ST. PAUL, Minn. — They were supposed to have been the dynamic foundation on the back end of Rex Ryan's blitz-happy Buffalo Bills defense.
Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby.
When Ryan boldly promised during that first news conference as the Bills' coach about having the NFL's best defense, he was thinking of such a cornerback duo, even though the team had yet to make Darby its second-round pick (first overall) of the 2015 draft. Gilmore and Darby – or someone like him – would lock things down and allow Ryan to freely call his various blitzes with minimal concern about giving up big plays.
It never worked out that way, of course. The defense declined from its fourth overall league ranking in 2014, Ryan was fired after two seasons, Gilmore left soon thereafter via free agency, and Darby was traded away last August.
As fate would have it, Gilmore and Darby have been brought together on the same field for Super Bowl LII Sunday – Gilmore with the New England Patriots and Darby with the Philadelphia Eagles.
The irony hasn't been lost on either of them.
"Yeah, I talked to Stephon," Darby said. "I was like, 'It's just crazy how it was just last year we were both on the same team and now we're about to go up against each other in the Super Bowl.' He's like, 'Yeah, I know. That is crazy.' "
There are numerous Bills ties to both Super Bowl teams, but none quite like this one.
Gilmore was Buffalo's first-round pick in 2012. He was viewed as player who would be a fixture in the secondary for many years. The Bills picked up his fifth-year option, yet allowed him to become a free agent because they didn't see enough consistently elite performance to warrant the elite contract for his position he was seeking.
Surprisingly, the Patriots, known for not overspending for free agents, did. They gave Gilmore a five-year, $65-million contract, with $40 million guaranteed.
New coach Sean McDermott and new General Manager Brandon Beane didn't see Darby as a good fit for the Bills and shipped him to the Eagles for a 2018 third-round choice and wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who was a non-factor. Darby's defensive coordinator is Jim Schwartz, who guided the Bills' D in 2014. The Eagles finished the regular season ranked fourth in yards allowed, exactly where Schwartz had the Bills four seasons ago.
Now, Gilmore and Darby, the highly touted pair of Bills cornerbacks-turned-castoffs, are getting ready to play on the NFL's biggest stage for the first time.
"It says a lot," Darby said. "It says we work hard. We were blessed to be on the teams to make it this far. The Patriots are always here. But we couldn't just sit there and just guess and be like, 'OK, Philly's making it to the Super Bowl.' "
Their parallel stories don't end there. Both also had to overcome some fairly steep challenges early in the season.
Gilmore struggled badly in a new defensive scheme and that helped contribute to the Patriots' shocking 2-2 start. He was part of communication breakdowns – largely blamed on players simply not knowing each other well enough – throughout the secondary. Defensive backs often were in the wrong places as coverages were routinely busted.
Although Gilmore and the rest of the secondary showed gradual improvement, the Patriots had a hard time living down their mammoth financial investment in a player who wasn't delivering on the field.
"It was just getting better every day, getting used to playing with each other. The more games you play in, the better and better you get. That was our goal from Week 1 to now. So as long as we keep doing that, we'll be OK. I think everybody on this team is a better player than they were Week 1 until now."
Darby received a huge scare in the Eagles' season-opening victory against the Washington Redskins, when, in the second quarter, he suffered a dislocated ankle. The unnatural twisting of his foot led some to immediately conclude that Darby's season, if not his career, might have ended.
Yet, once they examined him, doctors told Darby he would be back before the end of the schedule. First, though, he needed to go through two months of rehabilitation.
"It was difficult, especially sitting out two months in the midst of the season," Darby said. "But I had my teammates and everybody helping me pull through. I spent a lot of hours rehabbing. I was one of the first ones in (the facility) and one of the last ones to leave for like two months straight. From there it was just getting my feet back under me and trying to stay in shape the best way I can with a dislocated ankle."
"I was shocked, I thought it was over," Eagles safety Corey Graham, another former Bill in the Super Bowl, said. "Honestly, to see him go through that, then come back and playing the way he's playing right now in the same year is amazing. It was a gruesome injury."
Gruesome could also be used to describe Ryan's defense in 2015 and 2016, especially after all of the bragging he did about the effectiveness of his scheme.
Graham was a part of it, but as far as he was concerned, the problem wasn't a lack of talent, especially when it came to Gilmore and Darby.
"They were so talented, so talented," Graham said. "We had so much potential. But when it's all said and done, it takes more than that. In the system we were in, it takes a lot of communication and that was the big thing that held us back.
"It wasn't the talent. It was everybody on the same page, everybody playing together and communicating, everybody being lined up, doing the right thing. When you're in a complex defense like that, one mistake can be devastating."
Neither Gilmore nor Darby had much to say about the Bills' defensive failings during their two seasons together.
"I don't know why it didn't work out," Gilmore said. "I guess God didn't want it to work out. I'm just enjoying this moment. God really blessed me to be in this situation, from last year to this year, to being in this position. It's hard to get to the Super Bowl and it's hard to be a great team in this league. So you've got to really take advantage of the opportunity you're in. I think you have to do that and enjoy the moment."
"Oh, I don't know," Darby said. "We had our ups and our downs. Nobody's perfect. Rex, he's a good coach and everything, so I'm not sure."
Darby only knows this. He has just finished his third NFL season and is about to play in the Super Bowl as part of one of the league's better defenses.
"You're surrounded by a lot of talent," Darby said. "It's a good defense to play for."
That was supposed to have been the case when he and Gilmore were with the Bills.