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Smilin' Rex Gives Bills a Character

It will be January of 2016, at the earliest, until Rex Ryan shows whether he can get the Buffalo Bills to the playoffs for the first time since the earliest days of the millennium. Even before his official introduction, though, he provides something else they have been missing for even longer.


It didn’t take much. A beer with Jim Kelly at The Big Tree. A customized pizza from La Nova. A Sabres game with new defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman. Toothy grins at every stop, with photos snapped at each location spreading across the internet on Tuesday.

He followed up his quick tour of Western New York with an introductory press conference on Wednesday, demurring a bit when given the chance to repeat the guarantee of a Super Bowl berth he made when hired by the Jets.

“Am I going to guarantee a Super Bowl? I’ll guarantee the pursuit of it,” he said.

Ryan did promise that his new team will, at long last, have a clear identity.

“We are not going to be pushed around. We’re going to be the bullies. It’s easy to build your football team the way this community is built, with the same kind of work ethic, the same kind of mentality. We will not be pushed around. We will do the pushing. We will build a bully.”

Ryan’s reputation already overshadows the mixed results of his six seasons leading the New York Jets. His travels on Tuesday underscored that he is, by birth, something the Bills have never had in a head coach—a Buffalo guy (OK, he and twin brother Rob lived in Toronto with their mother while their father, Buddy, was coaching at the then-University of Buffalo in the 1960s, but as we are regularly told, this is a regional franchise).

Forget football for a moment, particularly that the same core problem—a quarterback situation ugly enough to overwhelm all the good around it—that doomed Ryan in New York awaits him in Buffalo. When was the last time you saw an NFL coach smile?

We’re talking about a smile that suggests the guy is actually having fun, or even understands what fun is, as opposed to the tight-lipped, I’d-really-rather-be-in-the-film-room-or-yelling-at-somebody expression occasionally displayed by Ryan’s predecessor, Doug Marrone, and the humorless automatons heading just about every other team in the league over the last few decades.

Ryan also delivered one of the great pep-talks ever recorded when he and the Jets starred in HBO’s training-camp documentary series Hard Knocks.

“Let’s make sure we play like the (expletive) New York Jets and not some (expletive) slap-(expletive) team. That’s what I want to see tomorrow. Do we understand what the (expletive) I want to see tomorrow? Now let’s go eat a God-(expletive) snack.”

Ryan might already be the most charismatic Bills coach since Lou Saban, but let’s be honest. It’s a pretty low bar around here. Before Marrone’s drill-sergeant act came:

• Chan Gailey and Dick Jauron, seemingly nice guys who appeared thrilled to get another shot in the league, while hoping no one would notice;

• Mike Mularkey, who, like Marrone, mistakenly thought a single 9-7 season in Buffalo would be worth a lot more on the open market;

• Gregg Williams, who like, like Marrone, appeared to be overcompensating for insecurities stemming from never having played the game at its highest level by affecting a modern-day Vince Lombardi approach, without any actual accomplishments to back it up; and

• Wade Phillips, like Ryan, the son of an iconic NFL character, who, unlike Ryan or either of their fathers, never showed much affinity or aptitude for the public-image part of the job.

Even Marv Levy’s success had much less to do with the force of his own direction than his willingness to let players like Kelly, Kent Hull and Darryl Talley lead the way. When I think of Hank Bullough’s disastrous tenure, which is rarely, the thought involves the story my late friend Jay Bonfatti, then the Associated Press writer covering the Bills, loved to tell about the coach answering one of his questions with forced flatulence. As for Kay Stephenson, well, he was here, too.

You have to go back to Chuck Knox to find a coach who provided a Buffalo team with its identity. Like Ryan, Knox’s previous NFL job involved multiple playoff trips and an inability to find a quarterback whose flaws were not fatal.

Of course, it helped that Knox’s arrival in 1978 coincided with the onset of Joe Ferguson’s prime. While some remember Ferguson’s trait of hanging his head after throwing an interception, he was beginning his sixth season as the starter and blossomed into one of the league’s top quarterbacks during Buffalo’s brief run as a contender under Knox in the early ‘80s.

Ryan, meanwhile, has E.J. Manuel, whose erratic development led Marrone to believe that Kyle Orton provided a better chance to reach the playoffs, or at least the best shot at heightening his own marketability.

Manuel isn’t going anywhere, and Orton’s abrupt retirement the day after the high point of his stay in Buffalo, a meaning-free win against New England’s stand-ins, leaves the roster without another option, though one or more may arrive via free agency or the draft.

“He’ll certainly be given an opportunity here,” Ryan said of Manuel. “That doesn’t mean we’re set at the quarterback position.”

As shown by Ryan’s 26-38 record over his last four seasons in New York, personality does not always lead to victories. He did, however, coach in the AFC title game following his first two seasons. And along with Cleveland, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville, the Jets—who are undergoing their second front-office makeover in three years—make the Bills appear well-run by comparison, including an even more dismal situation at quarterback.

The Pegulas, who ultimately lucked out when Marrone ended any talks about a contract extension by exercising an opt-out clause worth $4 million, plan to have Ryan around for a while, reportedly agreeing to a deal that pays the new coach $5.5 million for each of the next five seasons. If he fulfills the contract, Ryan would become the only Bills coach other than Levy and Knox to last five full consecutive campaigns in Buffalo.

Again, a pretty low bar. But then, this is Buffalo, where you can hire a head coach who won five fewer games than the guy he’s replacing and consider it an upgrade.

It already is. At least until the football starts.

Dave Staba has been writing about the team, among other topics, for local and national publications since 1990. Follow him on and

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