Eric Wood knows heartache. Losing. He’s been a Buffalo Bill since 2009.
Surreal last-minute losses. An 0-8 start. Fast Septembers dissolving in a twilight zone of turnovers. One head coach abandoning the team. Another head coach promising to “build a bully,” only for the roof to cave in.
The man has seen it all.
This day, Mario Williams is raising his voice across the locker room. The veteran end is trying to explain his criticism of the defense to reporters.
So you’ve stepped up to the ledge, huh? Wood has a message.
“I wouldn’t jump off yet,” Wood said. “We’re out of it now. But we’re going to be back. I haven’t lost confidence in this team. I haven’t lost confidence in this team or the direction of this organization.”
If there’s anybody who can relate to the pain fans feel right now it’s the 29-year-old Wood, the Bills’ second-longest-tenured player. He gets the rare connection between town and team, how they’re intertwined. He’s truly a Buffalo guy at this point and wants to spend his entire career in Western New York. Despite a 43-67 record, despite daily vitriol on social media.
There’s something special about a team meaning so much to Buffalo, even if a fan on Twitter is angry or a security guard outside the stadium seems down.
“The mood of the entire city is, a lot of times, dependent on how we’re doing,” Wood said. “That’s the reality up here.”
So even with this 2015 season now spiraling into a familiar abyss, Wood is upbeat as ever.
“It’s tough,” Wood said. “But I’m by no means giving up on it. I feel like we had enough talent this year to make the playoffs and make a run at this thing. I think going into next year, I have a ton of confidence.
“It’s not all gloom and doom. We’re here enthusiastic with a good attitude fighting each day.”
Even if a certain someone would make you believe otherwise.
Veteran Mario Williams has pulled no punches, repeatedly criticizing coach Rex Ryan’s scheme after games.
Every player has every right to air their grievances. But, to Wood, there’s also a need for players to buy in. He’s not so sure Williams is.
“You know, it’s disappointing,” Wood said. “Everybody has to buy in or else we don’t have a shot. The fact that he’s voicing displeasure after the game isn’t necessarily a sign that he’s not all in during the game. But it’s obviously disappointing that there’s some kind of disconnect on that side of the ball.”
He doesn’t see Williams’ irritation affecting the team much as a whole at practice – everyone seems to be hustling.
Either way, this team isn’t as tight as it could be. As Boobie Dixon and Darryl Talley have both noted, there’s a lack of true togetherness here. And Wood knows what true togetherness resembles. The center is close friends with Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly – the two text regularly – and has spent time with Andre Reed, Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith.
Wood initially hit it off with Kelly over mutual hardship. He had a brother die when he was younger, similar to Kelly losing his son, Hunter.
“And he’s really taken care of me,” Wood said. “Anything I ever needed, I can always shoot him a text and get an answer.”
Above all, Wood hears all about the glory days, the run to four straight Super Bowls, the era all Western New Yorkers yearn for.
“And that bond that stayed with them because they won,” Wood said. “If they stunk and those guys left in free agency and different stuff happened, they wouldn’t come back for Jim’s golf outings and I wouldn’t run into those guys during Super Bowl week doing appearances and stuff. That bond is fun. It’s something I hope we can get to.
“Honestly, I don’t think we’re far. Obviously, our record is garbage right now. I really don’t think we’re far off.”
That may sound delusional. Buffalo’s playoff-less streak is now old enough to drive. Soon, it will be heading to college and guzzling a Blue Light.
To everyone who fears the Bills will miss the playoffs another 16 years, Wood vows the offense “is really growing.” He calls Tyrod Taylor “a tremendous talent.” He believes “Rex will get that defense right. Period. I have complete confidence in that.” And the injuries, he repeats, have hampered that unit. He can’t stress enough how much the loss of defensive tackle Kyle Williams stings.
“I have a lot of faith,” Wood said, “that Rex will have that side of the ball right for next year.”
As for Wood himself, he views himself as a leader at One Bills Drive, a presence who can steer the Bills back to competence. He feels he can relate to any player from any background.
And guard Richie Incognito calls his teammate “rock solid.” He can tell how much this means to Wood, how much he wants to change the perception of the woeful, Deadspin-bound, lovable-losing Buffalo Bills.
“He’s consistent in his mental approach every single day,” Incognito said. “I have a lot of respect for him, playing next to him. He’s a tremendously hard worker. He’s super-intelligent. And he’s one of the guys you have to have in the locker room to have success. He’s one of the building blocks for, not only this team, but this organization.
“He’s working hard, he’s rallying the troops and he always does the right thing in no matter what he does.”
Incognito recently watched the “30 for 30” documentary, “Four Falls of Buffalo” and it gave him chills. Returning to those days, he said, is what drives so many players.
Oh, personnel could be overhauled again – Ryan has cited “drastic” changes on the horizon. As Wood said, the key to such a 90s-like Bills bond is continuity and when you lose this much, well, there’s no continuity. So he’s planning on seeing this through to the end. Wood hears the horror stories of offensive linemen living 45 minutes apart in big cities and can’t believe it. He loves inviting 10-plus players to his house after games, one mile from Ralph Wilson Stadium.
“It’s a unique deal,” Wood said. “It’s a fun deal. And when we get it rolling, it’s going to be a whole lot of fun.”
If it ever gets rolling.
Once again, fans feel like they’ve been left alone at the altar. Ryan promised so much last January – a bully, the playoffs, a team that would be feared, a defense that would be elite. Eleven months later, the Bills are a fractured shell of themselves.
Wood wasn’t always around losing teams. His high school team was ranked in the Top 10 nationally his junior and senior years, and his college team, Louisville, won an Orange Bowl.
Yet here he is, trudging through another dreary December.
“We know that everyone’s frustrated,” Wood said. “We’re frustrated, you know? This is our job and we put so much into it.”
Maybe, one day, that changes. That curly, blond hair sways as Wood unwraps tape around his hands after practice.
Somehow, calloused from seven seasons of this, he still believes.
“I look for us to have good games these next two games,” Wood said, “and be dominant next year.”