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Doug, Rex And Rob's Last Stand

Doug, Rex and Rob's Last Stand
Ryan Twins and Bills GM On Notice To Produce Playoffs in '17, Or Else

The offseason, like the new year, is barely two weeks old, at least for teams like the Buffalo Bills that find themselves watching the playoffs on television. But 2016 is already shaping up as the most pivotal season in the franchise’s troubled recent history.

If Terry and Kim Pegula really did, as reported in the Buffalo News last week, give Doug Whaley and Rex Ryan a playoffs-this-year-or-else ultimatum, the Bills owners certainly seem to be stepping back and letting their general manager and coach everything they need to succeed—or fail—on their own.

Whaley got a three-year contract extension.

Ryan got his twin brother, Rob, to help install and direct the purest possible version of a defensive scheme that served the latter well until 2015 and the former with mixed results over the past decade-plus. While the double-dose of Ryans makes the Bills a leading contender to star in the next installment of HBO’s quasi-reality series Hard Knocks, the on-field impact is far less predictable. During 12 seasons as a defensive coordinator for four teams, Rob’s defenses finished in the top 10 only twice—No. 3 with Oakland in 2006 and No. 4 with New Orleans in 2014.

The only thing the Pegulas could have done to make the bills Rexier would have been to hire the Ryan boys’ dad, Buddy, to serve as special assistant in charge of slugging the offensive coordinator, as he infamously did while employed by the Houston Oilers in 1993. A year later, Buddy took over as Arizona’s head coach and hired his sons as assistants, the last time Rex and Rob worked together.

Whaley’s extension might seem like an attempt to put the lie to the Buffalo News’ ultimatum report, but it makes a fair amount of sense. Operating as a lame duck is far more difficult, if not impossible, in almost any setting. That’s especially true for someone running a sports franchise, either on or off the field. Extending Whaley’s contract for three years beyond the or-else deadline eliminates any doubt about whether he has management’s support, as well as attempts to quell media or fan speculation about whether he might jump to another team if the Bills finally reach the postseason next year, or get fired if they don’t.

As for Rex, his spin on this season’s troubling defensive performance has been to suggest that it wasn’t really HIS defense that failed, but some sort of hybrid between the tactics that annually kept the New York Jets near the top of the National Football League’s rankings throughout his tenure there and the approach that made the Bills a top-5 unit during Jim Schwartz’s one-season tenure in 2014.

“I tried to merge a couple things, two systems and things like that, and quite honestly, it didn’t work,” Ryan said during his season-ending press conference. “So we’re going to be all in—we’re going to play Buffalo Bills defense, and we’re not going to be fun to play.”

Whether Rex is right about that last bit of bluster—which was both reminiscent of the tough talk of his introductory presser almost exactly a year ago and consistent with his customary rhetoric—or not, he’s absolutely correct about his 2015 approach not working.

By any metric, Ryan’s defense, as channeled through seemingly, if not yet officially, demoted defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman, was substantially worse than Schwartz’s. In 2014, the Bills ranked fourth in both yards and points allowed. Under Ryan, those numbers fell to 19th and 18th—placing them in the bottom half of the 32-team NFL in both categories.

The drop-off of Buffalo’s pass rush, the trademark of any truly dominant defense, was the most glaring. Under Schwartz, the Bills set a franchise record with a league-leading 54 sacks. Rex’s rush managed just 21, the second-lowest total in the NFL. Meanwhile, nine teams ranked among the league’s top 10 teams in sacks reached the playoffs.

With Rob Ryan, whose official title is “Assistant Head Coach-Defense” helping orchestrate things, and presumably without Mario Williams, whose disappearance for much of 2015 embodied the trouble the Bills had adjusting to Rex’s strategic approach, explaining away another uncharacteristically permissive campaign will be impossible.

Not that Rex would even get the opportunity for such dissembling. As the Buffalo News reported, and ownership made clear with its subsequent actions, the franchise’s first media assemblage of the 2017 offseason, should it begin as early as the last 16, will be to announce the dismissal of Whaley and however many Ryans end up on the coaching staff.

It has been more than a decade since the Bills truly cleaned house. In one of his last acts before steadily ceding control of operations during the last years of his life, Ralph Wilson fired Tom Donahoe following a dismal 5-11 season in 2005. Second-year coach Mike Mularkey quit a few days later. Hall-of-Fame coach Marv Levy came out of retirement to take over as general manager and hired Dick Jauron.

That combination never really came close to working, yielding a string of 7-9 marks, with Levy stepping aside in favor of front-office veteran Buddy Nix, who stepped aside in 2013, allowing Whaley to take over. Jauron somehow lasted for nearly four years of deepening mediocrity, to be followed by Perry Fewell (for a few games), Chan Gailey and Doug Marrone before Ryan came to town.

Missing the playoffs for the 17th year in a row would mean the first truly fresh start under the Pegulas, who inherited Whaley when they bought the team from Wilson’s estate in the fall of 2014.

For both Ryans, it would almost certainly mean the twins’ first chance to work together at so high a level will also be their last.

The author has written about the Buffalo Bills, among other topics, since 1990, and publishes We Want Marangi at You can also follow him on the Twitter at @DavidStaba.

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