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Power play: Bills sign fullback Conner

Passing league? What passing league?

These are the Buffalo Bills. They don’t care that it’s 2015 and conventional wisdom insists that success in the NFL can only be achieved with an offense that throws the ball effectively.

This is Rex Ryan’s team. And as far as the Bills’ new coach is concerned, what worked on offense in 1975 can still work today.

Run the football. Be physical. Impose your will on the opposition.

That’s the thinking behind the fact the newest addition to the Bills’ roster is John Conner, a fullback. Never mind that his position has virtually become extinct. Never mind that the Bills already made another fullback, Jerome Felton, one of their more prominent signings at the start of free agency.

In the scheme of Ryan and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, you apparently cannot have enough good fullbacks.

“A lot of teams don’t even have a fullback, and we’ve got two of them,” Ryan said Wednesday, after the team announced it had signed Conner as a free agent. “Two of the best fullbacks in the league are on our football team. So I think that may tell you a little bit about the type of style of football that we want to play.”

It does.

In case you haven’t heard, “Ground and Pound,” once the mantra of Ryan’s New York Jets, has invaded One Bills Drive, where the search for a franchise quarterback continues to come up empty. Not coincidentally, the same search turned up the same results during the past six seasons that Ryan coached the Jets.

So you do other things. You play dominant defense, which is something the Jets did and the Bills can do. And, on offense, you grind it out on the ground, which they figure to have a much better chance of doing with newly acquired LeSean McCoy running behind Felton and, perhaps, Conner.

Ryan has a history with the 5-foot-11, 245-pound Conner. Ryan, in his second season with the Jets in 2010, made Conner a fifth-round draft pick from Kentucky. After being released in 2012, Conner returned to the Jets in 2013 and 2014, Ryan’s final two seasons in New York.

Could the Bills be seriously considering keeping two fullbacks?

“The good thing – and Doug Whaley and I talk about it all the time, is that we’ll keep the best players,” Ryan said, mentioning the Bills’ general manager. “If that means two fullbacks, then so be it. Both Felton and John, can they contribute on special teams as well? I think both guys can.

“Clearly, we brought Felton in to be the guy, but it just so happens that John Conner is still sitting out there. And you know what? I know John and he’s a heck of a football player. He’s an excellent teammate, so let’s bring him in, let him compete and I would not be surprised if John makes our team.”

Conner’s nickname is “The Terminator,” because he shares the name of a key character from the movie franchise and for his powerful frame and physical style of play.

The Bills made room for him on their 90-man roster by releasing another fullback, Corey Knox, but Conner, like Felton, is more of the prototype of the sledgehammer blocker Ryan and Roman want at the position.

“I like to play the game physical,” Conner said. “I like to be the most physical player on the field. Just enforce my will on the other team. I think that is how the game should be played. A lot of people call me an old-school fullback, so I guess you can say that.”

That was what Ryan saw while evaluating Kentucky players before the 2010 draft. Conner actually caught his eye by accident.

“I noticed this guy as I was looking at linebackers and he was just pummeling them,” Ryan recalled. “I’m like, ‘Wow!’ A guy named Joker Phillips, who I coached with at the University of Cincinnati, was the” Kentucky “offensive coordinator. He said, ‘You think those are impressive? You’ve got to see him on the kickoff return team.’ I’m like, ‘What? OK.’ So I go back and look. Oh, my goodness. I mean it was scary some of the hits.”

Some can say the Bills are behind the times for putting so much emphasis and investment in their running game. Some can say they should be far more concerned with finding that franchise quarterback and figuring out how to build an offense that can consistently generate big plays through the air.

Ryan says adding players such as Felton and Conner are simply a case of making the roster as powerful as it can be.

“You want your team to have a bunch of guys that you don’t want your kids playing against, you know what I mean?” he said. “So give me those types of players and that’s usually a good thing. … He’ll knock the heck out of you.”

Entering his sixth NFL season, Conner has played in 62 career games. He has 27 carries for 108 yards and two touchdowns. He also has caught 12 passes for 84 yards and a score.

Conner acknowledges that making an NFL team as a backup fullback won’t be easy, but he doesn’t consider the task impossible, especially with his kick-coverage prowess. “Yeah, it is tough now,” he said. “But I like to say, if you are a good football player, you will hang around in this league. As a fullback, I just try to be as versatile as possible, whether that be catching, running the ball and getting the short yards, all of that. I do everything I can just to try to stay healthy and keep myself around in the league in this day when it is a pass-happy league.”

Everywhere else, perhaps. But obviously not in Buffalo.


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