Rex Ryan’s coach speak sugar coats Greg Roman’s firing as the “appropriate move” for Buffalo following an 0-2 start to the season. But in the aftermath of an embarrassing defensive performance last Thursday in which the Bills surrendered nearly 500 yards of total offense to the Jets, including 374 yard through the air to Ryan Fitzpatrick, the timing couldn’t be any more controversial.
And yet, Ryan insists Roman wasn’t a scapegoat for his own shortcomings.
So why now? Why did this dismal start to the season cost Roman his job while Ryan, the man who’s taken responsibility for everything from this move, to the 0-2 start, to the underwhelming defensive product we’ve seen for the better of 18 games now, comfortably retains his?
The reason revolves around quarterback Tyrod Taylor and star wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
There’s been plenty of debate over whether or not Taylor was deserving of a contract extension ahead of training camp this summer. After an efficient season where Taylor threw for 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions, posted a 63.7 completion percentage, finished in the top 10 in QBR and made a trip to the Pro Bowl as an alternate, Taylor still entered the 2016 campaign with plenty of questions. Could he stay healthy for 16 games? Could he learn to throw more than the deep ball from the pocket? Could he display magical, fourth quarter heroics to earn some wins?
Before any of those things were answered the Bills brass invested in Taylor anyway, thankfully with one of the most team friendly deals imaginable.
Should Taylor fail to meet or exceed expectations, Buffalo can easily part ways with the quarterback ahead of the 2017 league year and only take on a minute dead cap hit of $2.85 million. However, by the third league day of 2017 Taylor’s $15.5 million prorated option bonus, $12 million 2017 base salary and $13 million 2018 base salary all become fully guaranteed. That’s $40.5 million dollars, a large chunk of change for any team to commit to a player, especially one that still has something to prove.
There’s no denying Taylor showed promise in Roman’s scheme over the last season plus. But through the first two games of the season he hasn’t taken the strides the team expected, and with that $40 million figure in the back of their minds the Bills front office has to be sure he’s really “the guy.”
No matter how many times Ryan reiterates that Roman is a “great” coach, his scheme was leaving much to be desired in regards to the progression of Tyrod Taylor.
Take it from Ryan himself; “I think Tyrod is an outstanding player. I believe his ability as a drop-back quarterback, as a quarterback that’s athletic, that we can do things with, I think he’s a rare talent and we have to do things that I think will showcase those abilities a little bit,” the second year head coach said on Friday. “He has some unique abilities and I think we kind of need to focus on those strengths and also try to develop what we perceive as a weakness.”
Those remarks are telling. In Roman’s scheme Taylor’s “unique abilities” weren’t being utilized and his growth as a QB was minimal. At least in Ryan’s eyes.
What remains to be seen is whether or not Taylor’s development has leveled off because he’s reached his ceiling or if he was simply being restricted by Roman’s system. That’s the $40 million question the Bills are looking to answer. And that’s why Roman became the scapegoat. Buffalo has too much potentially invested in Taylor. They want him to be the franchise quarterback they’ve coveted since Jim Kelly in the 90s, thus there was no way they could give up on him two games into the season. Roman bit the bullet instead.
Another aspect of this is Sammy Watkins, who Ryan also spoke of on Friday. “I think Sammy Watkins is a rare talent,” Ryan said. “I thought at the end of last year, I thought you know, we did a great job at getting them the football and I expect that we’re going to try to get him the football more and more.”
There’s a theme here. Just as he described Taylor as a “rare talent,” the exact same verbiage was used to characterize Watkins, adding that they want to get him the ball more. Rightfully so, his numbers over the last nine games of last season – as Ryan eluded to – were eye popping. 8.6 targets and 5.4 receptions per game, while piling up 900 yards and seven touchdowns. While the team’s record in that span was a game above .500, it’s no secret that good things happen when Watkins has the ball in his hands.
“The ground and pound, I know it was a thing that followed me—I want to be able to run the football, don’t get me wrong,” Ryan explained on Monday. “But I also think that we need to expand what we’re doing in the passing game. Not with a zillion plays or whatever, but getting good at certain aspects and take advantage of the players we have, especially on the outside.”
It’s hard to imagine that Roman didn’t comprehend what kind of weapon Watkins is and deliberately kept the ball from going his direction. But the stat sheets do suggest that the third-year wideout wasn’t much of a priority in the offense. In two games this season he’s been targeted only 11 times and made six receptions for 63 yards. Of course Watkins receives more attention from opposing defenses than say Greg Salas will. All the great receivers do. However, all the great receivers manage to make plays for their offense on a weekly basis.
Ultimately Roman’s demise was fueled by his inability to ripen Tyrod Taylor and incorporate Sammy Watkins in his run centric offense. In some respects Ryan deserves a bit of credit for adjusting the “ground-and-pound” philosophy that’s often superseded him, for the talented personnel on his roster.
With Roman now out of the picture though, Ryan has put all the pressure squarely on himself. There’s no one left to blame. And just as he’s taken ownership of everything else, he’ll have no choice but to do the same if the Bills continue to struggle.
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