NFL Nation: Gill Byrd
He made the transition from Oregon to the NFL in 2009, grabbed a bunch of interceptions and made the Pro Bowl. Last summer, he had to learn a different defense, as the new coaching staff morphed from a Tampa 2-style 4-3 to a 3-4.
"You just take the hand you're dealt and you play with it," Byrd told me this week while changing out of his football spikes after a workout at the Sahlen's Sports Park in suburban Buffalo.
The weirdness of the lockout is affecting Byrd more than most. Because management isn't supposed to have any contact with players, Byrd's father, Chicago Bears defensive backfield assistant Gill Byrd, must keep a running log of all the times he speaks to Jairus.
"He has to report it and write down what we talked about and whatever," Jairus Byrd said with a laugh. "I don't have to jot anything down, though. To me, I just talk to him like I always have. That's his problem."
When it comes to normalcy, Jairus Byrd says he at least "feels normal" when it comes to his health. He has battled injuries throughout his first two NFL seasons and had three groin surgeries in a 13-month span.
But he said he has been able to train without limitations for a while.
"I have a big chip on my shoulder," Byrd said. "I'm not going to lie. That's every year. I have goals that I don't like to share, but I'm going to go out there and get them.
"A lot of people tell me what I can't do. I wasn't supposed to be here. I've carried that with me for a while, and it's grown like a fire. I'm just ready to go."
The Buffalo Bills are out to a 7-0 lead over the Houston Texans in Ralph Wilson Stadium, but the best performance so far hasn't been Terrell Owens' 29-yard run for the touchdown.
Bills rookie safety Jairus Byrd already has two interceptions.
Byrd has intercepted two in three straight games and has seven for the season. That puts him ahead of New Orleans Saints safety Darren Sharper for the NFL lead and matches the best season Byrd's father ever had.
Gill Byrd, a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the San Diego Chargers, had a career-high seven interceptions three times -- 1988, 1989 and 1990.
Four of Byrd's past five interceptions have led to Bills touchdowns.
A lengthy feature about Jairus Byrd was posted Wednesday on the AFC East blog.
Even with all of the information and quotes I tried to cram into Wednesday's magnum opus on Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd, some material didn't make the cut. I had to stop writing at some point.
And as much as I'd love to run this post on Thanksgiving, I will settle for Halloween to deliver some leftover Byrd.
For example, you might be surprised to read that Byrd, who is known as a prolific interceptor, never has returned one for a touchdown.
"I know Jairus wants to get into the end zone," said Byrd's father, Gill, a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the San Diego Chargers.
Jairus Byrd almost certainly would have broken Oregon's record for career interceptions had he not entered the draft a year early. He finished with 17, one behind George Shaw, who set the Ducks standard in the 1950s.
But Jairus Byrd didn't return any for a score, and hasn't been able to bring back and of his five so far with the Bills.
"I know that's what all defensive players should focus on, scoring," Gill Byrd said. "That's why you see when he gets the ball he's headed upfield. You have to have it in your mind, 'When I get the ball, I'm going to score, or put the offense in position to where they'll have a short field to work with.'"
Jairus Byrd came close to scoring in the first quarter of Sunday's victory over the Carolina Panthers. He intercepted a Jake Delhomme pass and brought it back 37 yards to the 7-yard line.
"I definitely would love that when the day comes that I get my first touchdown," Jairus Byrd said. "Every time you get it you want to score. I'm just focused on getting the ball in the offense's hands, but that's what I want to do.
"I know that eventually will come one day. Hopefully, I'm blessed with more and can keep trying."
For the record, Gill Byrd took two interceptions all the way back in his career. They came in the same season, and one went 99 yards.
"It wasn't like I was a touchdown artist," Gill Byrd said. "Hopefully, some of the Aeneas Williams will rub off on him."
Williams was a close friend of Gill Byrd who has mentored Jairus since high school. Williams, an eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams, scored 13 touchdowns.
I asked Williams what it takes to be a successful ball hawk, and he was adamant it comes down to following through on the practice field.
"Defensive backs aren't always cognizant of making plays," Williams explained. "Yes, there's an element of the ball bouncing, but it also has to do with guys being around the ball because they're comfortable when the ball's in the air.
"It's a mentality they develop on a daily basis. You would think pros do this all the time, but I'm a living witness. I saw very few guys actually practice like that, catch balls and hawk the ball in practice. It was an uncommon occurrence.
"Guys would say, 'I don't want to get hurt,' or 'I'll get that in a game.' They think all of a sudden in a game they can turn it on. The great ones practice that on a daily basis."
|Doug Benc/Getty Images|
|Buffalo rookie free safety Jairus Bird is determined to make receivers beat him to the ball.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
The phone chirped. "Chicago Bears" scrolled across the caller ID.
The voice on the other end was buoyant, a rumble of laughter detectable underneath each syllable.
"Hello, this is Gill Byrd. Jairus Byrd used to be my son. Now I'm Jairus Byrd's father."
For all of Jairus Byrd's life, he was identified as the younger boy of Gill Byrd, a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the San Diego Chargers and Bears assistant coach.
As dad acknowledged over the phone, that perception has changed over the past few weeks.
Jairus Byrd, a rookie free safety for the Buffalo Bills, has already made a name for himself. He's doing it emphatically.
Through the first seven games of his NFL career, he has been Buffalo's most valuable player.
"Clearly, he's got skills that are not ordinary even for this level," said Bills head coach Dick Jauron, "and he's using them."
Jairus Byrd ranks second in the NFL with five interceptions, one behind New Orleans Saints safety Darren Sharper. Byrd has snagged all of his interceptions over the past three games and has picked off a pair in two games straight.
Without his interceptions, the Bills wouldn't lead the NFL in takeaways and probably wouldn't have beaten the New York Jets or Carolina Panthers the past two Sundays. Each of his past three interceptions has set up a Bills touchdown.
In a season that has been rife with letdowns for Bills fans, Byrd has been a revelation.
"I think he can be an All-Pro consistently," said Jairus Byrd's more decorated mentor, eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback Aeneas Williams, a close friend of the Byrd family. "I think he has the ability.
"What makes you an impact player is when that offensive team, going into their game plan during the week, has to account for you. I believe he's definitely one of those guys that -- if they're not already accounting for him -- they're at least acknowledging 'You need to know where 31 is.'"
Jairus Byrd's uniform number is becoming fashionable in Buffalo, and you can already project his jerseys will be popular Christmas gifts.
Buffalo storylines this season have been dominated by Terrell Owens' lack of production, disgust over Jauron's continued employment, Marshawn Lynch's suspension, two invasions of players' homes, myriad injuries and game-losing fumbles in the final minutes.
Jairus Byrd has given Bills fans a reason to cheer.
"Everything's gone so fast," he said. "I haven't really had the chance think about where I am, what's going on. I try not to focus on that. It's just getting wins and helping the team."
Injuries to safeties Donte Whitner and Bryan Scott gave him his opportunity to start. When Whitner and Scott both are healthy, it's impossible to imagine the Bills removing Jairus Byrd from the lineup.
He's the first rookie to record five interceptions in a month since Bears safety Mark Carrier in December 1990 and the first rookie with two interceptions in consecutive games since Dallas Cowboys cornerback Everson Walls in 1981.
With nine regular-season games to play, Jairus Byrd is three interceptions away from Buffalo's rookie interceptions record (Archie Matsos) and halfway to its overall season record (Billy Atkins, Tom Janik). And he's already within two interceptions of matching his father's best season.
"I'm always trying to compete with him," Jairus Byrd said. "I tell him I'm going to get him."
When informed how close Jairus was to matching him, Gill groaned in near-defeat, "Aw, man."
Few expected Jairus Byrd to make such an immediate impact when the Bills drafted him in the second round out of Oregon. He missed minicamp because of Oregon's quarterly academic schedule. He missed much of training camp while recovering from sports hernia surgery and didn't sign his contract until the end of July.
"They got a first-round talent," Williams said, conceding that his fondness for Jairus might hurt the credibility of his assessment. "The only reason maybe he didn't go in the first round is he's not a blazer as it relates to his 40 time."
Jairus Byrd has phenomenal instincts when it comes to coming up with the ball. He never has had fewer than five interceptions in a season, leaving Oregon a year early with 17 of them. He led or tied for the Pac-10 lead in interceptions his sophomore and junior seasons. He also forced two fumbles and recovered four.
Ask him to explain how he keeps coming up with the ball, and he laughs. Then he delivers a pat answer about how his teammates deserve all the credit. You can sense he has been asked the question so frequently, but he's unable to put his knack into words.
"The guys have done a nice job of getting him ready," said Jauron, himself a Pro Bowl safety for the Detroit Lions. "But nobody's making those plays except Jairus. ... He's got qualities -- and a lot of them."
|Doug Benc/Getty Images|
|Former Chargers cornerback Gill Byrd is passing all his knowledge onto his son, Jairus.|
Williams can explain the secret to Jairus Byrd's intrinsic homing skills because Williams learned it from Gill Byrd nearly two decades ago.
Bills teammates claim Jairus Byrd demonstrates advanced football maturity, and it's easy to see why. He's a superb case study in determining whether nature or nurture determines a man's potential.
Yes, he has the bloodlines. Gill Byrd played 10 seasons for the Chargers and is in their Hall of Fame.
Perhaps more importantly, Jairus Byrd's nest was the NFL locker room. His father worked in the Green Bay Packers front office and has been an assistant coach for the St. Louis Rams and Bears. Gill also credited the "discipline and encouragement" from Jairus' mother, Marilyn, and the drive to compete with Gill Byrd II, the older son by two years who became a star defensive back at New Mexico State.
But it was in St. Louis where Williams took Jairus Byrd, then a high school student, under his wing. The two became so close that Jairus Byrd still calls him Uncle Aeneas.
"It wouldn't just be running and talking football," Gill Byrd said. "It'd be talking life. It'd be talking about what it takes to be a man of God, life lessons. On top of that, he learned football and techniques from one of the best."
Williams' involvement has been critical to Jairus Byrd's development because the rookie has no distinct memories of his father playing and never has seen a frame of game tape. He turned six during his father's final season. Old-school programming on the NFL Network or ESPN Classic haven't presented a glimpse.
The only footage Jairus Byrd has seen of Gill in action was grainy practice film somebody burned onto a DVD for a joke.
Williams' tutelage meant "having someone he did watch play and look up to show him 'Yes, this is what it's all about,'" Gill Byrd said. "As with any child, you need multiple voices to deliver the same message to get things across. That old saying, 'It takes a village to raise a child,' I think it's appropriate even in the athletic arena."
Williams simply is returning the love Gill Byrd showed him for years. Long before Gill Byrd joined the Rams' coaching staff, he'd been teaching Williams everything he knew.
Williams emerged from Southern University in 1991 hungry for information that could give him an edge. He sought out top defensive backs because he wanted to soak in their insight. He flew to Houston to meet Ken Houston, tracked down Michael Haynes and reached out to Gill Byrd.
For the next few summers, Gill Byrd and Williams worked out in San Diego. Soon after they met, Gill imparted some words that changed the way Williams played the game and sent him on his way to a career highlighted by 55 interceptions, 23 fumble recoveries and 12 defensive touchdowns.
Williams called it "that little, subtle change" in his attitude, and he's sure Gill ingrained it in Jairus, too.
"Most defensive backs play with a philosophy of 'I can't get beat,' or 'Nobody can beat me,' " Williams said. "Gill made me understand, no, my philosophy has to be 'They have to beat me,' which sounds like just words, but for me it really catapulted me to another level of understanding.
"Just think of all the defensive backs you see in a game that are right next to the receiver but never turn back to look for the ball. It's because all that guy's life he's been told 'Don't get beat.' "
A thirst for knowledge has splashed Jairus Byrd. He still texts Williams in search of any tip he can get on certain receivers (Williams shared one of Randy Moss' big tells) and will wheedle advice from the legends who hang around One Bills Drive. Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas already is a big fan.
"I try to absorb everything I can," Jairus Byrd said. "My father taught me how to be a pro in life, how to be man. He's always told me to be slow to speak and quick to hear. That's pretty much the biggest thing I learned from him."
Some might look at Jairus Byrd's interceptions and flick a dismissive wrist. He has been feasting on bad quarterback play -- Derek Anderson, Mark Sanchez, Jake Delhomme. Passes have been overthrown. Balls are bouncing off receivers' hands and right to him.
Skeptics would say Jairus Byrd is a lucky duck.
"Is it luck when you study your opponent and know their tendencies?" Gill Byrd asked. "Is it luck when you play hard and hustle? Is it luck when you find the ball, track the ball and have nothing else in sight? Is it luck when you have the hand-eye coordination to catch the ball?
"I would say it's a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication. Not too many guys get lucky that often."
Or so quickly.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic doesn't expect first-round choice Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to sign in time for rookies to report today. Cardinals GM Rod Graves has apparently had a hard time connecting with Rodgers-Cromartie's agent, who has multiple first-round clients. But Graves thinks a deal can be completed quickly. While players are expected to check in for camp between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. this afternoon, the Cardinals do not practice until Friday morning. That gives them time to work out an agreement.
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat says the 49ers face more questions than ever heading into camp. He addresses 10 issues/subjects: the QB situation, Mike Nolan's job status, Mike Martz, Justin Smith, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, Frank Gore, leadership minus Bryant Young, o-line continuity and the NFC West. Maiocco advises fans to brace for speculation that retiring Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren will wind up with the 49ers. I know this about Holmgren: Independent of what happens in San Francisco, he still has the GM itch. He perked up when the Dolphins gave Bill Parcells millions to oversee the rebuilding process in Miami.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch explains why the Rams are bucking the trend of holding training camp at team headquarters. Coach Scott Linehan wants to change things up after a 3-13 season. Linehan also wants to train in cooler weather, figuring the team can get more done near Milwaukee. He'll get no argument here. Last summer, the Rams' camp was the least comfortable camp I attended while checking in with the Bears, Colts and Titans. Linehan also advocates the team-building aspects of training off-site. The Rams need all the team-building they can get after a season in which frustrations boiled over.
Kevin Lynch of sfgate's Niners Insider wonders what Mike Nolan meant when he mentioned a camp battle between Arnaz Battle and Ashlie Lelie. The 49ers have entered each of the last five seasons with an average of six receivers on their roster, most in the NFC West during that time. They have 10 right now. Bryant Johnson, Battle, Lelie, Isaac Bruce, Jason Hill and rookie sixth-round pick Josh Morgan have name recognition. Robert Jordan, Dominique Zeigler, Cameron Colvin and Jerard Rabb do not. Jordan, the former Cal star, does have a profile in the Bay Area.
Scott Rabalais of the Baton Rouge Advocate checks in with former Cardinals and Rams defensive back Aeneas Williams, who explains how Gill Byrd demonstrated true mentorship early in his career. "A mentor is not your friend," Williams said. "A friend will love you the way you are. A mentor will love you too much to let you stay the way you are." At Byrd's urging, Williams changed his fundamental approach to the cornerback position. Rabalais notes that Williams becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2009. The eight-time Pro Bowl choice and 1990s all-decade team member picked off 55 passes.
Reuben Frank of the Burlington County Times catches up with Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who is already bracing for a Nov. 27 battle with Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and the successor to Bryant Johnson. "More teams are using three wides on first down, and we're going to match up," Johnson said. "When we play the Arizona Cardinals, they have three great wide receivers, so we'd probably start out in nickel." Hence the need for three proven corners in Asante Samuel, Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard.
Cam Inman of the Contra Costa Times implores Nolan to name Alex Smith the 49ers' starting quarterback. Inman also urges Nolan and the 49ers to stop using former offensive coordinator Jim Hostler as a scapegoat for what went wrong last season. That sounds like a good idea. Coaches secure in their standing generally do not need to point fingers in public. Plus, it's bad form. Hostler was in a tough spot last season as a first-year coordinator for a team with serious issues, including injuries at quarterback. It's not his fault the 49ers hired him. Was he supposed to decline the opportunity on grounds he needed more seasoning?
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says the Seahawks are hopeful that rookies Lawrence Jackson and John Carlson will sign in time for the first practices of camp Friday. The Seahawks have had their share of training-camp contract disputes over the years, and in this case the process hit a snag while an arbitrator settled differences between the NFL and its players. Reporting dates aren't nearly as important as practice dates. Getting Jackson and Carlson signed by Friday is the important thing.
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