Rex Ryan's return to MetLife Stadium gives Bills-Jets unique feel

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- This was never going to be a run-of-the-mill game, was it?

Not with Rex Ryan returning Thursday night to MetLife Stadium -- his Bills vs. his former team, the Jets.

Not with all of the history built at 1 Jets Drive, the two AFC Championship Game appearances, the guarantees, the bluster. The tabloid back pages, and front pages. The proclaimed aversion to kissing Bill Belichick's rings.

There were jokes and wigs at press conferences, and a triple-digit weight loss. Bravado, brashness.

Rex was never, in a word, boring. Still isn't.

This week, he hand-picked as one of his game-day captains a player who was cut by the Jets in August after punching Geno Smith and breaking his jaw in a locker room dispute over money. (Yes, Ryan regularly chooses captains with ties to the current opponent. Even so, we have to think: Rex can't help himself, can he?) He wore a Clemson helmet -- his son is a wide receiver for the Tigers -- to his Tuesday press conference in Orchard Park.

Less than a year removed from his departure, Ryan's imprint on the Jets remains: Thirty-four players are holdovers from his 2014 team and another, Darrelle Revis, ranks as one of his all-time favorites. His defensive legacy continues: Four current stalwarts were first-round draft picks in Ryan's six years with Gang Green.

No, all of this wasn't going to be routine.

"Even sometimes when you see [game] highlights, you're like, 'Man, he's wearing blue and red,' " veteran outside linebacker Calvin Pace said. "I never thought he could be in Buffalo."

The game will be played exactly 10 months to the day from Ryan's hiring as Bills head coach. While he figured long before his firing that his time with the Jets was coming to an end, Ryan found it most difficult to say goodbye to his players. As Rex said at his Bills introductory press conference, "First off, mentioning the Jets, one thing I have to say is how much I appreciate the players. Through their efforts, I'm sitting here today."

Jets players know this, and the feeling always has been mutual. Except, perhaps this week.

"It's a business," Muhammad Wilkerson said of facing Ryan's Bills.

But it's Rex.

"You're probably going to have to ask another player in [the locker room]," Revis said. "For me, it's just another game."

Said Sheldon Richardson, a Jet since 2013: "It was a good time. We had bad seasons. It was just a good time."

Other players have been more forthcoming.

Nose tackle Damon Harrison remains grateful to Ryan for giving him a fair shot in 2012 as an undrafted rookie out of tiny William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa. In 2013, Harrison became a full-time starter. Along the way, he earned a few nicknames from his head coach. "Wrecking Ball" became "Big Snacks" because of the 350-pounder's penchant for leaving crumbs in meeting rooms, and that ultimately evolved to "Snacks," which has stuck. But Snacks has no time for sentiment this week, saying he looks at Rex as he does any opponent: "He is the enemy."

Marcus Williams, an undrafted rookie last season, got an opportunity born of necessity: The Jets were painfully thin at cornerback. On Oct. 28, 2014, Williams was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster. Five days later, he started. In between, Ryan empowered him, first in a one-on-one conversation, then during a team meeting: "Williams, it's your time. You can do this. Let's go."

"I love Rex and I'm sure all of the other guys love Rex," said Williams, smiling the smile of a player forever thankful. "But it's not about Rex this week. It's about the New York Jets against the Buffalo Bills."

Demario Davis, from Arkansas State, was the Jets' third-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Post-draft, Ryan compared his leadership skills to those of Ray Lewis, a compliment for which Davis remains appreciative: "I knew what he meant by the statement, and I knew he understood me and who I was. There wasn't a day where I felt he didn't understand me, and I [always] understood him."

Calvin Pryor, a big-hitting safety out of Louisville, was Ryan's final first-round draft pick. He was perhaps the recipient of Ryan's final Jets nickname, too: "The Louisville Slugger."

How many people call him that today?

"Quite a few," Pryor said.

"He cared a lot for his defensive players," the safety added. "That's the main thing I'll remember."

The game is sometimes a complicated one. This one, perhaps not so much. The Jets (5-3) and Bills (4-4) are both chasing postseason berths in the AFC, likely via the wild card. Both need the win. The feelings that remain between Rex and his former players, frankly, won't matter much come kickoff. But they do matter.

"Rex will always hold a special place in my heart because of the success we had, the teams we had," said Pace, a 13th-year NFL veteran and a Jet since 2008. "A lot of people see the bravado, the things that he said. That was just him. That wasn't an act. I always respected him because he believed in his players, no matter who we put out there."

Truth be told, Rex Ryan probably still believes in his Jets players. All of them. But he desperately wants to leave MetLife Stadium with a win on Thursday night.

Let's be honest: It would be a heckuva postgame press conference.

Follow Kimberly Jones on Twitter @KimJonesSports

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