The saga of IK Enemkpali, the linebacker cut loose by the Jets after cold-cocking QB Geno Smith, got even more interesting when ex-Jets coach and new Jets nemesis Rex Ryan claimed him off waivers for the Bills. But rivalry aside, Buffalo coaches saw the chance to add a good, young player who was never a problem for them last season
PITTSFORD, N.Y. — IK Enemkpali hadn’t yet arrived with his new team, but he was already being introduced.
That’s what Rex Ryan was doing a few minutes past 8 p.m. on Wednesday. The Buffalo Bills’ night practice at St. John Fisher College had just finished, and Ryan stood in front of a circle of his players at midfield and briefed them on the day’s most controversial NFL transaction.
We claimed IK Enemkpali, Ryan told his team. I wouldn’t bring him here if I didn’t think he could really come in and fit in with us. I need your help to welcome him to the team like he’s any other player.
Right now, of course, Enemkpali isn’t just any other player—he’s the second-year linebacker who cold-cocked Geno Smith in the Jets locker room Tuesday, breaking the prospective starting quarterback’s jaw. Smith will be out six to 10 weeks with the injury.
The Jets promptly gave Enemkpali his walking papers. And Ryan promptly picked him up. He knows exactly what the move looks like—a hellbent attempt to stick it to his old team seven months after he himself was cast off.
“And you know what, people are going to blame me for it, too. I get blamed for everything that goes on there,” Ryan said on the practice field Wednesday night. “Whatever. That part of my life is over. That’s all behind me. I’m just trying to focus on this football team. We’re going to do what is in the best interests of this team.”
More than anything else, this move is the most brazen proof yet that Rex is doing Rex in Buffalo. Ryan, acting with what he called “supreme confidence” in himself, has the influence he hasn’t had since his early years with the Jets. As soon as he heard the news of the bizarre altercation Tuesday afternoon, Ryan started telling his staff that Enemkpali would look good in a Bills uniform. During a staff meeting Tuesday night, after Enemkpali appeared on the waiver wire the Bills received around 5 p.m., GM Doug Whaley asked Ryan what he thought of the player he coached during his final season in New York.
“All he does is shut his mouth and work,” Ryan told Whaley. “I’ll stand on the table for the guy.”
“Coach, if you say that, if you believe in him like that,” Whaley replied, “I got your back.”
Twenty-four hours later, Enemkpali was a Buffalo Bill.
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Ryan is on his second chance as a head coach, and he has assembled a squad of players and coaches who are also on second chances, for a variety of reasons. Richie Incognito. Percy Harvin. Aaron Kromer. Add Enemkpali to the list.
Enemkpali’s new day-to-day boss, defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman, knows something about second chances, too. Shortly after the 24-year-old Enemkpali was awarded to the Bills off waivers, Thurman recounted an incident when he was the same age as his newest linebacker. He made a dumb split-second decision that put his career in jeopardy.
“Why do young people do some of the things they do?” Thurman asked. “I got into trouble, too. Hell, I walked into a bank one time, and I handed the teller a note saying, ‘What would you do if I held up the bank?’ She thought I was holding up the bank, and I went to jail for about eight hours.”
This was in the spring of 1980, when Thurman had just finished his second season as a defensive back with the Dallas Cowboys. He was back home in Southern California, and went to a local bank branch with a friend, who was paying Thurman back money he had borrowed. Newspaper clips from the time offer varying accounts of what exactly the note Thurman wrote to the teller said—one indicated that it ended with, “Signed, Robber”—but Thurman was taken into custody and interrogated for hours by local police and the FBI.
He was able to convince the authorities that it was nothing more than a prank, so they let him go. But next, Thurman had to answer to the formidable Cowboys regime of Tom Landry, Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt.
“They asked me, What were you doing? I couldn’t even explain it,” Thurman said. “It was so dumb and random on my part, but it happened. People do dumb [stuff] when they’re young. If they hadn’t given me a second chance, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
In Enemkpali’s case, the altercation with Smith wasn’t the first time he’d been in trouble. When he was attending Louisiana Tech, he was charged with striking an off-duty police officer at a local bar. That was a red flag on some teams’ draft boards in 2014, but Ryan and the Jets selected Enemkpali in the sixth round. There were times when the coaches had to rein in Enemkpali’s intensity on the field, but they didn’t see any anger management issues last year. In fact, Ryan and company liked Enemkpali enough that he had been on the Bills’ watch list in case he became available after roster cutdowns.
“We didn’t have those problems,” Thurman said. “And we were considered to be the bad guys, so to speak.”
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After Ryan left New York, a criticism levied by some of his former players was that there was a supposed lack of accountability in the locker room during his time as head coach. It’s just like Ryan to take the player the Jets deemed too much of a loose cannon and try to prove that he’ll fit in Ryan’s locker room.
“We like him,” Thurman said. “We’ll get him here, and we’ll corral him, and we’ll surround him with our veterans and make sure we address the things we need to address. There can be no more missteps. Obviously there is a risk that we are taking, but for the talent he has, at this point we’re willing to gamble.”
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On his way out to the locker room Wednesday night, Bills safety Aaron Williams passed Thurman and gave him a fist bump. “You know he’s from my hometown, right?” said Williams, who is from Round Rock, Texas, just a few miles from Enemkpali’s hometown of Pflugerville.
Williams’ thoughts upon hearing the Bills had claimed Enemkpali: “Must be a good player," he said, with a smile.
The Bills do think Enemkpali is a good player. He was active for six games last season, and in a limited number of snaps he recorded two sacks that were nullified by flags in the secondary. He’ll have the chance to make the team as a designated pass rusher. One of the reasons Ryan said he put in the waiver claim, instead of waiting to sign him after learning what discipline he may face from the league under the personal conduct policy, was to give him the best chance to make the roster.
But that didn’t give the Bills much time to vet what exactly happened between Enemkpali and Smith. Ryan admitted he did not speak to Enemkpali before they put in the waiver claim, but a member of the staff contacted a current Jets player who was in the locker room to get an account of what happened.
The root of the fight was $600 that Smith owed Enemkpali after backing out of Enemkpali’s charity football camp last month to attend the funeral of a friend. According to the version some members of the Bills heard, Smith was mouthing off about the debt in the locker room, and Enemkpali told Smith to come over and say it to his face. Smith did, and put his finger in Enemkpali’s face, at which point Enemkpali slugged him. (After being released, Enemkpali issued a statement of apology but has not spoken to the press; Smith has not commented on the matter.)
At the Tuesday night staff meeting, Ryan told the room what he knew. Before putting the waiver claim in on Wednesday, Whaley called Bills owner Terry Pegula. He explained the story to Pegula, and how Ryan said Enemkpali wasn’t any trouble when he had him in New York last year.
“If Rex believes in him,” Pegula told Whaley, “I support him.”
That’s Pegula’s management style, according to Whaley. When they have a strong opinion about somebody, he never says no. And Ryan, for more than one reason, made a strong case for Enemkpali.
Ryan wasn’t worried about how his locker room would respond. “They’re men here,” he said. “They’ll judge him for who he is when he gets here.”
And you better believe Rex loves running Rex’s show again.
“Absolutely,” Ryan said with a wink. Then he walked off the practice field.
Peter King and Emily Kaplan contributed reporting to this story.
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