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Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Why Rex is Wrong for Buffalo and Buffalo is wrong for Rex Ryan

In what was somewhat of a surprise, Rex Ryan will not be moving far for his next coaching gig staying within the same division as well as the same state by taking over the reins of a promising and familiar Buffalo Bills team.  Location and division are not the only similarites between the job Ryan was relieved of with the Jets and the job Ryan he was hired for upstate.  Both teams have a bit of an unsettled situation at the quarterback position, Ryan will be inheriting former first round pick E.J. Manuel, the only quarterback taken ahead of his former signal caller with the Jets Geno Smith.  Manuel spent most of 2014 on the bench after it was determined by head coach Doug Marrone that the team had a defense and a ground game capable of making a playoff run and would have a better shot at the postseason with veteran Kyle Orton under center.  Orton didn't play poorly, but despite having one of the top four defenses in football, the offense proved to be too inconsistent, thanks in part to injuries suffered by running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson that forced the running back twosome to miss significant time during a key stretch in the middle of the season.  The Bills may have just missed the playoffs, but they were able to put a winning team on the field for the first time in ten years and only the second time in fifteen years, finishing 2014 with a 9-7 record.  It appeared as though the Bills had a promising future moving forward with head coach Doug Marrone, but surprisingly Marrone elected to opt out of his contract at the conclusion of the season paving the way for the hiring of Ryan. 


One of the biggest questions that had to be answered following the hiring of Ryan was the future of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, the former Lions head coach who did an outstanding job transforming the Bills defense from a 3-4 look to his preferred 4-3 scheme and in the process making the Bills one of the most feared defensive units in the league,  Schwartz did a tremendous job leading the defense, finding ways to get the most out of a very gifted but somewhat underacheiving unit prior to his arrival.  He arguably got career seasons out of all four of his defensive linemen, including a 9.5 sack season out of the previously underperforming Jerry Hughes, who the team brought in via trade in 2013 from the Indianapolis Colts.  The former Lions coach also turned Marcell Dareus into the Ndamakong Suh of the AFC minus the after the whistle stuff.  Dareus was the most dominant interior lineman in the conference in 2014, not only could he stuff the run, he was also able to get after the quarterback to the tune of a career high ten sacks.  Dareus' ten sacks was second on the team to the 14.5 racked up by Mario Williams, the former first overall pick in 2006 who enjoyed what many believe was his finest year in the league in his ninth NFL season.  Despite all of this, Rex Ryan is a defensive man first and foremost, and as a result Jim Schwartz was let go upon his arrival, due most likely to Ryan's preference of a 3-4 hybrid scheme.  The issue now facing Ryan and the Bills is the defensive personnel he is inheriting.  While it's a very gifted group in the front seven, it's also a group that appears much better suited for a 4-3 system.  What do you do with the front four?  Mario Williams was a game changer in 2014 as a 4-3 defensive end, at 290 plus pounds and about to turn 30 years old does he move to outside linebacker now?  Jerry Hughes will be a free agent this offseason, he finally found a home and a scheme in Buffalo where he was able to live up to his first round draft status, but the move to a 3-4 scheme makes it all but certain he won't be returning.  Marcell Dareus has the look of a longtime dominant force as a 4-3 defensive tackle, can he put forth the same level of production as a 3-4 end or nose tackle or will a two gap system be a waste of his unique special skillset?  And what about the group Ryan inherits at linebacker?  Free agent to be Brandon Spikes appears unlikely to return with the presence on Preston Brown, a third round steal who led the Bills in tackles as a rookie, Nigel Bradham, who enjoyed a career season in his third NFL campaign, and the return of Kiko Alonso a rookie Pro Bowl sensation in 2013 who missed all of last season with a torn ACL he suffered in training camp.  But even with the likely departure of Spikes that still leaves a logjam of three linebackers who ironically together could form a very gifted and promising 4-3 linebacker unit ,  but since none of them fit the mold of an outside 'backer in a 3-4 one of them will be left out in the cold.  So the question has to be asked, can this defense do anything but regress in 2015 by moving to a 3-4, and if the answer to that question is no, would Rex Ryan then be willing to go away from the system he loves and has thrived with in the past both with the Jets and prior to that with the Ravens as a coordinator in an effort to immediately get the most out of the players he has inherited and give himself a better chance to win now?  The answer to that question appears to be no with the appointment of Dennis Thurman as defensive coordinator, who was with Ryan in New York the past six years.


On offense, this team has the look of a Rex Ryan team, though I'm not necessarily sure that's something for Bills fans to be excited about.  Ryan prefers a run first philosophy, and as a result he's brought in former San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman who had a similar philosophy during his time with the 49ers, to run his offense.  Many believed Ryan would prefer to find a team with more of a proven passer at quarterback after the issues he dealt with in New York with the likes of Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith, however Ryan may have found it difficult to sell his run first way of doing things to a quarterback/receiver duo such as Matt Ryan and Julio Jones in Atlanta for example and may not have wanted to deal with the push back that may have occured from his quarterbac and receiver, as well as the local media when things aren't going as well.  In E.J. Manuel, Ryan has a young quarterback who has no choice but to do things his way as he doesn't have the body of work to support any resistence, Manuel also brings a duel threat element with his running ability, something Greg Roman found ways to capitalize on in the past with Colin Kaepernick in San Francsico as well as the arm talent to push the ball deep and make the defense pay when they put eight or nine in the box.  Ryan also inherits a deep and versatile backfield with the likes of C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson, Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon, all of whom bring a little something different to the table and together give a coordinator a ton of different options, as well as the ability to grind the football for sixty minutes without fear of running any one particular runner into the ground by the time December rolls around.  It does remain to be seen however if C.J. Spiller will return, he's an unrestricted free agent.  Spiller has shown the ability to be a game changer when healthy, he's a threat to score anytime he touches the football, however the former first round pick has struggled to stay out of the trainers room and on the field over the past few seasons so it's unlikely he will command major money in the open market, especially in today's NFL where teams seem reluctant to break the bank on even the most gifted and healthy of running backs.  Spiller seems like the kind of weapon Ryan would love to have at his disposal, both on offense and as a return man,  but with the depth the Bills have in the backfield without him it's unlikely management would be willing to get involved in any kind of bidding war for his services.  Another thing you have to believe Rex loved about this Bills team when he decided to sign on was the offensive line, and more specifically the size and ability to maul the opposition in the running game that this offensive line possesses.  This is a line that has clearly been built for the power run gane Ryan loves with the likes of Cordy Glenn at 6'6 345 and Seantrel Henderson at 6'7 331, at offensive tackle, Henderson was a seventh round pick who surprisingly beat out fellow rookie Cyrus Kouandjio who was drafted in the second round and who's a monster himself at 6'7 322.  The interior of the line is built the way Ryan likes them as well and even his tight ends are big with Scott Chandler at 6'7 260 and Lee Smith, one of the best blocking tight ends in football at 6'6 265.  One thing Ryan will have in Buffalo that he never had with the Jets is an athlete with the game breaking ability of Sammy Watkins at wide receiver.  Watkins was the first receiver taken in the 2014 class, arguably the most gifted class of wide receviers to ever enter the NFL.  While Watkins didn't quite put up the impressive numbers of Rookie of the Year Odell Beckham Jr or Tampa Bay's Mike Evans, but to be fair Watkins didn't have the opportunities Beckham and Evans got in their respective offenses.  The fourth overall pick still managed to lead the Bills in receiving in 2014 with 65 receptions for 982 yards and showed flashes of game breaking brilliance throughout the season, particularly in week eight against Ryan and the Jets when he turned three receptions into 157 yards receiving.  Watkins may not have had the best season statistically among his fellow rookie receivers, but he still has the physical tools to be as productive as any of them when it's all said and done.


So what can be expected in Orchard Park with Rex Ryan at the helm, besides the inevitable quotes and soundbites that made him a favorite of every newspaper man in the Big Apple?  When you think Rex Ryan you think defense, but ironically that may be his biggest challenge with the Bills, maintaining the level of excellence the defense established in 2014 while making the transisition from a 4-3 to a 3-4.  This is the main reason why this is worst landing spot Ryan could have chosen and why Ryan was the wrong choice for the Bills.  You expect your defense to improve when you bring Rex Ryan into your organization, but can that happen in this particular situation?  The return of Kiko Alonso will help, but will Ryan's system be able to bring out the best in a defensive group that seems custom made for the 4-3 scheme they excelled in a year ago.  Can Mario Williams maintain his level of production rushing the passer as an outside linebacker?  Is a two gap scheme a waste of a one in a million talent like Marcell Dareus?  The answer to those questions will be key to the success of Ryan's first year with the organization in 2015.  So was Rex Ryan the right choice in Buffalo?  While I have a great deal of respect for his ability as a coach and particularly as a defensive mind and a motivator, my answer to that question is actually no.  This Bills team fits what Rex likes to do offensively, but you don't bring in Rex Ryan as your head coach to bolster your offense.  Based on what we saw in 2014, this Bills defense has the potential to be something special, especially with the return of Alonso next season.  They seemed to be on the verge of rivaling any defense in football, certainly any defense in the AFC, but now they appear to be on the verge of becoming the best 4-3 defense that never was.  I like Rex Ryan as a head coach, but he's the wrong man for this particular job.  The Bills would have been better served bringing in an offensive minded coach, maybe someone with a history of developing young quarterbacks, particularly duel threat quarterbacks like E.J. Manuel.  They also would have been best served bringing in a head coach who had the understanding that Jim Schwartz would remain on as defensive coordinator.  Schwartz began what appears to have the potential to be something special in Buffalo.   This defensive unit played their hearts out for the man, almost to a man, every player on the defense took their game to another level.  While I didn't love him as a head coach in Detroit, he's outstanding as a coordinator, not only is he an outstanding motivator, but he put players in positions to excel, determining what each player does best, and utilizing them accordingly.  Rex Ryan may ultimately succeed in Buffalo, but it won't be without patience and it certainly won't be in 2015.  On the other hand, had the organization gone a different way in hiring their head coach, with someone like Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, Chargers O.C. Frank Reich, Josh McDaniels of the Patriots, or Denver O.C. Adam Gase and left the defensive staff as... or at least close to as it was, the Bills could have been a dark horse contender to unseat the Patriots in the AFC East with the kind of defense they could have put on the field in 2015.


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