When Rex Ryan was introduced as the new coach of the Buffalo Bills in mid-January, the always audacious coach wasted no time before making the same type of headline-grabbing statements that raised eyebrows and elicited excitement during his six years as coach of the New York Jets.
Ryan proclaimed that under his watch the Bills franchise was about to end a 15-year playoff drought. He boasted about how Buffalo was going to build a team in the image of its fans: tough but loyal, and how the Bills would push their way to the top of the AFC East, a spot currently occupied by the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots.
“We are not going to be pushed around,” he said. “We’re going to be the bullies. It’s easy to build your football team the way this community is built, with the same kind of work ethic, the same kind of mentality. We will not be pushed around. We will do the pushing. We will build a bully.”
Therein, Ryan stated his intention to build a team to mirror not just Bills fans and the Buffalo community, but to mirror himself.
The reaction in Buffalo was predictably strong, but elsewhere Ryan’s boasts, after four consecutive mediocre or worse seasons in New York, were met with yawns and shrugs. However, if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Rex, it’s that he’ll do anything in his power to back up his brash and bold claims. With the help of general manager Doug Whaley over the last several weeks, he’s built a team that can do that in Buffalo.
As much as eyes rolled at Ryan’s introduction to Buffalo, they popped in early March when the Bills executed the blockbuster trade of the offseason to put one of the league’s best running backs, LeSean McCoy, at the center of their offense.
Ryan proclaimed this week that the trade came out of nowhere, and noted that the Bills weren’t necessarily in the market for a running back of McCoy’s caliber when they set out to construct their offseason plan. But after they were engaged by the Eagles, the deal took just 30 minutes to complete.
“It was an opportunity,” Ryan said. “We’re not just so structured that you can’t just allow something like this to happen. Clearly it was an opportunity for us. We all talked about it and it didn’t take us long to come up with the conclusion we did, which was let’s go ahead and get him.”
With that move, the franchise laid the groundwork for what the Rex Ryan Buffalo Bills are going to be all about: old school ground-and-pound football.
Every move since has reflected that. The Bills entered the offseason with the knowledge that finding the perfect quarterback wasn’t going to be part of the plan this year, not with the limited options on the free agent market and without a first round draft choice (traded to Cleveland last year to move up and select Sammy Watkins). So instead of pursuing an unattainable target at quarterback, the Bills embraced competition by trading for Matt Cassel, who will compete with E.J. Manuel for the starting job. They also signed free agent quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who figures into the mix, and they still have undrafted free agent Jeff Tuel. The quartet gives them plenty of options, though not a single one that’s particularly captivating.
“It’s probably not an ideal situation right now. You’ve got four guys competing instead of just going in and you’ve got the clear-cut number one,” Ryan said at the NFL owners meetings, “But we’re not at that position. Nobody’s established that yet, but we’ll certainly try to speed up that competition, if you will…but we’ve got to develop EJ, there’s no question about it. We’ve got to find ways and at the same time, give everybody the reps where you can make an accurate evaluation of them.”
But the Bills won’t need much from their quarterbacks. With a bellcow back like McCoy in tow and Fred Jackson right behind him, Buffalo is in prime position to play that old-school style of football that Ryan has long been a proponent of.
During the Jets’ two most successful seasons under Ryan — back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances with Mark Sanchez at quarterback — the offense was centered around the ground attack. In 2009, a group led by Thomas Jones compiled more than 600 rush attempts. The following season, with LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene splitting the duties, New York ran the ball well over 500 times. Similar totals can be expected in Buffalo this season.
“We prefer to ground and pound it, we’re going to run it 50 times if we can on you,” the coach said in a recent radio interview.
But while the Jets generally had big-name runners during Ryan’s tenure, the backfield was never led by a talented back still in the prime of his career, like they now have.
McCoy, who turns 27 this summer, is coming off consecutive seasons in which he played in all 16 games, carried the ball more than 300 times and compiled more than 1,300 yards. The six-year veteran had jaw-dropping statistics in 2013, leading the league in rushing with 1,607 yards — a fraction over 100 yards per game — 5.1 yards per carry and 2,146 yards from scrimmage.
His numbers ticked down in 2014 despite a similar workload, as he averaged 4.2 yards per carry and finished the season with 1,319 yards rushing. But a combination of factors, including a depleted Eagles offensive line — which had 10 different players start at least one game — and a modified game plan that limited McCoy to fewer than 20 carries in three of the final four games of the 2014 season are the likely culprits for the decreased production.
In Buffalo, McCoy won’t have to worry about a lack of carries and he will have help in front of him. The Bills further renewed their commitment to the ground-and-pound approach by signing fullback Jerome Felton to serve as McCoy’s lead blocker.
Additionally, Buffalo’s biggest addition in free agency projects to help both their running and passing game. With a monster offer sheet, the Bills stole tight end Charles Clay away from the Miami Dolphins, who had placed the transitional tag on him. Clay ranked as the 11th best run-blocking tight end in the league last season and could even be used as an h-back to spell Felton. The skillset of the 6-3, 255-pound Clay as a pass-catcher — he hauled in 127 passes for 1,364 yards over the last two seasons — doesn’t hurt either.
“First off, this guy is a hard guy to defend,” Ryan said. “Real multiple in what you can do with him, so he creates matchup problems. He’s too fast for a linebacker, and too big for a corner to cover. You’ve got to love that matchup with him. And he’s a guy that’s perfectly suited to what we’re looking for in Greg Roman’s type offense. We love his versatility.”
One thing that could perhaps hold back the Bills offense is their offensive line, which ranked last in run-blocking last season according to Pro Football Focus. That group remains one of the team’s biggest question marks entering the 2015 season and the only personnel addition made this offseason so far was the signing of lightning-rod lineman Richie Incognito, whose history of troublemaking will have him on a short leash to even make the team.
But while the Bills did little to add to their personnel on the offensive line, they did make one major move to upgrade the scheme. Ryan brought in noted offensive line guru Greg Roman to be his offensive coordinator and former Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer specifically to coach the line. Under Roman and Kromer, the Bills will switch from a zone to a man-blocking scheme up front. That switch should better utilize the abilities of Buffalo big men Cordy Glenn, Seantrel Henderson, Cyrus Kouandjio and Cyril Richardson, as well as Incognito, who projects as a starter at guard if he proves to be an upstanding citizen through training camp. It’s also likely Buffalo will add to that offensive line group via the draft, so the straits aren’t as dire as they seem.
The Bills also have options to diversify their offense and keep defenses honest, despite the mess at quarterback. As committed as they are to that old school ground-and-pound style that so well suits most of their personnel and their coaches, Buffalo won’t totally neglect the passing game.
“We’re not naive enough to think we’re going to be able to get away with [just running the ball],” Ryan noted. “We can spread you out and create some nightmares in coverage. If you want to stop our run by keeping all the big guys in there, then so be it, we’ll be able to hurt you in a lot of different ways outside.”
That confidence is bolstered by the presence of last year’s number four overall pick, Watkins. The rookie caught 65 passes for 982 yards and six touchdowns last season despite a revolving door at quarterback. The Clemson product is the most talented of Buffalo’s skill position players and Ryan will try to put him in a position to succeed as much as possible. The coach noted recently how the additions of McCoy, Clay and free agent signee Percy Harvin should take some of the defensive focus off Watkins, allowing him to further flourish in year two.
“Percy is a guy that is an explosive athlete, he’s a super talent and what we’re trying to do is take a little pressure off Sammy Watkins as well,” Ryan said. “Sammy got doubled almost every snap. I think with a guy like Percy Harvin, that’s going to be tough for you to do. Percy can catch a slant and take it the distance, he can beat you over the top; he’s a game-breaker, the flexibility he gives you.”
With McCoy running the ball down each opponent’s throat and Watkins, Clay, Harvin and Robert Woods as options in the passing game, Buffalo’s plethora of talent at the skill positions on offense will put whoever the team settles on at quarterback in position to pick teams apart.
That style of offense feeds into Buffalo’s overall style, led by a stacked defense that finished fifth in total defense last season, including third against the pass and 11th against the run
The presence of Ryan — one of the league’s best defensive minds — will only help. Buffalo prioritized keeping last year’s group in order when they brought back defensive end Jerry Hughes to team with Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus up front. The loss of Kiko Alonso, traded for McCoy, shouldn’t hurt the linebacking corps much, as the group in place filled in more than admirably in his absence last season. The Bills did lose safety Da’Norris Searcy via free agency, leaving them with a hole to fill on the backend. But Ryan has a history of making a lot out of a little in the secondary.
They also lost another defensive guru in the departure of Jim Schwartz, the mastermind behind last season’s stout defense as the defensive coordinator under Doug Marrone. But Ryan quickly quelled fears that he would be making radical changes to the Buffalo defense and said he isn’t even planning to switch to the base 3-4 defense he’s been known to run.
“I think I’ve been around enough to adjust based on the players that I have, the talents of the players that I have and it’ll be no different this year,” Ryan said in January. “One thing you’ll find out about me is that it’s not ego-driven. We’re not going to definitely play a 3-4 or a 4-3, for that matter. We’re going to have in our arsenal the ability to do anything. As an opponent, you’ve got to prepare for everything because, if not, I’m going to find out what you’re not prepared for and I’ll attack you appropriately. That’s how we play defense. We play defense based on our personnel, not just the scheme. I don’t try to put a square peg in a round hole.”
Instead, Ryan has put forth a plan to make the best of the situation he was presented and through a slew of shrewd moves this offseason to add to the offense, he has put the Bills in position to back up his boasts and bring the playoffs back to Buffalo.
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