Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Did Rex Ryan get screwed?

First I'd like to draw your attention to this:

Inside the Ryan family 46 defense
Excerpted from Blood, Sweat and Chalk, by Tim Layden

(I first saw this linked among the Football Outsiders Extra Points, so thanks to them.)

The book "examines the roots of many of football's most iconic offensive and defensive systems". The excerpt is the chapter on Buddy & Rex Ryan, the "46" defense and whatever the hell defense it is that Rex runs. Fantastic reading, and I'm putting the book on my to-get list.

Page 3 from the link has this outstanding quote:

"Rex has an immense defensive package," says former Oakland and Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden.
I feel like we've been hearing about Rex's immense package all offseason, esp during Hard Knocks. Nice soundbite, Gruden.

But this part disturbed me:
In 2002 defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis left the Ravens, and Billick promoted Mike Nolan to defensive coordinator.
"I was pissed because, basically I got f-----," says Rex. "Brian never knew me. Maybe I never fit his image. But it was a crock of s---."
That quote makes me sad. As a fan we like to believe that everything is all sunshine and roses among the players and coaches we root for. They all hold hands and sing kumbaya during the week between games. I guess if I had thought about it for 5 seconds, I might have realized that two outsized personalities like Rex Ryan and Brian Billick are likely to strike occasional sparks off of each other. But this is more than a combustible moment between hotheads. Check out this lovely quote (in response to Billick's criticizing Rex's potty mouth):
Ryan worked for Billick as a defensive assistant/coordinator for nine years. You'd figure they would have some love for each other. But when Ryan was asked what he thought of Billick reportedly saying he needed to tone his act down a little, Ryan shot back.
"Like I give a [expletive]," Ryan said. "I just thought, OK, Brian, that's more than he ever talked to me before when he was here [in Baltimore]".
Rex was in Baltimore for 10 years, 10 great years for Ravens fans. It saddens me to think that these might not have been great years for him. But, looking back, there were three events that could easily have soured him on the organization.


By the time the 2001-2 offseason rolled around, Mike Nolan had been coaching in the NFL for 15 yrs across 4 different teams, and had been a defensive coordinator for 8 yrs across 3 different NFL teams. Rex had been coaching in the NFL for 3 yrs, only as the Ravens DL coach. He had 7 yrs of coordinator experience, but all of it at the college level. I think 20 years from now we're going to look at Rex Ryan as the better coach. But in 2002 Billick had to hire a defensive coordinator to replace the departed Marvin Lewis. Billick's decision to tab Nolan looks pretty reasonable.

Actually, it wasn't a 2002 decision at all. Billick had made the move a year earlier, to grab Nolan when he became available. Nolan had been the Jets DC. When Al Groh left the Jets to go coach at Virginia, they replaced him with Herm Edwards, Edwards brought in his own guys, and Nolan was out on the street. Billick knew that Marvin Lewis was going to get a head coaching job, so he stashed Nolan on his coaching staff – as a WR coach! Nolan had never in his career coached on the offensive side of the ball. It's hard to imagine he was especially good as a WR coach. But Billick never seemed to care about having a great WR coach. This was strictly insurance. It paid off a year later, as Marvin left (not for a head job, though – strange circumstances) and Billick had an experienced quality coordinator in-house. Rex may have felt blindsided, esp as the guy who got the job wasn't even coaching on the defensive side of the ball that year. But it's obvious that Billick was planning to promote Nolan all along.

Even 8 years later, knowing that Rex is a really great D coordinator, Billick's move still makes sense. Rex had only been coaching in the NFL for 3 years; Nolan had been an NFL coordinator for 8 years, and a good one. And that particular Ravens team needed experience on the coaching staff. That was the year the Ravens purged salary, after having loaded up the previous year in an attempt to repeat as Super Bowl champions. The Ravens were really limited by the salary cap, and wound up fielding the youngest team in NFL history. You can see why Billick would go for experience over promise, in that situation. And it worked out. That youngest-team-in-history won 7 games, was still in contention for a playoff spot on the 2nd-to-last weekend of the season. The following year they won 10 games and the division.

But whatever: sensible decision or not, clearly Ryan was angry about it. I never knew.


It's worse than just this little event. The chapter excerpted from Tim Layden's book doesn't mention it, but a year or so later Brian Billick prevented Rex from interviewing for a D coordinator job with another team. This was either 2003 0r 2004, and I believe the team was the Raiders.


As you probably know, by rule, when teams have assistant coaches under contract, they must allow them to interview for head coaching positions around the league. I think (but don't know for sure) that Bill Walsh was the driving force behind this rule. In the 1970s when Walsh was Paul Brown's offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, there was no rule encouraging the open movement of asst coaches. Teams could keep their coaching staff under lock and key: and Paul Brown did exactly that with Walsh. Brown prevented him from interviewing for head coaching positions, when interested teams would call Brown asking about Walsh. Walsh wrote that Brown "worked against his candidacy," bad-mouthed him to other teams, so as to keep him from getting a head coaching job. It was the main reason Walsh finally left the NFL in the 1970s and wound up coaching Stanfaord, taking a circuitous route to becoming a head coach in the NFL. It's my understanding that after Walsh became a star head coach, he pushed for a rule change, so that NFL teams must allow their assistants to interview for head coaching positions, during a certain window after the season ends and before the pre-draft stuff starts.
(Walsh had a reputation as a tireless crusader for asst coaches, in his late career.)

Fans of a certain age might remember the 80s or early 90s, when the rule was slightly different. The first version of the rule change read that teams could not block their assistant coaches from interviewing for a position that represented a "promotion". This led to an abuse of titles, where for example a team might want to hire a guy who is currently a QB coach, so they'll label their open positon "QB coach and asst offensive coordinator". Stuff like that: assistant head coach, associate head coach, offensive consultant, etc etc. After a couple years of confusion, the NFL clarified its policy to the current version, well-described here.

Teams must allow their asst coaches to interview for head jobs, and they are not required to allow their assistants to interview for any assistant jobs, including coordinator jobs.

So: in 2003 or 2004, the Raiders (or someone, but I think it was the Raiders) wanted to interview Rex for their D-coordinator position. Brian Billick was already facing the loss of one or two guys off his coaching staff. If it was 2003, LB coach Jack Del Rio was hired away by the Jags to be their head coach. If it was 2004, DB coach Donnie Henderson was hired away by the Jets to be their DC, and DC Mike Nolan was getting interviews for head jobs. I think it was 2004. Either year, Billick was looking at hemorrhaging talent from his defensive coaching staff, and needed to stop the bleeding. Probably he wanted to keep Rex in his back pocket to succeed Nolan as DC. In the event, Billick denied the other team permission to interview Ryan: he blocked Rex from a chance at a promotion.

If I'm right and it was 2004, the Raiders instead hired Rex's twin brother Rob Ryan to be DC, which must have been a special twist for Rex. Also, Mike Nolan was not hired as a head coach that year, so Rex was back in the salt mines.

If Billick felt passed over by Billick for the DC job in 2002, he must have been enraged by this.


In 2005 the 49ers hired Mike Nolan to be their head coach. Rex Ryan, once passed over for the D coordinator position and then once prevented from interviewing elsewhere, was the guy for the job.

It's kind of hard for me to believe that Rex was the Ravens D coordinator for *only* 4 years, because those are to me the signature Ravens defenses. The Super Bowl D was brutally physical; but they lined up in a plain 4-3, stayed in their stance til the snap, and then just beat you. The Mike Nolan defenses were the years where Ed Reed came to the fore; he won his Defensive Player of the Year award in 2004. Those defenses were good, but not as physically strong (they lined up in a 3-4), and maybe less an attacking D and more of a coverage D. It wasn't until Rex became DC that the Ravens started using the crazy, multiple-front, blitz from everywhere attacking defenses. These were the defenses that seemed to get into a QB's head. These were the Ds that fought the epic battles against Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

If Rex would have been happy with a D-coordinator-for-life position, a la Dick Lebeau or Jim Johnson, I would have been delighted to have him forever. I would have wanted the team I root for to play that style of D, forever. But of course, Rex wanted to be the head guy, like his dad. Excuse me: like most everyone who has ever coached, Rex had ambitions to run his own program. In the 2007-8 season, the Ravens job opened up when Steve Bisciotti fired Billick.

I thought Rex was the obvious candidate:
do the Ravens almost have to hire Rex Ryan? I mean assuming no one else snatches him away. Here you've got a guy who's worked his way up the ladder from position coach, whom you've consistently described as a guy who's ready for a head job. He's top-notch at Xs and Os; he's excellent at player development; he's at least good and perhaps excellent at talent evaluation; he works great within your system of scouting etc; and his players friggin run thru walls for him. And he's YOUR guy! You've developed him for a decade. If you don't name him, then you're sort of sending the message that development and rising from within really doesn't mean anything, when the chips are down. And I don't know if that's the message you want to send.
I said last year that Rex Ryan is going to make some team very happy as a head coach. Should that team be Baltimore?
Rex thought he was the obvious candidate:
"[The Ravens] know I would be a good fit based on the facts. And the facts are that my guys have played hard for me, no matter if it was veterans or young guys. They enjoy coming to work every day, and they enjoy playing." ... But being a players' coach doesn't mean Ryan would have a laissez-faire attitude when it comes to conduct on the field, he said. "When you look at it as a disciplined standpoint, in the three years I was coordinator, we were the third-least-penalized defense and the second-least in yardage," Ryan said.
Columnist Bill Ordine thought Rex was the obvious candidate:
When I observe Ryan, I also have the advantage of seeing him within the context of his football pedigree. I covered his father, Buddy, in Philadelphia. And this much I can tell you about those two: As fierce a defense as Buddy fielded and as loyal as his players were to him, son Rex has more going for him. (Sorry, Buddy, if you read this, but it's a compliment to you as well.) Rex is far more flexible and adapts to changing circumstances. I believe he listens more. At least, I gather that from his players. His schemes are more sophisticated and nuanced and not so vulnerable. And he is certainly much more politic – and that's hugely important in today's much more complex NFL.
Rex also interviewed for the Atlanta and Miami jobs.

Here's the thing about Rex. He's a fat sloppy guy with a bit of an Oklahoma drawl in his voice. He had lap-band surgery this offseason, so take your idea of how he looks now (from Hard Knocks or the Jets sideline) and add ~30 pounds. People who hire football coaches always have a picture in their mind of what the ideal football coach looks like, and that picture looks something like this:
Jaw of granite, stern leadership, trim and fit. Rex reminds me of Bum Phillips: easygoing cornpone with a glint in his eye. The joke's gonna be on you when you go up against his team on Sunday, but it takes an eye to look past the surface.

Rex didn't get any of those head coaching jobs. It's hard to criticize any of those hires: all three coaches have winning records. I think Harbaugh and Sparano are excellent coaches. But Harbaugh in particular looks the picture in exactly the way that Rex does not.

Everybody came together and mended fences after the hiring. Harbaugh had this to say about Ryan at his press conference:
"Listen, I've known Rex Ryan since 1987, when he was the defensive coordinator at Eastern Kentucky and I was at the University of Pittsburgh. And I'll tell you, the only reason they won was because they had better players! ... He's a great coach and a good friend."
They had been together on staff at the University of Cincinnati in 1996, Ryan as DC and Harbaugh as asst HC and RB coach. The Ravens gave Ryan a raise, and Harbaugh gave him the title of asst HC. Ryan began his press conference this way:
"Man, It's great to be a Raven. And, you know really that head coaching stuff, I was just kiddin about that."
Rex is a pro and he made the best of the situation – the 2008 Ravens had a great season. But the guy the Ravens hired is one of those trim and fit clean-cut guys who always says the right thing in front of the media. In a piece in the Baltimore Sun around that ime, Ryan made some comments which suggested he didn't do as well in his interview with the Ravens as he would have liked – some specific questions or areas or whatever – and he said that Steve Bisciotti had promised to help him with that stuff. I'm sure that happened. But it's also true that Rex had expensive dental work that season, or offseason, and he lost some weight. He looked different when the Jets interviewed him for their vacancy.

Was one of the reasons he didn't get the Ravens job, because he didn't look the part?


So: three crucial career disappointments in Baltimore. It bothers me, the thought that Rex might look back on his time in Baltimore post-2002 with resentment.

I still love him for what he did for the Ravens, and I love his defensive style of play, and I think his candor is good for the game. I want to see him do well.

Except for this coming Monday night when the Jets play the Ravens.


Rex has some nice things to say about Harbaugh this week:
Baltimore Sun
Ryan conceded that he was disappointed about being passed over for the Ravens head coaching vacancy after the 2007 season, but he said it turned out well. "It was a great experience being under John for a year and the things that he allowed me to be with gave me a huge advantage going into my rookie year as a head coach," said Ryan, who had been promoted to assistant head coach by Harbaugh in 2008 before joining the Jets. "Experiencing some of the things, he allowed me to sit in there with him, and that was huge. I think the world of him for allowing me to do that. It was just a great experience."
I guess he still hates Billick, but at least there is some sweetness and light there.

Monday is going to be a brutal game.

1 comment:

  1. FWIW, Jim Johnson did not want to be a career DC although I was happy he was here - ecstatic. After he had gotten past a certain age, he then took himself off the list, figuring [correctly] that an NFL Owner wouldn't want a 60+ DC with cancer to be the "new guy."

    But your point is well-taken.



About This Blog

Twitter: oblong_spheroid

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP