Anthony Lynn was like most people in town upon hearing the news. He was shocked, too, when Greg Roman cleaned out his office five days into the season. He never saw the firing coming, not even after two losses, and wasn’t quite sure how to respond when Rex Ryan handed him the offense.
“It blindsided me,” Lynn said Thursday after practice as the Bills prepared for Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers.
For the first week, while trying to get his brain around what had gone wrong and how to proceed, he barely slept a wink. He worked into the wee hours, drove home for two-hour power naps and returned to One Bills Drive. For the first few days as offensive coordinator, he made a point to ignore the Arizona Cardinals.
It was a lesson he learned years ago from the late John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach with whom Lynn had lunch early in his coaching career. Wooden examined a scouting report Lynn had constructed about an upcoming opponent and told the young coach he was taking the wrong approach.
“All this is on the opponent?” Wooden asked Lynn. “I focus more on my team. If I can fix my team and focus on my team, I don’t worry about the other team.”
Lynn, 47, has carried that basic message for years. He made sure his own house was in order without trying to keep up with the Joneses. The Bills looked like a dilapidated dump on the verge of implosion when he was asked to take over the offense after the season started with embarrassing losses to the Ravens and Jets.
His first order of business after replacing Roman was identifying weaknesses in the Bills’ attack and devising plans to put his players in position to succeed. Once he figured out what was wrong with the Bills, he began putting pieces together that could help them emerge from the trash heap. So far, you can't argue with the results.
Buffalo has won all three games since Lynn became the offensive coordinator, allowing Ryan to step away from the hot seat – for now. This week, Lynn will match wits against San Francisco, where he was introduced to coaching by the late, great Bill Walsh while he was a running back and special teams star for the 49ers.
It’s too early to get carried away, but the three wins were hardly a coincidence. The Bills have been a better, more efficient team. They have jumped to early leads in all three wins, allowing the defense to set the tone.
LeSean McCoy gained 150 yards rushing last week and has averaged 110 yards on the ground since Lynn took over. Tyrod Taylor has played with more confidence despite mediocre passing performances. The Bills increased the tempo and made better use of Charles Clay, who has 10 catches in the past two weeks.
“Being a former player, being in the locker room and being on the field, I have a sense for what the players crave and what makes them tick,” Lynn said. “You have to give it to them.”
We’re still getting to know Lynn, who arrived with Ryan last season but remained mostly obscure as the running backs coach. The decision to promote him sounded ludicrous and seemed destined for failure, another sign that Rex was off his rocker and incapable of successfully running a football team.
Questions still remain about who actually made the decision to fire Roman, who was involved in offensive meetings the morning he was given the heave-ho. Ryan accepted responsibility, but the timing led many to believe ownership made the call after meeting with Taylor, McCoy and other players.
Lynn was thrust into an emergency role as offensive coordinator even though he had called as many plays in the NFL as the bartenders at the Big Tree. At least that was the view from outside One Bills Drive. Inside the locker room, players lined up behind Lynn and cheered the decision.
“When he got the job, I was excited because I know what he’s about and what he brings to the table,” guard Richie Incognito said. “The biggest thing with him is that we’re all on the same page. We practice what we’re going to run in the game. We’re picking up chunks of yards.”
The offensive coordinator is usually the least popular person in town, but who wouldn’t want that gig? Anyone who ever questioned a coach from the couch imagined himself doing a better job if given the opportunity. Every week, you see coaches make one boneheaded decision after another.
Roman left people shaking their heads numerous times during his tenure, but he was hardly their biggest problem. It’s not as if Lynn has suddenly waved his magic wand and solved all problems, either. The Bills had the 28th-rated offense in the NFL and were dead last in passing through the first five games.
“I’ve told my wife (Stacey Bell, a television news anchor in New York), ‘You might want to watch games from home,’” Lynn said. “Of all the major sports, the one that is most critiqued is the offensive coordinator in football. But I have a passion for it. It’s fun. I love working with the coaches and young men. It’s been a passion of mine.”
Lynn had no intentions of getting into coaching early in his career. He started a construction company in the 1990s. He figured he would play for as long as a team wanted him and continue building houses. In 1995, his second season in the NFL and first with the 49ers, Walsh summoned him to his office.
Years earlier, Walsh had started a fellowship program for prospective minority coaches that gained traction. Lynn was finding his way as a player but impressed Walsh with his acumen and communication skills. Walsh sat down the reserve running back and special teams star and suggested he get into coaching.
“When a coach comes and gets you out of the locker room, sometimes it’s not a good thing,” Lynn said. “I was like, ‘What’s going on here?’ He took me to lunch that day and talked to me about coaching. I took his advice. I listened. And I started taking notes.”
Over the past three weeks, the Bills have played the way Ryan intended when he arrived. They have averaged 178 yards rushing since Lynn took over and vaulted into third behind Dallas and Tennessee in rushing yardage. Their commitment to the run has come at the expense of the passing game but made them more effective.
Lynn met with Taylor after taking over and told his quarterback he wanted him to take more ownership in the offense. In essence, he empowered his offensive leader. He also dialed up plays designed for McCoy to run between the tackles and find space against opposing linebackers.
His play-calling has not been an issue. For years, as an assistant coach, he called plays in his head. He watched videotape during the offseason and picked apart the play-calling the way fans did on any given Sunday. He jotted down notes and formed his own philosophy on what it took to win.
Lynn has been preparing for the opportunity since he started coaching. He was a finalist for top jobs with the Jets, Dolphins and 49ers before returning to the Bills. He’s 3-0 as offensive coordinator while the other three teams are a combined 3-12. It’s a matter of time before he becomes a head coach.
Nobody should be shocked if he succeeds.