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The Pro-Rex Ryan Argument

Rex Ryan’s sixth year as head coach of the Jets will almost certainly end the way each of his last three seasons ended: with New York missing the playoffs. While that lack of success often leads to a coach getting fired after just a couple of down seasons, Ryan’s career in New York — in many more ways than what will be described below — has been a unique one. If so inclined, one could argue that no coach has done more with less than Ryan.

To make that statement, one simply needs to define “more” as “win games” and “less” to mean “having an efficient passing offense.” From 2009 to 2013, the Jets averaged just 4.60 Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, which was 1.21 ANY/A below league average. That was the 2nd worst performance over that period, ahead (just barely) of the Cleveland Browns.1

The metric ANY/A correlates very strongly with winning percentage, but here’s the weird part: New York has averaged 8.4 wins per year over those five years, making the Jets a slightly above average team. For reference, the other four teams in the bottom five in ANY/A averaged just 5.6 wins per season. New York has been a crazy outlier: none of the other teams that ranked in the bottom 12 in ANY/A posted a winning record during that time span.

Take a look at the graph below. The Y-Axis shows wins per year, while the X-Axis depicts ANY/A relative to league average from 2009 to 2013. The Jets are the biggest outlier in that group, with only the Ravens coming anywhere near the Jets level of “overachievement.”

Rex anya

From 2009 to 2013, Ryan’s Jets far exceeded expectations, at least if one was to define expectations based purely on the team’s pass offense. But how does Ryan rate historically? I looked at every team season from 1970 to 2013, and noted each team’s winning percentage and Relative Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (i.e., ANY/A minus the league average ANY/A rate). As it turns out, an additional yard in ANY/A relative to league average is worth 1.756 wins. Think of it this way: a team with a league-average passing attack should be expected to win 8 games, while a team that’s 1.0 ANY/A above league average should finish with about 9.76 wins. To be expected to win 11 games, a team needs to finish about 1.71 ANY/A above league average.

In 2009, the Mark Sanchez-led passing attack finished with just a 3.96 ANY/A, which gave the Jets a Relative ANY/A of -1.69. Against that backdrop, New York would have been expected to win just 5.03 games; since the Jets won 9 games, the team (and Ryan) is credited with 3.97 wins above expectation. In fact, the Jets have “exceeded expectations” every full year of Ryan’s tenure:2


Over five years, the Jets won 12.7 more games than you would expect (based solely on the efficiency of the passing offense), or 2.54 more wins per year. Among head coaches from 1970 to 2013 who coached at least three full seasons, that +2.54 mark/year would place Ryan 4th among all coaches over that time period:

RkCoachRANY/AExp Wins/YrAct Wins/YrWins/Yr Above ExpSeasons
1Nick Skorich-1.235.858.863.014
2Lovie Smith-1.136.0292.989
3Jim Harbaugh0.769.3312.172.843
4Rex Ryan-1.225.868.42.545
5John Harbaugh-0.17.8210.332.516
6Brian Billick-0.816.578.892.329
7Red Miller0.088.1510.432.284
8John Madden0.919.5911.792.29
9Bill Cowher0.078.129.971.8515
10Neill Armstrong-1.335.677.51.834
11Mike Ditka-
12Chuck Noll-0.147.759.461.7222
13Tom Flores-0.547.048.631.5912
14Bum Phillips-0.846.728.221.5110.8
15Bud Grant0.478.8210.131.3115
16George Allen1.029.79111.218
17Jim Mora-0.86.597.751.164
18Tony Dungy0.889.5410.691.1513
19Andy Reid0.198.339.431.115
20Dan Devine-0.776.647.711.074
20Mike Tomlin0.619.0710.141.077
22Mike Smith0.589.01100.996
23Ray Malavasi-0.377.358.310.965
24John Fox-0.027.978.920.9512
24Bill Parcells0.
26Bill Belichick0.889.5410.470.9319
27Tom Landry0.959.6710.520.8519
28Marty Schottenheimer0.458.999.810.8320.5
29Buddy Ryan-0.477.1880.817
30Joe Gibbs0.729.2710.060.7916
31Dan Reeves-
32Mike Holmgren0.428.759.470.7317
33Barry Switzer0.739.28100.724
34Ray Rhodes-0.696.797.50.715
35Jim Fassel-0.177.718.360.657
35Don Shula1.129.9610.610.6526
37Marv Levy-
38Pete Carroll0.178.298.880.588
39Eric Mangini-
40Ken Whisenhunt-0.576.997.50.516

Nick Skorich was the Browns head coach from 1971 to 1974; during that span, his offenses were about as anemic as Ryan’s Jets, but he managed to win 55% of his games with the Browns. The rest of the top five is populated by active coaches. The Harbaugh brothers have been incredibly successful in Baltimore and San Francisco; it’s even more impressive considering that both have far outstripped expectations based solely on passing performance.

Perhaps the best comparison to Ryan is Lovie Smith. The former Bears coach, like Ryan, was able to build great defenses in Chicago. But like Smith, Ryan has been unable to extract positive production out of the quarterback position. Things have not been any better in 2014: for the third straight year, the Jets rank in the bottom five in both passing touchdowns and interceptions.3 Ryan has been through two general managers (Mike Tannenbaum and John Idzik), three offensive coordinators (Marty Mornhinweg, Tony Sparano, and Brian Schottenheimer), two quarterbacks (Geno Smith and Sanchez), and a myriad of offensive skill position players. The two constants have been terrible passing attacks and Ryan. He may be one of the best coaches at winning despite poor quarterback play, but solving the quarterback position riddle is the most important part of a head coach’s job. In that area, Ryan has failed beyond a shadow of a doubt.

  1. And from 2009 through eight weeks of the 2014 season, no team has a worse ANY/A average than New York. []
  2. That streak, of course, is in jeopardy now, with the Jets 1-7. Although New York again ranks 32nd in ANY/A. []
  3. To be clear, ranking in the bottom five here means having the most amount of interceptions. []
  • Gerrit

    I really enjoyed that “the pro Rex Ryan argument” ended by calling him a failure at the most important part of the job.

    • Chase Stuart

      Weird, eh?

  • Ben

    If Sanchez and Geno fail outside of NY doesn’t it stand to reason that the team’s failures are not Ryan’s fault?

    • Chase Stuart

      A couple of issues there.

      1) Maybe, but not necessarily. Had those players been properly developed at a young age, could they have turned into average QBs?

      2) We have not seen either Sanchez or Geno fail outside of NY, so it’s a moot question for now.

      3) Still no. The Jets gave Sanchez 4 (nearly 5, if you include 2013) years. That long of a rope is itself an issue.

  • Two unnecessarily long questions.

    1. Ultimately, does Rex deserve mostly praise for winning with terrible QB play, or mostly blame for the inability to develop a QB?

    Maybe Rex really does know how to develop a QB, but his QBs have just plain sucked. I don’t know about Sanchez and Smith (I do believe they were both overdrafted), but I have seen Vick play elsewhere. Aside from a brief stretch in 2010, there is nothing in his history to suggest he is worthy of starting for any NFL team. While he still has highlight plays in him, the majority of his career is a big rotten egg pickled in mediocrity.

    2. When Rex inevitably gets fired, here would be his best fit? Not necessarily where do you believe he will go, but where do you believe he should go?

    I believe he would be an upgrade at HC for several teams. Excluding teams with newish coaches, I think he’d be an improvement for: PIT, MIA, OAK, GNB, and ATL. If he could go somewhere with an established quarterback, I think he could have incredible success. I imagine he could work wonders with Green Bay’s defensive personnel, and only a truly incompetent OC could screw up an offense with Aaron Rodgers. (So) that’s my personal pick: The Packers.

    • Richie

      I had the same question #1.

      In regards to #2, I am a Dolphins fan and I’d take Ryan in a heartbeat. So many people hate Rex Ryan. I don’t really understand why. I guess because he is a loudmouth? I’ve always kind of liked loudmouth coaches for some reason.

      I was watching NFL Films Present this week and Rex was on. He said that his players told him all his boasting was putting additional pressure on them, and he said he’s been trying to tone things down a bit recently.

      • Chase Stuart

        Just to add a bit on #1 – if magically the Jets decided to keep Rex Ryan, and then the Jets drafted say, Marcus Mariota, would your view on Mariota’s pro prospects come crashing down? I know mine would, and that’s the main reason the Jets will move on from Rex. How can you give Rex Ryan another rookie QB? What evidence would there be to think he wouldn’t completely mess it up?

        I’m not a huge Philbin fan, so Rex may be an improvement there. I’ll say one thing, though, that’s yet another indictment on Rex. If he went to become the HC of a division rival, I wouldn’t be afraid. I’d say “oh, that team will probably come up with some great game plan to beat the Jets if the Jets are ever good, but they’re also going to be maddeningly inconsistent all the time, so whatever.”

    • Chase Stuart

      1. That’s the Rex argument in a nutshell. I think winning with terrible QB play is interesting, but not necessarily praise-worthy. It reminds me of when Jeff Fisher would go 7-9 with bad teams and be praised for his great coaching. Sure, it’s better than the alternative, but I take a more big picture view with Rex: in six years, how has the offense never improved? It somehow is … maybe, just possibly… worse than ever? I wouldn’t even think that possible. If you are the head coach, seeing as how offense is 60% of the game, getting that part right should be pretty high on the priority list. If nothing else, Rex has done a very underwhelming job when it comes to finding OCs, which is critically important for a defensive coach.

      2. I don’t think he’s a best fit as a HC, but if he is a HC, it should be with a veteran team ready to win now. Development does not appear to be Rex’s strong suit (neither is in-game strategy). I could see him adding something to an Atlanta as a head coach, but I think his best fit is as a DC. His brother did one of the greatest one-year turnarounds in history last year: could Rex do the same for a team? Quite possibly. GB would be a very interesting fit, although the Packers have been pretty decent on defense this year. Giving Rex Matthews and Peppers would be kind of unfair, tho, and very fun to watch.

  • roger

    Why single out the one area of a coach’s responsibility in which he does worst, and credit him for how relatively well he does in others? If you looked at expected wins based on opponents’ RANY/A I suspect Ryan would be underperforming as much as he is overperforming based on own RANY/A. BTW does anyone remember how lucky the Jets were to even be in the playoffs in 2009? (Does the name Curtis Painter ring a bell?)

    • Richie

      Yeah, I was thinking about this as well. How does Ryan’s defensive ANY/A allowed compare to the rest of the league during this period?

    • Chase Stuart

      Because the title of the post is the Pro-Rex Ryan argument! We’re trying to make Rex look good!

      Seriously, tho, there is a vocal group (minority? plurality?) of people who think Rex is a great coach being held down by terrible QB play, and the terrible QB play is not his fault. I thought this would be an interesting way to investigate that claim. The view here would be anybody could win games with Peyton Manning at quarterback; what’s really impressive is that Rex has won with terrible QB play. Again, I’m not suggesting that’s my view, but that’s the Pro-Rex Ryan argument in a nut shell.

  • After reading Roger’s comment, I went ahead and ran a bunch of regressions to see how many estimated wins each team should have based on several stats. Here is how Rex Ryan stacks up based on the results (category: wins over expectation):

    Passer RatingO: +14.6
    Passer RatingD: -22.5
    PR Differential: +1.6
    ANY/A Offense: +20.8
    ANY/A Defense: -16.8
    ANY/A Diffrntl: +10.6
    Adj Yds/Play O: +9.4
    Adj Yds/Play D: -16.2
    AY/P Diffrntl: +8.3
    Offense DVOA: +8.3
    Defense DVOA: -11.2
    Total DVOA: +1.4

    So basically, he’s won more games than you’d expect him to win with his bad offenses and fewer games than you’d expect him to win with his great defenses. Also, differences in the ANY/A numbers are based on a different timeframe and the fact that I use 50 instead of 45 to penalize picks.

    • Chase Stuart

      Thanks, Bryan. There’s no mystery about the Jets under Rex, at least prior to 2014: very good on D, very bad on O. I think the Pro-Rex group would look at this list and say “see! He’s won 14.6 more games than he “should” have won with the awful offense he’s been saddled with, and that’s because having Rex is so advantageous to a defense. He adds 3 wins a year!” As for the -22.5, they would just use that as evidence that the terrible talent on O has cost the Jets and Rex 22.5 wins.

  • Awesome points. This seems to me the perfect way to show what Rex has been able to accomplish despite his QB play. On how much blame to assign him for failing to develop a QB, I’m with the idea that his QBs have just plain sucked and nobody was going to be able to squeeze much blood from those stones. Sanchez projected poorly coming out of college, Smith seemed to me to also project poorly once you accounted for his surrounding talent and YAC at WVU (also seems to not exactly be Russell Wilson or even Sanchez in the charisma department), and Vick is both inefficient and done. Give those guys to Bill Belichick and I don’t think he does any better.

    You can blame Ryan for wanting Sanchez, I guess. If I was a GM, though, I’d want Rex Ryan and would just pick the QB myself.

    • Ajit

      AS Neil Payne’s and my own research(which should come out come draft day) will show – no one can outpick their draft slot. Given that, what evidence is there that a Head Coach directly leads to developing a qb? If that is the prevailing argument, you should never hire a defensive minded head coach. Frankly, drafting a qb bust in the first round isn’t really that surprising and then having a failed 2nd round pick is actually more the norm than anything else.

      Beware what you wish for Chase, you might just get a team that now has a bad defense to go with a horrid offense.

      • Chase Stuart

        The head coach need not directly develop the QB. He just needs to not have Matt Cavanaugh and Brian Schottenheimer and David Lee and Tony Sparano on staff. Building a great staff is one of the hallmarks of a great coach, and that’s been as big a black hole for the Jets as any.

        • Ajit

          I remember Mike Greenberg asked Jaworksi after the lions game if the Jets offense was the problem or Geno was the problem. Ron said he would go back and look over the film and did. When he came back, his response was succinct – geno is just not pulling the trigger. He doesn’t get a clear picture of what he’s seeing. Marty did a good job with route concepts in the red zone, but Geno is flunking the test.

          I must confess, I’ve been an RR backer ever since 09, when the Jets led a pass defensive dvoa that was higher than the Seahawks last year, using the likes of Lowry, Coleman, Strickland, and Leonard. Yes they had Revis, but how they managed that is beyond me.

          • Chase Stuart

            Sure, Ryan’s job with the Jets pass defense was outstanding in 2009. But how long can we cling to that? What about Ryan’s job this year? Sure, the secondary talent is bad — okay, really bad — but does that excuse a 22 TD/1 INT ratio? What’s the argument here: if the Jets had a bad defensive coach, the pass defense would allow… well, 22/1 is already about as bad as it gets.

            Ryan did an A+ job with the defense in 2009. There’s no doubt about that. But that was a very long time ago. In 2009, Brad Childress went 12-4. Four straight years of no playoffs matters a lot more to me than what happened six years ago.

            • Ajit

              That’s fair, though you would expect regression to the mean on that, no? The seahawks defense led the league in ints and I believe have struggled since then to get them. Ints are pretty year to year unless you’re the Patriots or the old Bears.

              Here’s my point in a nutshell. To me, and this is probably something you will disagree with, but to me, talent is exogenous. You either hit on the pick or you don’t. Some teams maintain sustained success either because they hit on a bunch right away and that core keeps them afloat or they have an elite qb. In that light, RR has done a good job maximizing the talent he’s had. If you want to blame him for personnel decisions, that’s fine, but then you really need to be hiring a strong gm and removing those duties from Rex(something Idzick was supposed to be doing).

              Let me ask you this. Even if the Jets kept RR, would you expect the same disaster season next year? They will likely spend on upgrades in the secondary, linebacker, and o line and have a highly drafted qb. Tell me what you’d expect from the Jets then?

    • Chase Stuart

      Thanks, Andrew. Yes, it seemed like a good way for me to present the data, too, so I must be doing something right if you’re agreeing with me.

      OTOH, it’s fine to say that the QBs just plain sucked, but Rex was instrumental in obtaining Sanchez and I suspect he was pretty instrumental in drafting Geno (if Rex wasn’t, this means he wanted a 5th year of Sanchez!). If I was the head coach of the Jets, finding a QB would be pretty high on my priority list. It does not seem to be high on Ryan’s priority list. That is a huge problem.

      Rex has had a significant hand in framing this roster, which is the overlooked point in many of the discussions. The Jets didn’t use six straight first round picks on DLs and DBs by coincidence.

      The other part you’re ignoring is quarterback development. While the draft may be a crapshoot, nobody has ever been able to untangle development from drafting skill. Is a guy a bust because the GM whiffed, or because the coaching staff failed to develop the player? The issue with the Jets is under Rex, there’s been basically no notable development of any offensive players in six years. To put it another way, if the Jets drafted Russell Wilson in 2012, I’d say he’d be closer to Geno Smith-quality than Russell Wilson quality right now.

      • Ajit

        I might be inclined to agree, but Marty has a pretty strong track record and the jets offense, as you say, is still abysmal. I would submit that once you have a black hole at the qb position, everything else on offense just looks irrelevant(see houston last year). In fact, Kubiak has a pretty solid reputation as an offensive mind and that didn’t stop houston’s offense from going off a cliff.

        Firing RR makes sense from a PR standpoint. If I were running the jets and my goal was to build a winner as best as I could, I would take away RR’s personnel decision-making(something holmgren allowed in Seattle) and then draft a qb and a solid qb coach. Then hope for some good signings in FA at Corner and the Oline.

  • I think the graph shows us the “problem” with this approach: While the Jets fit the case of “the other compensate save the Pass O’s troubles”, most other teams that are above the line don’t. Indy had some great QB play over those years, save for one season. Nobody would assume Atlantas Defense has compensated for Matt Ryan’s troubles. Same thing goes for New England.

    So while the plotting is interesting, I think we need to filter out the “wins” that you get because you have a good QB too: I think teams with a lot of close wins tend do well with fourth quarter comeback wins, which are often the function of a good QB working together with a bad Defense, which is the opposite of what we try to prove about Rex. Maybe if we combine the regression ith defensive ANY/A over average? Maybe that way we can filter out the “Comeback QBs compensating for their bad D” cases.

  • calling all toasters

    To say that Ryan did well except for QB play is like saying the Maginot Line saved France except for the Belgian border.

    Also, the Jets have had a worse point differential each year after Ryan’s first. Shouldn’t the fact that the team is now a smoking ruin play a part in the analysis?

    • Ajit

      My question is – which coaches do you think would have done better? Even Andy Reid couldn’t “save” Mike Vick. I don’t think there’s any coach who could make the hide the secondary any better.

      Frankly, I’ve seen many coaches get undermined by poor offense and terrible qb play. Until someone shows me conclusively that RR is specifically sabotaging the offense, I’ll assume RR is suffering the same disease, a lack of a competent nfl quarterback.

  • AQB

    Being a fan of the Eagles during the Buddy Ryan era, this discussion just brings me back. Many of the same issues. Although Buddy had superior talent on defense and had a disdain for offenses including his own. DC hubris runs deep with the Ryans. I’d imagine many confident defensive minded coaches feel their defense can win games for them just as long as the offense doesn’t screw it up. But as a head coach, it is essential that you understand the importance of both sides of the LOS and how they impact the other. Not to say they are ignorant to that fact, but the Ryans over-value their ability to affect the game. That being said, I’d love to have RR on a team with an equally confident (if not arrogant) OC.