If you ask Rex Ryan why he's been so successful in season openers as an NFL head coach he'll look you square in the eye and tell you he doesn't know. One could ask a follow up question offering the theory that his creativity with his scheme might offer more surprises in Week 1, but only a denial will be the reply. In fact Ryan's mark of 5-1 in season openers is something he would prefer to credit to his players.
One player who would know is veteran blocking tight end Matthew Mulligan. He's spent parts of three seasons with Ryan in New York and a pair of season openers.
"As confident as Rex is he's also pretty humble when it comes to his own personal success," Mulligan said. "He won't talk about himself all that much. His team is a different story."
Granted Ryan's success in openers as a head coach isn't a huge sample size, but 5-1 is a record that shouldn't be dismissed either. The success Ryan has enjoyed out of the gate stems from his players' desire to perform at their level best for him, not only in Week 1, but every time they step between the lines.
"If you look at Rex Ryan as a coach he has everything you would want as a player in leadership," Mulligan said. "When you first get to know him and the rest of the time you're in contact with him you want to play for him to the best of your ability. That's not just the mentality of running through a wall for a coach like you always hear, but at the same time knowing your stuff. You don't want to let a man like that down."
Of course Mulligan doesn't believe his head coach's creativity and football acumen should be dismissed either. In Week 1 there are far more unknowns for both teams about their opponent and their scheme plans for the season. Ryan's inventive football mind has an advantage in such situations.
"A lot of times people get wrapped up in Rex's bravado, which is big and boisterous and confident. It's what you would want in a head man, but at the same time his football mind is extraordinary," said Mulligan. "Sitting in meetings and the things that he pulls out or says it blows you away all the time. You think, 'Wow that's a great point. I never thought of that.' His football mind is tremendous and also the fact that his likability is enormous, how could he not have a great record in Week 1 just based on guys wanting to play for him?"
It appears that the team's desire to come through for Ryan has repeated itself here in Buffalo. The men in the Bills locker room know Ryan's track record of success and have already gone the extra mile to be a part of that.
"I've been a lot of different places and had a lot of different head coaches. I think it's been similar here," said Mulligan. "Even though some guys have stayed here a long time they've had a lot of different head coaches. When you find a good one you want to make the best of that opportunity that you have because you don't want to go play for someone else. You want to stay and play for this man and I think that's what guys are seeing. They're finally getting their taste of what head coaching at the professional level should be like."
Ryan's .833 winning percentage in openers include wins over Houston on the road (24-7 in 2009), Dallas (27-24, in 2011), Buffalo (48-28, in 2012), Tampa Bay (18-17, in 2013) and Oakland (19-14, in 2014). His only loss is a one-point decision to Baltimore in 2010 (10-9).
The one that sticks out in Mulligan's mind the most is the 2011 opener against Dallas. The Cowboys were heavy favorites coming into the opener that season.
"Dallas was coming in and they were all world. They had Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, (Jason) Witten, DeMarcus Ware on the outside, (Anthony) Spencer on the other side. They were crazy loaded," said Mulligan. "But Rex had us ready to play. I remember one of the things that he said and as simple as it was at the same time I felt it was deep too.
"He said, 'Look, these guys are all world and they're projected to be this, that and the other.' He said, 'I don't know how we're going to beat them, but we're going to beat them and that's all that matters.' The bottom line was he never wavered in the fact that we were going to win. All the media had picked them. Nobody picked us to win."
The media looked to be correct as Dallas jumped out to a 10-point first half lead and led by two touchdowns early in the fourth quarter (24-10). But Ryan's Jets squad scored 17 unanswered points, which included a special teams touchdown off a blocked punt and a game-winning field goal with 27 seconds remaining for a 27-24 victory.
"He was so confident and all the guys thrived off that," said Mulligan. "Sometimes you get into games and you're really evenly matched and you're thinking, 'How is this going to go? Is it going to be a fight? Is it going to be a battle? But Rex has never, ever said or ever wavered and you never saw in his persona that he didn't think he was going to win. That's what makes him so easy to follow."
And follow is just what his new players in Buffalo are doing. They respect Ryan's track record, but more importantly they're putting the extra time in to deliver winning results for him.
"We like what Rex brings because we know he's been there before. I mean we've all turned on the TV and saw Rex in the AFC championship game," said Jerry Hughes. "We've seen him and Greg (Roman) in playoff games, in Super Bowls. When you see things like that, you're a little bit more attentive because you know what your coach is saying. He's been through those experiences.
"Guys have been staying late these past three weeks just to soak up the information. We're ready for whatever they put in our playbooks. Guys are excited. You can't not finish your work excited to be on this field. It's Week 1 in the NFL."