One day after some atrocious quarterback performances in minicamp 11-on-11 drills, Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan decided his offense needed a little help.
So on Thursday, during the team’s final workout of the offseason, he kept his starting defensive line (as well as most of the rest of the No. 1 unit) off the field in full team sessions.
As a result, the passing game looked significantly better – that is, at least for EJ Manuel, who showed the most consistent sharpness with his throws while working with the starting offense. Matt Cassel, who also worked with the starting offense, still had some issues, and Tyrod Taylor and Matt Simms didn’t exactly light things up while working as backups.
“You guys posted every stat known to man in there,” Ryan joked, referencing media reports of the quarterbacks’ poor practice numbers on Wednesday. “I am like, ‘All right, that’s enough. Big boys ain’t in there today.’ So it is a little easier to function when that front four ain’t in there.”
It was, in fact, a lot easier.
The offensive line, and, consequently, the quarterbacks, weren’t burdened by the pass protection issues that stifled them for most of Wednesday’s practice. Manuel and Cassel generally had clean pockets Thursday.
But only Manuel took full advantage of it. He was at his best while running a two-minute drill that produced a 65-yard touchdown drive, capped by his scoring throw to Marcus Easley, who made an impressive catch.
“Kind of looked a little watered-down there on defense,” Ryan said when asked about Manuel’s performance. “But it was good. It was great to see. Yeah, he looked pretty good and he had some nice plays.”
Cassel had problems finding open receivers, seemed to struggle with some of his decision-making and wasn’t always crisp with his passes. Taylor and Simms didn’t look a whole lot better working with the backups.
Ryan pointed out that it isn’t totally fair to harshly judge the play of the quarterbacks in particular and the offense in general against what easily ranks among the best and most talented defenses in the NFL.
“We are not scheming offensively for our defense,” he said. “There are some things we run that no one else runs. You throw that in there and the guy throws into coverage and all of a sudden we are criticizing that is why they are holding the ball a little longer. We don’t have to play ourselves.”
Ryan described himself as “really pleased” with what took place during the offseason.
Perhaps most of that is because his defense looked consistently dominant and the team got through the workouts without any significant injuries while players recovering from injuries suffered last season – such as wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who underwent hip surgery in February – showed progress.
But the players also seemed to do a solid job of absorbing new offensive and defensive systems.
“You have to get a couple new systems taught,” Ryan said. “You have to see what you have from a physical standpoint as best you can without putting the pads on, enthusiasm and all that type of stuff. And, obviously,” there’s “the physical conditioning of your players. I have been happy with all of it.”
He draws the line at gushing about exceptional individual performances, especially by offensive players.
Ryan recalled when his father, Buddy Ryan, was the defensive line coach for the Minnesota Vikings in the late 1970s, when members of the famed “Purple People Eaters” front four – Alan Page, Carl Eller, and Jim Marshall – wouldn’t be on the field until the “first regular-season game almost.”
“They’d be playing all these other guys and then the real thing gets kicked off and here they come and you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness,’” Ryan said. Members of the offense “did pretty good, they stepped it up a little bit” while Page, Eller, and Marshall were missing.
“But really I’ve seen a lot of examples of guys that have been, you know, like, wearing-the-shorts-all-Americans, there have been like track guys that just pop off,” Ryan said. “You think you’ve really got like Cliff Branch or somebody, and then when the pads come on they are looking like T-Rex,” short-arming passes. “Doesn’t work to well in this league so sometimes you get a little of that, but we’ll see.”
Now, Ryan wants his players and his assistant coaches to shut down from football as much as possible until training camp opens July 31 at St. John Fisher College.
“I told the players detox away from football,” he said. “Get away from it, maintain some conditioning, but get away from it. I’m hoping you are jogging on the beach or doing something like that. But now is not the time to think about football. Now is the time to get away from it, spend time with your families, have a little life outside of the game.
“And then, when it gets close start dialing it in, you can’t wait to get back out here. We know what it is in front of us. If they can be half as enthused as I am about this season, that would be good. I feel pretty good about where the guys are at, and I know one thing: we are going to have a very competitive training camp. It’s going to be interesting to see how it all plays out, but one thing we know for sure they’re all going to be given an opportunity.”