Leadership was one of the big buzz words Monday when the Buffalo Bills opened their offseason conditioning program.
Coach Sean McDermott stressed its importance, and revealed he would create a "leadership council" amongst some of the players to reinforce the team's core beliefs. It's a system McDermott has experience with in previous stops at Philadelphia and Carolina.
"I’m a big believer in leadership, and player-driven leadership," the coach said. "I think you look for a range of characteristics. Age is one of them. Experience – but that doesn’t just limit it to the older crowd, so to speak. You want representation from, really, the cross-section of the team and really guys that represent the whole team."
The Bills even brought three players already identified by McDermott as prime candidates to serve that function out for interviews – defensive tackle Kyle Williams, linebacker Lorenzo Alexander and safety Micah Hyde.
"Leadership is a big part of this football team and having the right type of chemistry on the team," McDermott said. "Every ship needs a rudder and so obviously I’m one of the leaders, and the player-driven leadership component of it is big. There needs to be leadership in that locker room and on the field, whether it’s practice or during the games. Those are three guys, but you can’t just limit it to those three. Young or old, it’s time to step up and lead."
That's all reasonable. What coach would say leadership wasn't important on a team?
Left unsaid, however, is the conclusion that can be drawn that the Bills lacked leadership in 2016. That certainly does not appear to be the case.
In addition to Williams, Alexander and Hyde, you can bet that quarterback Tyrod Taylor, center Eric Wood and left guard Richie Incognito will be candidates for McDermott's council. All of them, with the exception of Hyde, were with the team last year.
Maybe all those players have us fooled, and they're really lazy slugs behind closed doors. But I wouldn't bet on it. The Bills have good leaders. The team as a whole just didn't play well enough in 2016.
"As players, we feel short," Alexander said. "If the players don’t buy in to what’s being taught and don’t fall in line and you don’t have leadership reinforce that, you’re not going to win games. And I think that’s where I fell short last year as far as not holding guys accountable throughout the course of the season so that we can win games."
That's an admirable thing for Alexander to say, but it doesn't fall on him. If a player doesn't buy into what the team is doing, or is worried more about his own stats than the win-loss record, there is little any leader can do to change that.
Alexander said he plans to "exert myself a little bit more vocally" in 2017.
"Last year I did talk to guys and take them to the side, but I think I will kind of step to the forefront," he said. "Kind of like what Kyle Williams does before games, or even in meetings and just holding guys accountable when I see something go down versus kind of waiting and maybe get them after a meeting. Making sure that it is out front, everyone knows about it and if I correct one guy, or help one guy everybody else sees it and maybe will learn from that and that same correction."Rex Ryan's policy of rotating his captains each week – who can forget when IK Enemkpali got his turn – made a mockery of the entire idea. But a bigger problem was Ryan's inability to get his players on the same page when it came to embracing his scheme.
"Last year, even though we didn’t have designated captains … you know who the leaders are," Alexander said. "You know who’s out there working hard. When they speak, you want to perk your ears up to listen.… Obviously Kyle Williams is the poster boy for that. … Now we’re just putting a label on it. Cool. It’s probably going to be the same guys that were leading last year."
Anyone who has ever watched one of Williams' pre-game motivational speeches, which the team will sometimes post to social media, knows he could convince a vegan to eat a steak.
"I'm not afraid to say anything at any time or to make a point of bringing something up," Williams said. "Because at the end of the day, this will be 12 years playing for me, who knows how long you can play? You never know. There's no time to waste with the little things and not getting it right. And I am not going to let feelings, or anything like that get in the way what I see could be a hurdle for us to be a winning football team. Really never have."
Finding capable leaders will be the easy part of McDermott's job. Putting them in the right positions to be successful will matter far more.