Richie Incognito was speaking at his locker this week when rookie left tackle Dion Dawkins walked by.
“Richie’s the GOAT,” Dawkins yelled out.
The timing was impeccable. Incognito was in the middle of a thought about how, in his third year with the Buffalo Bills, he’s become — of all things — a leader in the locker room.
“It's special to be looked at like that,” Incognito said. “Coming in here back in 2015, I just wanted to assimilate myself in a locker room. To step into a leadership role, it's not something I took lightly. I realize that I have a lot of eyes on me. That helps me a better leader and a better man every day.”
Incognito came to the Bills on a one-year contract in 2015. Former coach Rex Ryan, never one to shy away from players with checkered backgrounds, gave him a chance to resurrect his NFL career, and the veteran guard has rewarded the Bills for taking that chance with three straight Pro Bowl seasons.
“It's been great for both sides,” Incognito said. “It's been great for the organization, been great for me and my family, to find a home and feel wanted. To be a part of something bigger again. Everything went down in Miami, and things happen for a reason. I'm just right here, right now, blessed and ready to accept the responsibility that comes with being put in such a great position.”
On the surface, the pairing of coach Sean McDermott and Incognito sounds like an odd one. McDermott’s emphasis on character would not seem to mesh with a player who was exiled from the NFL for a year and a half because of his role in a bullying scandal while with the Dolphins. McDermott, however, took the time to get to know Incognito, and eventually put him in the team’s leadership council.
“I knew what type of player he was just going against him a few times and then obviously knew about some of the situation, just from what I'd read, down in Miami,” McDermott said. “It's been good to get to know him on a personal level. He's one of our leaders."
So has McDermott's impression of Incognito changed?
"My impression of a lot of guys has changed once you get to know someone, in terms of building a relationship," the coach said. "Like I said, he's one of the big leaders for our football team. It's changed just because of getting to know him, but for really no other reason that that."
Incognito also has taken to playing for McDermott.
"Coach has done such a good job of setting the tempo and making expectations clear," he said. "He really brings great energy to this program. Great focus, great tenacity. He's got a real competitive drive in him. That resonates with a lot of guys, when the head coach is feisty like that. Guys kind of perk up. They like that kind of stuff."
Incognito will start his 150th game Sunday – seventh most among active offensive linemen – fittingly in Miami, as he chases his first career playoff berth. He's never played in an NFL game that he hasn't started.
"Really a chance for me to be on a 9-7 team for the first time," he said. "It’s exciting. I’m trying to pull as many young guys together as I can to get them to buy in, go out there and be physical, and have the right mindset."
On Christmas morning, Incognito was up early, texting center Eric Wood.
"We're constantly talking," Incognito said. "He's like, 'Man, you are up early.' I watched the game like four times by 6:30. I was just telling him, 'We've got to fix this, this and this.' Buffalo has really been the perfect place for me to come pour my passion into football. It's been a great reset button for me."
Incognito will be 35 at the start of next season. He has one year remaining on his contract that pays him $6.325 million in base salary and counts $7.575 million against the 2018 salary cap.
"I'm excited. We came in here and we shocked a lot of people," he said. "We proved to ourselves what a tough football team we are. I just hope this team takes this as a launching point for the next several years and we can have success and build off of it."