So many general managers and head coaches treat the NFL offseason as a field of land mines. They tip-toe through player acquisition.
A nationally broadcast bullying ordeal? Yeah, right. A sixth-rounder slugged his own quarterback in the jaw? No thanks. A fight with an off-duty officer? For someone making $40 million over five years? Here’s the door.
Yet where many coaches zig, Rex Ryan forever will zag. Where many coaches see a cancer, Ryan sees a cure.
Inside the ADPRO Sports Training Center after one minicamp practice, Ryan laughs. Uh, yeah, he received second chances himself.
“Oh, God. Come on now,” Ryan said. “There are a million things in my past. But if someone never did that for me, there’s no telling where I’d be. There are a lot of guys who could’ve easily kicked me to the curb. Instead, they did just the opposite.”
So over two years, this is how the Buffalo Bills head coach has built his team. Everywhere you look are players who were granted a second chance. Pariahs. Names you see crawl along the bottom of the television screen. The success of this 2016 edition — heck, the employment of Ryan himself — is dependent on those names.
Ryan has trained outsiders to almost expect Bills interest whenever a troubled player becomes available.
Maybe other coaches are hesitant. That’s their prerogative, Ryan says.
“If we think you can be successful for us in the locker room, on the field and in our community then — you know what? — let’s take a look at you,” Ryan said. “But if not, if any of those things aren’t in line, then we won’t bring a headache in.
“We’ve all made mistakes. It’s 100 percent. Guys in our locker room, guys in the coaches’ locker room, all over the building, nobody’s perfect. There are a lot of really good people. Nobody’s perfect. Everybody’s made mistakes in their lives. It’s just you try to learn from them and grow from them.”
So here’s the core of second-chancers, the players Buffalo will bring to St. John Fisher College next week to end a playoff drought that’s old enough to drive, two years from joining the Army and five years from a beer.
• Richie Incognito. Viewed as a malignant bully by all 32 teams, the left guard was released by the Miami Dolphins and banished. Incognito missed the entire 2014 season. In swooped the Bills, and Incognito last season anchored the NFL’s No. 1-ranked rushing attack. In March, he was rewarded with a three-year, $15.75 million contract extension.
• Ronald Darby. Would not testify during Jameis Winston’s code-of-conduct hearing at Florida State — the cornerback witnessed the encounter between Winston and his accuser. Darby was cleared and, despite world-class speed and shutdown potential, slid to the 50th overall pick. Darby rewarded Ryan by finishing second in the voting for defensive rookie of the year with 68 tackles (61 solo), two interceptions and 21 passes defensed.
• IK Enemkpali. The outside linebacker infamously broke quarterback Geno Smith’s jaw in two places, was waived, then claimed by the Bills the next day. He had a minimal impact in 2015 (13 tackles, no sacks) but now is expected to compete for a starting job in 2016.
• Adolphus Washington. The Bills’ third-round pick last April and a player who likely will start at defensive end, once was arrested at a Columbus, Ohio, hotel after soliciting an undercover cop for oral sex. GM Doug Whaley said the Bills saw someone who was “truly remorseful, truly embarrassed,” and decided Washington was worth the risk.
• LeSean McCoy. Obviously McCoy is one of the NFL’s best running backs, and he proved it again in averaging 99 total yards per game last season. But he’s also 28 years old and was involved in an offseason bar brawl with off-duty cops. The back was cleared, but other teams might’ve cut the vet loose at his price tag. Instead, he’s the engine that will make this offense go.
• Karlos Williams. In college, the back was investigated by police in a domestic battery case. In the pros, he rushed for 5.6 yards per carry with nine touchdowns. But he showed up to minicamp 20-plus pounds overweight and was suspended four games for substance abuse. His career is already at a crossroads.
All hit varying degrees of lows.
Incognito once was locked inside his own home with media loitering outside and his face plastered all over the television. The NFL? He figured his career, right then, might’ve been over. He spoke with family members, psychiatrists, anyone who’d help.
“I had absolutely no idea what was going on,” Incognito said. “That was nuts.”
Enemkpali briefly was the No. 1 sports story in America for the wrong reasons, too. One report surfaced that Smith owed his New York Jets teammate $600, money spent on a plane ticket for the quarterback to attend his football camp. Smith has since called that narrative “the biggest misconception in America.”
Either way, Enemkpali’s career appeared over after New York cut him loose.
Neighbors approached him to say, “You’re the nicest guy! What happened?” Social media erupted. Reporters circled his New Jersey home. His world crashing down, Enemkpali bought a plane ticket to head home to Dallas immediately and escape reality. He planned to train for an opportunity that’d probably never come.
Once his post-punch adrenaline settled down, the thought that his career was over crossed his mind.
And at the airport with his girlfriend, in Group 4 boarding the plane, his phone lit up. It was his agent. The Bills had claimed him.
Enemkpali’s relationship with Ryan was always strong. At Jets practices, the head coach used to shout “Get this mother ... off the edge! Put him in!” Then, Ryan lent a hand when no one else would be seen in the same zip code with him. With first-rounder Shaq Lawson sidelined for months — maybe the entire season — Enemkpali is needed as a pass rusher.
“It means the absolute world to me,” Enemkpali said. “When I got drafted, I could tell he took into me because I’m a really quiet guy. I’m really reserved. I like to let you open up to me first. Rex, he believed in me from Day One. He always talked to me, always believed in me and told me I’m going to play in this league for a long time.
“For a young player, to hear a coach talk that highly of you, it’s the world. When you have someone believing in you, nobody can stop you.”
Added Ryan: “I saw a really hard-playing guy, a guy who cares for his teammates. That’s what I saw. And a guy who was passionate about playing football and was just a good guy.”
Enemkpali now is trying to redefine himself. This very human side of Ryan in a very-not-human profession is what players love.
“He’s a real person, a real person,” Enemkpali said. “He knows people make mistakes. He’ll tell you himself that he made mistakes. He wouldn’t want anybody to judge him off the mistakes that he made. ... His motto is ‘Once you’re in, you’re in.’ I can get cut today. I’d see Rex tomorrow and holler at him and he’s still going to talk to me with no hard feelings. We have real relationships, you know?”
All of these risks could pay off. The locker room could become united, stronger than ever because of their rocky pasts.
McCoy is an elite talent this franchise rarely attracts, while Darby plays a premium position. Yet even Ryan knows it only takes one risk to backfire. Williams’ rocky offseason is a concern. If one risk relapses, it’s not a good look for Ryan. For the owners. For the Bills. For everyone.
“Sometimes, if that individual makes a mistake then, yeah, it could give the organization and myself a black eye,” Ryan said. “But we look at the individual and we think, you know what, this guy’s going to be successful. And we’re never surprised when they’re successful.
“If there is a mistake, it should fall on one person. It should fall on me.”
If he knows the player himself personally, he’s more willing to roll the dice. If not, he says the Bills do plenty of background work. Repeatedly, Ryan assures he thinks this all through.
“I think players are appreciative of the fact that ‘I do get to prove to people I’m not who you think I am,’ ” Ryan said. “It’s huge for them, not only in the years until they’re done playing but it’s the years after. If you can change your reputation and what people think of you ... you can affect the rest of your life.”
And the Bills hope it affects the 2016 season, too.