PITTSFORD – A year ago Sunday, July 31, 2015, marked Rex Ryan’s first day of training camp with the Bills. He already had established himself as a man of the people, a flag-waving ambassador for Buffalo and Sports Illustrated cover boy whose pickup truck was something out of the team gift shop.
Rex demanded that you believe with his vivacious personality and unwavering optimism. Last season was going to be the year they made the playoffs. You were certain because he was certain. Excitement about the Bills washed over Western New York like no time since the Super Bowl years.
It was more intense than it was under Doug Marrone, who came with little NFL experience and marginal success at the college level. It was more palpable than it was under Chan Gailey, who was bent on “changing the culture” – remember the mantra? – after Dick Jauron bored the masses into a trance.
The sound heard on Ryan’s one-year anniversary at training camp was distinctly different Sunday morning, which is one way of saying it was eerily quiet at St. John Fisher College. The first Sunday practice was quieter than Sunday Mass. Many in the crowd headed for the exits three-quarters through the workout.
In that respect, it felt like many a Bills game.
Rex knows how to work a crowd, of course, and he effectively came up with a spin that was worth swallowing … if you didn’t know Rex. His rationale for the subdued atmosphere: The Bills were all business. But what could he say, that many who stood behind him last year had lost faith? Or they lost interest?
“I think it was so new,” Ryan said. “You’re coming in and there was that type of feel. You look at our circumstances. We had competition at the quarterback position. I think that was a lot of the focus. Nobody, including coaches, players, fans, really knew who the quarterback was going to be.
“As a coach, you’re trying to get to know the players, so that was exciting. Now it’s more, I guess it’s more businesslike, maybe how I would look at it. I love it. I love how fans come out here and support this team, like really nobody else. But there might not be quite the same buzz we had last year. I would agree with you on that.”
So we agree on something. We can also agree that the honeymoon is over. It ended after the Bills fell to 3-4 after losing to Jacksonville in London. That’s when people realized, if not sooner, that Rex talked a better game than he coached, that his passive, ineffective defense didn’t support his bravado.
Ryan pleaded guilty to past mistakes when camp opened this season, refreshing only if you believed him. My impression was his mea culpa was a peace offering to get critics to back off while he bought time. Many have reason to be skeptical. I’ve come to disregard what he says even when he’s telling the truth.
Rex’s problem is that many view him as a con artist. His bluster may have worked in New York, but it doesn’t work in a humble region. People here have little patience for phonies. They’re tapped out after watching the Bills miss the playoffs 16 straight seasons. They’ve heard enough noise. They’re tired. They want results.
“I certainly understand that from a Bills fan perspective,” Ryan said. “I know how much they’ve longed and lived through their team. You talk about a 16-year playoff drought and all that. I understand all that stuff, but all I can do the best job that I possibly can do. I’m not dwelling on anything.”
Ryan reiterated that it’s not about him, yet so often it’s precisely about him. That’s how it started last season, with Rex running his mouth about transforming his team into bullies and coming off like a blowhard. He signed a five-year contract worth $27.5 million. He hired his twin brother this year.
Years ago, Jim Kelly had a reputation for holding news conferences to clear up what he said at the previous news conference. In June, the Hall of Fame quarterback said Rex would be looking for another job if the Bills missed the playoffs. A month later, he slightly backed off his comments, saying all NFL coaches had their jobs on the line.
Kelly was right the first time and deserved praise for speaking the truth. Ryan should be gone if the Bills miss the postseason. Ryan himself said over the weekend that two years was enough time for a coach to get a team turned around. Well, he’s starting his second season with the Bills. And it could be his last.
Frankly, he’s fortunate the Bills won their final two games last season. He may have been booted to the curb if they finished 6-10.
The same goes for Doug Whaley, who has a different set of issues. By the way, there’s still talk that he and Ryan disagree on certain personnel decisions and have failed to forge a strong, trusting relationship. It could turn into a mess if the Bills get off to a poor start and Ryan and Whaley begin running for cover.
Rex knows he’s on a short leash, which is why he tightened up training camp this year. He implemented a 10 p.m. curfew. He replaced players who jumped offside in practice Sunday. He said his next move is tapping into old-school methods – some would argue high school – and making players take laps for such infractions.
If that’s the case, training camp practices might look like musical chairs. The practice Sunday was ugly, even by minimal standards set for the first week of training camp. Watching players jump offside triggered flashbacks to last season, when the Bills were the most undisciplined team in the NFL.
One aspect that stood out more than anything Sunday was the way Rex carried himself after practice. He came with a gentler, quieter tone than we’re accustomed to hearing during his sessions with the media. You might even say he was more businesslike. Maybe he learned his lesson.
Wait, we’re talking about Rex Ryan here. We know better, and apparently so do the people watching from the stands. What a difference a year makes.