If the Buffalo Bills hadn’t already planned to hold training camp away from their home base, Rex Ryan would have made that change soon after becoming head coach seven months ago.
For Ryan, the first rule of camp is to separate oneself from what is familiar and comfortable. It is to get players and coaches in an ideal place to bond. Where days and nights are devoted to practice and meetings. Where everyone can eat, sleep, sweat, bleed, talk, laugh and cry in the same location. Where getting down to business, even the funny kind, is the only thing that matters.
No wives. No girlfriends. No children.
No family beyond the brotherhood that shares the mission of preparing for the season.
“You have football and you have each other,” Ryan says. “I want to develop my team, and I think this will be an opportunity to do it.”
By “this,” Ryan is talking about the 70-mile journey the Bills will make from Orchard Park to St. John Fisher College, which on Friday becomes their summer address for a 16th consecutive year.
If the distance could be greater and the destination more remote, that would be even more ideal for Ryan. But it will do. He doesn’t care that the vast majority of NFL teams (20 of 32) stay home for camp, but then what else would you expect from a man whose trademark is spitting in the face of conventional head-coaching behavior?
Think any of his 31 peers in the league would even consider jumping out of an airplane, let alone take that 9,000-foot plunge Ryan took near the end of his offseason vacation?
By spending most of August in all but one of his six seasons at the Jets’ helm at SUNY Cortland – about 160 miles from the team’s Florham Park, N.J., headquarters – Ryan wasn’t looking for some sort of secret hideaway to work on elaborate schemes to spring on the opposition.
“It’s more about building chemistry than actual X’s and O’s and execution and stuff like that,” says Bart Scott, who played linebacker for Ryan on the Jets and when Ryan was defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens. “It’s really more about building a cohesive unit.”
That is the very essence of “Camp Rex.”
“The other part is, I want them to earn the right to come down” to One Bills Drive, “to come back here and think, ‘Holy cow! The season’s getting closer and closer,’ ” says Ryan, who still laments having to keep the Jets in Florham Park for their 2011 training camp because of the uncertainty caused by the NFL-wide lockout of players during a labor dispute. “I want it to feel like when you come back, there’s a major difference and it starts getting like, ‘Oh, shoot! Here it comes.’ I want them to feel that the clock is ticking a little bit.”
Through the three weeks that that clock will be ticking in Pittsford, Ryan wants his players to get to know each other, which is particularly important for a roster with many new veteran, as well as rookie, faces. He also wants them to have the chance to get to know themselves a little bit better.
If his time with the Jets is any indication, Ryan will use a variety of methods to help these processes along. The biggest is creating an atmosphere that takes away many of the inhibitions that stem from the pressures of surviving the cut and hanging onto a starting job. The HBO series “Hard Knocks” provided a revealing glimpse of that when it followed Ryan’s Jets through their 2010 training camp.
Who could ever forget the day, as a joke, he had each of his players use a Shake Weight – the oscillating dumbbell whose suggestive motion made its infomercial difficult to watch with a straight face – during pre-practice stretching?
“That’s Rex to a T,” says former Jets offensive lineman Damien Woody. “Rex is messing with the Shake Weights, making these obscene gestures, and guys were just dying laughing. That was the most fun that we had in training camp, but that’s Rex right there. Because we all know training camp is a grind, but when you mix it up and you’re doing stuff like that, then it kind of takes the focus off the grind of training camp and it puts you in a more relaxed state of mind. That’s what Rex is all about.”
And how about the “Hard Knocks” episode when Ryan had a player vote, at a cost of $1 per ballot, to determine the winner of a “King Ugly” contest among rookies? Ryan explained that 75 percent of the pot would go to the player who finished third, 25 percent to the second-place finisher, and the “winner” would receive nothing “because he’s so ugly, he doesn’t deserve anything.”
Somehow, offensive lineman Vladimir Ducasse finished both second and third. Ryan then presented cornerback Brian Jackson with a cardboard Burger King crown, a makeshift black robe, and a plunger that served as a scepter for being that year’s “King Ugly.”
Ryan additionally seeks to lighten the mood with one-liners and verbal jabs before and during practices. “Just him every day makes us smile and makes us happy and makes us want to work,” says fullback John Conner, a former Jet and the only Bills player to have experienced “Camp Rex.”
Adds Bills wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal, “He’s always got a joke for me in his back pocket.” (Neither Ryan, Conner, Lal or any of Ryan’s former players or other current coaches interviewed for this piece would share a specific Ryan gem, noting they were either too raunchy or not politically correct).
Ryan will also break up the camp monotony by having players and coaches compete as position groups in events such as the “Baseball Bat Head Spin.” That’s where you rest your forehead against the bottom end of a bat, with the top end on the ground, and go in a circle 10 times in one direction and 10 in another. Then, while feeling so dizzy that you can barely stand, you must try to run in a straight line while carrying a football or jump over a blocking bag.
Members of the training and equipment staffs also participate in the various competitions, which include catching punts and seeing who can throw a football the farthest. Ryan will join in, too, although at 52, he won’t make any promises that he’s physically capable of performing as well as he did when he had more “pop” in his arm.
Anyone else smell a sucker bet coming?
On any given night, Ryan just might call off meetings and take the team to a movie, just as he used a couple of OTA days for bonding experiences over bowling and paintball.
“Rex is very sensitive to” the fact that “there’s a grind to training camp and that has a purpose,” Lal says. “However, the grind can’t take away from the enjoyment of football. Rex loves football, he loves being around football. He wants his players to feel that, too. So while he will never scrimp on work, he will always try to make it lively, fun, and likeable for the players.
“There aren’t two-hour meetings where the players are detached mentally and they just want to go to bed or they’re mentally fatigued. Rex tries his best to keep them fresh. He breaks up practices with some change-of-pace things, breaks up the week sometimes, because he’s always trying to keep the players fresh and attentive.”
Bills assistant defensive line coach Jeff Weeks, who was on Ryan’s staff for all six seasons with the Jets and coached with him at Morehead State (1990-91) and Oklahoma (1998), says there is one standing order that Ryan has for all players and coaches.
“Don’t take yourself too seriously,” Weeks says. “Everything we do is important, but he’s also not going to let the egos get in the way.”
“He would tell us, ‘If you strip away everything, you’re getting paid a bunch of money to play a kid’s game,’ ” Woody says. “He’d say, ‘Guys, there’s nothing wrong with having fun, there’s no rule against it. We can still have fun, but still get our work in.’ ”
In late May, just before the start of OTA practices, Ryan gave his assistant coaches a Power Point presentation about what it takes to build a winner. The final graphic was a picture of a large row boat with all 25 members of the coaching staff aboard.
“There are 53 other spots on this boat for the players,” Ryan told them. “Let’s make sure we’re all rowing the same way. And if you’re not there right now, we’ll just throw you a rope and we’ll pull you that way.”
Or poke. Or prod.
Most everything that Ryan says to players on the field or in the meeting room has a purpose. Sometimes it’s instructional, but not often. He prefers to leave the detailed teaching to his assistants, and wants them to do the majority of their correcting in the meeting room rather than on the field so as to not slow down the practice tempo.
When Ryan addresses a player, he usually seeks to push certain psychological buttons. How biting his comments are depends on his view of the player’s hard wiring because his intention, according to those who know him best, is to build confidence, not tear it down.
“He’s going to make sure that he calls out the guys who can handle it while he develops the skin of the guys that don’t,” Scott says. “Some guys are fragile mentally, but if you constantly put them under pressure, then you can thicken up that skin. You either have skin like an armadillo or deer skin. It’s a delicate balance to learn the psyche of each individual player.”
There is nothing that puts more life into “Camp Rex” than when the offense and defense put on the pads and square off in a goal-line drill. It is pure, old-school football, with each side trying to impose its will on the other.
There is plenty of hooting and hollering and trash-talking. And no one takes greater pleasure in watching it than Ryan.
“It’s about that edge,” Scott says. “You’re going to win or you’re going to lose; there’s no in-between. There’s no excuses, no matter what the circumstances are. The game comes down to, can you convert fourth and 1 or can you prevent it? And that’s pressure. I think Rex loves to live his life that way. It’s all about the competition, it’s all about the bravado. ‘I’m more man than you.’ ”
Says Woody, “That was always one of the better parts of training camp because either the defensive line embarrassed you or vice versa. We would have a chance, as an offense, to embarrass Rex’s baby, which was the defense, so we just took pride in that.”
Despite all that he does to try to make camp as enjoyable/tolerable as possible, Ryan does have a temper. If players cross a line, they can be sure they’ll hear about it.
But he picks his spots.
“Rex is fair, so when he is authoritarian it’s for a reason,” Lal says. “I’ve seen him stop a practice because there were too many penalties or he didn’t like the tenor of the practice, and he put everyone on the sideline and we ran gassers until he said stop. But no one on the team could say it wasn’t warranted. So there’s that side.”
It was “that side” of Ryan that produced perhaps the most memorable “Hard Knocks” moment of them all. It came when Ryan used a nighttime meeting to unleash an expletive-laced tirade on the entire team after members of the defense – unhappy about the dining schedule being disrupted by an earlier start to practice to beat the arrival of a forecasted thunderstorm – decided to make a McDonald’s run just before taking the field.
“Can we have fun? You’re damn right,” Ryan angrily told the players. “I demand that we have fun! Now, there’s a difference between having fun and being a jackass. Our defense was a jackass. You ate a bunch of cheeseburgers before we go stretch. That’s being a jackass.
“How about our offense? When are we going to put it together? Can we not run the ball down their throats every snap? Can we not throw it any time we want to throw it? Let’s make sure we play like a New York Jet and not some” lesser “team. That’s what I want to see tomorrow. Do we understand what I want to see tomorrow?”
Then, Ryan concluded with this signature line: “Let’s go eat a …damn snack!”
Bills defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman, who was with Ryan in Baltimore and for all of his six seasons with the Jets, offers the best summary of what players can expect from “Camp Rex.”
“You know how when you’re a kid and your parents say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get your work done before you go outside and play?’ ” Thurman says. “Well, it’s that type of an atmosphere.”
Just avoid those impromptu snack runs and everything should work out fine.