PITTSFORD – Rex Ryan emerged from the tunnel at St. John Fisher College to a boom of cheers he couldn’t ignore. The new Buffalo Bills head coach tipped his cap to the crowd, congregated with coaches at midfield and hype finally gave way to substance.
After months of signings, bold proclamations and an unprecedented number of season tickets sold, real football took center stage at St. John Fisher College. Players nodded their heads to Wiz Khalifa’s “Dem Boyz,” fully aware that the expectations in 2015 are high.
The Ryan Era is officially underway.
It’s on the coach who vowed in January “to build a bully,” who said, “I know it’s been 15 years. Get ready. We’re going,” to now deliver those postseason results.
“We want to win, I can tell you that much,” Ryan said. “And we expect to win. I think going into it we are going to work. We are going to do anything we can to put ourselves in that position. That certainly is our objective to get in there and obviously we will see, we have a lot of work to do.
“We’ve got some tough opponents in front of us but we are not focused on the opponents, we are focused on us.”
Friday was a brief preview.
Ryan’s true debut will come Sunday, the first day in pads. But after a wild offseason of arrests and jumping from planes, the actual football was refreshing. Friday’s practice consisted mostly of position drills and sporadic 11-on-11 work with the occasional blip of optimism.
Running back LeSean McCoy dazzled with an acrobatic catch over Nigel Bradham, plucking the ball over the linebacker’s head. Rookie Ronald Darby, starting in place of the injured Leodis McKelvin, picked off Matt Cassel on a deep route.
And Mario Williams, who was initially placed on the non-football injury list with back pain, was lifted to the active roster and practiced.
Ryan inherited a 9-7 team before as head coach but this takeover is “a different feel,” he said, than the one in New York.
“I don’t know if it is because it is my second chance,” Ryan said. “I think I am better prepared now than I was then even though that same enthusiasm that I have now I had back then, I can promise you. … I feel this is a really deep roster in particular at a lot of positions, I think that makes for a great camp.”
Excitement was in the air in Pittsford with owners Terry and Kim Pegula watching on from the sideline in wide smiles and McCoy tossing a football into the crowd. The campus was crawling with fans from all directions.
The team’s new franchise back tempered expectations initially. Asked about the 15-year drought, McCoy said he only worries about preparing himself for the season, adding it’s “hard” to make the playoffs.
“Before any playoff talks or trying to end the streak all that type of conversation has to wait,” McCoy said. “Each day, each moment, each practice to get better.”
Yet he agrees with Ryan. He’s part of a massive rehaul.
And on offense, McCoy sees a deep team, even deeper than those four teams he had in Philadelphia that went 10-6 or better.
“Not player for player – but the overall depth,” he said, “I think this is the one of the most talented teams I’ve played on.”
The Bills added a cornerback to the roster. Sort of. Wide receiver Percy Harvin took a few snaps at right cornerback during Friday’s practice. Ryan said the receiver actually approached him about the Troy Brown-like double duty.
With McKelvin sidelined, Ryan was all for it. Chalk it up as the first of many outside-the-box ideas Ryan will probably experiment with.
“We expect him to be a top receiver for us. But if he can help out in that area, just like if Kyle Williams can help our offense out then we’ll look at that as well,” Ryan said. “This is just a let’s-see-what-he-can-do thing. He came to me with it. He’s obviously got the physical skill set where you’d think he could be pretty good at it.”
Both McKelvin and kicker Dan Carpenter did not practice. Carpenter tweaked his hamstring, while Ryan wouldn’t specify McKelvin’s injury. He wasn’t concerned with either.
Cyrus Kouandjio (right tackle) and Corey Graham (safety) opened training camp as starters at two of Buffalo’s position battles this spring. Ryan said he’d be cycling different safeties through and wanted the former cornerback Graham to get work with Aaron Williams deep to start.
Meanwhile, General Manager Doug Whaley had hoped to reach a long-term extension with defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who has one year left on his rookie deal, before the season began. Whatley indicated Friday that the two sides have “exchanged proposals” and “these things take time.”