Rex Ryan has been around the block. His résumé as a defensive coordinator is as impressive as it is extensive. But could the 60-year-old coach who’s been relegated to a role breaking the game down on TV make a comeback at the game’s highest level? And why would someone with a cushy broadcasting gig want to jump feet-first back into this stressful game?
Who Is Rex Ryan?
The last time Ryan was a defensive coordinator, his defenses finished sixth, first, sixth, and second in Football Outsider’s DVOA. He first became a defensive coordinator back in 1989 with New Mexico Highlands, a Division II school. From there, he continued to work his way up the ladder as one of the leaders in defensive innovation.
- Morehead State (1990–1993)
- Arizona Cardinals (1994–1995)
Defensive Line & Linebackers Coach
- Cincinnati (1996–1997)
- Oklahoma (1998)
- Baltimore Ravens (1999–2004)
Defensive Line Coach
- Baltimore Ravens (2005–2007)
- Baltimore Ravens (2008)
Assistant Head Coach & Defensive Coordinator
Ryan wasn’t finished calling the defense when he became the New York Jets head coach in 2009, either. If new Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton were to hire Ryan, he’d bring in a coordinator with significant play-calling experience. Payton would also be hiring someone who has been able to take a 30,000-foot view of the game since leaving it in 2016.
Ryan was perfect for the modern media landscape from 2017 on. He’s never been afraid to say his piece, and his blunt and critical attitude often caused a ruckus among those watching his ESPN appearances. He’s undoubtedly making decent coin with the worldwide leader in sports, so why would he want the stress involved with coaching again?
Why Make a Comeback Now?
The answer is simple. Coaches are arrogant. They have to be. And it’s as difficult for a coach to kick their feet up in retirement as it is for a player. Ryan was canned at his last two stops. Nobody wants to go out like that.
And what better opportunity to show the world you’re not just a loud mouthpiece on television than to return to the league and have success at the highest level once again? And what better opportunity will Ryan have than a defense that just finished ninth in EPA and, for a while, was playing like the best defense in the NFL?
If Ryan continues with his odd-front ways, the Broncos are a great personnel fit for how he likes to attack with his fronts. In other words, the stars aligned for Ryan, who has gotten to sit patiently in the shadows, waiting to pounce on the right opportunity.
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There’s always a chance the game has passed an old ball coach by, but Ryan and his brother Rob were always a bit more forward-thinking than many regarding coverage deployment. Defenses are becoming more complex as offenses started bludgening static coverages. Players who grew up in that era are almost completely phased out, as college defenses have continued evolving at rapid rates.
In other words, as long as Ryan has been doing his homework, he should have no problem modernizing his defensive philosophy to make sure there aren’t glaring holes in his run fits or coverage schemes.
Ryan’s hinted that he’d like to return to the NFL, dating back to 2019, while on air with Get Up!
In a ‘Who You Know’ League, Payton and Ryan Never Crossed Paths
The thing that makes Ryan’s potential employment interesting is that he and Payton have never crossed paths during their coaching careers. Likewise, they never worked together on television. Rex’s brother Rob was the Saints’ defensive coordinator from 2013-2015.
However, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell Payton looks back on that time fondly. Ryan’s defenses finished seventh, 27th, and dead last in DVOA in his three seasons as the Saints’ defensive play-caller. And while the two are almost undoubtedly acquainted through a lifetime serving in the NFL, coaches usually hire those closer to them.
In the end, Ryan was practically bred to coach. His father, Buddy, was the architect of the famed ’85 Bears defense. Coaching football is in his blood. And although he was an entertaining television analyst, I’m sure Ryan wants nothing more than to get back on the sidelines and prove time hasn’t passed him by.