Rex Ryan has done his best work as an NFL head coach when his team's prospects have been at their bleakest. It's just happening earlier than ever this time around.
After just two games, Ryan has ditched 18 months of planning and cohesion in Roman's offense, including an offseason that Rex said they "won" this year. Rex is surely frustrated with the team's running game, but it's hard to fault Roman for quarterback Tyrod Taylormissing open receivers down the field. It's not Roman's fault that Ryan has made the defense worse or that the Bills have one of the thinnest wideout groups in football. It's not Roman's fault their top option, Sammy Watkins, is playing through a sore foot.
The Bills are now 0-2 with Arizona and a road game in New England next on the schedule. They will need to pull an upset in one of those games to avoid an 0-4 start.
The spectre of Ryan's job security hangs over all of this. The Bills were forced to release a statement about the future of Ryan and general manager Doug Whaley at the end of last season amid speculation Ryan could be one and done. Ryan has coached through job whispers before, but it's unsettling if it becomes an issue so early in his Bills tenure.
Firing Roman after only two weeks and promoting assistant head coach/running backs coach Anthony Lynn is Ryan's way of trusting "his guys." If this is going to be Rex's final season in Buffalo, he wants to do it his way. His brother Rob Ryan is helping on the defense. Lynn coached with Ryan in New York, like so much of the Bills' staff. As Conor Orr points out in his excellent article on Roman's firing, this move could be a prelude to more of a run-first approach under Lynn.
That doesn't mean it will work. The Bills were the ninth best offense in football last year according to Football Outsiders and helped earn Taylor a big new contract, while Rex's defense has only grown worse since he arrived.
What kind of team does Ryan think he has after more than a year in Buffalo? The Bills gave up 493 yards to the Jets on Thursday night, making Ryan Fitzpatrick look like a modern day Dan Marino with his repeated vertical strikes. The Bills' defense is supposed to be built around cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby, but both were beat endlessly by Jets wideouts Brandon Marshall, Quincy Enunwa and Eric Decker. A Rex Ryan loss when the defense plays poorly, rather than the offense, always appears to hit him harder.
"We thought we could cover them," a resigned Ryan said after the game.
Ryan even told CBS out of halftime that his cornerback tandem was one of the best in the league, something he believes so much that he refuses to give Gilmore safety help. That endless belief is one of Ryan's best traits, but it will be tested over the coming weeks. He's not the one boasting anymore.
"We have to get a lot better," Ryan said. "Brandon Marshall told me he was going to kick my butt tonight and he did."
The Bills were also a boom-or-bust team offensively under Roman early this season. After being totally shut down in Baltimore, Buffalo was too reliant on the big play Thursday night. Despite his fantasy stats, Tyrod Taylor looked shaky for most of the night with his slow trigger. He is the type of quarterback that needs to see his receivers open and Buffalo doesn't have enough receivers that win early in the down. Ryan wants to run a "smashmouth" offense, but it's worth wondering if LeSean McCoy is the right fit for that style. He is still a dynamic runner but too often bounces plays to the outside and loses yardage rather than taking what the defense gives him. That puts Taylor in tough third-down situations. Which leads us to Buffalo's biggest problem.
Watkins has 63 yards on 11 targets through two weeks, failing to look like his usual explosive self. His presence is necessary for a thin wideout group that falls off a cliff in talent after Watkins. (Greg Salas, vertical threat, is not someone you want to count on each week.) Promoting Lynn isn't going to solve that problem.
It's not like the Buffalo defense is going to steady an up-and-down offense. The Bills put nearly all their offseason acquisition energy into their defense, but losing their first two draft picks to injury and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus to suspension gives the defense an incomplete feel. Linebacker Jerry Hughes and defensive tackle Kyle Williams are great, but they aren't enough. There are too many replacement level starters like Zach Brown and Lorenzo Alexander.
The lack of talent has eroded Ryan's confidence, seen in the Roman firing and his gameplan Thursday night. Rex loved to talk about "building a bully" last season but the Jets were tougher than Buffalo up front, just like the Ravens were tougher than Buffalo last week. Fitzpatrick had terrific protection throughout Thursday night's strafing of Rex's season.
"I was afraid to pressure because we weren't holding up," Ryan said.