Rex Ryan stood at the podium in January when he was introduced as the Buffalo Bills new head coach and announced to the world how he was going to shape his new team with fire and brimstone. "We’re going to build a bully," he said. "We’re not afraid of anybody." So far, Ryan has been true to his word.
Football is crowded with big, mean specimens who are turned loose each week with the prime objective of annihilating the team standing in front of them. This is not lost on coaches like Ryan, who has crafted a reputation as a foul-mouthed motivator of men who runs teams a lot like John Madden used to preside over the renegade Oakland Raiders of the 1970s.
For a time, the recipe worked, and the Silver and Black dominated parts of two decades. They won with rosters piled high with outcasts and guys who played — and lived — on the edge. Their famed training camp stays at the El Rancho Tropicana Hotel north of Oakland featured booze by the pitcher and a rowdy collection of badasses with nicknames like "Dr. Death," "The Assassin," and "The Mad Stork."
Eight months later, Ryan has stayed true to his word, erecting a football team that’s been enhanced with castoffs and rebels nobody else wanted, just like those old Raiders teams. The Bills are now the sporting equivalent of the Dirty Dozen, renegade outlaws Ryan has granted one last shot to go out and destroy people on Sundays. Unless of course, the Bills destroy each other before they can even make it onto the field.
Last week, Jets quarterback Geno Smith had his jaw broken in a locker room fight with reserve linebacker IK Enemkpali. Less than 24 hours after the incident and Enemkpali was fired by the Jets, the Bills signed him. It was just the latest acquisition of a player with a broken reputation known for not playing nicely with his teammates.
"To me I just, I look at the good of people," Ryan told reporters. "I think the big overriding thing is, no matter how talented or anything else, if we didn’t think any person could be a good teammate and to be successful for us not just on the field but in the community, we wouldn’t bring that person in here, and that is plain and simple. The fact that we have him in here, I want you to understand that we believe he can be successful here."
A month after Ryan was hired by the Bills, the team signed guard Richie Incognito, who was banished from football two seasons ago for his role in mercilessly bullying teammate Jonathan Martin to the point that Martin wigged out and deserted the Dolphins in the middle of a team meal. "He’ll be on a very short leash," Ryan said. "I don’t think he’s going to have those issues he’s had in the past."
In March, the Bills signed another player with a history of violence against teammates in Percy Harvin, who was essentially fired by the Seattle Seahawks for disrupting the locker room and engaging in brawls with teammates Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin. Harvin has been voted the most hated player in the league, and with the Bills, he has a shot to repair his image, too.
Even guys on Ryan’s staff have the tendency to go a little haywire. In July, offensive line coach Aaron Kromer was arrested for punching a kid in the face and threatening to kill his family for using his beach chairs. Kromer is suspended the first six games of the season.
Ryan is the son of one of the great renegades in football history, Buddy Ryan, who was accused of placing bounties on opposing players when he was head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1980s. Buddy once took a swing at fellow Houston Oilers coach Kevin Gilbride on the sideline in a game in 1993 because he was unhappy with his play calls. But Buddy is also known as one of the great defensive minds in NFL history and the architect of the Chicago Bears fearsome 46 defense that won a Super Bowl in 1985.
In terms of brashness and bluster, Rex doesn’t fall far from the tree. There was the time he gave the finger to a Miami Dolphins fan who spit on him at an MMA event. Or when he basically challenged Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder to a fight. Or the many times Ryan gave opponents plenty to post on the bulletin board with his colorful swagger.
In six years as head coach of the New York Jets, Ryan never won the big game, but he sure talked one. He helped to build a rugged team that excelled on the defensive side of the ball, struggled on offense, and signed a slew of scoundrels like Santonio Holmes that soured the locker room. Now Ryan is in a new city, commanding a new team, and he’s working off the same script. Only the team he is building in Buffalo comes with more baggage than any of those Jets squads did.
"We’re going to be tough," Ryan said. Whether the Bills are any good, though, remains to be seen.