Aaron Williams is trying. In the locker room, in the meeting room, on the practice field. He cajoles, he instructs, he motivates. He does anything he can possibly do to stay involved with his teammates as the Buffalo Bills slog toward the finish line of another disappointing season.
For Williams, it’s much more than a way to kill time while dealing with a neck injury that has kept him out of 10 of the last 11 games. It’s how the veteran safety goes about fulfilling his role as a primary leader.
“I hate not playing; it’s a terrible feeling,” Williams said Wednesday. “But at the same time, I still have a job to do. I still have to control this team, I still have to lead this team through the next three games to hopefully win out.”
That, as much as anything, sums up the state of the leadership within the Bills.
No offense to Williams. He has been a mainstay of the secondary and the entire defense. He has been an emotional sparkplug during his five seasons with the Bills. But he also hasn’t played a game since Oct. 11 and hasn’t been on the field for even three full games this year.
Yet, Williams feels compelled to make sure there is a constant voice of experience and wisdom and inspiration for other players – especially younger ones – to hear. He’s the first to acknowledge he doesn’t go it alone. He points to other veterans – such as center Eric Wood, guard Richie Incognito, fellow safety Corey Graham, and quarterback Tyrod Taylor – who do their share to help lead at a time when the Bills need it the most.
However, there is a clear sense that Williams is the one who sees what others might not necessarily be as quick to recognize is happening right before their eyes.
After one of the most galling losses of the season dropped the record to 6-7 and all but killed any hope for a playoff appearance, someone besides Rex Ryan needs to serve as the glue to keep things together. After all of those penalties and other mistakes gift-wrapped a victory for the Philadelphia Eagles, there must be something from within that doesn’t allow an atmosphere ripe for an implosion to form. That lets everyone know surrendering is not an option. That serves as the conscience for the group.
“Somebody, it’s time for him to step up and say, ‘Hey, you know what? We’re not going in the right direction. Let’s change things,’” Williams said. “And that’s the type of stuff I’m trying to do right now. Let’s finish these three games out strong and see what happens. That’s our main focus right now,” Sunday’s game against “Washington. And I feel like what Wood says and what Richie says and what Tyrod and them say is, ‘You never know. We’re not out of the playoffs. I mean, it’s a very, very, very slim chance of us making it, but how can we obviously know until it actually happens?’
“So let’s go out here, win these three games, let’s see what happens. That’s the type of leadership we’re having, and it’s done with multiple guys.”
Ryan said there are “definitely leaders on this team,” but wouldn’t name them. He offered his different choices for game captains as an example of the variety of leadership that exists. But Ryan has based those selections on players’ connections with the opponent or the city/region in which it plays.
For most of the season, he has chosen multiple captains, but last Sunday he picked only one: running back LeSean McCoy, a former Eagle. Before the game, McCoy got on his knees and kissed the Eagles’ logo in the middle of Lincoln Financial Field. After the game, he refused to interact with former teammates or talk with the media, leaving his teammates to handle all of the tough questions. On Wednesday, McCoy did not want to discuss his reason for kissing the logo, something that couldn’t have gone over well with many Bills fans.
“I don’t want to say there’s a lack of leadership,” fullback Jerome Felton said. “But if you look at” the Philadelphia game, “if you look at the penalties – the reason why we lost some of our big games – I can see how that can be questioned.”
Is McCoy a true leader? During an informal polling of Bills players, his name came up only twice. Defensive tackle Kyle Williams was often mentioned, although he’s out for the season with a knee injury. Wood was a popular pick as well.
Taylor was cited on multiple occasions, although one player noted that his emergence as a leader has only happened “in the last few weeks.” And there were the caveats that, one, he’s in his first year with the team and as an NFL starter; two, he isn’t tremendously vocal, coming off to teammates pretty much the way he comes off in the media: quiet, speaking only on occasion in the huddle or on the sideline when he isn’t calling plays.
“Great leaders can be soft-spoken,” Wood said. “When Ty says something, everybody listens. When Tyrod makes a point, it’s generally really valid.”
Then there is Aaron Williams, who can’t always be on the practice field, as was the case Wednesday, because his neck is too sore. His chances of playing the rest of the season are slim, although he’s holding out hope of returning for the season finale against the New York Jets.
Regardless, he intends to continue to be with his teammates until the bitter end.
“The great part about not playing is you see more things that you didn’t see while you were playing,” Williams said. “I can see guys’ perspectives in different ways.”
Wood is one of the more vocal players during practice. He can be constantly heard encouraging his fellow offensive linemen and urging other players to stay sharp and alert and give their best effort.
“There’s always stuff you wish you might have said or done, but on a day-to-day basis, I always give my all,” he said. “I try to lead by example. When there’s something to be said, I try to say it. Like I said, there’s always going to be instances where you say, could” the leadership “be better? Always. You could always do a little bit more.”
The leadership-by-committee approach is major departure from what the Bills had for the past several years when running back Fred Jackson was on the team.
Before his release last summer after nearly a decade in a Buffalo uniform, Jackson wasn’t merely a leader. He was the leader.
“With Fred here, it was just Fred,” Aaron Williams said. “People chimed in every once in a while, but everybody knew: Fred, that’s the guy to go to. Now, I feel like people go to Wood, people go to me, people go to Corey, people go to, you know, certain guys.
“Before, people followed Fred, people listened, just like people listened to Ray Lewis. When Ray Lewis talked, everybody stopped what they were doing and listened. Same thing with Fred. At the same time, we’ve got to know that he’s not here anymore. We can’t count on Fred.”
Asked if an adjustment needed to be made to fill the leadership void created by Jackson’s departure, Wood paused for about five seconds. Then, he took a deep breath and said, “Yeah, Fred was an excellent leader for this football team. And him not being in the huddle probably left a spot for Tyrod and maybe even Shady to have more of a voice at times.”
Aaron Williams doesn’t necessarily view the varying styles of leadership the Bills have as a problem. In fact, he thinks it could do plenty to help get them to where they want to go, even if it isn’t this season.
“Really, really good teams, how they make playoffs is having multiple leaders on the team,” Williams said. “So once we actually keep guys accountable in everything – not just being late to something, but if you’re not doing your job, it’s OK to tell that person he’s not doing his job.
“I feel like guys just don’t want to say something because they feel like they don’t want to be out of line. And I understand that and I was the same way. But sometimes you grow up and realize just, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get a job done and it’s a business. It’s nothing personal. It’s just we’ve got to get this … done.’ ”