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C'mon, Rex

Rex Ryan
C'mon, Rex
...and Thank You, Fred

Oh, Rex. You almost had me.

I even would have been OK with bringing Matt Cassel back. As your third-string quarterback, in case terrible things happen to new starter Tyrod Taylor and No. 2-for-a-week E.J. Manuel.

The prospect of your otherwise-stacked Buffalo Bills—who as you know open the season on Sunday against Indianapolis—being one fragile bone or stretchy ligament away from being quarterbacked by the same sort of guy who hasn’t been nearly good enough for way too much of the last 15 years, though, is pretty hard to take. But we’ll get back to that decision in a bit.

Up until that moment, I liked just about everything you had done, or at least been intrigued to see how it will work out.

The smiling bluster during your introductory press conference and through just about every public appearance since brings a refreshing change from the self-important coach-speak by Gregg Williams, Mike Mularkey and Doug Marrone, as well as the crashing dullness of Dick Jauron and Chan Gailey (though, to be fair, the last two at least seemed like genuinely decent guys).

The thought of one of the best defenses in football in 2014—the very best by the measure of EPA (expected points added), a fancy analytic system used by ESPN that takes into account down-and-distance and field position, rather than just raw yardage allowed—operating under Ryan’s hyper-aggressive blitz and coverage packages would have been more than enough to make this the easiest-to-anticipate Bills season since people were arguing about Flutie and Johnson.

Trading linebacker Kiko Alsonso to Philadelphia for LeSean McCoy—while it may prove to be an excessively extravagant move, given the league-wide consensus on the replaceability of running backs, demonstrated a flair long missing from the franchise’s organizational DNA. Likewise with splurging on tight end Charles Clay. As for signing the troubled-yet-talented Percy Harvin and Richie Incognito, who had been banished from the league for more than a year for being a jerk, well, those moves are downright Rexy.

Cutting Cassel in favor of Taylor and Manuel fully won me over, whether Tyrod and/or EJ provide enough net positives to avoid wasting another spectacular defensive performance. Even the potentially Rexiest move of all, signing Tim Tebow—who you spurned with the Jets—to serve as a disaster option started to make a twisted sort of sense to me.

Finally, here you were, a coach willing to take a calculated gamble, even if it meant an increased potential for getting ripped by media and fans, one who valued upside over safety.

Or so it seemed. Bringing Cassel back was not, in itself, a horrible move. You need a third quarterback these days, especially when one of the first two is totally unproven, the other has proven to be prone to injury and both are capable of getting out of the pocket to make throws on the move, or even tuck it and run when needed. And getting a veteran third-stringer at a bargain, relative to his original salary, was certainly preferable to recycling Jeff Tuel or an equivalent no-hoper.

But making Cassel No. 2? Oh, Rex. You didn’t quietly hire Jauron as a consultant or anything, did you?

I’ve seen more than enough of Matt Cassel since the last time Buffalo reached the playoffs. Except he was named Kyle Orton. Or Ryan Fitzpatrick. Or Kelly Holcomb.

Rex, you have had a close-up view of the type during your travels through the National Football League—a quarterback who has proven himself not nearly good enough in multiple cities, yet somehow morphs from hapless wash-out to savvy veteran after enough stops.

To be fair, Cassel proved himself a decent stop-gap—all the way back in 2008, when Tom Brady’s knee shredded in New England’s season opener—and had a solid season as Kansas City’s starter in 2010.

Since then, when he wasn’t toggling between getting hurt and getting benched, Cassel has been worse than dismal, turning the ball over 47 times in parts of 30 games with the Chiefs and Minnesota, while completing less than 60 percent of his passes—the bare minimum for the low-expectation “game manager” people keep mistakenly thinking he is.

If Taylor flounders or gets hurt, Manuel would seem the logical replacement, given their relative similarity in style. Cassel is another species entirely. While he proved during the preseason that he can turn a 9-yard sack into a 6-yard sack, and connect on 5-yard buttonhooks and other patterns that end with the receiver facing him, instead of the opposing goal line, the thought of No. 16 (ah, the memories I don’t have of Dennis Shaw, who managed to go 8-27-2 in three years as Buffalo’s starter in the early 1970s, despite having O.J. Simpson behind him in the Bills backfield) taking meaningful snaps triggers rather virulent Orton flashbacks.

Maybe it won’t matter, with Taylor turning out to be a revelation and keeping Cassel in his natural habitat—on the sideline, wearing a baseball cap and holding a clipboard.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not calling for your firing or anything. Yet.

And, of course, I have known to be wrong, like the time I thought Marv Levy might turn out to be as inspired a hire as general manager as he had been as head coach a couple of decades earlier. So maybe if something happens to Taylor, Cassel will step in and deliver the sort of mistake-free leadership that has repeatedly been expected, but rarely delivered.

Here’s hoping we never have to find out, Rex.

Happy Trails, Fred

On a personal note, I’m going to miss Fred Jackson.

Not as much as those who make empty vows to stop buying tickets or watching games due to the unceremonious dismissal of the third-leading rusher in Bills history. And not because he is irreplaceable. Let’s face it—Buffalo had one winning season and zero playoff appearances during his eight-year stint as the face of a faceless franchise.

But he did provide me with a couple great memories, neither of which had much to do with his ability as a runner, receiver, blocker or kick returner.

During Jackson’s rookie year of 2007, my oldest son (who also happens to be named Jackson), would wander through the living room, paying about as much attention to the televised game as most 4-year-olds. Which is to say, almost none. But he seemed to be around every time No. 22 touched the ball, forcing the announcers to mention him.

“Jackson?!?! That’s MY name,” he would announce proudly, as if hearing it for the first time.

Six years later, the novelty long since worn off, my younger son developed an extremely ambitious snowman-building program one typically dismal winter afternoon. Oscar decided one of our creations should be a football player. I had an enormous rusty metal helmet—either a former grill top or an archaeological relic from a lost race of titans—to put on his head, but needed a little something more to complete the desired look.

So I sent my Jackson inside to fetch the authentic-y white No. 22 jersey I’d gotten him for Christmas a couple of years before, and we tacked it to the sculpture’s chest. Like any good parent, I snapped a picture of Oscar standing next to it, captioned the image “SnowFredJackson,” and posted it to The Facepage.

Whereupon a friend more conversant in the ways of The Twitter sent it to the real Fred Jackson, who retweeted it after adding “HAHA ... Good job Oscar!!”

That kind of interaction—and being one of the few Bills good enough to stick around and contribute for more than a few seasons—made Jackson (the football player) one of the most popular Bills never to play in a Super Bowl.

So thank you, and good job, Fred.

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