ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) - Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd is eager to put the criticism and scrutiny behind now that he's finally ready to play.
With both feet healthy and after getting the green light from coach Doug Marrone, the two-time Pro Bowl player is ready make his season debut Sunday, when Buffalo (2-3) hosts Cincinnati (3-2).
It'll mark the long-awaited start to Byrd's season after having his motives questioned during an offseason-long contract dispute. He raised further doubts about his desire to play in Buffalo after missing the first five games with plantar fasciitis in both feet.
``Mentally, that's over with. We've just got to win games now,'' Byrd said after practice Wednesday. ``This is all I've wanted from Day 1. A lot of people didn't believe me. But now we're here, and now I finally get to go play. And I'm excited.''
As for those who doubted his intentions and severity of his injury, Byrd held no grudges.
``They're entitled to their own opinion,'' Byrd said. ``I understand why they would be upset.''
And he doesn't see himself as having anything to prove to anyone.
``I'm not trying to win them back over,'' Byrd said. ``I'm just trying to go out there and play my game and do what we can do to win games for these guys in this locker room who have played hard.''
Byrd's back, and suddenly the veil of uncertainty that has hung over his status can finally start being lifted. He has been the focus of attention since March 1, when the Bills applied the franchise tag to prevent Byrd from becoming a free agent.
Though the move allowed Buffalo to retain the player's rights, the two sides became involved in a standoff that wasn't settled until Byrd finally accepted his one-year $6.9 million contact on Aug. 21. The scrutiny didn't end there after Byrd was sidelined by an injury that had been bothering him since last season.
``I'm completely confident in myself, and I knew where I stand with my character,'' Byrd said. ``What another person says about me isn't going to change who I am.''
Byrd's return is the first sign of good news for what's been a rag-tag, injury-depleted secondary. It's a unit that has also been minus starting cornerback Stephon Gilmore (broken left hand), and was down to third- and fourth-stringers after starter Leodis McKelvin was limited the past three weeks with a pulled right hamstring.
McKelvin is back, and Gilmore might not be too far behind after he returned to practice Wednesday.
``Obviously, that could be huge for us,'' safety Jim Leonhard said regarding the potential for reinforcements. ``Any time you get guys like that back on the field, it obviously can provide you a boost.''
Marrone is optimistic about Gilmore's chances of playing, and he's particularly looking forward to Byrd's return. Marrone acknowledged Byrd could have played in a 37-24 loss at Cleveland on Thursday, but he elected to hold the player out for one more week as a precaution.
``I'm really excited to see him back out there,'' Marrone said. ``Even before the Cleveland game when he worked out, I had a great sense of excitement there. And now it's carried over. Now I'm looking forward to him going out and playing.''
The 2009 second-round draft pick out of Oregon is a hard-hitting safety, who is solid against the run and has great range in defending the pass.
Byrd enjoyed a breakout season as a rookie, when he finished tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions - a rookie franchise record. And he's coming off a solid campaign last year, when Byrd led the Bills with five interceptions and four forced fumbles. Overall, he has 18 interceptions, 10 forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and scored two touchdowns in four seasons.
That production had the potential to make Byrd one of the most sought-after free agents this offseason.
Shortly after arriving in Buffalo in August, Byrd expressed his unhappiness about the Bills' decision to retain his rights and failure to negotiate a long-term contract before a July 15 deadline. He said he was ``disappointed'' and declined to answer questions as to whether he wanted to be traded.
Byrd is now focused on playing football.
``I'm going to give it all I've got,'' Byrd said. ``I'm looking forward to just going out there, being with my teammates on Sunday, and getting this thing started with a win.''
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