By Cody Royle
“We are going to build a bully and we’re going to see if you want to play us for 60 minutes”.
Living in the Buffalo market (Toronto) for the last six seasons once thing has been abundantly clear; the Bills severely lack an identity. Over that same six seasons I can rattle off the Super Bowl winners and their ‘identity’ without even skipping a breath. The Saints had their super high-octane offense catching Drew Brees’ rockets. The Packers had Mr. Cool, Aaron Rodgers a crippling defense with the flowing locks of Clay Matthews. New York had a bone rattling front four and a breakout Victor Cruz. The Baltimore Ravens had Ray Lewis. Seattle had the Legion of Boom and Beast Mode. New England had Tom Brady. The truly great teams, whether they win the Super Bowl or not, know who they are.
With that one quote during his introductory press conference, Ryan predictably became the face of the ‘bully’ he intends to build. It’s a style, a culture, Ryan says, that represents Buffalo, a working class city. What he means is we’re going to knock your teeth loose with defense and then knock them straight out of your mouth with our ground and pound offense. “Complimentary football” from all three phases, Ryan mused, which is good because we haven’t even mentioned what could be the centerpiece of this franchise going forward; Sammy Watkins.
Upon taking on the head coaching role, Rex Ryan brought immediate identity to the New York Jets in the shape of a top 3 defense in 2009 and 2010, seasons that the Jets made the AFC Championship game. It was a vast change from the Brett Favre Jets of 2008, where Gang Green were mid-pack (also known as No-Mans Land) in both offense and defense.
It’s encouraging news for the Bills who already come in with the league’s fourth ranked defense and a young but veteran core on offense that now includes established vets Matt Cassel and LeSean McCoy. Let’s look at some other factors to consider with Buffalo.
Unsurprisingly, Ryan was asked during his press conference whether he had any trepidation staying in the AFC East with the Patriots being so historically dominant. “That doesn’t guarantee they’re going to win it next year” was Ryan’s typical response. Ryan has always bristled about New England, who he is 4-9 against despite seeing early success. “I never came here to kiss Bill Belichick’s, you know, rings,” and “I don’t like Tom Brady” are just two of his more famous quotes during the Jets era and if the presser in Buffalo is anything to go by, there will be more.
The reality is for Buffalo’s coach and players, learning to beat New England is their sole biggest hurdle in taking the division banner. The Pats aren’t just in Ryan’s head, they’re in Buffalo’s as well. Since 2000 the Patriots are 26-3 against the Bills, including a 15-game win streak between 2003 and 2010 where the Pats outscored them 435 to 163. They did eeked out a heartless win over their rival in Week 17 last season, but New England rested most of their starters and Jimmy Garoppolo took a majority of the snaps in relief of Tom Brady. It was hardly a monkey-off-the-back win.
Elsewhere in the AFC East, Miami remain also-rans and seem destined to be 8-8 for eternity. With that said, the Jets struggled against the Dolphins during Ryan’s tenure going 7-5 with all five losses coming at home in New York. During the same time, Miami is just 2-4 against the Bills at Ralph Wilson. Perhaps the move from New Jersey state to northern New York state will remedy Rex’s lackluster record against the team from Florida.
“There’s so much that you can gain the second time around.”
One thing is clear; Ryan’s defense works. In ten seasons as a coordinator or coach in the NFL he’s presided over a top ten defense in nine, including four seasons having a top three defense. During those same ten seasons he’s never seen a passing offense that ranked in the top ten, a startling statistic given five of those seasons had a top five rushing offense (between Baltimore and New York).
The reason this is noteworthy is Rex Ryan 2.0 needs to tweak the formula. He knows it and addressed it in his press conference. He’s found a way to get to the Conference Championship twice, but not to the Holy Grail. The hiring of Greg Roman was hailed as ‘perfect’ not only as a compliment to Ryan’s defensive tendencies but also to Buffalo’s existing roster on offense. Roman’s career in San Francisco reads frustratingly similar to Ryan’s; four seasons as their offensive coordinator, all with top ten rushing offenses, three Championship Games and a Super Bowl, but no rings.
Though Roman is partially responsible for the resurrection of Alex Smith’s career (which bodes well for Matt Cassel) the run-first offense in San Francisco encountered identity problems when San Francisco started asking Smith’s replacement, Colin Kaepernick, to throw more, just as Ryan’s offense stumbled when Mark Sanchez increased his passing attempts. There was a tipping point for both offenses. In a pass heavy league where the other 31 teams can put 14 first quarter points on you before you’re out of the tunnel, it remains to be seen whether the pair can stick tough with the run and not demand too much of Cassel or E.J. Manuel, whichever one ends up quarterbacking this team.
So, the Bills are overwhelmingly going to be a ground and pound team. A ‘bully’. The common theme of this post has been identity and there seems to be alignment. As this article was being written, the Bills traded Kiko Alonso to the Eagles in exchange for LeSean McCoy, further solidifying their identity and the fact that they are committed to the run. While McCoy’s running style suited the wide open spaces created by the Eagles, his style is adaptable to the more straightforward style he’ll play in Buffalo. The other high-profile off-season signing has been OG Richie Incognito, who brings Pro Bowl experience and a nasty streak to an offensive line that ranked dead last in run blocking according to Pro Football Focus.
Terry Pegula is committed to Buffalo and northern New York. The owner of the NHL’s Sabres, AHL’s Rochester Americans and NLL’s Buffalo Bandits won the bid to purchase the Bills from the Wilson family amid threats from other bids to move the franchise away from the economically declining Buffalo area. Under Pegula’s watch the Sabres have steadily declined on-ice but the owner has remained committed to doing whatever is necessary to build a winner. That has included trading high value players such as Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek in an effort to expedite what is shaping as a stellar rebuild that could culminate in the drafting of Connor McDavid – billed as the next Sidney Crosby.
What it means for GM Doug Whaley and Ryan is that the franchise has an underlying stability that it has not possessed for decades. Long considered a dead zone that repelled elite players due to it’s inclement weather, working class confines and decaying stadium, the Bills now have a dynamic combination of strong ownership, a coach that’s been to the doorstep of the Super Bowl twice, a former number 1 overall pick (who signed as a Free Agent, nonetheless) in Mario Williams, four defensive Pro Bowlers and once again we haven’t even mentioned Sammy Watkins. Or LeSean McCoy.
“We want the Buffalo Bills to be a nightmare to play against,” Pegula says.
The Buffalo Bills have their identity.