The lasting image of Rex Ryan's two years in Buffalo should not be the shot of him bonding over beers with Jim Kelly or strolling through the NFL Scouting Combine in a Thurman Thomas jersey. Those were bouquets thrown to the past and to a fan base desperate to recreate it. But it was the present that Ryan could not manage, and when he stood -- ashen and bereft -- on Monday, taking the blame for having just 10 men on the field for a back-breaking overtime run by the Dolphins' Jay Ajayi last Sunday, it served as a reminder that the reality of Ryan never quite matched up to the razzle-dazzle.
And so Ryan is gone, fired Tuesday after going 15-16 and failing to deliver the franchise's first playoff appearance since the 1999 campaign -- the longest active futility streak in the NFL. Ryan is one of football's most colorful figures, undefeated when it comes to drawing attention and generating headlines. The moment that might best sum up Ryan's guiding principle of football management: He had the Bills sign IK Enemkpali days after Enemkpali broke Jets quarterback Geno Smith's jaw in a locker room fight. It was a move that raised eyebrows and needled a rival, but it didn't contribute much in the wins column.
Ryan was undeniably fun to observe -- he rejected the stuffiness of a business that too often forgets it is, ultimately, an amusing diversion. But that freewheeling manner too often manifested itself as dysfunction internally and poor discipline during games, and in a bottom line industry, that is often fatal. It was a pattern that Ryan was enmeshed in during his final years with the Jets and it repeated itself in Buffalo. When Ryan was first hired by the Jets, he said he was not there to kiss Bill Belichick's rings. Ultimately, he never got close to winning one of his own.
Ryan's predecessor in Buffalo, Doug Marrone, walked out on the job two years ago, and that the Bills will now undergo another upheaval raises questions about the judgment of the team's decision makers, including the Pegulas. The owners are willing spenders in pursuit of victory and they funded Ryan's enormous coaching staff. But they want results to show for their expenditures and they gave Ryan an ultimatum -- playoffs or else -- before this season. Doug Whaley, the general manager who clashed with Ryan over quarterbacks and who was involved in hiring Ryan, will lead the search for the next coach, suggesting that his job is safe. Anthony Lynn, who began the season as the running backs coach and ascended to offensive coordinator after Greg Roman was fired in mid-September, will coach the Billsagainst the Jets in the season finale Sunday and he is expected to be a strong candidate for the permanent job.
Ryan, though, might have run out of chances. He rushed to take the Buffalo job soon after the Jets fired him and perhaps he missed having the downtime to self-scout his head-coaching style. He has missed the playoffs for his sixth straight year as a head coach. It is rare to get a third head-coaching job, and Ryan proclaimed that Buffalo would be his last stop. He could almost certainly be a defensive coordinator again, but he has indicated he would not do that, either. A TV career seems almost certain if he wants it. That he has never won a division title in his eight seasons as a head coach is remarkable. All eight of those seasons were in the AFC East, but Ryan was never able to accomplish the one thing he was hired to do in both places: topple Belichick and Tom Brady.
Ryan, of course, never had a quarterback like Brady and the strength of his résumé is the back-to-back runs to the AFC Championship Game with the Jets' Mark Sanchez under center. He was able to win there with a ground-and-pound offense and a stellar defense -- and for his first few years with the Jets, he was the perfect fit, as he was early on in Buffalo. His bluster instilled confidence in a perpetually beaten-down franchise, changing expectations and attitudes. And his press conference antics were often designed not only for laughs, but to deflect pressure and blame from his players.
But while his over-the-top enthusiasm initially galvanized supporters, it also helped set Ryan up for failure when his teams could not match the outsize expectations. In Buffalo, he was saddled, again, with less-than-stellar quarterback options and that certainly hurt Ryan. It also might have put him at irreparable odds with Whaley. This season, as the Bills struggled, Ryan stuck with Tyrod Taylor while Whaley and others in management wanted to try EJ Manuel, a former first-round draft pick by Whaley. As soon as Ryan was fired, word emerged that Manuel will start in the season finale.
Even more damning for Ryan, though, was that in Buffalo he wasn't able to replicate his own calling card that had buttressed Sanchez: the defense. In fact, the Bills' defense got considerably worse after Ryan took over -- even after he hired his brother, Rob, to help guide it this season -- sinking from fourth overall under Marrone to 19th in each of the last two seasons. Again, there appeared to be disagreements between Ryan and the front office about the players who best fit his scheme. The cycle had been remarkably similar to the one seen in his time with the Jets: When Ryan had the personnel to play the way he wanted, he was able to motivate and energize his team. When the personnel was lacking, Ryan's weaknesses -- as a strategist and disciplinarian -- were laid bare. It is hard to imagine a third owner signing up for more of the same.
By the middle of this season, the handwriting was on the wall for Ryan. The fan base, which swooned early when Ryan said he wanted to live in the snowiest neighborhood of Buffalo, turned quickly on Ryan. The Pegulas tired of a personality that could deliver quotes but not the level of success that keeps fans in their seats.
Ryan looked exhausted as he called the loss to the Dolphins on Saturday one of the most difficult of his career. It might turn out to be the last one, too. The bluster has blown out of Buffalo and perhaps the NFL. The takeaway from Ryan's two seasons:
Nothing is as entertaining as success.