BOCA RATON, FLA. — It’s something that had never happened to Rex Ryan in his entire coaching career, something that ultimately undid a season of high expectation for the Bills coach.
You remember all the bluster coming from the former Jets coach last preseason, when he had the entire city of Buffalo whipped up into a frenzy after his bold — albeit predictable — pronouncements of a playoff berth in Year 1. With a frustrating end to his six-year run with the Jets in his rearview mirror, Ryan was bullish on the Bills right from the start.
“I truly believed that we would make a run at it,” Ryan said Tuesday morning during an AFC coaches’ breakfast at the NFL’s annual spring meetings. “I thought we’d have a great shot to get into the playoffs. I was confident with Tyrod Taylor as the quarterback. I thought we had the playmakers with LeSean McCoy, Sammy Watkins, Charles Clay, that we’d be pretty explosive on offense and then on defense, I really thought that would be the strength of our team heading into the season, led by our front four.”
And then it all unraveled for the most unlikely of reasons. For the first time as a coach, his players didn’t immediately buy into his system or his style, and by the time things did start to go Ryan’s way, it was too late. The Bills managed to finish 8-8 by winning three of their last five games, including a season-ending win that knocked his former team out of the playoffs, but it was too late. The Bills finished out of the playoff hunt, and Ryan’s reputation took a significant hit as a result.
And the most disturbing development of all was the one he couldn’t truly get a handle on until the Bills were essentially out of the tournament, making Ryan’s preseason predictions look like all those Super Bowl guarantees with the Jets: empty promises.
The one thing Ryan has counted on throughout his career as an NFL assistant and then head coach with the Jets was that his players had always taken immediately to his enthusiasm and bravado. But in Buffalo, some of his defensive players, including former Pro Bowl end Mario Williams, openly questioned his coaching strategy, particularly when it came to the pass rush. They also didn’t respond quickly enough to Ryan’s suggestion that the players could have major input into the game plan, if only they’d ask.
“I made some assumptions of trust and faith in what players would have in me and things, but you forget at the end of the day, these guys didn’t know me,” Ryan said. “It wasn’t like I brought anybody in from another team [who knew what Ryan was about]. It was only late in the year where we really started having great communication, and it showed. As we went on, the trust level and the communication got better.”
But it didn’t happen quickly enough, and the weight of expectations quickly fell on what turned into a lost season. It hurt Ryan deeply to see his players question him, because even when things had gone poorly in previous coaching stops, the players always defended him. Go back to his final days with the Jets, and players remained fiercely loyal to Ryan, choosing to blame the dearth of talent and not Ryan’s schemes.
The lack of communication with the Bills players is what really nagged at him.
“It baffled me a little bit, like when I’d try to communicate with guys,” Ryan said.
“I’d say, ‘All right, here’s what we got, here’s our initial plan, tell me what we want to take out . . . All right, guys, give me some things you don’t like, because we won’t play ’em.’ If [there are plays] they’re not comfortable with, or whatever, we’ll take ’em out. That’s offense, defense, whatever. It’ll be just like you guys looking at me . . . Really, late in the year, the first time it happened I get a text from [free safety] Corey Graham. I’m like, ‘Hey! All right. You don’t want to play that? All right, cool, we’ll take that out.’
“But it’s like, generally you explain things — how things are done, why you’re doing things, all that stuff. But I don’t know if that’s customary to what guys were used to. And for me, I always want feedback. I don’t think until late in the year that they realized that I meant it. That I wasn’t just going to scold somebody because they, you know, struggled with something. I wanted to know things.”
Williams is gone now, having been released and signing with the Dolphins, and Ryan has brought in his twin brother, Rob, to help with the defense. Rex also fired longtime assistant Karl Dunbar, who had been with him on the Jets’ staff, and brought in former Ravens All-Pro safety Ed Reed as assistant defensive backs coach.
He thinks there will be a carryover to the good things that happened late in the season.
“It’s funny, at the end of the year we were at our best, albeit without 10 starters,” he said. “I’m excited about it, how we left, and what we’re going to do moving forward. I think there’s a much better trust factor. Our guys are excited about coming into this season. We realize our expectations aren’t going to be as high as what I put out last year. We have a lot to prove — and that’s everybody. Not just me. There are a lot of guys have a lot to prove, and we’re excited about getting this thing going.”
A lot to prove, for sure.
Only this time, no big expectations like there were last year. At least none that he’s willing to share right now.
Maybe with a few wins to start off the 2016 season, things will change. After all, it’s Rex. Which means he can’t go too long without puffing his chest, opening his mouth and letting the big talk come out.