The rookie hadn’t heard his head coach’s comments. Earlier this week, Rex Ryan — always so quick to heap praise upon his players — said right guard John Miller played “obviously his worst game” as a Buffalo Bill.
“Say that one more time,” Miller said, head tilted, at his locker Wednesday.
Ryan's remark is repeated.
“No, I didn’t hear that.”
Last weekend, Miller returned at about “80 percent” from his high ankle sprain and struggled. He was flagged three times and the Bills’ offensive line stammered into second half. This is the stretch that tests all rookies. The proverbial rookie wall is always waiting, always unforgiving. For Miller, football would usually be winding down right about now, yet the NFL chugs along. So he's gritting through this ankle injury, aiming to prove he belongs.
Playoff hopes all but eliminated, these final three weeks still carry much value for a player like Miller. Yes, he believes there is such thing as a rookie wall — and he hopes to beat it.
“Nobody’s going to go out there and have a flawless game,” Miller said. “And for me, it was just one of those tough ones. Coming back out there — after two weeks off — I just have to knock the dust off.”
Against Philadelphia, he said he did some good things and “some uncharacteristic things.” He doesn’t necessarily agree with the flags, saying officials could call holding on every play.
“It’s just when the refs decide to call it," he said.
One hold brought back a Houdini-escape of a six-yard run by LeSean McCoy. One hold was declined. And he had one hands to the face penalty — which Miller disagreed with — on a Sammy Watkins drop.
The adrenaline rush of returning helped but Miller isn’t full strength.
“I’m not trying to use it as an excuse but coming back from injury is always tough for any player,” Miller said. “So after watching the film, I made corrections. And just try to spend extra time after practice, working on my technique, working on taking different sets. For me, there’s a lot of improvement I can make game to game."
Miller initially suffered a groin injury against Miami, missed one game, started two, missed one due to a death in the family, started three, missed two with the ankle, then started last Sunday. The Bills were drawn to Miller’s intelligence, his knack for picking up new concepts so quickly. Vital in Greg Roman's complex running game.
At no point has he been overwhelmed mentally. The key is, simply, enduring the grind.
From the end of his collegiate career at Louisville to the Senior Bowl to training for the NFL scouting combine, to pre-draft visits, to being taken in the third round of the draft, to rookie camp, to OTA’s/minicamp and then, eventually, to training camp and the regular season, he hasn’t had a chance to truly decompress in a very long time.
“So for me, it's 'What can I do to take care of my body so I don’t miss games?'” Miller said. “It’s been difficult because I don’t want to miss games. When you talk about that rookie wall, it’s something that probably does exist. A college football season, they’re in preparation for their bowl and that’s it. We still have, after this week, two weeks left and possibly a postseason.”
The other starter at guard, Richie Incognito, has always been a fan of Miller’s mind-set.
While he doesn’t see Miller hitting the wall, he can remember the feeling.
“It’s difficult. Everyone goes through it different,” Incognito said. “I know my first year playing, we got to like 10 or 12 games in and I’m like, ‘Jesus, we have another month to go? This is crazy.’ And then you get to the end of the season and everybody’s talking about playoffs and you’re like, ‘Man, I can barely run. I’m hurting.’ And all the older guys are talking about playoffs. So I think for each guy, it’s different
“This is probably the longest year of their life. So I think once you factor all those things in, every guy hits it different. They’ve been busting their butt. … He’s got a great attitude for a rookie. He works hard and he’s seen, not heard.”
Soon, the Bills will be searching for all positives to take into the off-season. One has been the running game. Despite McCoy getting shut down in the second half at Philadelphia — 12 yards on eight carries — Buffalo still ranks third in the NFL in rushing at 141.8 yards per game after averaging only 92.6 last season.
After the season, Miller will finally take that needed deep breath. He plans on zeroing in on his flexibility, his hips and wants to get leaner. Until then, he has three games to prove he’s part of the long-term solution up front. Despite the injury and rocky performance in Philly, he plans on starting Sunday.
Miller repeats that playing for two different head coaches at Louisville prepared him schematically. Mentally, he said, he “hasn’t missed a beat.”
Now, it’s all about that rookie wall.
“You never know what could happen,” Miller said. “It’s important that we go out and finish the job, finish the season strong and whatever happens, whatever falls in place, then we’ll just go from there.”