Skip to main content

Rex Ryan's Bills hiring, Peyton Manning's woes spark questions

The Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs was bursting with on-field drama -- but that wasn't the only action to come out of the weekend. The news cycle continues to spin, with coaching movement and personnel decisions dominating the headlines. Here are my thought on three burning questions:

1) What is Rex Ryan doing in Buffalo?

The Buffalo Bills' announcement Monday that Rex Ryan will be their next head coach is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. The Bills finished fourth in both total defense and scoring defense in 2014 -- which is exactly why it's surprising they pinpointed the defensive-minded Ryan as their guy. Knowing Rex, who was on my staff when I coached the Ravens, he isn't just going to sit back and leave the unit on autopilot. He is going to get his hands dirty, and thus could upset the apple cart, if you will, by tinkering with a defense that clearly already has a successful foundation, especially if the Bills don't wind up keeping defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.

To me, this suggests the Bills trust in Ryan to truly be the head coach, the CEO of the football team, not just another X's-and-O's guy. They aren't hiring him because he brings along an exotic blitz package; they're hiring him because of a boisterous personality that can inspire a small-market franchise. They're hiring him because, by all accounts, his players love to play for him. They're hiring him for all that he is as a leader. And that should be a pretty cool feeling for Rex Ryan.

That said, I'm not sure I understand the upside for Ryan. This job has to seem very similar to the one the New York Jetsjust fired him from: He'll have a solid defense, an offense that has no identity and clearly no quarterback of the future. After working with the second quarterback taken in the 2013 NFL Draft (Geno Smith) in New York, he'll have to work with the first quarterback taken in that same draft in Buffalo -- not that EJ Manuel has more potential than Smith.

The decision Ryan makes regarding the offensive coordinator position might be the most important of his coaching career. NFL Media insider Ian Rapoport reported Ryan's preference is Greg Roman. That would be a good start, because Roman played a key role as the San Francisco 49ers' coordinator in both the resurrection of Alex Smith and the development of Colin Kaepernick. Could Roman work similar magic with Manuel? He'd have to, because the Bills don't have a first-round pick, and the free-agent market is less than appetizing at the quarterback position. It is quite possible that Mark Sanchez will be the best quarterback available, and there is surely no way Ryan is going down that road again.

2) What does the future hold for Dick LeBeau?

Dick LeBeau, the creator of the zone blitz and one of the greatest coaches to ever be around this game, has resigned as the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive coordinator. I hope the Steelers know they won't be finding anyone better. They likely will hire someone younger and different, but don't confuse "different" with "better."

If you remember, just three short years ago, the Steelersparted ways with former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. All Arians did after he left Pittsburgh was win the Coach of the Year award as the offensive coordinator/interim head coach in Indianapolis before earning 21 victories over his first two seasons as the head man in Arizona. This situation seems to be slightly different, in that LeBeau apparently caught the team off-guard with his decision, and he likely won't be a head-coaching candidate. Still, he could have similar success in his transition.

After Rob Ryan was fired by the Dallas Cowboys in early 2013, the defensive coordinator predicted he'd "be out of work for like five minutes." Of course, it took him longer than that to land his next job, with the New Orleans Saints. LeBeau, however, could actually come close to matching Ryan's boasted timeline.

Consider a potential reunion with Arians in Arizona. Current Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is likely to land a head-coaching position, whether in Atlanta, San Francisco or elsewhere, and LeBeau would be a natural fit to join his old friend Arians. The Cardinals had the fifth-ranked scoring defense in 2014 despite dealing with a bevy of injuries on that side of the ball. LeBeau could keep that train rolling without a single hiccup. And let's suppose the Steelers part ways with veteran safety Troy Polamalu in favor of the younger Shamarko Thomas. It's no secret that Polamalu greatly admires LeBeau; if anyone could convince Polamalu to sign an incentive-laden contract, it'd be LeBeau. Polamalu and Tyrann Mathieu are two of the best ball-hawking safeties in the NFL, and the veteran could help lead a defensive secondary that is rich with talent. Sounds fun.

3) What's wrong with Peyton Manning?

It would be arrogant of me to suggest I could answer this question based solely on what I saw from the comfort of my own couch Sunday. But whether it was due to the strained quad from December that we learned about Monday or a general age-related decline, it is clear that this isn't the same Peyton Manning we've come to appreciate over his 17 years in the NFL. The 38-year-old has lost some zip on his fastball, and the wobblers have been coming much more frequently than they used to. Of course, Manning has never had elite arm strength, nor has he ever thrown the prettiest of spirals, but he'd always found a way to reach his intended target. His deep-ball accuracy was what most concerned me in the loss to the Colts. Manning consistently missed targets downfield and overthrew passes that even the most average of signal-callers could complete.

It's hard to accurately break down the mechanics of a quarterback from the TV copy of a telecast, but while nothing stood out to me regarding his footwork within the pocket or his general throwing motion, the high number of overthrows (Manning had six in the first half alone) indicates something was wrong. When a quarterback consistently misses high, it is typically because of his lead step or stride and subsequent follow-through -- though, again, nothing jumped off the screen to suggest that was necessarily the case. Additionally, the deep passes that required a little more finesse or touch -- when a steep trajectory would have been advantageous -- seemed to come out a little flat.

The fact that he had a quad strain certainly helps explain those issues. I also think that, for the latter portion of the 2014 campaign, Manning was compensating for declining arm strength by simply trying to throw the ball too hard, and the subsequent increase in arm speed jeopardized his natural accuracy. It's like a golfer off the tee: When you really try to reach back and crush one, you end up spraying it into the woods.

Manning, much like former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, wins in his preparation. Both were superior talents who, though they had many physical gifts, were the best because of a cerebral capacity to diagnose plays before they even happened. That said, when the physical aspects of your game start to betray you, it becomes extremely frustrating; you know exactly what you need to do on a given play, but you just can't physically get it done anymore.

There is the real possibility that returning for the 2015 season would mean breaking in yet another new offensive coordinator -- especially now that coach John Fox has parted ways with the Denver Broncos -- though that factor will obviously be mitigated if coordinator Adam Gase winds up staying with the team rather than leaving for another job. Plus, nearly all of Manning's offensive weapons are set to enter free agency this offseason. Beyond all that, what Manning decides to do with his future likely will come down to an internal battle and how he grapples with the understanding that his body can't react how it used to.

Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @CoachBillick.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content