Despite the Buffalo Bills' season coming to an anticlimactic end Sunday in Jacksonville, there was still an air of optimism as players cleaned out their lockers at New Era Field Monday morning.
Buffalo center Eric Wood said he's taken time to reflect, stepping back to appreciate the team's accomplishments.
"To end the drought is special," Wood said. "It's great to get that monkey off our back. Last week, that celebration, coming back to Buffalo and the fans at the airport and our locker room scene, that was about as much fun as any moment in my life, especially playing football."
Wood, who has spent his entire nine-year career with the Bills, knows making the playoffs changes the mentality of everyone around the team.
"I'm just so glad I won't have to answer, 'So what's different this year? How are we going to end the drought this year?' " Wood said. "Now, it's OK, we've got a foundation to build on. Let's keep improving and let's go try and win a Super Bowl."
Throughout the year, the phrase "Playoff Caliber" was plastered around the Bills facilities. That was changed to "Championship Caliber" once the team clinched a playoff spot, representing a change in stakes for a Buffalo squad looking to continue to build.
"I think Sean (McDermott) and the group here this year did a great job of changing the culture," linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. "Obviously in the NFL there's a lot of turnover each and every year with the draft, free agency. You're always trying to add pieces to that puzzle so you can enhance your team and take it to the next level. ... But hopefully a lot of guys that are a part of this group will still be here next year to continue to carry this torch."
While this offseason certainly poses tough decisions for general manager Brandon Beane and the front office, most notably the future of quarterback Tyrod Taylor, Wood said there's a sense of stability.
"We finished the season with some momentum," Wood said. "Obviously, yesterday didn't turn out the way we wanted to, but we've got a lot to build on. I'm excited for 2018."
* * *
Quarterback Tyrod Taylor and safety Micah Hyde were unavailable to the media because they are still in concussion protocol. Cornerback E.J. Gaines, one of the Bills' most intriguing free agents, declined to speak with reporters.
* * *
Cornerback Leonard Johnson, who previously played in Tampa Bay, New England and Carolina, expected the worst from Buffalo weather when he opted to rejoin his former coach, Sean McDermott, in March.
Despite the memorable snow game against the Indianapolis Colts, the six-year veteran said the winter wasn't nearly as bad as he thought it would be.
"It’s pretty harsh, but we don’t spend a lot of time outside," Johnson said. "When I was in New England, we were practicing outside in the snow, so thank God we got an indoor facility."
Johnson played 15 regular season games with the Bills this season, more than he did with the Panthers and Patriots in the previous two seasons combined, and made his first playoff appearance. He said this year was the best of his career and complimented the city he previously heard called "the armpit of America."
"When I got here I realized this city kind of reflected a lot of who I was as an individual — blue collar, hard working, people who love football," Johnson said. "The gameday environment was almost like college environment and that’s what I love. A lot of times in the NFL you can be removed from the atmosphere because of the stadiums they’re building now and all the stuff that’s going into the stadium, but I love Buffalo."
Johnson's contract is up, but he said he'd love to be in a position where he could return to the Bills next season.
* * *
The Bills signed nine of their own practice squad players to reserve/future contracts: wide receiver Quan Bray, punter Corey Carter, tight end Jason Croom, running back Aaron Green, offensive tackle Josh James, defensive end Marquavius Lewis, safety Dean Marlowe, center Adam Redmond and offensive tackle De'Ondre Wesley. The nine represent the entire practice squad minus linebacker Xavier Woodson-Luster. The group joins Rod Streater, who signed a future/reserve contract on Jan. 1. Streater signed with the Bills as a free agent but was sidelined by a foot injury.