Richie Incognito was once in football exile. He feared no team would ever sign him again.
Now, he could be the lone Buffalo Bills player invited to the Pro Bowl.
It's not Mario Williams, not Marcell Dareus, not Jerry Hughes, nor Kyle Williams generating the Pro Bowl buzz this year. No, the team's best lineman on either side of the ball has been the rugged, tone-setting Incognito. The player no team in the league would touch with a 10-foot pole has revitalized his career in Buffalo. He's been one of the biggest — if not the biggest — reason the Bills rushing attack has done a 180 this season.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman's scheme is at its best when No. 64 is out in front pulling, leading LeSean McCoy on sweeps and stretch plays.
Now, there's a good chance the 32-year-old Incognito will be rewarded with a lucrative contract in free agency and, maybe, a trip to Hawaii.
"It's pretty special," Incognito said. "It's definitely something I set as one of my goals, to get back and play at that level. It's exciting. I'm kind of nervous going into next week. I hope it all works out and that I do make it. So that's it, I'm excited about this week and excited to hear what goes down."
A year ago, Buffalo's run game ranked 25th in the NFL at 92.6 yards per game. Through 14 weeks, it is No. 3 (141.8), only seven yards behind the NFL-leading Carolina Panthers. The football analytics site Pro Football Focus has Incognito ranked as the second-best guard in the league with a 28.3-rating, behind Baltimore's Marshal Yanda (35.5). Replay the highlights and it's usually Incognito clearing a lane for LeSean McCoy or Karlos Williams on a long run.
Out of football for a season after a very public bullying ordeal, Incognito returned a hungry, determined pro. And inside the locker room, Incognito has been a seamless fit.
As he explained in detail during training camp at St. John Fisher College, Incognito returned from his year away more focused. More mature. But not a completely changed man— he made the distinction.
“I’m going to continue bringing it,” Incognito said then to The News. “The easy narrative is ‘Oh, he’s this changed man.’ I’ve definitely changed for the better, but I think what you see is a guy who’s just really focused.
“Earlier in my career, it was really hard for me to differentiate between being a tough, nasty football player on the field and a tough, nasty guy off the field. It was all mixed and jumbled. As I grew, as I matured, as I became more professional, I found my way to be that guy on the field and then just turn it off.”
So this is the result.
Not much has gone right for the Bills. A season full of postseason promise has been wildly up and down. The pass rush has suffered in Rex Ryan's scheme. Injuries have mounted. Penalties have accumulated to embarrassing highs. But this 6-foot-3, 319-pounder has been one silver lining. Theoretically, the Bills could release end Mario Williams — who has not been a fit in Ryan's defense and likely wouldn't want to take a pay cut to stay in a role he has criticized — and try to re-sign Incognito and/or left tackle Cordy Glenn long term.
Buffalo's offense has been at its mashing best running to the left side. In a win over Miami, Roman called the same play over and over again to bruising success.
It was strange to see Incognito struggle against Philadelphia's Fletcher Cox. He faced the music for wave after wave of reporters in the visitor's locker room.
"I sit back and everything's been so positive this year about this, that and the other," Incognito said. "It was hard for me to swallow a tough pill playing in that game, so I wanted to man up to it. Cox is a great player and he had some great plays on me. It wasn't as bad as I thought watching the tape, after a (expletive) loss like that, just feeling terrible, having penalties and shooting ourselves in the foot. I thought it was a lot worse than it actually was."
A Pro Bowl bid would be quite the reward.
And Incognito sounds like someone who wants to stay in Western New York for the long haul.
"I love it up here. I really do," Incognito said. "I love the attitude of the city. I love the attitude of the people, I love how they're diehard Buffalo Bills fans through thick and thin. I love playing at The Ralph on Sundays. I know we look forward to a rowdy crowd that's into it from the get-go. Kim and Terry Pegula have been great. I owe them and Doug and Rex a huge amount of gratitude. They definitely, them and my teammates all play into my psyche every day when I wake up.
"I want to prove them right. I want to do everything I can to be the best teammate I can be and the best professional I can be."