Is Rex Ryan Making The Buffalo Bills Better Or Worse?

By Jason Keidel

Antonio Cromartie is visiting Buffalo this week, for a football reunion with Rex Ryan. Both men can commiserate over their time in New York, and how the Jets cut bait with both.

They can jam to the oldies, to the Meadowlands years, to the glory of two trips to the AFC title game, which are shrinking in the gridiron mirror. Cromartie arrived in 2010, during their second playoff run, but was there for the bulk of Ryan’s conflicted tenure with the Jets. Now they are reunited.

But there’s nothing to suggest either will return to those festive times. Cromartie is on the wrong side of 30 for a defensive back, which is beyond his control. And Ryan doesn’t seem to be the defensive savant he used to be, which should be under his control.

Rex Ryan once landed on Gotham like a meteor, seeming physically and verbally larger than life. He promised he wasn’t in New York to kiss Bill Belichick’s ring, but the coach was looking to bring the starving masses their first title since Namath. But eventually his epic hubris got him in scalding PR waters. Each year he guaranteed a Gang Green Super Bowl, only to be thwarted every January. And then he stopped making it to January, which got him canned.

In fairness, Ryan was partially hamstrung by infighting and incompetence above his pay grade. Jon Idzik, hired as Jets GM when they fired Mike Tannenbaum, left upwards of $20 million in cap space on the table entering Ryan’s final season. And $20 million can get you NFL talent. But Ryan wasn’t Idzik’s guy, so he seemed to assume he could get Ryan fired and just pick his new guy. Turns out his epic budgetary incompetence got both of them fired.

So Ryan took his act north, to the frigid NFL outpost a few miles from Niagara Falls. The main reason Buffalo hired Ryan was his defensive prowess. Taking over perhaps the most gifted defense in the NFL, Ryan seemed a seamless fit. His pedigree as Buddy’s son and Rob’s brother, and penchant for exotic blitzes, had confounded Tom Brady more than once during his years with the Jets. Yet the Bills went from leading the NFL in sacks with 54 to 31st with a paltry 21.

Ryan is still the class clown. He can fill a notepad with quips and quotes. His latest was some warped monologue about playing half-pregnant in 2015. Evidently, the gestation cycle will be more robust in 2016, whatever that means.

But there’s nothing funny about the results. The Bills went 9-7 under Doug Marrone in 2014, which left him keen on taking the Jets gig, until he lost out to Todd Bowles. Ryan was supposed to nudge Buffalo over the playoff line last season, yet ended his maiden campaign in Buffalo at a pedestrian 8-8.

Buffalo had 19 interceptions in 2014, but just 17 in 2015. They had 11 fumble recoveries in 2014, but just eight in 2015. They had a plus-7 turnover ratio in 2014, but plus-6 in 2015.

Mario Williams publicly griped about his role in Ryan’s defense, lamenting how many times he had to drop back in coverage considering his specialty is getting to the quarterback in a nanosecond. Sacking the QB is why he was drafted, and why the Bills gave him a nine-figure contract extension. Ryan seemed to get too cute for his own, vocational good.

And forget quoting any offensive stats when dissecting Ryan. Offense is little more than a nuisance when he has the ball, and something to be dismantled when the other team has it. Indeed, Ryan does little more than bequeath the offense to Chan Gailey or Greg Roman or whomever the latest man under the headset may be. This is the progenitor of the Butt Fumble.

Still Ryan is great for football. In the NFL’s sterile world of coaching cliches about effort and energy, with Belichick’s monosyllabic retorts and “We’re on to Cincinnati” platitudes, Ryan is an original.

But there’s the sense that Ryan is a coordinator in head coach’s clothing. He has yet to develop an NFL quarterback, or make one incrementally better. Among Ryan’s QB tree is Geno Smith, Mike Vick and Mark Sanchez, whose career plunged after those surprising trips to the AFC title game. Tyrod Taylor seems to have a good gridiron future, but he relies too much on his gifted legs to stay off the IR.

Thanks to advancements in surgery, Ryan is way more svelte than he was in the Big Apple, and now looks like the back-end of a before-and-after montage of his twin brother. But gone with the weight seems to be some of his epic hubris and bedrock confidence. The frigid, lake-effect snow seems to have chilled the hot wind of his bold predictions, and the results that twice got him within 60 minutes of the Super Bowl.

Generally a coach learns and improves with games under his belt. Ryan seems to be coaching in reverse. Take it from a native New Yorker, Ryan’s restless act wears thin when his defense rests. If something doesn’t change, he will join his brother on the conveyer belt of coordinators who just weren’t good enough to cut it on Broadway. Or in Buffalo.

Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.

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