Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy, right, is taken to the locker room on a cart during the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Jets, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
ORCHARD PARK (AP) — Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula has full confidence in general manager Doug Whaley’s ability to turn around his franchise, and outlined the reasons coach Rex Ryan was fired in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.
Pegula says he’s disappointed in having to change coaches after only two years, but says he had no other choice to fire Ryan after the Bills defense showed few signs of progress during the season.
“None of us are happy with the season,” Pegula said during a 17-minute phone interview with The AP on Monday.
Pegula spoke a day after the Bills (7-9) closed the season with a 30-10 loss at the New York Jets and extended the NFL’s longest active playoff drought to 17 years. And he spoke shortly after Whaley held an end-of-season news conference in which the general manager said he had no idea Ryan’s job was in jeopardy and had no input into the coaching change.
Pegula backed up Whaley’s comments in his first interview since Ryan was fired on Dec. 27 and replaced by Anthony Lynn, who took over as interim coach.
Pegula said he made what he called “an executive decision” to fire Ryan during his weekly conference call with the coach and Whaley.
As the call came to a close, Pegula said Ryan asked to speak to the owner privately. Pegula said Ryan then directly asked him about his future beyond this season.
Pegula said he had no choice but to set things straight with Ryan.
“I was asked a point-blank question and based on the discussions we’ve been having all year, I felt it was better to tell Rex that we were going in a different direction,” Pegula said.
Ryan recommended Lynn to take over as interim coach for Buffalo’s final game.
Though Pegula was going to wait to evaluate Ryan’s job after the season, he said he probably would’ve come to the same conclusion now as he did a week ago.
Pegula based his decision on his own observations, input he’s received from his front-office staff over the course of the season, and also on previous discussions he’s had with Ryan regarding addressing the team’s struggles.
“(Whaley) had input on the basis of conversations throughout the year, what the problems were,” Pegula said. “But did Doug ever say, ‘Are we firing our coach, are we keeping our coach?’ We never had that conversation. I took it upon myself to tell Rex on the basis of conversations about the games and the aftermath of certain games that, hey, things aren’t going well.”
One of the low points for Pegula was a 38-24 loss at Oakland on Dec. 4, in which the Bills squandered 24-9 third-quarter lead.
Ryan was a defensive specialist who oversaw a unit that finished 19th in yards allowed in each of his two seasons. This year, Buffalo also allowed opposing running backs to gain 200 yards rushing three times.
Pegula referred to Lynn as only a candidate to replace Ryan, but “not a lock” to take over the job on a permanent basis.
Two other candidates have emerged.
A person with direct knowledge of the situation told The AP that Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is scheduled to interview with the Bills, though a date has yet to be scheduled. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Bills and Panthers have not revealed that information.
Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians announced offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin has received permission to interview for several openings, including Buffalo.
Pegula acknowledge the Bills placed Lynn in a tough situation, getting only five days to prepare to coach against the Jets, and minus his starting quarterback. With the Bills out of playoff contention, Pegula said the decision was made to bench starter Tyrod Taylor to evaluate backup EJ Manuel and rookie fourth-round pick Cardale Jones.
Manuel, who is completing the final year of his contract, struggled in going 9 of 20 for 86 yards and a lost fumble, before being replaced by Jones to start the fourth quarter.
As for Taylor’s future, Pegula said that was still to be evaluated before the Bills have to decide in March to pick up the option on his five-year contract extension.
Pegula did pay Taylor a compliment when reminded he went 7-8 this season.
“Maybe he can win more games than that, I don’t know,” Pegula said. “But when the other side of the ball’s not performing, it’s hard to outscore people.”
The Bills led the NFL in rushing for a second consecutive season and tied for 10th in points scored. The Bills passing attack did hold them back by finishing 30th.
Pegula defended the Bills at a time critics are questioning the team’s direction.
“There’s no dysfunction. Everybody is on the same page,” Pegula said. “We’re busy busting our asses.”
Whaley is heading the coaching search — the Bills third in four years. While he’ll make the recommendation, Pegula and his wife Kim will have the final say on who is hired.
Whaley described the Bills season as “not good enough,” and accepted the blame for the team’s failure to make the playoffs.
“I’ll say this much, it starts with me. I have to do a better job,” he said, before noting the team’s not far off.
“We are not a 4-12 team. We are a 7-9 team,” Whaley said. “Now do we need to get better? Absolutely. But we are not that far away, we don’t believe.”
AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this story.
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