Rex Ryan can feel the difference. With every discussion and every decision through the first and most formative weeks of the Buffalo Bills’ offseason, a voice in his head keeps saying, “You’re not with the New York Jets anymore.”
As coach of the Bills, Ryan finds himself interacting with the team’s other decision-makers in ways that he and the most recent hierarchy of which he was a part in the same capacity with the Jets rarely did.
There is greater trust, a stronger bond, a clearer sense of true commitment to the only goal that matters.
“There’s no hidden agendas or anything else,” Ryan said during the recent NFL meeting in Phoenix. “This is who we are, this is what we want, and there isn’t anybody in this organization that doesn’t want anything other than building a championship team.”
The main person he was referencing was General Manager Doug Whaley. Ryan and Whaley instantly formed a solid working relationship that is many times better than what Ryan had with his previous GM, John Idzik, formerly of the Jets.
Ryan doesn’t address Idzik by name when addressing their time together, but it’s obvious that he didn’t believe they saw eye-to-eye.
With the Bills, the cohesion is so strong that Ryan, Whaley, team owners Terry and Kim Pegula, and club president Russ Brandon actually have a slogan.
“It’s ‘One Ego,’” Whaley said. “That’s how we walk into work every day: one ego and one goal.”
That was the driving force behind a series of offseason moves that saw the Bills acquire and retain critical pieces to fit the type of team Ryan and Whaley agree has the best chance of succeeding as quickly as possible.
Play great defense. Run effectively. Avoid – or, at least, minimize – turnovers.
“We have, in how we believe a team should be structured and how you win in this league, the same philosophy,” Whaley said. “So when we’re talking, we can finish each other’s sentences because we’re on the same wavelength.”
By all accounts, it is a dramatic shift from the relationship Whaley had with Ryan’s predecessor, Doug Marrone. Whaley has never said so publicly, but Marrone is known to have expressed privately that he did not feel they were on the same page.
There’s no mistaking the positive vibe that now exists between the GM and the coach. And it goes beyond simply celebrating the high-profile acquisitions of running back LeSean McCoy, tight end Charles Clay, and wide receiver Percy Harvin, or the re-signing defensive end Jerry Hughes.
“If there’s one word to explain Rex, it’s excitement, just pure excitement,” Whaley said. “He’s a leader of men. The players are going to see it, everybody in the office sees it. He’s a special human being.”
The origin of their symbiotic thinking was formed during the past 16 years, beginning when Ryan joined the Baltimore Ravens as an assistant coach in 1999 and Whaley joined their AFC North rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the same year as pro scouting coordinator.
The Ravens and Steelers have long played a similar brand of football, and that had plenty to do with influencing the way Ryan and Whaley think about the game and communicate with each other.
“We saw things the same way, where you play great defense, you have a physical football team and you do what it takes offensively based on the personnel that you have,” Ryan said. “That’s the ground and pound or whatever, but it’s more based on what you have personnel-wise. It’s such an easy blend that it just was a perfect thing” for them to be working together. “It’s not my vision, it’s our vision.”
Said Whaley, “Defense, run the ball, because that’s the type of football that travels, especially late in the season in the northeast. And that’s playoff football, too. Because if you look at the stats of most of the playoff games, besides the Super Bowl when Tom Brady threw it 50 times, the Patriots were running the ball to get” to the Super Bowl. “Seattle, if you look at Russell Wilson’s stats, he very rarely throws it over 25 times a game because they’re playing great defense and running the ball well. He’ll make those three to four throws a game, those third-and-10s, that you need. And that’s all we need our quarterback to do this year.”
Of the many lessons Ryan said he learned during his six seasons coaching the Jets, the biggest was seeing the larger organizational picture and how vital it is for each of the team’s various departments not to operate in a vacuum.
“The number one thing is you better have everything in line and that’s going to give you a better opportunity, I think, to be successful,” he said.
It’s fair to say Ryan didn’t get all of the help he needed with the Jets, which led to him struggling with 2013 second-round pick Geno Smith at quarterback the past two seasons.
In Buffalo, Ryan inherits another uncertain quarterback situation. But he also finds himself in a place where he believes there will be a more collective effort to figure out how to overcome it.