The wait for Rex Ryan’s postgame news conference at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday was a bit longer than usual, certainly longer than expected after a victory.
The assumption among many in the media was that while savoring the Buffalo Bills’ 30-21 win against the Houston Texans, Ryan also was awaiting the outcome of the overtime game between the Jets and Giants that had implications for his team’s playoff prospects. But the coach cleared that up when, referring to the Jets, he asked, “Did they win? Lose? Draw?”
They won, in overtime, he was told.
“I don’t even know who they’re playing, and that’s the honest-to-God truth,” Ryan said. “That’s how much it’s so much about us and you can’t worry about what’s in front of you – who you’re up against, counting and all that stuff.”
We believe you, Rex. After Sunday’s performance, it would have been hard to doubt that you or your team wasn’t supremely focused.
Thanks to last week’s 30-22 loss at Kansas City, the Bills were on the verge of having the bottom fall out on their season. Not only did they damage their hopes of finally snapping a 15-year playoff drought, they did it in a fashion that raised serious questions about Ryan’s coaching competence. His multiple mistakes on challenging plays were roundly criticized, along with the fact his defense, because of a strangely passive approach, failed to close out what seemed like a game the Bills had locked up in the first half.
After two losses in a row, Ryan was an easy target and fans and media took their shots. The extremists called for his firing, but the majority was more interested to see how the team would respond Sunday.
The answer came in the form of an inspired effort that saw Tyrod Taylor throw for three touchdowns and run for one, the offensive line make Texans All-Everything defensive lineman J.J. Watt a virtual non-factor, running back LeSean McCoy run for 112 yards for the third time in four weeks, and the Bills’ defense, as Ryan put it, wind up being “bruised a lot, but we never cut.”
“It was a tough loss, man,” running back Boobie Dixon said of the Kansas City game. “You could tell our team came together right after that. Everybody started meeting … and we just said, ‘We’re going to be all right. We’re going to bounce back, it ain’t over yet.’
“We know people are going to want us to quit and put our head down, but we just kept fighting.”
By improving to 6-6, the Bills find themselves right back in the thick of the wild-card hunt.
“We don’t want to go home and we definitely don’t want to watch other teams play in a position where we should be,” said linebacker Manny Lawson, who was used in a variety of spots because of injuries to others. “So we’re going to take that whole ‘should’ out and get there. … We’ve got to take care of our own before we think about what somebody else does, because if you start worrying about what somebody else does, you miss the opportunity that you have right in front of you.”
Said Ryan, “Well, at least we’re still in it, we’re still competing for it. I think, if we would have dropped this one, then it wouldn’t have looked so good.”
Ryan finds himself getting more pats on the back than stab wounds there. And he should, because he played a significant role in the rebound. On the field, he and his coaching staff were mostly on point with their strategy and game management. But Ryan played an even larger role off the field.
During the week, he won over his players by making it clear to them that the heavy criticism directed at him had nothing to do with them. If ever there was a time for solidarity within the ranks, this was it.
“Rex is one of those guys that will never dodge bullets,” tight end Matthew Mulligan said. “He will always take the bullets for the team. And he’s done a magnificent job of that ever since I’ve played for him. This is my fourth year playing with Rex,” counting three with the Jets. “And he’s a guy that always steps up to the plate and always says, ‘Put it on me, put it on me.’
“That gives guys the confidence to know that their head guy is not running from whatever it is, whether it’s success, whether it’s difficulty. Whatever tribulation you’re going through, Rex Ryan is there and that can’t help but spill into the rest of the guys when you see it.”
The major message that the players heard all week from Ryan and the team’s assistant coaches was to be “professionals.” Accept that the challenge of reaching the postseason was made more difficult, but don’t give into the notion that it’s hopeless. Understand that Sunday presented an opportunity, not a delay of the inevitable disappointment that the Bills always encounter this time of year.
“And that’s what was called on us this week,” Mulligan said. “You say, ‘Hey, look, things didn’t go exactly your way, but you still have a job to do. The season’s not over with yet.’ There were still, obviously, five games left to be played. And to be able to come in, go to work and continue to grind is all you can ask for.
“The National Football League season is so long, so anything can happen. And I’ve been a part of Rex teams at the Jets that were 9-7, and we made it. They were saying we were out of it one week and the next week, it’s like, no, we’re actually in it still. So we made it at 9-7.
“The possibilities, I feel like, are always endless in the National Football League.”