It was early on a late March morning, but Rex Ryan was already talking -- about his New Jersey house that was sold in little more than a day, about the home in an ultra-exclusive neighborhood he had purchased in Nashville (Ken Whisenhunt is nearby, Eric Decker's about to move in, too), about the very bad ending in New York that had brought him here, to his first league meeting as the Buffalo Bills' head coach.
Ryan said something that morning that startled me: This job with the Bills, he mused, would probably be his last. Not because Ryan doesn't love coaching, but because he might love it too much. Coaches not named Bill Parcells rarely get third acts anyway, but Ryan had already unwrapped a more personal assessment. Coaching simply takes so much out of him, he pours so much of his passion into it, the physical and mental drain is simply too great to go on forever. So no matter how long and successful his run in Buffalo is, Ryan was thinking, there might not be another one.
I thought of that exchange while watching Ryan over the last few weeks, as he tweaked Tom Brady for bouncing a baseball into the dirt in front of home plate at the Red Sox home opener, as he dug deep into his rhetorical bag to slay his former players (Jace Amaro, he's looking at you unhappily for questioning the Jets' discipline) and to put future opponents on notice.
"We're not tip-toeing into somebody else's stadium," Ryan said when the Bills opened offseason workouts. "Our buses are there and we'll unload and we'll be ready to roll."
This is the goodness and light portion of the program for Ryan. As a head coach, Ryan has failed to identify and develop a quarterback, and he has botched clock management and timeout usage. But Ryan rolls out of bed knowing how to lift the spirits and confidence of a once-moribund organization -- its fans and even its employees. He changed the entire culture of the Jets when he first arrived -- he practically did it with one line about kissing Bill Belichick's rings -- and one glance at season ticket sales in Western New York tells you the shift is already happening there, too.
But ultimately the concern is whether Ryan can back up his rhetoric, for the Bills' sake and for his own -- whether the verbiage can be followed by victories. The combination of last year's 9-7 finish under Doug Marrone, a few well-placed acquisitions such as running back LeSean McCoy and the arrival of Ryan have raised anticipation for a team that is currently riding the longest playoff-less streak in the league at 15 miserable years. But one glance at the newly released schedule tells you how hard it's going to be for even Ryan's bluster to blow down all those roadblocks.
The Bills open with back-to-back home games against the 2014 AFC Championship Game teams -- Indianapolis and New England -- and then play a road game in the heat of Miami. The Bills, like the Jets, will rely on Ryan's defense to give quarterbacks fits -- it has worked over the years against Tom Brady.
But the overriding question remains to be answered, and it is one that will be asked throughout the season: Do the Bills have a quarterback who can lead a winning drive if the game boils down to one in which Andrew Luck or Brady can march their offenses down the field? Ryan did not consistently have one of those with the Jets and it was ultimately part of his undoing. And do they have an offensive line that can handle Ndamukong Suh? An 0-3 start would dim some of the early enthusiasm, but anything more than 1-2 should be considered a rousing success.
The schedule eases in October, before what will be the highly anticipated Amaro Bowl, Nov. 12 at MetLife Stadium. This will be a charged atmosphere because it will be Ryan's return, but playing it on a short week (it's the Thursday night game) might keep the sniping to a minimum. Amaro's comments about the Jets lacking accountability under Ryan last season will almost certainly resurface. Ryan's strong reaction to them -- he all but said the Bills would go after Amaro, in an interview with NFL Media's Kim Jones on WFAN -- has been curious. He has protested far too much, perhaps suggesting that there was a nugget of truth to Amaro's assessment. It is telling that when veteran lineman Willie Colon backed up Amaro's take, Ryan stayed silent.
That is the conundrum the Bills' organization faces with Ryan. He is a brilliant defensive strategist and frequently a master motivator. He is Everyman as coach, wearing his emotions in plain view, screaming his allegiance with a microphone and a garish paint job on his car. But the concern about him -- going back to before he became a head coach for the first time -- was whether he could control a team, whether he could keep them on an even keel when there is strife and hardship. The Bills themselves got an up close look at the problem, when -- despite the blizzard that forced the Bills to miss practice time and play a home game in Detroit -- they destroyed a flat and unmotivated Jets team last year.
The Bills' schedule will likely keep them in contention for a playoff spot, and a little bit of hope can go a long way -- particularly inside a locker room -- as Ryan builds momentum. The Jets, after all, once made it to the playoffs even after Ryan declared them out of it. That's what was missing in his final season with the Jets. Ryan almost certainly knew before it began that they would have difficulty competing because they had no cornerbacks who could cover. The home purchase in Nashville was because Ryan anticipated that he might be doing television right now, unsure whether his coaching reputation would survive the free fall that John Idzik's roster construction helped ignite.
Luckily for Ryan, his defensive results and his gift for imbuing confidence sustained him when the Bills came calling. If Ryan truly believes this is the last head coaching job he'll hold, though, his reputation for controlling his team through internal and external pressures has to improve. The Bills have learned plenty about adversity in the last 15 years. Ryan has to prove he knows how to manage it, if he is to raise the Bills' fortunes as dramatically as he has their hopes.