PITTSFORD – Rex Ryan was in rare form at the Bills’ first practice of training camp Saturday morning at St. John Fisher College. He actually admitted he was wrong. By my unofficial count, in fact, he did it three times.
For one thing, Ryan conceded that his defensive schemes were a little confounding for his own players on occasion during his underachieving first season as the Bills’ head coach a year ago.
“At times, it appeared easy for the competition and complicated for us,” said Ryan, clad in a pair of red Converse high-top sneakers, as is his custom on the opening day of camp.
Ryan also admitted to overworking his players last summer by using so many split repetitions to create more opportunities for the three quarterbacks competing for the No. 1 job. He said it resulted in too many “small-tissue” injuries that set back some players, particularly the running backs.
“It looked great on paper,” he said. “I remember bragging about it, running those two-spot drills and getting all those reps. But it seemed that put us on the wrong path and it’s hard to rehab from that.
“I think you learn in this league as you go. The longer you’re in it, the better you should be.”
Ryan even confessed to extreme exaggeration – this coming from a man who puts the hyper in hyperbole. Ryan admitted he might have overstated the case on Friday when he said his team was “a zillion miles” ahead of where it was at this stage last year.
In fact, zillion isn’t even an official number, but a general idea. Merriam-Webster defines it as “an interminably large number” and uses “zillions of mosquitoes as an example (admittedly not my reference of choice, since I’m heading to Rio for the Olympics in a few days).
Maybe last year’s disappointment has humbled and mellowed the man. Either that, or he’s trying to direct any criticism toward himself, a tactic which has always endeared him to his players. He knows expectations are low for the Bills, and he prefers it that way.
“You’re darn right I do,” he said. “I like that. We’re going to show up. I feel good about this football team, I can promise you that. It’s a zillion times – well, not a zillion – but we’re a lot further along than we were this time last year, and even any time this past season.”
More humble, perhaps. But Ryan is also as optimistic than ever, despite missing the playoffs in five consecutive seasons as an NFL head coach. And why not? It’s still July, and I imagine a month from now Ryan will be telling us that his team kicked the hell out of the month of August.
If you can’t be upbeat now, when everyone is 0-0 and most of your players are in “the best shape of their lives,” when can you? OK, I figure them as a six-win team. But if the NFL rewarded a team for positive attitude in the summer, they’d win 16.
LeSean McCoy, defiant after his exoneration in the Philly bar brawl, said he’s prepared to be a leader and set to go into “Rocky Mode.” McCoy also said he’s putting away the Bentley and the Rolls Royce and getting down to business. Let’s hope his hamstrings are as finely tuned as his cars.
The coaches say Tyrod Taylor had an “A-plus plus” offseason. A year ago, they thought he would sit behind Matt Cassel. Now they’re in awe of Taylor’s offseason work ethic and his improved grasp of the offense. Taylor looked good Saturday. So did EJ Manuel, of course.
Most years, the national experts pick the Bills to be one of the non-playoff teams that sneaks into the dance. Not this year. Maybe they’re worn down by a team that has gone 16 years without making the playoffs, the longest drought of any of the 122 teams in the four major sports.
“I watch TV,” said Corbin Bryant, the relentlessly optimistic defensive tackle. “I know guys are keeping us in the middle of the pack. But we’re going to surprise some people this year.”
Bryant flashed a big smile. I sort of rolled my eyes.
“Yeah,” he said. “We’re going to surprise some people this year. It’s a different attitude out here.”
Why, I asked?
“We’re going to be more aggressive on defense,” Bryant said. “Rex has simplified the scheme a lot. We don’t have to think a lot out there on the field. We just have to go out and play. So we can play more aggressive.
“And the offense speaks for itself. We got stars over there, man. So as long as we stay healthy, great things are going to happen.”
Who can say with any certainty in such a crazy sport? I believe the Bills’ talent is overrated, but injuries play a huge part in the NFL. If they had avoided injuries a year ago, those last two wins against the Cowboys and Jets might have meant something.
Sometimes, when the difference between six and 10 wins is thin as a supermodel, you get lucky. That’s why it’s so amazing that a team could miss the playoffs 16 straight years in a league designed to promote parity.
It’s hard to keep losing and keep your job. Most coaches get three years’ tops nowadays, sometimes less with an impatient owner and fan base. Ryan was asked what he felt was fair.
“I think five years,” Ryan said, eliciting laughter from the media “No, two is fine with me. I feel good about this team. I’m not focused on any of that. Everybody’s situation is different. I feel comfortable with my football team and I’m not worried about it.”
Time will tell. The crowd at Fisher was uncommonly subdued at the first practice, as if even they were struggling to believe. Heaven knows, they’ve been waiting for years. It must feel like a zillion.