PHOENIX – They say no one sells hope like the Buffalo Bills. Now, in Rex Ryan, they have the best salesman anyone could ask for. Ryan swept through the Super Bowl media center like a hopeful breeze Thursday morning, peddling pizza and pride in his new NFL team.
Bills fans would have eaten it up. Ryan had them at hello in his opening news conference in Buffalo. This was Rex pitching his tough-guy message to the entire country. Rex spent three hours making the rounds and letting everyone know that the Bills mean business this time.
Whether you buy it or not, there’s something infectious about the man. Ryan inspires hope. Plus, he’s a carnival. I’ve had half a dozen New York writers come up to me here to say how much fun I’m going to have covering him.
As I awaited Ryan’s arrival, I realized this would be a common ritual in the coming years, eagerly waiting for the start of a Ryan media session. Everyone wanted a piece of him Thursday. I don’t recall a similar clamor when the Bills hired Dick Jauron or Doug Marrone.
Ryan had 11 media stops in a three-hour schedule. He was trailed by reps from Pizza Hut, where he has recently landed a national ad campaign that features him throwing a red challenge flag at celebrities - Tony Romo, for one - who commit the infraction of not eating the new triple crust offering.
This is what happens when well-meaning Buffalo folks send Ryan a pizza with his name on it upon his arrival in town. Rex has lost 130 pounds in the last few years after having lap-band surgery. I’m not sure the guy even eats pizza anymore. But Rex could sell Jell-O shots at an AA meeting.
Ryan got a car service from his hotel at 7 a.m., then made the rounds of all the ESPN shows. From there, it was off to the bowels of the Media Center, where dozens of radio stations broadcast during Super Bowl week. At 10 a.m., he went on WFAN, the iconic all-sports station in New York City.
Joe Benigno, the host for WFAN, said it felt odd to call Ryan, “the new head coach of the Buffalo Bills.” He was ranting before Ryan even got his headset adjusted.
“It’s a mistake that they let you go,” Benigno said. “I’m going to tell you. I’ve been a Jets fan since 1965. I’ve got the scars on my body to prove it, all right? It’s very rare that I’ve been against the Jets firing a coach. This was one. John Idzik (the former Jets GM) undermined you. You don’t have to say it.”
“You can say it if you like,” Ryan said.
“I know you won’t,” Benigno said. “He didn’t give you any cornerbacks. It was a joke. Forty million under the cap. He stuck you with Geno Smith as your quarterback. It’s ridiculous. And now, I’ve got to have agita, seeing you in our division twice a year with Buffalo!”
“I really appreciate it,” Ryan said, “and I know how passionate you are about the Jets and things, and it means a lot. But you know what? I had a great time in New York. We all know what kind of community it is. I just want a team that’s that kind of community – tough-minded with a single focus.
“That’s what we’re going to be in Buffalo, and I can’t wait. I know people say they’ve heard it before. But you’re going to see it. One thing I know for sure this organization, top to bottom, is tied in 100 percent. There’s no hidden agendas. The fans, the ownership, you name it, we’re locked in.”
There might not be any hidden agendas, but Ryan wanted to paint the Bills as one happy family under the Pegulas. He said General Manager Doug Whaley has the final say on personnel. He praised Russ Brandon and the coaching staff, talked about there being no egos.
Ryan is a shrewd customer. He knows the Bills had a dysfunctional reputation, and that Terry Pegula was looking for a football czar to put things in order. He made it clear that he won’t be some bully throwing his reduced weight around at One Bills Drive. He’s no czar.
“We want to be great,” Ryan said. “You talk about having this one ego. We don’t care if you like it or you don’t. We’re coming in and we’re going to beat you. We don’t know exactly how we’re going to do it, we just feel we’re going to do it.”
“But you had to go to the AFC East?” Benigno said. “Why not Atlanta or San Francisco? You go to basically the same team, Coach. You don’t have a quarterback up there, let’s be honest. Terrific defense, and you still have to go through Belichick. You’re in the same position!”
“Bring it on,” Ryan said. “I looked at it this week. You could make the argument that the last six times we played New England, we could have won all six.”
When Ryan finished with WFAN, Benigno asked for his autograph and had his picture taken with him. From there, he moved on for a quick TV interview at the NFL Network, situated in the center of the room, surrounded by the radio stations.
It was much of the same, with Rex raving about the Bills’ organizational unity and plugging pizza. He gushed about his coaching staff. He gave a mild show of faith in EJ Manuel and said his new quarterbacks coach, David Lee, would help Manuel to improve his fundamentals.
“I have all-stars on my coaching staff,” Ryan said. “Fortunately, my owner has deep pockets, because we had to dish out. We’re going to get this thing done, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Ryan said he looked forward to competing against Bill Belichick and the Patriots, and he aspires to create the same high standard in Buffalo. Again, he emphasized the “single mindset and no ego” in the organization. I couldn’t make out the scribbled notes on his left hand. Maybe it said “no egos.”
Then he was off to SB Nation, where he played a goofy “Answer The Question” game, pounding a big blue buzzer when he had the answer. He said something about Katy Perry looking great “because she was eating pizza.”
Ryan breezed back through Radio Row, knocking off back-to-back interviews with NBCSports.com and CBSSports.com. I had trouble hearing, but when he moved his lips I thought he was saying “no egos” and “one mindset.”
He was running late at that point. Ryan was supposed to be done by 10:30. It was already 10:40.
“So it’s here,” one of his handlers said to another, “and then ... “
“The Michael Kay Show and then out.”
“We only have five minutes,” the Pizza Hut guy said.
Ryan sat down with Kay and they began laughing together. Rex was in his element. I swear he would have stayed all day, accommodating every sports radio station in the land if they’d let him.
Someone from TSN came over and asked if Ryan could give his station a few minutes. He was refused. Someone from a San Francisco station mistook me for a PR aide and asked if I could get Rex on his show.
On the way out, Ryan gave five minutes to the print reporters, including some familiar faces from the New York papers. He’s always had a great relationship with the writers, and was smart enough not to exclude them.
“You know what? I’m just happy people care,” he said. “When you’re around this environment, it reminds you how much you want to get your team here. That’s the big thing.”
Someone asked about Deflategate. Ryan laughed. He said it was unfortunate the deflated football controversy could give a “black eye” to the league. But he said the Pats deserved to be in Arizona.
“I think it’s going to be a terrific game and come down to the wire,” he said. “I’d like to see Tom Brady coming down the field with the ball in his hand and a chance to win against the best defense in the league.”
That’s a scene you wouldn’t mind seeing a couple of times next year, I told him.
“I definitely want to see it twice,” Ryan said, “and three times if we need to.”