Fire & Ice



In a couple of hours,Rex Ryan will jump out of an airplane for the first time. At the moment, he is chatting easily with his tandem parachute partner, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Jon Ewald.

The two find thrill-seeking common ground. Both went running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Someday, they want to go diving with sharks.

Soon, Ewald and Ryan are harnessed together, Ryan in front, in the open door of an Army plane at 8,450 feet. It is loud and cold, and they are on the verge of plunging into air. Ewald, a veteran of some 7,000 jumps, would say later, "I got to be coach for the day."

His instructions were succinct: "Ready. Set. Go."

For about a minute on this mid-July morning, they are in free fall at speeds close to 300 mph before Ewald deploys the parachute, and they glide to a landing on a grass field at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

Even as clouds gather and raindrops begin to fall, the kickoff of the 2015 "Thunder of Niagara Air Show" is a success.

For Ryan, there is exhilaration. "It's such an adrenaline rush," he says. "Like game day."

And a leap of faith, the Buffalo Bills' newest coach agrees. You get the feeling he'd have it no other way.




Rex Ryan arrived in Buffalo intent on galvanizing a franchise and exciting a fiercely loyal fan base. He was bent on building trust within the organization and instilling confidence in his players. He wants to win, and win big, in what he continues to describe as the last coaching job he plans to hold.

But mostly, Ryan took the position because it felt right, because his connection with owners Terry and Kim Pegula convinced him a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since 1999 is poised to do big things.

"We're going to win, and I truly feel that," Ryan said. "I don't think it has anything to do with me. I think it has everything to do with this team. I mean, there's such a passion with this fan base. And if we play with the same kind of passion, vigor and everything else that our fan base has, we will be a tough team to play. There's no question."

Rex Ryan (second from right) says he joined the Bills' brass -- including, from left, president Russ Brandon, owner Terry Pegula and general manager Doug Whaley -- because the fit felt right.
That's a slightly different tone than the one Ryan struck on Jan. 14 at his introductory press conference, when he proclaimed: "I know it's been 15 years since the Bills made the playoffs. Well, get ready, man; we're going. We are going."

But the message is the same, and it goes over well here in Western New York.

The past six months have been remarkable for a coach who hasn't had a winning season since 2010, moved to a new office within the AFC East weeks after being let go by the New York Jets and still burns to beat Bill Belichick and Tom Brady's Patriots machine. Ryan immediately won over his players in April with an "I was fired" speech, in which he told them he fully understands what it means to hear that you aren't good enough -- or wanted -- anymore, and that he has the chip on his shoulder to prove it.

Thanks to his time with the Jets, particularly the last two years with then-general manager John Idzik, Ryan recognizes the dangers of having disparate internal agendas. He has emphasized to his Bills staff the importance of having all oars on the boat rowing in the same direction. Or, as he more recently put it, "We're all singing out of the same hymnal."

If Bills fans have faith in the Pegulas, who bought the team in October and vowed to keep it in Buffalo, then they place hope in Ryan, hired to replace Doug Marrone, who opted out of his contract days after the 2014 season ended.

By mid-June, the Bills were selling tickets like never before in their 55-year history, and Jim Kelly was dropping by the training facility on a regular basis.

"Rex," Kelly said, "never ceases to amaze me."



This is not a rebuilding job. The Bills posted a winning record last season for the first time in a decade. Should the promise of the playoffs be realized, it would bring to an end the longest postseason drought in the NFL. But this was already a good team.

The Bills didn't need a savior. But they might have needed Rex Ryan.

"It hasn't been this energized since I was here," said Hall of Fame wide receiver Andre Reed, a member of the Buffalo teams that went to four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s. Reed's voice rose as he talked about "the excitement of what's going on here at 1 Bills Drive."

Count the players among the believers.

"We went 9-7 last year," said running back Fred Jackson, a Bill since 2006. "I think with Rex, we (would have won) two or three more games. He's putting his reputation on the line by coming to Buffalo, so he wants to win just as much as we want to win as players. It's going to be the perfect marriage, so to speak."

Jackson added, "We feel like we can definitely make a run at a championship."
Beckham


So far, it's been a heck of a honeymoon. The Bills are suddenly emboldened. Those who were in Buffalo last season say they feel freer. The players appreciated what it meant to the community when Ryan blew off an OTA in early June to take the entire team to Kelly's charity golf tournament. They like that he talks tough, knowing they have to back up his words.

"He's a confident coach," running back LeSean McCoy said. "I'm the same way. That type of attitude, that confidence, you want to play for a guy like that."

It is significant for McCoy to feel that way because he didn't have much choice in the matter. When Chip Kelly and the Eagles made him available via trade, Ryan said, it took "two minutes" to decide to pursue McCoy, the league's leading rusher two years ago. The Bills gave up linebacker Kiko Alonso. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman still can't believe the team's good fortune.
New Bills running back LeSean McCoy (right) says he's taken to Ryan's confident, approachable style.


Buffalo's roster features an old guard that can still play at a high level (led by 10th-year Bills veterans Jackson and defensive tackle Kyle Williams) and a host of newcomers who will be expected to contribute immediately and mightily (McCoy, wide receiver Percy Harvin and left guard Richie Incognito).

McCoy said he has happily adjusted to Buffalo. He held his charity softball game in June in Rochester, New York, and was delighted when Ryan showed up -- in full uniform and with his own hat, cleats and bat. Others approached the day more casually.

"He didn't get the memo," McCoy said. He added, "I like Rex a lot. His ability to talk to the players, from the stars to the guys we picked up last week, says a lot about him."

Harvin learned all about that last October, when he was traded from the reigning Super Bowl champion Seahawks to the Jets. As he went to meet Rex Ryan for the first time, Harvin knew he needed a fresh start. He recalled being "uptight," unsure how to approach his new coach. There was no need to worry. Rex asked no questions, told Harvin "to leave the past in the past," and within minutes the two were laughing and joking.

"From there," Harvin said, "the comfort level grew week to week."

By Week 17, Harvin was an avid devotee. He was also nursing a Grade 3 ankle sprain. But Harvin wanted to play in the season finale -- the last game of the Rex Ryan Jets Era -- in hopes of sending Ryan out with a win. The coach said he appreciated the offer but wouldn't let him risk further injury in a meaningless game.


Because of that bond, Harvin had an easy decision when he became a free agent in March. He said he "absolutely" signed with the Bills because of Ryan.

"The ultimate player's coach," Harvin said. "He has no ego. He wants to get the best out of his players."

Incognito -- in dire need of a fresh start himself after a season-and-a-half out of the NFL -- signed with the Bills in early February. Instantly installed as a starter, he is being counted on to bring toughness to the offensive line.

"No doubt I got a second chance because of Rex Ryan," Incognito said. "I just owe (the Bills) everything I have. They're going to get every ounce of effort that I have, on and off the field."

Said Harvin: "For myself and Incognito, Rex is the kind of coach I think we need. A coach who will say, 'Put all that behind you. I got your back. Let's go to work.' "
Buffalo


It appears that Rex Ryan's team has a rock-solid defense and a significant question mark at quarterback. Does that sound familiar?

With the Jets, Ryan's primary starting quarterbacks were Mark Sanchez (2009-2012) and Geno Smith (2013-14). In each of Sanchez's first two seasons, the Jets reached the AFC Championship Game. The Jets haven't been better than a .500 team since. All told, Sanchez and Smith combined to throw 93 touchdown passes and 103 interceptions, while also losing 27 fumbles.

The Bills' quarterback competition started in the spring, as Matt Cassel, Tyrod Taylor and EJ Manuel all practiced with the starters. Manuel said he thought it would bring out the best in all of them.

That battle will continue during training camp and might last deep into the preseason. Cassel, an 11th-year veteran on his fourth team, has thrown 96 touchdown passes and 70 interceptions. Taylor, lightning quick and Joe Flacco's former backup in Baltimore, intrigues Ryan and Roman. Manuel, the Bills' 2013 first-round pick, said he believes he's gotten a fair shake from the new coaching staff after being benched by Marrone last season.

When Roman was the coordinator in San Francisco, the 49ers' offense excelled at protecting the football, committing just 66 turnovers from 2011 to '14, tying the Patriots for least in the NFL over that span. Ryan would sign up now -- or yesterday or tomorrow or any day of any week -- for a guarantee of similar ball security this season.

"We don't have Tom Brady (or) Peyton Manning," Ryan said. "But we have some good quarterbacks. We might not have the guy that's going to take a team on his back, (but) we have a lot of good guys that, in my opinion, can be part of what we need. They don't have to be Herculean."

Roman said whoever wins the job "is, in my mind, the franchise quarterback." He also likes that his quarterback will be joined in the huddle by a bevy of playmakers, including McCoy, Harvin, wide receiver Sammy Watkins and tight end Charles Clay.


"The hero of this team is going to be the team," Roman said. "One guy doesn't have to do everything. It's all about the team. That's what we're all about here."

With their overall speed and with McCoy likely carrying a heavy load, the Bills' offense plans to pressure defenses. Asked if he would like McCoy to change his running style -- which apparently no longer fit the Eagles' needs -- Roman scoffed.

"I'm not going to try to change something that's that good," he said. "Why would I?"

Said McCoy: "That's why I love this game. You always have to prove yourself. To answer your question, I look forward to being the player I've been for years and, hopefully, to winning."

Winning, clearly, is the goal here.

"It's time to give these people something new to talk about other than the glory days, which were glorious," Roman said. "But, man, that was a long time ago. They deserve it. The people here deserve it, they really do."

Said Incognito: "There are no excuses. It's win now. Anything less than the playoffs will be a failure for us."
Buffalo


If the Bills' offense hopes to pressure opponents, the defense wants to suffocate them. On the short list for having the best defensive line, the Bills led the league with 54 sacks last season. And -- how's this for a stat? -- they allowed the fewest points (1.41) per defensive drive in 2014.

Ryan's defenses ranked in the top 10 in five out of his six years with the Jets. (New York finished 11th in that one off year, 2013.) Regarding the Bills' finish as the league's fourth-best defense last season, Ryan said: "It's decent, but you underachieve a little bit, in my opinion. I think we all know where my rankings have been -- once outside of the top 10 in my whole career. I expect to be first or second in the league."
Bills D-linemen Mario Williams (No. 94) and Kyle Williams crunch Michael Vick, one of Ryan’s Jets quarterbacks last season. It was one of four sacks racked up by Buffalo in that Week 8 matchup.


Ryan spent much of the spring teaching his defense, which is based more on concepts than a playbook and has endless possibilities in terms of looks and coverages. Kyle Williams describes it as a "totally unique" defense with multiple schemes and said he "can't help but be inspired" by it. Williams believes the Bills can -- and will -- be a better defense this season.

"The word we've used around here is elite," defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman said. "Can we become an elite defense? That's really the goal. Can we be one of those elite, dominant defenses that people talk about for years to come?"

The answer to that question, at least in part, goes back to belief and faith -- in the system, in the team and in the individual.

Rex Ryan believes. Soul-searching probably would be too dramatic a characterization of how Ryan spent his time between leaving the Jets and taking over the Bills. But if he made any personal adjustment, it might have been in coming to this realization: "I think I'm better off just being who I am," he said.

Thurman -- who, along with longtime assistant Jeff Weeks, probably knows Ryan best -- sees a "rejuvenated" coach and a "regalvanized" staff, most of which followed the head man from Florham Park to Buffalo.

"It's like a weight's been lifted," Thurman said. "We have an opportunity to coach football, to feel free about doing what we do and to feel like you have a legitimate chance to win. When you feel like that, you have to go for it."




Minutes after he crosses skydiving off his bucket list, Rex Ryan makes his way to the waiting crowd line at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.
Ryan -- shown posing with U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Travis Jackson -- is confident he can break the Bills' playoff drought.


"You looked good jumping, Rex!" yells one fan. A smiling woman shouts, "Season-ticket holder for 28 years!"

Bills fans of every age want to meet Ryan, thank him and take selfies with him. They offer good luck. Ryan loves it.

"They're a great fan base here," he said. "They've got someone who's going to be as loyal to them as they are to us. That's who I am."

It's raining now, but no one cares. "Coach Ryan," one young voice calls out, "lead us to the playoffs!"

Ryan smiles, shakes hands. He hugs. The season opener against Indianapolis is in sight. Bills fans can't wait.


"Man, oh, man," he says, after he reaches the end of the crowd. "We can't let them down."


Kimberly Jones is a reporter for NFL Media. Follow her on Twitter @kimjonessports.
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