"Are you ready?"
Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan asked Anthony Lynn that question before the Bills’ team photo. It was that Friday in early September after Buffalo had lost to the Jets the night before to crumple to 0-2. Lynn, then the team’s running backs coach, looked at his clothes, looked at Ryan and told him, yes, he thought he was dressed appropriately for the shoot.
Not the photo, Ryan said. But to become Bills offensive coordinator.
Lynn was stunned.
"Not even an inkling," that he knew this was coming.
Sure, there had been rumblings throughout the organization that offensive coordinator Greg Roman and Ryan had differences last season. But the players and coaches figured that since no change was made during the offseason that the staff was intact. Ready to roll.
Lynn accepted. After the shoot, he met with the Bills team president, general manager, and ownership. They asked him about his offensive philosophy, his leadership. He answered. Roman was fired. Lynn was the new man.
"I have never been the type of person that wanted to build my success off another man’s downfall," Lynn said. "But that is a lot of times how opportunities come in the NFL. Since we had played on Thursday, I had a couple of extra days to get ready for our next game against the Arizona Cardinals. And my initial focus wasn’t at all on them. I just spent those first few days asking, searching for this answer — how do we fix our team?"
Fix his offense. Which, actually, was not his offense. It was Roman’s.
An NFL offensive coordinator employs every moment of the offseason to design it, to massage it, to teach it. Lynn had a handful of days to tweak, teach, and play-call for Arizona. He called former NFL coach Bill Parcells for counsel (he was running backs coach for Parcells in Dallas in 2005 and 2006).
He spread Roman’s offensive plays across his office floor, across his desk, on every space of his walls. He knew it would not be fair to his players to dump it all, especially the language. He "cherry-picked" the things from Roman he wanted and continually tweaked that week and beyond. There would be more creativity and more emphasis on the running game. There would be an understanding that the offense would not lead the league in passing attempts but would search for passing efficiency. Eliminating turnovers was stressed.
Lynn installed an offense that primarily focused on three things: Play smart, situational football, toughness, and efficient quarterback play.
This was the philosophy that Lynn, 47, from McKinney, Texas, and Texas Tech, crafted as a two-time Super Bowl-winning running back with Denver, and as a 17-year NFL assistant coach.
Buffalo is 6-3 under Lynn’s offensive command.
They toppled Arizona 33-18 in his debut. They won his first four, lost three straight, and have won the last two. Twice they scored 16 points under Lynn. Seven times they scored 25 or more points. Three times they scored 30 or more points. Their high is 45 points.
In his three loses, the Bills scored exactly 25 points in each.
Buffalo ranks No. 1 in rushing yards averaged per game, No. 32 in passing yards averaged per game, No. 8 in scoring offense, No. 5 in Red Zone efficiency, and first in fewest turnovers allowed, with six.
At 6-5, the Bills play at Oakland (9-2) on Sunday. It is Buffalo’s first December road game while in playoff contention in 12 years. The Bills, of course, have not made the playoffs in 16 years.
Buffalo begins a five-game regular season ending sprint to change that — at Oakland, then three straight at home against Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Miami, and then at the Jets.
Receivers Percy Harvin and Robert Woods are injured and out at Oakland. Receiver Sammy Watkins returns from injury, though not fully healed. Running back LeSean McCoy has been a staple — Buffalo is 4-0 this season when he rushes for 100 or more yards.
Quarterback Tyrod Taylor continues to evolve.
They face a confident, aggressive Oakland defense led by end Khalil Mack. Raiders coach Jack Del Rio has fashioned it in his image. Lynn was Del Rio’s running backs coach in Jacksonville in 2003 and ‘04.
"I know what Jack is teaching and preaching over there," Lynn said. "They are very resilient. We are focusing on us. We have had so many injuries at the receiver position that it has put stress on the offense and on Tyrod. But getting No. 14 back (Watkins) really helps. I don’t want our offense to play with confusion. I want clarity. I want them to have a voice in it and take ownership of it. This has been happening. We’re going to get where we want to go when guys master how to make each other better. Any special offense has always had that."
Lynn said he is a "matchup guy." He calls every offensive play. He sticks to his model.
He has a power offensive line with shifty running backs and Buffalo will ride that throughout its playoff bid. But Lynn knows there are times his offense must be nimble. It must surprise.
He has an inkling.
"We are all trying to get to a place where the Buffalo Bills have not been in a long time," he said. "I get the sense our offense and all of our players are embracing that. We’ve all been building for this moment that lies ahead in Oakland and everything beyond it."
Given the Bills’ lot, it is a fair question ...
Are they ready?