ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- When Rex Ryan took over as the Buffalo Bills' coach on Jan. 14, 2015, he sold a physical brand of football to fans that was captured in his memorable declaration of wanting to "build a bully" with his new team.
"Are we going to do ground and pound? Yeah, you’re darn right we are," Ryan added during his introductory news conference that day. "Are we going to throw it? Yeah, we got Sammy Watkins outside, why wouldn’t we throw it?"
More than a year-and-a-half later, Ryan's emphasis seems to have shifted away from the "ground and pound" approach and toward putting the ball in Sammy Watkins' hands -- even if Watkins is dealing with foot soreness from offseason surgery, another in a growing succession of physical ailments for the third-year receiver.
That hint was hard to miss in Ryan's news conference Friday after he fired offensive coordinator Greg Roman and replaced him with running backs coach Anthony Lynn.
"I think Sammy Watkins is a rare talent," Ryan said. "I’ve had to defend against him and I know how difficult that was. I thought at the end of last year, I thought you know, we did a great job at getting them the football and I expect that we’re going to try to get him the football more and more."
Watkins has six catches for 63 yards this season. He's been on the field for 79 offensive snaps, which is less than No. 2 receiver Robert Woods, who has tallied 84 snaps. However, Watkins has been targeted 10 times, tied with tight end Charles Clay for most on the team.
Given Ryan's comments Friday, he clearly wants more from Watkins, and the message isn't likely to be lost on Lynn. What Ryan wants to lose is the label that his Bills offense is merely capable of running the football, and not attacking teams through the air.
"I want to be multiple," Ryan said Friday. "I want to be able to throw the football. It’s not just a ground and pound. Ground and pound was something that followed me forever based on my first year [with the Jets in 2009] when I made that [comment], 'Oh we’re going to ground and pound.'
"We had a rookie quarterback [Mark Sanchez], some good backs, a good offensive line. We weren't exactly the greatest receiving core, so I just thought it made sense. But that tag has followed me forever. I do want to be able to run the football on a consistent basis. I want to be multiple in the running game, but I also want to be able to use the quick game, the intermediate game and the deep passing game."
Roman might have a bone to pick with Ryan about his final point, the deep passing game. The Bills tied the NFL lead with nine touchdown passes that traveled at least 25 yards in the air last season, and in Thursday's game -- Roman's final as play-caller -- most of the Bills' offense was generated through Tyrod Taylor touchdown passes of 84 yards (to Marquise Goodwin) and 71 yards (to Greg Salas)
Like Thursday, Roman had to work around Watkins' uncertain health for much of last year, beginning with hamstring and glute issues in training camp and continuing with calf and ankle injuries during the regular season.
Predictably, the result was a Bills offense that averaged the second-most runs per game of any NFL team and finished first the league in rushing yards per game (152). The successful ground game helped place LeSean McCoy, guard Richie Incognito and center Eric Wood in the Pro Bowl. Once healthy by mid-November, Watkins kicked into gear and finished with 60 catches for 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns.
Yet given Ryan's comments since firing Roman last week, it's clear that "ground and pound" isn't going to satisfy the Bills' coach; it's seeing Watkins catch the ball with greater and more explosive regularity than what Roman was able to squeeze out of his banged-up wideout last season.