Fan voting ended on Monday and NFL players and coaches will wrap up league voting Wednesday for who they feel is worthy of Pro Bowl recognition this season. One of the players with a legitimate shot of making the trip down to the new Pro Bowl venue of Miami for the Bills this February is free safety
With nine interceptions on the season to lead the league on a team that leads the NFL in interceptions, the rookie will be hard to overlook.
“It feels great,” said Byrd of his success. “Any time you can lead the league in interceptions I think that’s big. With those interceptions I just wish we could have done more with them.”
As successful as Byrd’s rookie season has been for him individually it rings a bit hollow since team success has not come along with it.
“It’s a cool thing,” said Byrd of his nine interceptions. “I can’t sit here and say that it’s not. It’s just our season has not gone how I’d like it to go. If we could be in the playoffs I’d give up those INTs in a heartbeat. Especially for guys that have been around here that have never been to the playoffs. It’d be cool to experience that with some of the older guys.”
Buffalo was mathematically eliminated from playoff contention last Sunday in their loss to New England.
Byrd has been quick to deflect credit, heaping praise on his defensive teammates, particularly the veteran defensive backs that have helped him in film study and the defensive linemen whose pressure on opposing quarterbacks has helped him excel.
Still Byrd had to make the plays when they were there to be made. That’s why one could argue that Byrd played a major role in Buffalo’s win over the Jets, Carolina and Kansas City.
His second INT in the game against the Jets in Week 6 led to a game-tying touchdown sending the contest to overtime, which the Bills won on a sudden death field goal. At Carolina the following week his two interception returns handed Buffalo’s offense a pair of short fields leading to the team’s only two touchdowns in a 20-9 win. At Kansas City his interception at the Bills five-yard line with just over two minutes remaining helped preserve a 16-10 victory.
“You always teach about focus and being focused for every play you’re out there and the good ones can do that,” said defensive backs coach George Catavolos. “They know the formation, the personnel groupings and what’s going to come out of it based on tendencies so they’re able to play a little more aggressively.”
Byrd’s numbers are all the more impressive when one considers the fact that he missed most of training camp and the preseason after coming off sports hernia surgery. He also missed all of the spring practices due to a late final exam schedule coming out of Oregon. They all appeared to be factors that would stunt his development in his first season as a professional. They haven’t.
“I don’t put limits on what I can do,” Byrd said. “When you guys were asking me about setbacks I don’t count out what I’m capable of. Of course I was surprised and it’s exciting and I still have so much to learn too. I’m excited about this offseason and getting healthy and trying to take another step.”
And for opposing quarterbacks that is what must be the most imposing thought. Byrd for the majority of the season has been hampered by a groin problem related to his offseason surgery. Not playing at 100 percent hasn’t slowed Byrd’s production. Knowing when he’s healthy again that his play could be even better is scary.
“Jairus is an exceptional individual,” said Catavolos. “He plays the ball probably as well as anybody in the league or better. And he’s still learning in the scheme and what’s expected of him from effort to technique. He might not have as many interceptions every year, but if he studies the game and the defense he’ll be even more effective in years to come, not just against the pass but in the run game too.”
“He can be as good as he would like to be,” said interim head coach Perry Fewell. “He was a corner in college and now he’s playing free safety in the National Football League. He hasn’t played free safety since high school and I think that says a lot for him and his growth and development will only get better.”
Byrd understands why he’s being mentioned as a legitimate Pro Bowl candidate for the AFC, and has been receiving positive feedback from other players in the league.
“In games and stuff I’ve talked to players and they’ve congratulated me from different teams we’ve played,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Helping Byrd's chances are the injuries this season to some of the perennial Pro Bowl contenders at the safety position like Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu, Baltimore's Ed Reed and Indianapolis' Bob Sanders. As a result none of them have played up to their lofty standards this year. Still Byrd is reluctant to get his hopes too high knowing the lack of team success can be a factor in voting.
“It’d be a blessing and a cool thing, but I don’t know,” said Byrd of possibly being an AFC rep for Pro Bowl. “I hear a lot of the vets tell me that it’s hard to go if you’re not on a winning team and I understand that. I’m just going to take it for what it is. It’d be a blessing and an honor.”
“He’s an exceptional individual and you hope he gets those honors,” said Catavolos. “There are a lot of deserving people out there, but he’s one of ours so I hope he gets it, but I realize that sometimes it’s more of a popularity vote. Hopefully it’ll work out for him.”