PITTSFORD, N.Y. (AP) — Rex Ryan had just finished wrapping up his daily post-practice session with reporters at training camp when a Bills fan in the nearby stands delivered what has become a common message to the team’s new coach.
“We love you, Rex!” the woman yelled.
“Thank you,” Ryan responded. Smiling, he added as an aside for only a few to hear: “We haven’t lost yet.”
There’s truth in that, though don’t think for an instant the ever-confident Ryan believes there will be many losses in the Bills’ immediate future.
“Everybody gets it, that this is the honeymoon period, and we haven’t lost a game,” Ryan said.
“But you know what the great thing is? This ain’t the honeymoon period. The honeymoon period’s coming,” he said. “I truly believe there’s going to be such great days ahead of us that the true honeymoon period is getting ready to take place. It hasn’t taken place.”
If that sounds like a playoff promise, you wouldn’t be wrong.
“Yeah, we’re all in,” Ryan said. “It’s never crossed my mind that this team wouldn’t be a factor.”
New team. New city. Same Rex.
With a bigger than-life-personality, Ryan has taken western New York by storm since arriving in mid-January. Weeks after being fired by the New York Jets, Ryan replaced Doug Marrone, who abruptly stepped down on Dec. 31.
Ryan’s embraced the blue-collar town and culture by having beer and wings at The Big Tree Inn, a long-time Bills hangout, while referencing the franchise’s storied past, from Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly to 1960s star running back Cookie Gilchrist.
“Rex gets it,” Kelly said. “If there’s somebody in Buffalo that’s not excited about this season, something’s wrong.”
Added veteran defensive tackle Kyle Williams: “He understands what the history of this team means to the community. Because once you understand that connection, you can understand why our fans are as passionate as they are.”
Ryan has provided a brash voice and swagger to a team that’s faded from relevance during a 15-season stretch of missing the playoffs — the NFL’s longest active drought.
He has vowed to build a “bully.” He’s tricked-out his Ford F-250 pickup truck in red, white and blue Bills colors. He’s thrown out the first pitch on opening day for the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons. And his news conferences are regarded as “must-attend” events.
Ryan has needled Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for bouncing a pitch into the dirt before the Boston Red Sox home opener. Last week, he joined Bills owner Terry Pegula in munching on a dog biscuit to promote the SPCA. He’s referred to UFC star Ronda Rousey as “the baddest person on the planet.”
And let’s not forget Ryan jumping out of a plane in a tandem skydive with the U.S. Army parachute team last month.
“That’s Rex,” Pegula said. “I’m surprised he had a parachute on. I’m sure he would’ve felt comfortable without one.”
Ryan appears to be walking on air in getting a second chance after his six-year tenure with the Jets unraveled with a string of losses, injuries and front-office infighting. He and general manager John Idzik were fired following a 4-12 finish.
Ryan doesn’t mention Idzik by name, though the coach still feels he was shunted aside once Idzik took over in 2013.
“I’ll say this, Woody Johnson I always felt was with me,” Ryan said, referring to the Jets’ owner. “I felt it was my team initially, and then it became like I was an employee.”
Ryan went 46-50, and in his first two years led the Jets to consecutive AFC championship games, both losses.
In Buffalo, the 52-year-old defensive specialist and son of famed coach Buddy Ryan is re-energized.
“I feel like I’ve been here for years,” Ryan said.
He’s no stranger to Buffalo. He and his twin brother Rob spent much of the 1970s growing up in nearby Toronto. Ryan attended several Bills home games, though he was rooting for the Jets, when his father was an assistant coach from 1968-75.
“Buffalo’s different,” Ryan said. “I think I’m the only (coaching candidate) who brought it up, about fielding a team that would represent this community, and recognizing the loyalty of the fan base.”
Pegula recalls the first thing Ryan said was how he wanted to live in the part of town where it snowed the most.
“The word that comes to mind is authentic,” Bills President Russ Brandon said. “I think people appreciate that he’s one of us. It’s who he is. It’s not manufactured.”
In Buffalo, Ryan has something he believes he lost in New York: top-to-bottom loyalty.
“Look, I know I’m decent at this job, but it’s the people that are with me,” Ryan said. “And the great thing about this organization, everybody’s with me, from players, coaches, management, ownership. Everything.”
The Bills are embarking on a new era under Terry and wife Kim Pegula, who purchased the team in October following the death of Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson. They inherited a franchise that lacked continuity and front-office stability, going through six coaches since 2000.
Marrone had the Bills’ support, but his departure left the owners perplexed and disappointed. Now they get to start anew with Ryan, who embraces the challenge to win in what he insists will be his last head-coaching job.
“If we don’t accomplish what we set out to do, I want it on one’s guy’s shoulders. I want it on me. Yet, when we win, and I know we’re going to win, it’s on everybody, man,” he said.
“It’s the 72,000 people in the stands, and it’s all the people at home watching. That’s who I want to feel great about this,” Ryan added. “It’s the Buffalo Bills. And it’s a sense of pride. You say, ‘I live in Buffalo. Home of the Bills.’ That’s what I want it to be.”
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