‘Rexit’, and the Thanklessness of NFL Head Coaching

Rex Ryan is probably going to get fired by the Buffalo Bills this season. As of 8:25 AM Eastern on December 26, 2016, Ryan is still the head coach of the Buffalo football club, but this time of year, if you have not made the playoffs, again and again, your days are probably numbered. Another year for Buffalo that ends with the regular season–with the Bills being the owners of the NFL’s longest current playoff doubt, when they were on the losing end of the Music City Miracle, in January 2000–and the Pegula family, who bought the Bills in 2014, are growing impatient. If this is it for Sexy Rexy as a head coach in this league, he will surely go down as a memorable coach, and the stories told about him will probably outlast his career wins and losses with the Bills and New York Jets. Nothing lasts forever in football, except maybe Bill Belichick.

For years, longtime Houston Oilers, Tennessee Oilers, Tennessee Titans, St. Louis Rams, and Los Angeles Rams head coach was the go to “how does he still have a job?” guy, and rightfully so, as he had not made the playoffs since 2008, and in over 20 years as a head coach has made the playoffs as many times as Belichick has made the Super Bowl with the Patriots, but 2016 was the year the Rams decided enough was enough with regard to Fisher. The guy strung together a couple of good playoff wins in 2000, starting with the Music City Miracle (In all my years writing about sports on the Internet, this is the first time I’ve ever referenced the Music City Miracle in back-to-back paragraphs.) and came up a yard shy of sending the Super Bowl to overtime for the first time ever (which still has not happened), and conned NFL teams for another sixteen years that he was a good coach based primarily on that season. The last straw for Fisher was the Rams’ inaugural season in returning to Los Angeles, when they had no offense, quite possibly botched the selection of a quarterback with the #1 overall pick, struggled to find his challenge flag in his own jacket pocket, and made the rest of the country collectively wonder why the NFL was so eager to get back to LA with such little buzz for such an uninspiring professional football operation.

Not all head coach firings are as cut and dry as the Rams’ decision to part ways with Fisher, or the Jacksonville Jaguars’ decision to let Gus Bradley go after four seasons, a failure to develop Blake Bortles into a franchise quarterback, and a historically poor winning percentage, given the sample size. Fisher and Bradley were put in positions to succeed, and did not get results. At some point, every team realizes what they are trying is not working, even if the coach experiences success, like Jon Gruden with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mike Shanahan with the Denver Broncos, or Andy Reid with the Philadelphia Eagles, but these guys both got a longer rope than most, and did not accomplish much of consequence with their current teams. Not to compare every coach to Bill Belichick, but Belichick could go 0-16 four straight years and have a better career winning percentage than Fisher, and 41 straight years and have a better winning percentage than Bradley.

By comparison, Chip Kelly seems like a likely candidate to lose his job as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, but he inherited a bad roster and a shaky-at-best QB situation. I am not sure where the next place to go will be for Kelly, as the University of Oregon has moved on from his legacy and his assistant coaches, and seems to be moving in a different direction. I am one of those people who was hoping to see Kelly coach Marcus Mariota again, as he was the coach who recruited Mariota to Oregon in the first place, and Matiota’s Titans had a head coaching vacancy the same year Kelly was fired by the Eagles, but it was not to be. It almost would have made too much sense.

The New Year’s Day game between the Bills and Jets, who have both been eliminated from playoff contention, Rex Ryan and his successor as head coach of the Jets, Todd Bowles, could both be coaching for their jobs. Both have been in their current job for two seasons, and neither has been able to break through and make the playoffs. There is high turnover in the NFL in general, but it seems that the other three teams in the AFC East, the Bills, Jets, and Miami Dolphins (who clinched their first playoff berth since the 2008 season in which the Patriots went 11-5 with Matt Cassel as their QB after Brady hurt his knee, yet missed the playoffs), who have had so much trouble giving the New England Patriots any kind of divisional competition for the bulk of the Belichick and Brady Era, are on the shortest leashes. At then beginning of any season, you can pencil the Patriots in for at least 10 wins, even when Tom Brady gets injured or suspended. The NFL’s other divisions are much more consistently competitive. The Denver Broncos, for instance, won the AFC West and the Super Bowl last season, and this year find themselves behind the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs. The Patriots have no team in their division who is year in and year out ready to go toe-to-toe with them, but a huge reason for that is the continuity in the other three teams has not been great.

Rex Ryan stands out because he tried, and for a little while, gave the Patriots everything they could handle. The longtime Baltimore Ravens defensive assistant was hired to replace Eric Mangini in 2009, and made waves in the power structure of the AFC when he declared that he “never came here to kiss Bill Belichick’s rings.” Ryan’s Jets enjoyed initial success against the Patriots, including an upset playoff win against the 14-2 New England team in Foxboro in January of 2011, but success was fleeting. Being the guy talking about winning the Super Bowl in July is charming when you have nothing to lose, when the Patriots had such a commanding upper hand on a rivalry that dates back to the AFL that a regular season win here and there, or a playoff win as road underdogs can buy a fan base the most joy they have had in over a decade. But when you keep talking about the Super Bowl, and keep not getting there, as the Jets now have not in nearly 50 years, then your sound more and more like a cartoon parody of yourself with each passing week.

When the Jets fired Rex Ryan, and he was hired by the Buffalo Bills shortly thereafter, I thought it was a good move for Buffalo, and I still think it was, even if the record has not been what the Pegulas would have wanted through two seasons. The Buffalo Bills have been an afterthought ever since the Music City Miracle (Third time’s a charm!) broke in the wrong direction for them. Whenever there has been an AFC East team to give the Patriots trouble in the 21st Century, it’s been the Jets or Dolphins. Rex Ryan was going to get the Buffalo Bills into the national football discussion. For one of the great critically acclaimed teams in the history of sports, having championed the hurry-up offense, and championed the AFC, even if they went on to lose four consecutive Super Bowls.

I’m a Patriots fan, and my dislike for the Jets and Dolphins is a real thing. The same is true of the Colts, and to a lesser extent the Broncos and Cowboys, but I have no ill will towards the Bills, despite the division rivalry with my team. In a lot of ways, it would be good if the Bills were good, and I was thinking (and hoping) Rex Ryan would be able to do that.

The thing I like most about Rex Ryan is his off the field antics. He’s a goofy guy in a profession full of guys who take themselves too seriously. My team has benefited greatly from Belichick, but his disdain for the media, and for putting any kind of presentable effort into anything other than game-planning for the next football game is the kind of thing I understand rubs people the wrong way. In a league where most coaches try to act more like Belichick because they think acting like him will make them coach as well as him, Rex was decidedly the anti-Belichick. He used his press conference podium to trash-talk his opponents, hammed for the Hard Knocks cameras, and was a lightning rod for the scrutiny of his teams, creating a more loose environment for his players.

At the same time, he was a football guy from a football family, just like Bill Belichick. His dad, Buddy Ryan, was the defensive coordinator for the 1985 Chicago Bears team that won the Super Bowl, and was later head coach of the Eagles and Arizona Cardinals, and his twin brother, Rob Ryan, currently serves as his defensive coordinator in Buffalo, and has coached all around the NFL, including winning two Super Bowl rings during his stint as linebackers coach for the Patriots in the early 2000s. Ryan did things to endear himself to football fans that not many coaches think to do, like jumping on the Buffalo media’s conference call with Patriot wide receiver Julian Edelman, claiming to be Walt Patulski of The Buffalo News. Walt Patulski was a former #1 overall pick for the Bills in 1972, a standout defensive end at Notre Dame, who is considered to be one of the NFL’s great draft busts, but Rex is a student of football history, and did not do that to belittle Patulski, but the prank was so well received (and brought national attention to Buffalo when there usually is none, like I thought Rex would do) that The Buffalo News actually brought in the real Walt Patulski as a guest sports columnist. Ryan was also the guy who, in his first offseason as head coach of the Bills, wore a throwback jersey of Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas to the NFL Scouting Combine (the same day Bill Belichick wore a gray hoodie with his own name on it). 

He might be a loud buffoon, and he might not be close to delivering the Buffalo Bills their first ever Super Bowl championship, but it’s hard to imagine that cutting Rex Ryan loose after two seasons brings the franchise that has come the closest to winning it all the most times without ever winning it any closer than they have been this century. Changes happen in football, but different is not always better.

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