions the team could have made more noise and gotten into the playoffs. The damning thing for Rex is that he largely got those pieces – a stud young corner, a dynamic number one wide receiver, one of the best running backs of the last few seasons, an elevating veteran grinder on the offensive line and a good looking quarterback. Nonetheless, he will get another chance to get Buffalo into the playoffs, with Bills owner Terry Pegula announcing that both Rex and GM Doug Whaley would be returning for another season.
If he is to do it, he’ll have to do it in a way he never really accomplished with the Jets. According to overthecap.com, Buffalo enters next year over the cap by $4.083,115. They’ll be able to carry over the $5,325,925 in unused space from last season, but have little in the way of cuttable assets after that. Mario Williams’ release would clear up a sizable chunk of space as would Leodis McKelvin’s, but if they decide to (wisely) retain offensive linemen Cordy Glenn and Richie Incognito, there will be very little wiggle room to do much else. Elevating the roster from 7-9/8-8 mediocrity to a real playoff contender would have to come largely on the back of Ryan’s staff to develop talent already on the roster in addition to adding an instant contributor or two from next spring’s draft. If Rex cannot accomplish that, then it is hard to imagine him being a head coach anywhere else after next season.
Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com