With the exception of a star quarterback, the Buffalo Bills' roster is loaded in coach Rex Ryan's first year. Of course, with Ryan the quarterback has always been the exception -- he's never truly coached an established passer. Which is part of the reason he will eagerly tell you that having an elite running back, outstanding receivers and a defensive line that could be second to none in the NFL is exactly what he needs to succeed.
So I wanted to know: Is this the best team Ryan has had as a head coach? I couldn't even complete the question.
"This could be," Ryan said. He figured where I was headed and cut me off early during a phone call the other day.
He wanted to go there.
And since joining the Bills, Ryan has remained in the spotlight, fueling expectations that the long-struggling franchise will appear in the playoffs for the first time this century.
"We're not tiptoeing into anything," Ryan said. "We expect to be good. We expect to win this year. We're not afraid to say it."
"We're not tiptoeing into anything. We expect to be good. We expect to win this year. We're not afraid to say it."
Even for Ryan -- with his history of bold predictions -- that's a strong statement from someone whose team has journeyman Matt Cassel and unproven third-year player EJ Manuel atop the depth chart at the game's most important position. On the other hand, Ryan has succeeded in spite of that position before. He was good enough to lead the Jets to the AFC Championship Game in both 2009 and 2010 with Mark Sanchez under center. For those ready to say Sanchez was good those years, he ranked 23rd and 17th in QBR in 2009 and 2010, respectively. And that was about as good as it got for Ryan in New York. He obviously knows how to maximize the rest of a roster's talent, relying on the ground game and defense. In Buffalo, running back LeSean McCoy heads a list of young playmakers on offense.
The excitement in Ryan's voice jumped through the phone whenever he mentioned the elusive Pro Bowl runner, who was acquired in March from the Philadelphia Eagles for linebacker Kiko Alonso. The Bills added a dynamic player who has the third-most rushing yards (6,792) and fourth-most rushing touchdowns (44) in the league since the Eagles selected him in the second round in 2009, and McCoy is still just 26.
Goodness only knows what Eagles coach Chip Kelly was thinking with the stunning trade among some other surprising moves this offseason, though it's clear there was tension between Kelly and McCoy. The Bills gladly sent Alonso, who is coming off a season lost due to an ACL injury (linebacker is another position of strength for the Bills), to Philadelphia for a player around whom Buffalo has built its offense.
The Bills already were set at wide receiver. Sammy Watkins had an impressive rookie season and third-year player Robert Woods showed steady progress. Nonetheless, Bills management doubled down on the position, signing free agent Percy Harvin, an enigmatic but explosive player with a lot to prove.
I know what some of you are probably thinking: With stability at wideout, why would the Bills invest in a player who was traded twice within two years and failed to fit in with the successful Seattle Seahawks? Well, Harvin still possesses game-changing talent. He played the final eight games of last season with the Jets under Ryan, who sought to provide versatile players for new offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Goal achieved.
Harvin, McCoy, Watkins, Woods and pass-catching tight end Charles Clay -- another free-agent pickup -- are all under 28. If guard Richie Incognito, who's back in the league after he went unsigned last season following his role in the Miami Dolphins' bullying case, revives his career and rookie guard John Miller completes the group, Ryan believes the offensive line will be solid.
There are tools to work with on offense, and Ryan says he thinks he's got the right coordinator to make good use of all of them. "I love how creative Greg Roman is," he said, before waxing further on the weapons.
"We can do some creative things to get matchups in our favor. We'll be able to run the football. And it won't be just ground and pound. We have some explosion. We're gonna make some things happen. It'll be fun to watch. Hey, it's fun thinking about it."
And while any sensible critic can point out that all the weapons won't matter if the QB play is a mess, Ryan's enthusiasm about the defense is merited, and everybody knows it.
Led by coordinator Jim Schwartz, Buffalo topped the NFL with 54 sacks last fall and finished fourth in total defense. At 9-7, the Bills had their first winning record in 10 years. They were optimistic about the future despite missing the playoffs for the 15th consecutive season, the league's longest active playoff drought. Ryan replaced Schwartz, which wasn't surprising and is no reason to assume a drop-off. With regime change comes coaching turnover, and expect Ryan to play a big role in helping new coordinator Dennis Thurman devise plans to pressure quarterbacks even more than the Bills did last season. They have the personnel to do more.
If there's a better defensive front than Kyle Williams, Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes, Ryan would like to see it. He and others around the game believe cornerback Stephon Gilmore is a star in coverage. There's also quality depth throughout the defense, particularly at linebacker, where the the Bills were good last year even without Alonso.
If only the situation at quarterback were so good. Ryan is hopeful. "Don't get me wrong, we hope that one of the guys we have ends up being a blue-chip quarterback. That'd make it easy.
"Every team in the league that has one [often] goes to the playoffs, regardless of who's coaching 'em, and I've never actually gotten to the ultimate goal [winning the Super Bowl]. But if it doesn't happen it's not the only way to get to the playoffs. We've just gotta get good play, consistent play, out of that position and we'll be just fine. We have a blueprint in place."
Ryan intends to follow the blueprint again. And if it still works, even without a marquee signal-caller, Ryan may have his most fun yet with what he thinks could be his best team.