Jairus Byrd noticed the venom being spat at him.
People emotionally invested in the Buffalo Bills didn’t like how he handled his contract dispute. Many thought he was greedy and then, when foot injuries kept him off the field for five weeks, a malingerer.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t acknowledge the criticism and the pressure that was there,” the Pro Bowl safety said. “I felt people, because of the negativity, almost wanted me to fail at that point. They wanted to say, ‘I told you so.’ ”
Detractors said Byrd didn’t deserve to be paid like an elite safety. But Byrd, upset the Bills used their franchise tag on him, didn’t sign it until every offseason workout and training-camp practice was over.
Byrd and the Bills failed to reach a long-term contract extension. So he played the 2013 season on his $6.916 million franchise-tag salary. He started slowly, but eventually proved himself to be a difference-maker under his fourth defensive coordinator in five NFL seasons.
Byrd missed five games and finished one interception away from the AFC interception lead. He was voted to his third Pro Bowl last week.
“That pressure was there,” Byrd said. “But it doesn’t get to me. I’ve had pressure on me my whole life, just being the son of an NFL player. The expectations have been there from when I was little. It never gets to me.”
It was suggested to Byrd that there might even have been some folks at One Bills Drive who grimaced to learn he had been selected for another Pro Bowl, not wanting his controversial contract stance publicly validated.
“That’s an interesting observation,” Byrd said. “That’s a good point. I’m not going to expound on that, but it’s a valid point.”
Byrd was diplomatic when discussing his future. He claimed he treated Monday’s exit meetings and locker cleanout like any other get-away day. He didn’t give any interviews. He said he didn’t collect any special memorabilia with the idea he might not be back.
There are two ways he could return. He stated he’s still open to signing a long-term contract extension with the Bills. Regardless, the club could franchise him again. The price would rise to a guaranteed $8.299 million salary or the average of the NFL’s five highest-paid safeties, whichever is higher.
“It’s a wait-and-see approach as to what’s going to happen,” Byrd said.
Teams can use their franchise tags between Feb. 17 and March 3.
“We’re going to leave all options on the table,” Bills General Manager Doug Whaley said at Monday’s news conference. “We’re going to make an offer to the guy, and we’re going to try to keep him.
“We’re going to try to the best of our abilities because we’re in the business of collecting good players, and he’s a good player.”
Bills safety Aaron Williams wants Byrd back. Williams declared Monday that Byrd and he formed the NFL’s best safety duo.
Byrd has 22 interceptions, second in the NFL only to Asante Samuel’s 25 interceptions from 2009 onward. He’s only the third player in Bills history with at least five multiple-interception games.
Last summer, players noted how complicated new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s system could be. That factored into Byrd’s slow start, but he eventually came around.
Byrd recorded 48 tackles with four interceptions and a forced fumble. In the Week 11 victory over the New York Jets, he intercepted two passes and had a sack.
“I thought, at first, coming back had some unknowns,” Byrd said. “I didn’t know the staff. There was a natural uneasiness about the season.
“Then the more you’re around your teammates, you start to adjust and adapt to your surroundings. You spend so much time with your coaches and teammates every day. You get to know people, and you’re working for a common goal.
“I want to win. It’s really about grinding hard and seeing the character of the coaches and the players. The camaraderie just builds.”
Byrd missed the first five games with plantar fasciitis, a foot condition that raised suspicions because it can’t be diagnosed definitively. Byrd played through it last year, and critics thought he should do it again.
“I went to the doctor and got diagnosed for what it was,” Byrd said. “It needed time to heal. It didn’t heal over the offseason in the time it was supposed to.”
Byrd declined to complain about how last offseason played out or the inability of agent Eugene Parker to reach an agreement with Bills contract negotiator Jim Overdorf.
“I don’t regret that,” Byrd said. “It’s become cliché, but that’s the business. That’s part of it. I’m not the first player that’s ever been franchised; I won’t be the last.
“Everything happens for a reason. You learn and you grow. This was a blessing in disguise because it forced me to grow in a different aspect, being introduced to the business side of football.
“There’s no hard feelings toward anybody in the organization.”
Byrd hurt his right ankle in Sunday’s season-ending loss to the New England Patriots and missed the second half. But he plans to play in the Pro Bowl on Jan. 26 in Honolulu.
I asked him if this Pro Bowl selection felt any better than his first two.
“I don’t harbor bad feelings,” Byrd said. “But we’re all human. With all the criticism, it felt great.
“I credit who I’m surrounded by. To have Leodis McKelvin, Stephon Gilmore, Aaron Williams, Nickell Robey, Ron Brooks, Jim Leonhard, Da’Norris Searcy … All the guys in that room and Donnie Henderson’s coaching contributed.
“Jonathan Meeks and Duke Williams are young guys that was just great to be around.
“I got more joy out of that. They’re the reason for that achievement.”