AFC East: Lester Hayes
Ed Mulholland/US PresswireLed by rookie Jairus Byrd, the Buffalo secondary was one of the deepest in the league.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Buffalo Bills are an organization engulfed by uncertainty.
Who will be their quarterback?
What difference will new head coach Chan Gailey and rookie general manager Buddy Nix make?
Will Pro Bowl pass-rusher Aaron Schobel play or retire?
Can running back Marshawn Lynch bounce back?
How will they transition into their new 3-4 defense?
One area that cannot be questioned is the depth in Buffalo's secondary.
The Bills' defensive backfield isn't loaded with star power, but the quality of depth is remarkable.
The Bills ranked second in pass defense last year despite injuries pushing them to the limit. Ten defensive backs started for them.
Right cornerback Leodis McKelvin, the 11th overall pick from 2008, lasted only three games before getting hurt. Free safety Donte Whitner, the eighth overall pick from 2006, lost his job to rookie Jairus Byrd, who tied for the NFL interception lead and was selected for the Pro Bowl. Left cornerback Terrence McGee missed five games with a knee injury. Strong safety Bryan Scott started six games at linebacker.
Despite all that, the Bills allowed only 184.2 passing yards a game and 14 touchdowns. They snagged 28 interceptions, second in the NFL.
Now that's depth.
"I've gone to a lot of teams," Gailey said at the NFL owners meetings. "I don't know that I've ever gone to a team that the secondary -- I'm talking corner and safety position -- is as strong as we have right now overall.
"When I went to Dallas, when I went to Miami, when I went to Pittsburgh they were all good. But I'm not so sure that this isn't the strongest group."
Gailey isn't about to compare them player for player. After all, when he was head coach of the Dallas Cowboys he had cornerback Deion Sanders and safety Darren Woodson together.
"Those are two pretty good players," Gailey said. "We had a couple of other good players, but we were always trying to fill a hole."
Gailey joined the Denver Broncos as a defensive assistant the year safety Dennis Smith and cornerback Louis Wright went to the Pro Bowl. The Broncos later lined up Smith and Steve Atwater at safety while Gailey was there.
Gailey was on the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive staff when they had future Hall of Famer Rod Woodson. As offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins, Gailey practiced against three repeat Pro Bowlers: Sam Madison, Patrick Surtain and Brock Marion.
No, the Bills aren't that good yet. Gailey isn't going to make like New York Jets coach Rex Ryan and proclaim they could reach legendary status. On Tuesday, Ryan said his star cornerbacks, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, remind him of the renowned Los Angeles Raiders tandem of Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes.
What the Bills do have is a quality starter and backup at every spot. One of only three assistants Gailey retained from Dick Jauron's staff was defensive back coach George Catavolos.
"Even the backups at Buffalo, I'm talking about eight players, your top eight players," Gailey said, "this is as strong a group as I've ever been around."
The importance of depth in the secondary can't be emphasized enough.
As Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz explained Wednesday morning, you can't have too many serviceable defensive backs.
"You're going to play more defensive backs than you are at other positions," said Schwartz, known as one of the NFL's brightest defensive minds. "You're not just going to play four. You're going to play five for half the game and you may even have a quarter of the game when you're playing six defensive backs.
"The other thing to look at is defensive backs get hurt at a higher rate than just about every other position on the field. Other positions have gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. Defensive backs have stayed the same, particularly corners. So with everybody else getting bigger and corners staying the same, it's not a matter of if somebody gets hurt and has to miss a game, it's a matter of when."
Five Buffalo defensive backs finished the season on injured reserve, including both of the opening-day starting cornerbacks, McGee and McKelvin.
Schwartz mentioned another important facet of defensive backfield depth.
"One person in the secondary that doesn't play well makes the whole secondary look bad," Schwartz said. "It's how the whole group plays, and if there's one weak link in that chain, then the whole group can look bad, and offenses are real good at finding that one guy and exploiting him."
Nobody can look at the Bills and call their secondary a weak link.
Hayes went to five Pro Bowls. Haynes went to nine and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That's a lofty comparison, especially considering Cromartie's past two years have been disappointing on the field and off. But Ryan is elated to partner up Cromartie with Revis.
Ryan spoke with reporters Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, where he held court for the first time since the Jets acquired Cromartie in a trade with the San Diego Chargers.
"He might have as much talent as any player I've ever been around at the corner position," Ryan said. "He's got everything. He's got the size, the height, the length, the speed, the recovery speed, probably as good ball skills as any corner I've been around."
OK, let's keep in mind Revis was an All-Pro last year and Ryan banged the drum for Revis to win the NFL's defensive player of the year award. Cromartie was an All-Pro in 2007, when he led the league with 10 interceptions.
"That's going to be a pretty lethal combination," Ryan said. "It's going to allow us to not just roll our coverage to one corner or another, which we had to do a lot last year. We're not going to let teams lock in on what we're doing defensively.
"From a matchup standpoint, this will be a tremendous advantage for us.
"You might know there's man coverage over there, but you've got to deal with nine guys coming at you. I think that might be a problem."
Ryan believes the Jets will provide the right organizational environment to help settle Cromartie's turbulent life. The Jets advanced him $500,000 from his contract to address various paternity issues. He has seven children in five states.
"I think it's probably pretty obvious to him now," Ryan said. "He had some maturing to do. He's a nice young man. Is he perfect? Probably not, but I don't think anybody is. That's just some issues off the field. It doesn't affect him as a football player.
"We're going to let him come out here and be himself and join his teammates. He was there the first day of offseason workouts. He's just happy to get a fresh start, meet his new teammates. He had a lot of success at San Diego. It’s going to be exciting.
"I think our whole team is excited about seeing Darrelle Revis and Cromartie out there."
|Jets coach Rex Ryan and Patriots coach Bill Belichick have different philosophies on what they say to the media.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
Bill Belichick has deftly avoided discussing Rex Ryan's commentary about not being intimidated by the New England Patriots and their Super Bowl rings.
Belichick chuckles at the questions, deflects them, dismisses the issue as trivial.
In his Gillette Stadium sacristy, however, Belichick will be taking Ryan's words far more seriously and expecting his players to do the same in preparations for Sunday's game against the New York Jets at the Meadowlands.
Ryan, the Jets' rookie head coach, thumbed his nose at the Patriots' success during a June interview on New York radio station WFAN.
"I never came here to kiss Bill Belichick's rings," Ryan said. "I came to win. Let's just put it that way. So we'll see what happens. I'm certainly not intimidated by New England or anybody else.
"I think we already have sent a message to them. So they can read between the lines. ... They can figure it out. And when they come here that second week of the season, we'll see."
Ryan's bravado certainly will be used against him three months later. Bulletin board material? You better believe it.
"It'll be laminated, maybe even a banner over the stadium," said Je'Rod Cherry, a safety and special-teams ace on New England's three championship teams. "It'll be utilized.
"Bill is a smart, crafty guy. He will present it as blatant disrespect for the guys who were there throughout that run of Super Bowls, and he will use it to help the new guys identify with the Patriots' legacy. It will be a rallying call."
Cherry spent four seasons within Belichick's inner sanctum and is quite familiar with the coach's tactics for getting his players jacked.
Bulletin-board material is one of Belichick's favorite methods to stimulate players a little more in a sport that sometimes can be consumed by weekly routines.
"Whatever is between me and the team I think should stay between me and the team," Belichick said Wednesday when asked how he would implement Ryan's comments into this week's prep work.
Belichick is masterful at using the media to fire up his men. One of the more well-known examples came before the 2001 AFC championship game. Former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Joey Porter and safety Lee Flowers openly dismissed the Patriots.
Flowers said the Patriots were "one play away from being home," referring to the infamously lucky tuck-rule call. Porter bemoaned the hassles of making arrangements for family and friends to attend the Super Bowl.
Before the game Belichick showed the video clips to his team.
"You talk about fired up," Cherry said. "Just off the charts. That played huge."
The Patriots beat the Steelers and eventually claimed their first Super Bowl title.
The concept of such a motivational tool is easy to harrumph. After all, players get paid exorbitant sums of money to perform. Pride and will should be enough to get the juices flowing, right?
"You're dealing with guys with super egos," said Cherry, who auctioned off his first Super Bowl ring last year to build orphanages and save children from sex trafficking. "This is a gladiator sport. It's about toughness and making the other guy submit. If you can play off something to get an edge and to get that desired effect, you do it."
That's why Belichick was quick to silence receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker for saying this year's offense could be better than the one that set records in 2007. That's why the Miami Dolphins hushed linebacker Channing Crowder, who engaged Ryan in an entertaining smackfest.
"As long as I can remember," said former Patriots linebacker Andre Tippett, a Hall of Famer, "I've always been cautioned to be careful with what you say, from high school to college to the pro level."
Few coaches discuss the importance of using the media as a device. Players like to pretend they pay no attention to what's being said in the media.
They insist they don't read newspaper clips, don't go on the Internet, don't tune into talk radio or turn or turn on the television. Never mind that most NFL locker rooms have ESPN showing at all times on several screens.
"Guys read the papers," Cherry said. "They want to know what you think about us."
Bulletin boards aren't mythological. They not only exist, but they also are an important tool whether or not teams want to admit it.
"It's part of the game," said Mike Haynes, a Hall of Fame cornerback for the Patriots and Oakland Raiders. "When I was on the Patriots it was right by where you came in to pick up your mail [in Schaefer Stadium]. You could not miss seeing it.
"On the Raiders, it was on a bulletin board, and the trainers would talk about it all the time. 'Hey, did you read that quote in the paper?' You couldn't avoid it."
Haynes claimed he never paid much attention to what opponents were saying, but there were teammates who bewildered him. Raiders cornerback Lester Hayes was prolific in talking junk through the press.
"Who am I to tell somebody not to talk?" Haynes said. "I always felt like if you have to do that, if it's going to help you, going to help us, by all means."
Former Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy constantly harped on his players to refrain from making declarations that would might get an opponent riled up.
"We had guys that loved to talk," said Levy's quarterback and fellow Hall of Famer, Jim Kelly. "But he always would bring it up, whether it was a tough loss or a good game. He'd say 'Praise your opponent and don't you be the bulletin board for somebody else's team.' "
Perhaps talk is cheap, but it can prove costly.
In the days leading up to Super Bowl XXVI, gregarious Bills defensive line coach Chuck Dickerson ragged on the Redskins' offensive linemen. Dickerson, who later became a love-him-or-hate-him Buffalo radio personality, declared Mark Rypien hadn’t been tested all year like he would by the Bills.
"It definitely made the bulletin board for the Redskins, and they thrived off it," Kelly said. "They used it to their advantage."
Rick Telander, covering Super Bowl XXVI for Time magazine, wrote that if the Bills and Redskins played 10 times, the Redskins would win nine -- "10 if Dickerson were allowed to speak before every game."
A passage from Telander's story:
Then came Dickerson's ill-timed assessment of the Hogs: Tackle Joe Jacoby was a "Neanderthal" who "slobbers a lot;" tackle Jim Lachey was a "ballerina in a 310-pound body;" and center [Jeff] Bostic was "ugly like the rest of them." The night before the game [head coach Joe] Gibbs showed the Skins a videotape of Dickerson making the remarks, in case anybody needed further motivation.
Tippett would start searching newspaper clips on Monday morning in search of fuel. The Internet wasn't available when he played. There was no trash talking through Facebook or Twitter like you see today.
But Tippett often stumbled across an item he could use for added inspiration.
"You just look for guys like a quarterback or a receiver, who at some point are vulnerable in games," Tippett said. "Cat says something he shouldn't be saying or is dogging your teammate, you take the opportunity to maybe hit them a little bit harder or hold them up a little longer. You have fun with it.
"At some point after a victory, you make note of that to him. You just go up and whisper in their ear to make them think about it: 'I remember what you said. What do you think about it now?'"
Was Ryan foolish to be so colorful in explaining why he's confident about his team?
That depends on which team you're rooting for.
"If I'm a Jets player, I'm excited about what he said," Cherry said. "I'd be thinking 'Screw the Patriots.' "
Or at least thumbtack them.