Great coaching performances in professional sports usually are discovered in hindsight. We have to look back and see what sort of material a coach had at the time in order to gain perspective on what was accomplished.
I think of a couple of specific coaching performances along those lines. In 1996-97, the Buffalo Sabres' leading scorer was Derek Plante, followed by Brian Holzinger. The top goal-scorer was Jason Dawe. Those were three decent NHL players, but they would be the first to tell you that they weren't Crosby or Ovechkin. Ted Nolan won a division title and a playoff series with that lineup.
In 2009, the New York Jets had a rookie quarterback in Mark Sanchez. He threw for 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions ... and the Jets made it to the AFC Championship game under rookie coach Rex Ryan. A year later, Sanchez was a bit better, but not brilliant - 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Not bad, but no one was comparing him with Tom Brady yet ... and at least from a 2015 perspective, they never will. Again, the Jets reached the AFC Championship game.
There obviously were other factors involved in those seasons. For the Sabres, Dominik Hasek was at the peak of his powers, playing at an MVP level. The Jets, meanwhile, had an excellent defense - especially in 2009. That unit played a big role in winning four road playoff games in two years. Few other teams have done that. Nevertheless, the coaches get some credit when things go well, and the blame when they don't.
It appears that Nolan and Ryan will have something else in common in the near future. Ryan is about to take over as coach of the Bills, while Nolan is "back" with the Sabres. That means both will be drawing paychecks authorized by Terry Pegula.
If Pegula wanted to serve notice that "things have changed since I took over the Bills," hiring Ryan is far better, and much louder, than issuing a news release.
For some reason, Ralph Wilson soured on big-name coaches, and paying them big-time salaries, at some point after Chuck Knox left after the 1982 season. It's certainly been a mixed bag since then. The best pick was obviously Marv Levy; Bills' fans probably can come up with their own pick of who their least favorite coach of the past 32 years is. Wilson never would have hired Ryan, and never would have paid him $27.5 million over five years.
Speaking of differences, Ryan has more personality than the last few Bills' coaches combined. How many of those non-Levy Bills' coaches over the years gave the impression that they'd be interesting dinner companions, let alone quotable in a football setting? Ryan gets two checks there as well. He is bound to attract national attention and put the Bills back on the map in that sense for the first time in years.
The hiring answers one major question, but the Bills' short offseason has produced plenty of others. Jim Schwartz has a great reputation locally after one very good season as defensive coordinator here; he and Ryan do have different philosophies (4-3 vs. 3-4, for starters) and it's easy to wonder if they can coexist. The Bills had talked to Bill Polian about a senior adviser's role; Ryan's hiring might change the need for such a position now or its role. If team president Russ Brandon is sticking to business matters, as he said he'd do at the end of the season, then the chain of command around Ralph Wilson Stadium looks, um, unclear.
The biggest unsettled matter, of course, remains the quarterback. EJ Manuel was thrown back into the spotlight by Kyle Orton's retirement. The Bills say they haven't given up on him, but someone else certainly is needed for competition's sake at the position. It might be an overstatement to say, no matter what else happens in any aspect of the job, that Ryan's level of success might be determined by how the quarterback position works out in the next few years. But it wouldn't be a big overstatement.
I'm not going to claim to have any special insight into Ryan's chances for success. My impression from a distance is that for years the Bills' front office members haven't all been rowing in the same direction, making it difficult for any coach to succeed. It sounds as if Doug Marrone tried to change of that, and created some enemies along the way (as well as for some other actions). Now, the Bills' entire organizational culture is in the midst of a huge change. Until we see what emerges from that rebuilding, it's tough to know if anyone can thrive in the new environment. The Sabres have gone in the wrong direction since Pegula took over there, but it's really not fair to judge that situation in such a relatively short period of time.
Plus, it's never easy to determine who the next great coach might be in the National Football League. The Bills, like other NFL teams this offseason, have talked to a variety of successful coordinators in the past couple of weeks in search of someone with the required magic. Some will land head coaching jobs elsewhere. Will one of them be another Bill Belichick, who went from the Giants' defensive guru to a great coach with New England, albeit one with a brief failed stop as a head coach in Cleveland? Will another be more like Buddy Ryan, defensive coordinator of the legendary '85 Bears team and father of Rex? Buddy was unable to duplicate his success with the Bears after becoming a head coach, winning no playoff games in seven seasons.
Before he came to the Jets, Rex Ryan was one of those "hot coordinators" after a good run with the Baltimore Ravens. He's got a reputation for being football smart, and he's certainly bright enough to have learned some things about being a head coach. Ryan was in demand with other teams, if interviews are any indication. In New York, Ryan was popular with the players, and popular with the fans. That gives him something in common with Levy, and something that sets him apart from Marrone. He walks in the front door with something of a head start.
Add it up, and Ryan has a good chance to be a good choice. Which is about all you can ask in such times.
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