ROCHESTER, N.Y. – The stands aren’t nearly as full, and it took me about an hour to take note of something—anything—a quieter Rex Ryan was doing.
Bills camp definitely feels different now than it did in 2015.
“Last year there was general excitement because you got a new coach who’s had a lot of success, and we knew about him, being in-division,” GM Doug Whaley told me, a couple hours later. “And it was the moves we made—bringing in Shady [McCoy], bringing in [Charles] Clay, the quarterback battle. There were a lot of things that were new. Now, it’s like, ‘OK, we’re in place, let’s get better at what we’re doing.’ ”
If you can’t see that there’s a serious effort underway here to fly a little further under the radar, you most certainly can hear it from the guys in the cockpit.
Yes, Ryan said a few months ago that the Bills won the offseason. Yes, he and his twin brother/new co-worker Rob conducted an off-the-wall, outrageous, controversial interview with my colleague Jenny Vrentas. No, he’s not gonna just stop being the Rex, the way some people felt he did in the waning days of his fractured forced marriage with John Idzik in New York.
It’s just that this isn’t the same. Or that, at least, was the overriding thought I had at the end of a short conversation I had with Ryan after Sunday’s practice.
On Jimmy Garoppolo, and not Tom Brady, being the Patriots starter when they play at New England on Oct. 2: “It doesn’t change anything really for us. I haven’t thought about him, not even for a second. I understand we play them Week 4, I get it and I’m sure by then it’s probably a better question, when I go into that preparation. But right now, we’re just focused on our football team, just like we do every year.”
On whether it changes the balance of power in the AFC East: “Yeah, I get it. I think if you’re spending time worried about the other guy … I don’t do that. I know what everybody says, I don’t. I’m worried about my team, focused on our team, and that’s where our attention is.”
On whether or not he takes the defense’s 2015 dropoff personally: “Oh yeah, of course. It’s unfamiliar territory for me. That hasn’t happened. There’s one way to respond and that’s to get better at it, and focus on, ‘Hey, look at your team, know your team, how are we gonna change things?’ I feel great about where we’re at. I really think we’re take a big step forward, I believe we’ll be much better on defense than we were last year.”
No bombs lobbed at Foxboro. No defiance about the balance of power in the division. No hard prediction of a defensive renaissance.
Even when I asked him about the job security of coaches in the NFL in a general sense, and he got to his own job security, Ryan made like a racehorse, putting the blinders on to everything around him and focusing on what’s out front.
“I’ve never once in my life worried about my job,” Ryan said. “I think if you spend time doing that, you probably do a worse job than you would if you just said, ‘Hey, I have a job to do.’ The only way to be successful is to do the best job you can, and that’s what I’m gonna do.”
He added, “I’m in a great organization, I know what we want long-term. We wanna have one of those teams that’s here for a long time and successful for a long time, and that’s where my attention is—to be the very best we can be.”
And it’s not as if Buffalo was terrible last year.
In fact, the Bills’ 8-8 mark qualifies as the franchise’s second best season of the last 12 (though the best was the 9-7 campaign of the year before). The offense was better than expected, the running game was the NFL’s best, and they have a promising 26-year-old quarterback on the roster.
The defense was a massive disappointment—dropping from first to 19th in the league—but based on Ryan’s history, it’s hard to believe a talented group will underachieve like that again.
The bottom line here is that there is reason for optimism.
The trouble is, of course, that the bar was set so high last year, and the Bills came in well under it. So there’s hesitancy from everyone on the outside to expect too much again. And by the looks of it, they’re just fine with that on the inside, almost to the point of a tacit recognition that it might’ve been a problem last year.
Accordingly, when I asked Whaley if he sees a playoff team out on the practice fields of St. John Fisher College now, he answered bluntly, “I think it’s too early.” And when I mentioned that it seemed like there’s an effort to narrow the focus, he didn’t argue.
“If you start looking at everything else, you’re not taking care of yourself and what’s happening here,” Whaley said. “We have to get better. We know that. And getting better is concentrating on yourself, and not concentrating on something else.”
That’s a fairly standard response from an NFL type. But it’s different from what we were hearing here last year. Whether that’ll lead to different results remains to be seen.
FIVE THINGS I THOUGHT ABOUT BILLS CAMP
1. There really was a sense 2015 was an aberration on defense for Ryan. And here’s part of why that thought exists internally: It was the first time Ryan has started over completely on defense. When he first became an NFL coordinator in 2005, it was in a place (Baltimore) where he already had six seasons as a position coach under his belt. When he arrived in New York he brought leaders from the Ravens to each position group, as the Jets signed defensive lineman Marques Douglas, linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard. In Buffalo there was a failed effort to poach David Harris from the Jets, and that was really it. The thought here is that not having players experienced in a complex system last year really hurt the Bills. That should not be an issue this time around.
2. Tyrod Taylor’s contract situation was lingering. Brock Osweiler got $18 million per year this offseason after just nine NFL starts. Andrew Luck got a record-breaking $25 million per, and Oakland’s Derek Carr and Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles are eligible for deals in January. Drew Brees could have a new deal by then, too. Kirk Cousins could be positioned to get one. Suffice it to say, Taylor’s price tag could look a lot different at the end of this calendar year than it did at the start. So I asked Whaley the operative question, which is whether or not the team views Taylor as a franchise quarterback. His answer: “All signs are pointing to him having a chance to be. Obviously, he’s gotta prove it. But if you look at his first year starting, 8-6, 20-6 TD-INT ratio? Does he have things to improve on? Absolutely. But I think it was a great first step.” As for whether or not a deal could be done now, Whaley said, “We wanna do something that’s gonna be fair for him, but also fair for us. We’re definitely not opposed to that.” The definition of “fair” when it comes to quarterbacks, as we’ve learned over the last few months, is a moving target.
3. The players remained unified behind Ryan. Here’s what Richie Incognito said when I raised the notion of players fighting for Ryan, given the idea he’ll be fighting for his job this year: “He took a chance on me, he was up front with me, he was real with me, he shot it straight and gave me an opportunity to come here and be myself. And that’s the biggest thing. He let me be myself. He wasn’t hovering over me. He wasn’t critiquing everything I did. And he let me blossom into a veteran leader on this team and the guy who’s one of the cornerstones here. I think the biggest thing, with guys being behind Rex, it’s because he’s a straight shooter.” Incognito’s linemate, center Eric Wood echoed the sentiment, saying, “He’s my guy. I love Rex.” As you might be aware, these players don’t actually live in bunkers. They know what’s being said. But as Wood explains it, hoping to be just good enough to save the coach’s job is no way to go into a season” “We see stuff on the internet, I have a Twitter account and I scroll it, we see it. But as a player, you can’t be worried about that, especially at this point of the year. We have much higher aspirations, that would make it sure thing we keep all our jobs.”
4. Rex feels good enough about the climate in coaching in 2016 to lead his son into the business. On Sunday morning I texted with Peter King about the climate in coaching in the NFL, and so I asked Rex about it post-practice. In these situations, the boilerplate answer for coaches is to go to bat for other coaches in saying no one is given enough time to build a winner. Rex went a different route. “I have a son that’s getting into coaching—he has two years left at Clemson,” Ryan said. “This is the greatest profession there is. It really is. Is it easy? No, it’s not easy. You better be good. You better believe in yourself, or your team darn sure ain’t gonna believe in you. That’s something, maybe it’s just in my DNA, maybe it’s the way I was raised. I promise you, never once, it’s never been about me. I’ve never focused on that.” It’s an interesting point of view from a man who was fired two years ago because A) it reflects an appreciation for how rare the opportunities are to be in his position; and B) it implicitly explains how if a coach is going to go down, he should go down doing it his way, rather than trying to protect a paycheck.
5. The Bills aren’t buying there’ll be a Patriot dropoff. As noted above, Ryan said he isn’t even thinking about New England. So we’ll let Whaley take it from here. “Look what they did when they didn’t have Brady before,” the GM said, smiling. “There’s two things. One thing, we’ve always believed, coach, myself, that it’s not about the other team, it’s about us and what we do to prepare and to be on point when we play. The second part of that, it’s Bill Belichick, he’s gonna have his team prepared. It’s hard to win in the NFL no matter who you’re playing. Look at all that, and let’s just try to be the best we can be, and try to win every game no matter who the quarterback is for who we’re playing.”
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