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After months of hype, let the show begin

OK, it’s finally time for the Rex Ryan era to begin. I would advise Bills fans to fasten their seat belts, but it’s clear that Rex wants people unchained from their chairs and free to make life miserable for Andrew Luck.

“I’m calling our fans out. We need you,” Ryan said Wednesday. “We have to make it miserable when people come in here. This guy’s the No. 1 fantasy quarterback for this week. He’s the play, the go-to guy. Everybody wants him.

“We’re gonna make it as challenging as we possibly can,” Ryan said, “but it can only be added by our fans and when our defense is on that field. You can stand up, I don’t care. That’s your party time. That’s when you get your party on, when you get your thing on – when our defense is out there.”

By all means, get your party on. Bills fans have been looking forward to this day since the moment Rex blew into Buffalo, talking about building a bully and beating New England and promising the fans he was not going to let them down.

“Come September, this team will be ready, period,” he said at his first presser in mid-January.

The guy knows which buttons to push, that’s for sure. He understands the underdog culture, how to connect with regular folks, to act like a Buffalo guy. He even showed up at the Big Tree with Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas for a Sports Illustrated photo shoot, a sure sign that happy days were here again.

So it was no surprise that Ryan would open his first Media Day news conference – after bragging about winning his fantasy baseball league, that is – by playing to the emotions of the fans and trying to rouse the old 12th Man into action.

This isn’t the Bills’ fans’ first tailgate, of course. I’m not sure they needed prodding for Sunday’s clash with the Colts at the Ralph. By 10:30 a.m. Saturday, the Bills had announced that the camper/RV lot was sold out and filled to capacity.

The Bills said it was the second time that occurred in recorded history, whatever that means. The other was before last year’s home opener against Miami, right after it was announced that the Pegulas were buying the team. Remember Eric Wood talking about seeing the campers lined up on Saturday?

“It’s hard to say that our fans are ever better in one game,” said defensive tackle Kyle Williams. “They’re always great. But last year’s home opener was so special, with the Pegulas and the team solidifying here. I almost feel something like that.

“I mean, you feel the buzz, the energy,” Williams said at his locker. “We feel it in here. We need to go out and play fast, play physical. We have to try to match the buzz with our intensity and our passion.”

From Ryan to the players and down to the fans, this opener has a special significance. The Bills sold a record number of season tickets. This could be the most anticipated season opener since the Super Bowl days. Expectations are sky high, and Ryan said his team isn’t running from them.

“I’m gonna tell you this,” he said, “the expectations here are real and we expect to be good. Hey I get it. Our schedule’s tough and all that, but when that team looks at us – they aren’t real happy about playing us either.”

There’s been plenty of tough talk, but the time for talking is at an end. Today, it’s about action, about what happens between the lines and inside the headsets. It’s about Ryan proving he’s still a leader, motivator and master tactician, a head coach who can elevate a team and make a difference.

For all the hype and bluster, Ryan is just another first-time Bills coach today. He can separate himself from some sorry history by upsetting Indy. No coach has ever won his Bills debut on Opening Day. Head coaches are 0-17 when they make their Buffalo debut in the opener. Marv Levy won his first game here, but it came in the 10th game of the 1986 season.

Critics are waiting to see if Ryan is equal to his reputation, which became badly tarnished in the end with the Jets. He was seen as a weak game manager in New York. He said in January that he planned to get better. He has a strong staff, so presumably Ryan will have a lot of help in that area.

But with Ryan, it comes down to defense. It’s in his family genes. He had some fabulous defenses with the Jets. Terry Pegula hired Rex with the belief that he could take a very good defense, one that was fourth overall and first in sacks a year ago, and make it even better.

Kyle Williams said the combination of Ryan and Dennis Thurman’s schemes and the Bills’ talent should make for an improved defense. He also knows the pressure is on them to prove it on Sundays.

“There really isn’t any kind of expectation anywhere greater than what we have for ourselves,” he said. “We expect to be one of the best, and the fact that our fans expect it doesn’t bother me at all.”

Ryan said his defense won’t face any tougher challenge than the Colts. That’s why he’s calling for the 12th Man (and woman) to take it to another level. Luck has the arm, instincts and running ability to make big plays against Ryan’s unpredictable, gambling schemes.

It’s not as if Luck hasn’t responded to crowd noise before. In his first five road games last season, he averaged 373 yards passing and three TDs. The Buffalo defense needs to be the best unit on the field and justify its lofty reputation and its coach’s faith – and without Marcell Dareus.

Ryan said he’s excited for the opportunity. The guy loves a challenge and has a history of being prepared for openers. His Jets teams were 5-1 on Opening Day; his defenses allowed an average of 16.5 points in those games.

Maybe Bills fans are so geared up because they sense the standard beginning to change. There was a time when making the playoffs was taken for granted. The coach didn’t talk about expectations. They were assumed.

Kyle Williams is entering his 10th season with the Bills. He has been here the longest of any Bill, now that Fred Jackson is gone. But he is unmoved by the prospect of making the playoffs for the first time. He has greater aspirations.

“To be honest with you, my goal is not to go to the playoffs,” Williams said. “I want to win a championship. I want to win the AFC East. I want to be a Super Bowl champion. I don’t want to just go to a tournament where – you’ll forgive me for not knowing exactly how many – 10 or 12 teams go to a playoff.

“I want to be a champion,” he said, “and those are the things that drive me at 32 years old, 10 years in, five kids, to get up in the morning and go work out and start getting ready, because that’s what I want to do.”

Now, if that doesn’t make you want to bolt out of your seat and scream at Andrew Luck, I don’t know what can. Down in the camper/RV lot, I imagine, they’ve had their party on for a day now.


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