They say a good coach plays chess while everybody else plays checkers. If that holds true, consider Rex Ryan the next Bobby Fisher.
Roughly four weeks ago when the Buffalo Bills colorful head coach fired offensive coordinator Greg Roman, he said emphatically: “This is my move, without question.”
This is a man known for his risk-taking defense and pedal-to-the-metal blitzing, so maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised when he went on such a limb. And look, he’s not at checkmate yet, not after six games.
But by sacrificing that rook – under Roman, the Bills offense seemed only to go sideways – Ryan has Buffalo in prime position.
The Bills are 4-0 since the move, with high-profile wins against Arizona and at New England and Los Angeles. The offense is humming behind Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy and the defense is playing the way a Rex Ryan team is accustomed.
“We haven’t played our perfect game by any means, but guys have definitely gone out there and made plays in the running game and the passing game,” Taylor said. “We’re learning each other weekly, taking it one day at a time. I think we’re definitely taking steps in the right direction.”
Under Roman, the highest-paid offensive coordinator in the league at the time of his dismissal, the Bills weren’t exactly treading water. Last season, they ranked 12th in the league in scoring and 13th in total offense under a first-year starter (Taylor) who’d thrown just 35 passes in his NFL career up to that point. With the multipurpose Taylor and an effective backfield featuring McCoy and a then-svelte Karlos Williams, the Bills led the league in rushing with 152 yards per game.
They opened the 2016 season with a resounding thud, however.
Buffalo’s Week 1 13-7 loss to Baltimore was a case study in offensive ineptitude: Buffalo managed 160 total yards, converted only 3 of 13 third downs, had 95 passing yards and only 65 rushing yards and averaged 3.3 yards per play.
They improved in a Week 2 37-31 loss to the New York Jets – Taylor had 297 passing yards and 3 touchdowns – but the running game was stuck in neutral, with McCoy’s 59 yards leading an 86-rushing-yard performance. Roman was jettisoned the following Friday.
At the time, Ryan was resolute.
“I think we need a change,” Ryan said after making the decision. “I think we have a lot of talent on offense. I believe that. I believe we’re going to do what we can to put the ball in our playmakers’ hands. I think Anthony will do that.”
Anthony – as in new offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, Ryan’s running backs coach going back to 2008 with the New York Jets – has done that.
Lynn is calling McCoy’s number early and often, and the shifty back nicknamed Shady appears to be rejuvenated. Once the apple of Chip Kelly’s eye in Philadelphia, and the league’s top rusher, McCoy fell off last year in his first injury-filled season in Buffalo after an offseason trade with the Eagles.
He’s a new man now, with 3 100-yard performances in the last four weeks, including 290 rushing yards the last two weeks. And it’s not as if his workload has increased dramatically – he had 16 carries in Week 1, 15 in week 2 and anywhere between 17 and 19 the last four weeks.
McCoy is simply doing better with the ball under Lynn, finding more creases as the offensive focus has shifted back to the running game.
“The guys up front, they are really getting their blocks,” McCoy said. “They are all locking together.”
The clearest indication of Buffalo’s offensive reinvention: third-down conversions.
After going 6 of 23 the first two weeks, the Bills have steadily progressed: 4 of 13 in a Week 3 win against Arizona, 7 of 15 in a Week 4 win against New England and 12 of 25 the last two weeks in twin throttlings of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The showing against the 49ers in a 45-16 win Sunday may mark the high point: The 45 points is their most since 2010 and the team’s 312 rushing yards were its most in 24 years.
“If you want to give any game balls out today, give them to the offensive line,” McCoy said on Sunday after tallying 140 yards. “They whopped them up and down the field. They made my job real easy. They’re on a roll. They’re on a big roll.”
The Bills will have a big test in Week 9 with a Monday night showdown at Seattle and the Legion of Boom defense.
If Buffalo has a good showing there, well …
Forget checkmate. We’ll call it a Rexmate.