Rex Ryan will not be the next head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, and instead will stay in the AFC East to coach the Buffalo Bills.
This thwarts the rumors that have surrounded both Ryan and the Falcons since the beginning of October, when Bleacher Report’s Jason Cole was the first one on record to make the link between the two parties. Since then, CBS Sports Jason La Canfora and New York Daily News‘ Manish Mehta were also quick to make the connection. Reading those reports and others, one might have thought the Falcons’ other coaching interviews were just a mere formality before they ultimately dubbed Ryan to be Mike Smith’s replacement.
I never quite bought into that hype. Not because I didn’t believe that Ryan couldn’t be the Falcons’ next head coach. He certainly could have been, but I’ve been around the block quite a few times over the years. And generally speaking, the coaching carousel is much like a foot race. The person who takes the early lead eventually runs out of steam down the home stretch and someone else emerges as the winner.
The Falcons probably did have a lot of interest in Ryan during the season when most of the aforementioned reports emerged. At that point, Ryan was the most well-known commodity. He had interviewed twice for the Falcons coaching position prior to 2008, had been a semi-successful NFL head coach in the seven years since and was almost certainly going to be available given the New York Jets poor play this year. And if one presumes that the source for many of those earlier reports was Ryan’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, then apparently there was mutual interest from Ryan in coming to Atlanta.
But what may be seem the likeliest candidate in October or December isn’t necessarily going to remain the same in January. Since those first reports, the Falcons hired search firm Korn Ferry and former Browns CEO Joe Banner to consult. That additional input could have steered Falcons owner Arthur Blank in a different direction than Ryan.
Lack of Patience For Slow Process Blocked Ryan
Effectively, a lack of patience is probably the biggest reason why Ryan is in Buffalo instead of Atlanta. This year has featured an uncharacteristically slow process for coaching. It’s rare to go more than a week after “Black Monday” before a couple of jobs get filled. It’s been two weeks since the most recent Black Monday, and only one of six vacancies have been filled. By this same point a year ago, four of seven vacancies had been filled.
As I outlined in last week’s takeaways column, the Falcons’ coaching process would not likely come to a quick conclusion. The timeline was likely going to take three weeks. Two weeks to conduct first round interviews and a third week to conduct a second set of interviews with a handful of finalists. That puts the potential “deadline” for when the Falcons make their final decision to be next weekend at the earliest.
And it was doubtful that the Falcons would stray from that, especially for a coach like Ryan. Ryan is a noted defensive guru, but it’s not as if the Falcons weren’t looking at other good defensive coaches. Particularly Dan Quinn, Todd Bowles and Teryl Austin, all of whom’s recent exploits tend to outweigh what Ryan has done recently.
Reports indicate that Ryan didn’t believe that Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff “was in his corner.” There’s some difficulty to discern what that statement exactly means. Dimitroff did peg Ryan as one of his four hand-picked finalists for the Falcons job in 2008 prior to hiring Mike Smith so it’s doubtful that Dimitroff was actually against Ryan. Instead it likely means that Ryan wasn’t Dimitroff’s first choice.
McDaniels’ Internal Support Matters Little
Some reports indicate that Dimitroff’s preferred choice is New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. But in reality, the person that may be Dimitroff’s top choice is none other than Smith. Had the decision been solely up to Dimtroff, it’s possible that Smith would have never been fired by the Falcons.
But it’s clear that choice is not solely up to Dimitroff, and instead Blank is the one that is leading this search. Dimitroff, newly promoted personnel director Scott Pioli, Korn Ferry and Banner certainly have their input into the matter, but ultimately Blank is going to be the one making the decision. After all, the new head coach is expected to report to Blank, not Dimitroff.
Hurting Ryan’s chances was how the Falcons process got delayed by the death of Blank’s mother earlier this week. Instead of interviewing Austin and Bowles this past Wednesday and Thursday, Blank was making funeral arrangements for his mother. That pushed those interviews back to Friday and Saturday, respectively. And during that time, Ryan turned his attention to Buffalo.
Blank is thorough and isn’t going to make rash decisions. It’s why whenever the team has a big decision or hire to make, he’s quick to hire outside consultants. Bobby Beathard helped Blank when he first bought the team in 2002. Ernie Accorsi helped the team find Dimitroff in 2008. Blank hasn’t fired Rich McKay, because he likes the input and knowledge that he can add to the mix even if McKay is getting far more usage from his law degree than his past as a GM nowadays.
It appears that Ryan and his camp wanted the Falcons to move quickly on him, or else they would go to Buffalo. It also appears that Blank and the Falcons weren’t willing to do that. To one that may be “dragging their feet” but to others that may just be being thorough and calculated. It’s a big decision, and the Falcons aren’t going to abandon their process simply because Ryan would like an answer sooner rather than later.
When news broke Sunday morning that Ryan was headed to Buffalo, I kept reading how that signaled that McDaniels is going to wind up being the Falcons next head coach. But that’s a fairly big leap to make based off very limited information.
First of all, the La Canfora’s earlier report that Pioli and Dimitroff were “championing” McDaniels was prior to the front office restructure that occurred last week. In fact, a key aspect of that report was the implication that hiring McDaniels would have a “significant bearing” on the structure of the front office moving forward.
Well thanks to hindsight, we can now say that wasn’t the case. Blank already moved forward with his front-office restructure, presumably because none of the potential candidates balked at working with both either Dimitroff and Pioli.
The other thing that makes me reluctant to prop McDaniels up as the front-runner moving forward is simply timing. McDaniels’ Patriots are still in the playoffs and likely to be the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. If so, then it’s presumably going to be another two weeks before the Falcons can conduct a face-to-face interview with McDaniel. It doesn’t seem likely that the Falcons are going to be willing to wait another week or two before they can interview him again, assuming they have the opportunity to do so before the Super Bowl. And that might go for Seattle’s Dan Quinn, who may lose out on another chance to interview given the Seahawks’ success. But Denver’s Adam Gase might now get a second interview now that his team has been eliminated from the playoffs.
If it was up to Dimitroff or Pioli, the Falcons might wait for McDaniels. But again, it’s not since it’s Blank’s decision.
Bowles and Austin Potentially Move Atop Falcons List
And with that said, Blank is likely to make a decision before February given two promising candidates in Bowles and Austin. Presumably, those are probably the front-runners moving forward with Gase potentially in the mix as well. The Falcons have yet to schedule second interviews with either candidate as of this writing Sunday afternoon, but it seems likely that we’ll hear something by Monday evening at the latest.
Most people don’t know a lot about either guy. And if I’m being honest, I don’t know a ton either. Here’s what I do know:
Bowles played safety for eight seasons in the NFL from 1987-93, mainly with the Washington Redskins. He earned a Super Bowl ring as a second-year starter on the 1987 Redskins team. That professional experience is meaningful to a large number of NFL players because it’s something that a coach can relate to.
During his playing days, Bowles befriended former Redskins quarterback Doug Williams. When the latter got his first head-coaching gig at Morehouse in 1997, Bowles got his first job as a defensive coordinator. He followed Williams to Grambling State a year later, before getting the chance to coach the New York Jets’ defensive backs in 2000. He served under head coach Al Groh, but also served alongside Mike Nolan, who coordinated the Jets defense. Groh left New York for the University of Virginia the following year, and Bowles moved on to coach the Cleveland Browns’ defensive backs alongside current Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano. Bowles hooked back up with Bruce Arians in Cleveland, as the latter was the Browns offensive coordinator under head coach Butch Davis. Bowles first encountered Arians during his college playing days at Temple, when Bowles was a defensive team captain and Arians was a young head coach. Bowles also worked with current Falcons wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie in Cleveland.
After Cleveland, Bowles joined Bill Parcells’ staff with the Dallas Cowboys in 2005. He worked under defensive coordinators Mike Zimmer for two seasons and Wade Phillips for one. Sean Payton, Tony Sparano and Todd Haley were also on those Cowboys staffs.
Then when Sparano got the head gig with the Miami Dolphins in 2008, Bowles followed him there. He would reunite with Nolan in Miami in 2010, and eventually take over for the final three games as interim head coach after Sparano was fired in 2011. The Dolphins went 2-1 under Bowles.
Then he left for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2012 to coach under Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Juan Castillo. Castillo proved a disaster and Bowles took over for him midseason. It wasn’t a good situation for Bowles, although they didn’t really improve much.
In six games under Castillo, the Eagles allowed 20.8 points and 330.8 yards per game. In the final 10 games with Bowles calling the shots, they allowed 31.9 points and 350.6 yards per game.
While the numbers suggest the defense was worse under Bowles, several Eagles players have only positive things to say about Bowles from his stint there coordinating the defense. Bowles was considered an up-and-comer when he was hired by the Eagles and his scheme was different and more aggressive than Castillo’s.
Bowles Brings Experience and Aggression
Bowles then rejoined Arians in Arizona in 2013 and has produced two top defenses the past two years. His star really rose this year due to all the injuries and adversity the Cardinals faced early in the season. Linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended and injuries put pass-rushers Darnell Dockett and John Abraham out for the year early. The team lost linebacker Karlos Dansby in free agency this offseason, but added cornerback Antonio Cromartie. Cromartie was able to resurrect his career in Bowles’ aggressive, man-heavy defensive scheme. Larry Foote stepped in at inside linebacker and performed well at times. Alex Okafor stepped up as well to help offset Abraham’s loss at times. The Cardinals managed to play at a high level throughout 2014 despite not having the most talented front seven. Their strength was their secondary, where players like Cromartie, Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and Deone Bucannon, all former first-round picks allowed Bowles to dial up aggressive blitzes.
Bowles would potentially try to bring similar things. A strong secondary that would allow him to call an aggressive defense. That doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t invest in playmakers and pass-rushers up front, but it’s hard to be aggressive if you don’t have reliable players on the back end.
Bowles’ personality has been described as player friendly, a good mix of low-key confidence and a fiery-when-necessary demeanor.
As for Austin, he’s even lesser known of the two. This past season with the Lions was his only as a defensive coordinator at the NFL level. His biggest claim to fame is taking what had been often labeled a talented, but underachieving defensive unit under ex-Lions head coach Jim Schwartz into what was the league’s best defense for most of 2014.
Prior to landing in Detroit, Austin spent three years coaching the secondary of the Baltimore Ravens under John Harbaugh and defensive coordinators Pagano and Dean Pees. The Ravens pass defense was one of the better units in the league over that span.
His only other experience as a coordinator came in 2010 at the University of Florida, producing one of the countries better units. Future first-round picks in Dominique Easley, Sharrif Floyd, Janoris Jenkins and Matt Elam were part of that Florida defense. Jon Bostic, Will Hill and Josh Evans were also members of that defense that are currently starters in the NFL.
Prior to his gig at Florida, Austin coached defensive backs under head coaches Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona (2007-09) and Mike Holmgren in Seattle (2003-06). In Arizona, he helped develop players like Antrel Rolle and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, while he worked with Marcus Trufant in Seattle.
Prior to that, Austin was an assistant in college at Michigan, Syracuse, Wake Forest and Penn State. Like Bowles, he did play a bit of pro ball, but never quite stuck in the NFL. His only pro experience came in the World League in 1991, following a playing career at the University of Pittsburgh.
Austin Adds Adaptability and Intelligence
For Austin, don’t look askance at his lack of coordinator experience. He’s an up-and-comer noted for his intelligence and ability to make adjustments and is considered player friendly. A comparison one might make is to Mike Tomlin, who had only coordinated for one year before the Pittsburgh Steelers hired him in 2007.
Austin’s recent success in Detroit came thanks to improving what on paper was an underwhelming secondary. But safety Glover Quin earned a trip to the Pro Bowl, veterans Rashean Mathis and James Ihedigbo looked a bit sprier and youngster Darius Slay performed wlel in his first full season as a starter.
But the heart of that Lions defense was their front where defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Ziggy Ansah headlined a dominant front. Suh and Ansah not only were able to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks but played well against the run.
It’s likely that Austin would likely attempt to repeat that here in Atlanta, with the strength being the front. That was the case in Detroit, as it was in Baltimore when that team had players like Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Haloti Ngata anchoring their front.
People have had their eyes on Bowles for a couple of years, and now attention is turning towards Austin. As far as I’m concerned, I’d be happy with either candidate. Just from watching a couple of online interviews, I think Austin has probably a bit more of an engaging personality and media presence. And that coupled with the fact that he hails from my alma mater probably means that I’d have a preference for him, but I of course realize that those are two minor, trivial issues.
There’s a chance that someone like Gase besides Bowles or Austin winds up being the Falcons coach, but at this point it doesn’t appear to be a likelihood. I think the fact that both are African-Americans helps both Bowles and Austin. I’ve mentioned before that isn’t necessarily a criteria for being hired, but it certainly could be seen as a bonus in some eyes given the demographics of the Atlanta metro area.
Blank is a savvy business man, obvious from the fact that he’s one of the richest men in America. Not only is he compelled to hire the best man for the job, but he also understands that he has to sell a product. With looming personal seat licenses, that latter fact comes to the forefront.
Regardless of how some might feel about it, announcing the hiring of the franchise’s first legitimate black head coach in the organization’s 50th season of existence is a headline-grabber. Ultimately, it’ll boil down to what happens on the field as opposed to offseason headlines to determine if either Bowles or Austin is the right man.
But Bowles and Austin seem to have what it takes to get the job done when the time comes and I believe there’s a good chance by the time I write my next column next Monday that one of them will be standing up in front of podium answering questions from local media.