When Buffalo hired Rex Ryan in January 2015, the Bills were on the verge of finally getting back to the promised land. The last time they’d made it to the postseason was the 1999 season, but after 15 years of futility, there was hope. They’d just finished 9–7 — their best record in a decade and just one game out of the playoffs.
The foundation of that modest success was an elite defense that had finished the previous season first in sacks, third in takeaways, and fourth in yards and points allowed. With their defensive base already solid, Bills owner Terry Pegula looked to Ryan, a still-respected defensive mind despite his 4–12 record with the Jets in 2014, to be its new custodian.
In theory, Ryan would preserve that elite defense — hell, maybe even improve it — then find a way to put together a competent offense (the Bills had finished 18th in points and 26th in yards in 2014), and Buffalo would climb toward the top of the AFC. In other words: They’d be like the Jets teams that Rex had coached to the AFC championship games in the 2009 and 2010 seasons — only better.
Part of that apparent plan worked — just not on the side anyone expected. And so Ryan, along with his brother and assistant head coach for defense Rob, was fired Tuesday morning.
Unlike his tenure with New York, the offense wasn’t the problem. During the same offseason that Ryan arrived, the team signed quarterback Tyrod Taylor and traded for running back LeSean McCoy. In two seasons, the offense transformed into one of the league’s best; it ranks seventh in scoring this season. Ryan and his staff took the 28th-ranked rushing offense by DVOA in 2014 and turned it into the top-ranked unit this season. Just to emphasize that point: Coming into last week, the Bills’ run game was better than the Cowboys’.
As for the part of the plan where Ryan would strengthen, or at least maintain, an already-elite defensive squad that featured Pro Bowlers Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, and Mario Williams along with a bevy of young, talented role players? That all went pear-shaped. In two years as the Bills head coach, Ryan did the one thing he absolutely couldn’t afford to do: He ruined the defense.
Buffalo’s loss to Miami on Saturday was the nadir of their fall from defensive grace. The Bills surrendered 261 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, plus another 233 passing yards and two touchdowns to career backup Matt Moore. In overtime, on Jay Ajayi’s 57-yard scamper, a play that ultimately set up the Dolphins for the game-winning field goal, the Bills had just 10 men on the field. That oversight — an always-avoidable mistake that should never happen, especially not on a such a key play — seemed to be the final straw for a coach who was already on the ropes.
Several reports suggest that Ryan lost the defensive side of the locker room, and while every side has ulterior motives when leaking info about an unhappy situation, Ryan’s defense had devolved into mediocrity. After inheriting a defense that ranked second in overall DVOA in 2014, Buffalo entered Week 16 with the 24th-ranked group. Interim head coach Anthony Lynn will inherit a group that ranks 15th in points surrendered, 20th in yards per play, and 28th in rushing yards allowed.
After starting the season 4–2, Ryan’s Bills lost six of their last nine games to fall out of playoff contention once again. In two years in Buffalo, Ryan finishes with a 15–16 record and zero postseason trips. For the Bills, it’s now 17 years without a playoff appearance — and the team is arguably in worse shape than when Ryan arrived.