ORCHARD PARK, N.Y.—It took a trip both through the Bills’ record books and to Ralph Wilson Stadium for the team’s preseason opener against Carolina last Friday night, but I’m beginning to grasp why the Buffalo area has a unchecked case of Rex-mania in these early days of the 2015 season.
Rex Ryan represents something the Bills and their fans haven’t had in a very long time. Surprisingly long once you dig deeply into the topic. Unlike so many before him, Ryan comes with both a headline name and a resume that includes at least two winning seasons as an NFL head coach before he arrived in Buffalo.
It might not sound like much, but Doug Marrone didn’t have that. Neither did Chan Gailey, Dick Jauron, Mike Mularkey, Greg Williams, Wade Phillips or even the beloved Marv Levy. In fact, of Buffalo’s last nine full-time coaching hires before Ryan, none came to town owning more than one winning season in their previous NFL head coaching stops, and no one in that group came close to matching Ryan in terms of face-of-the-franchise star appeal. You have to go back to Chuck Knox’s 1978–82 tenure in Buffalo to find a more successful coach before he took over the Bills, with Knox having won five consecutive NFC West titles with the Los Angeles Rams from '73–77.
So while Ryan’s back-to-back trips to the AFC Championship Game with the 2009–10 Jets might feel like ancient history to the New York faithful, Ryan’s four playoff-less seasons since then represent a mere blip in time for Buffalo fans who have not tasted the postseason since the end of the 1999 season—the league’s longest active playoff drought at 15 misery-filled years.
Ryan brings a certain cache and out-sized persona to Buffalo, and those are qualities the Bills simply were not known for in the head coaching hires made by longtime team owner Ralph Wilson. Under Wilson, who died at 95 in March 2014, the Bills tended to go with unproven first-time head coaches like Marrone, Mularkey or Williams—none of whom lasted more than three years—or they dipped back into the second-time-around market, choosing solid but low-profile head coaches who had experienced only limited success in their first NFL gigs. Levy, Phillips, Jauron and Gailey all fit neatly into that category, although Gailey accomplished the strange feat of posting two playoff seasons but just one winning record in his abbreviated two-year stint in Dallas in 1998–99.
But under new owners Terry and Kim Pegula, the Bills went bold this time when they had their first opening to fill, landing the big-talking Ryan in a bid to re-energize the team’s rabidly loyal but long-suffering fan base. Ryan’s seven-month honeymoon has been all the rage in western New York, and now all he has to do is make sure the Bills actually win where it counts—on the field.
That week-by-week referendum on Ryan’s hiring starts next month, when Buffalo kicks off its regular season at home against playoff perennial Indianapolis on Sept. 13, but during my stop at the Bills, I peppered Buffalo general manager Doug Whaley with questions about the team’s new approach on the coaching front.
“Here it is in a nutshell: we’re a national brand now with Rex,” said Whaley, who joined Buffalo’s front office in 2010. “What I tell people is, during the combine, when Bill Belichick was walking with Rex Ryan that day? The story wasn’t about Bill Belichick, and this was right after the Patriots won the Super Bowl. The story was about Rex Ryan wearing Thurman Thomas’s jersey. When would you ever have thought that? That’s all you’ve got to say.
“Before, it was, ‘Oh, it’s just Buffalo,’ and all about how we settled for someone in our head coaching hiring. We didn’t settle this time. We got what we were looking for. And I know this much, I truly believe there is a Rex Effect.”
There had better be. Because the Bills were among the most active and daring of teams in the acquisition phase of the off-season, adding the likes of Ryan, running back LeSean McCoy, quarterbacks Matt Cassel and Tyrod Taylor, receiver Percy Harvin, guard Ritchie Incognito, and just last week, special teamer/linebacker IK Enemkpali, Geno Smith’s former teammate and tormentor. There was plenty of risk that came with some of those moves, but Ryan was willing to incur it to get results, and now it’s almost time to deliver.
“We know we supposedly won the off-season,” said Whaley, just before kickoff of the Bills’ 25–24 preseason-opening loss to visiting Carolina. “But that’s never a good thing, and never means anything, unless you can win during the season. But we’re excited about where we are. We’re not a finished product, we know that. But we’re excited to unveil the rest of the puzzle.”
There’s a growing perception within the league that Ryan has been handed something of a blank check in terms of personnel calls early on his tenure, with the Pegulas and the Bills front office so eager to field a winner that “In Rex We Trust” has become the organization’s unofficial motto. Clearly the new head coach has won some jump balls with the possession arrow pointing his way. Perhaps those bets will pay off in a big way, buying him even more trust.
Incognito comes with the baggage of Miami’s 2013 locker room bullying scandal. Harvin has had more than his share of teammate and coaching staff friction in previous stops in Minnesota and Seattle. Enemkpali’s signing shocked many for its swiftness in the aftermath of the second-year player’s locker room decking of Smith in New York. And two Bills draft picks, fifth-round running back Karlos Williams and second-round cornerback Ron Darby, had off-field background questions in college that raised red flags in the eyes of some NFL teams.
But Ryan insists that the Bills took no undue chances on anyone this year, and have not reached a “catch limit” on character-issue players. Of adding Enemkpali, Ryan told me:
“This guy I know will be fine here. I don’t know if he’ll make our team, but I know he’s going to work his butt off to make our team and will give us what he has. And we’ll see how it shakes out in the end. There’s a lot of guys with more ability than some of the guys we picked up, but they’re still out there waiting for calls. They’re guys I would not bring into our locker room. Because the community is hugely important, not just to me, but our our ownership. So I’m never going to put somebody in this community that I don’t think is going to succeed in this community, as well as on the football field and in our locker room. That’s the dead-honest truth.”
During his introductory news conference in January, Ryan used the phrase, “We are going to build a bully,” to describe the physically tough style of play he intended to instill in his Bills, and the B-word obviously took on something of a double meaning in light of the acquisition of Incognito, who missed all of last season and part of 2013 after Miami’s ugly locker room issues came to light.
“Obviously I understand the society we’re living in and that some people will misunderstand what Rex said,” Whaley said. “But for us football people, we knew what he was talking about. We have to be rougher. The division we play in, the weather we play in is rough, and we have to be a physical team that dictates to our opponent.
“And guess what? Those are the types of teams where that mentality travels. It travels in the playoffs and it consistently wins throughout the season. The toughest teams are always in it. You may not always win, but you’re always in it. Baltimore has that mentality, and Rex has roots there. You wouldn’t say they’re bullies? And my roots are with the Steelers, and they have the same mentality. I get it that you can’t use that word any more. But you have to have that toughness, even if it was a poor choice of words these days.”
The Bills locker room, Whaley said, is strong enough and features enough veteran leadership and structure to absorb the risks that Incognito, Harvin and Enemkpali might carry. And it’s Ryan who sets that tone at the top, making expectations clear. Only time will tell if that’s an approach that has a great chance of success. It’s early in the Ryan era and the challenges are all still to come.
“When guys come in here, there’s no stepping out of line,” Whaley said. “The veteran guys we have on this team, they’ll get those guys before it happens. We have the structure, absolutely. And you don’t just trust, you do the work. So when we did our work on Richie Incognito, we felt comfortable that there’s a difference between a guy saying ‘I messed up,’ and a guy saying ‘I messed up, here’s why, here’s how I won’t do it again, and if I see myself going down these steps, this pathway, I need to go get help for that. I have fail-safes.’ And with Percy and IK, add in the fact that Rex had both of those guys, and he’s going to bat for them. He doesn’t go to bat for everybody.”
If he wins in Buffalo, where coaching careers go to die, Ryan will see his name and clout grow exponentially bigger. This much we already know: With Ryan’s hiring, Buffalo has found its long-sought face of the franchise. In a nutshell, Rex and the Bills’ brand are now one in the same.