By Mike Billoni
Usually when Debbie and I are on vacation and I am walking around wearing my Buffalo Bills cap, we are greeted with "Still snowing in Buffalo," or "When will the Buffalo Bills ever win?"
While vacationing in Cancun and neighboring Isla Majaris, Mexico, at a time that coincided with spring break 2015, college students from Canisius, Harvard, Purdue, State University of New York at Morrisville, Michigan, Texas and many other schools commented about either the Bills or One Buffalo cap I would wear each day.
This time, weather was never mentioned.
Instead, the conversation was all about Rex.
"Rexmania" is alive in the National Football League and the astute professional football fans know what an excellent coach Rex Ryan is.
"The Jets loss is the Bills gain."
"The Jets GM never gave him the players he needed."
"Who are these new Bills owners? They are buying all of the top free agents Rex needs to build a winner, and they are going to land the best amateur hockey player in the June draft for the Sabres."
Carly Andriacio, a senior at Canisius College from South Buffalo, was on spring break with classmates Barb Walsh, Mariko Matsuzaki, Tori Seeley and Kelly Johnson. When asked if they were Bills' fans, they all said, "Yes," and Carly added, "We all love the Bills, and the city would go wild for a home playoff game. It has been so long."
NFL fans are intrigued about the Bills' changes in personnel since Terry and Kim Pegula surprised everyone by signing the most sought-after experienced head coach this offseason.
Bills fans should flood the Jacksonville Jaguars mailbox with thank you letters to Doug Marrone. Buffalo's former coach opted out of the last year of his contract and became the Jags' offensive line coach. His sad miscalculation of the open NFL coaching market has the Bills nicely positioned to end the league's longest playoff drought.
When Rex was hired, there was a concern about his sometimes outlandish statements to the media. The down-to-earth head coach whose dad, Buddy, was a successful coach in the league, and whose fraternal twin brother, Rob, also is an NFL coach, has proven himself to be a tremendous, genuine diplomat who is extremely grateful Terry and Kim provided him with another opportunity to be an NFL head coach.
The first person Rex had beers and chicken wings with after signing with the Bills was Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. You know Jim told Rex all about the advantages of being the head coach of a winning Buffalo Bills team. He probably added the further Rex's team goes in the playoffs, the more the fans will love and adore him, his coaching staff and his players.
And, if Rex is able to get the Bills into the "Big Dance" for the fifth time in franchise history - and win it - I am sure Rex didn't need Jim to tell him how revered he would be in Bills country.
Another way Rex enamored himself with the fans was being photographed at the NFL combine walking next to his nemesis from New England, Bill Belichick, wearing Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas' Bills jersey.
My favorite Rex quote so far was when he thanked the Pegulas for opening their wallet to allow him to hire an "all-star" coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Greg Roman, defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman and quarterbacks coach David Lee.
Together with all of the assistant coaches and his scouting staff, Rex presented Terry, Kim and General Manager Doug Whaley with a shopping list this offseason that, if secured, could give the Bills the tools needed to seriously challenge Tom Brady, Belichick and the Patriots for the division title.
"Rexmania" caught the attention of all NFL followers when Whaley created ESPN SportsCenter headlines before the free agency season opened by signing a former Pro Bowl guard, Richie Incognito, who was best known for being a top-caliber player thrown off the Dolphins and out of the NFL for being a jerk.
Incognito will truly be a jerk if he ends up being thrown out of Buffalo this year. I have a feeling, though, Rex and his offensive coordinator and line coach, along with offensive co-captain running back Fred Jackson, will convince Incognito during the OTAs and training camp the benefits of controlling his emotions and for him to focus on being a bully against the opponent's D-linemen.
The Bills' sharp, talented, young GM wasn't done shopping for Rex. He engineered the NFL's biggest player-for-player trade since Washington sent Champ Baily to Denver for Clinton Portis 11 years ago. Whaley traded linebacker Kiko Alonso (who missed all of last season with an injury) to Philadelphia for workhorse running back LeSean McCoy, the league's leading rusher in 2013.
Quarterback remains the big question mark, so Whaley acquired Matt Cassel, who has had some success in the past. He will challenge EJ Manuel and others for the starting QB spot on a team that will rely heavily on the running game.
I may be the only one to believe this, but I have a feeling the Bills third HOFer from the Super Bowl era may be assisting them in the development of Manuel this offseason. Bruce Smith is EJ's godfather and they live near each other in Virginia. You have to believe Bruce is explaining the financial benefits EJ can reap over the years if he were the starting QB on a successful Bills team. Posters of Kelly, Brady and Peyton Manning should be in EJ's bedroom.
When the free agency season opened, Terry and Kim's checkbook sat in front of Whaley and he spent freely to resign a key to the team's top-tier defense: pass rusher Jerry Hughes.
The prime positions in the "Rexmania" offense are linemen, fullback and tight end. To fill the fullback position, Whaley signed "The Bulldozer." Jerome Felton was a superior run blocker for Minnesota when Adrian Peterson ran for 2,097 yards in 2012. Felton will be instrumental in leading rushes by McCoy and Jackson.
The Bills also tendered an offer to Miami tight end Charles Clay, who is a proven blocker and who could become our own "Gronk" as a pass receiver in the Red Zone.
"Rexmania," with new owners Terry and Kim Pegula ready for their first full season as owners of the Buffalo Bills, is about to change the current NFL trend of teams being "pass happy." Without a "name" quarterback on their roster, the Bills will rely on rushing the rock down the field while their defense stops the opponent.
On paper it looks great and it should have everyone fired up and ready to sing "Shout" often when "Rexmania" opens for business at Ralph Wilson Stadium in September.
Mike Billoni, a former award-winning sports writer for the Tonawanda News, Buffalo Courier-Express and Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, also is the former vice president/general manager of the Buffalo Bisons under Bob and Mindy Rich. He now serves as the public and community relations director at the Food Bank of WNY. He is a freelance writer for Niagara Frontier Publications. Billoni can be reached at [email protected].
He and his wife, Debbie, reside on Grand Island.