The Buffalo Bills and their fan base have renewed hopes for their future after hiring a new coach. They don't need a savior, but they just might need Rex Ryan.
By Kimberly Jones | Aug. 3, 2015
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."
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."