Sammy Watkins wanted the ball. Bad. So he spoke up, took flak... and proceeded to ball out the rest of the 2015 season.
As players cleaned out their lockers Monday — wrapping up a turbulent 8-8 season — Watkins said players, like himself, should not lash out in the media. Reporters broke away. And when approached alone, the Buffalo Bills wide receiver was reminded that, you know, he was right all along to demand the ball back in mid-October.
Yes, Watkins is well aware that his words — as sharp as they cut — absolutely boosted this Bills offense.
And through this all, he emerged as a vocal leader in this locker room.
“It’s your life, your career,” Watkins said. “If you don’t step up and speak your mind… we’re grown men. I think if there’s a problem, speak about it whether you go to your coach or the media. You’re going to not get balls or get balls. I think at least say something about it to put yourself in the best situation.”
Getting healthy, No. 1, was critical. Only 1 1/2 seasons into his NFL career, Watkins suffered seven injuries.
But as he told The News, Watkins sought 10 targets a game. He had one of his agents contact the Bills to get the point across that “You’re making me look bad and you’re making yourself look bad.” As Watkins said then, he had team success on the mind. The 2014 fourth overall pick believed a hike in targets would fuel this offense as a whole.
Ding, ding, ding.
In his nine full games after speaking up, Watkins averaged 8.9 targets, 5.4 catches, 100 yards and one touchdown per game. Watkins said he grew closer to offensive coordinator Greg Roman, too.
“Just because he respects me more on coming to him and saying ‘Hey, I want the ball. You moved up in the draft to get me,’” Watkins said. “It was great. I think I should’ve done that. I don’t take it back. It only helped me play harder as a player. Because of course everybody’s waiting for me to go out there and have zero catches, zero yards.
"Every week it’s, hey, do prove everybody wrong. And not only that but get the win.”
Looking for a leader? This corner of the locker room is a place to start.
After an embarrassing loss at Washington — one in which the Bills showed signs of quit — Watkins took a stand. He said then players need to start calling each other out. He wanted a fear of getting cut to permeate this team. Enough was enough. Not doing your job? "Cut him," Watkins said then.
“We need some nasty coaches," the receiver said. "If they’re not doing their job, get them out of here.”
Then, Buffalo didn't quit with back-to-back wins. In Sunday's 22-17 victory over the New York Jets, Watkins torched Canton-bound cornerback Darrelle Revis for 136 yards on 11 receptions.
This season was full of disappointment — he won’t skirt that fact. But maybe the Bills found a voice of reason. They cut Fred Jackson. They rehauled the offense last spring. And the defense questioned its coach much of the season. From afar, Bills great Darryl Talley sensed a lack of togetherness. Internally, Boobie Dixon saw it firsthand. Watkins proved to be the voice this team needed.
As brutally honest as that voice may be.
He’s always been this way. At Clemson, Watkins was opinionated and said he was “even closer” with his coaches for it.
“They kind of forced me the ball,” Watkins said. “So I’m used to it. I just felt like, ‘Hey man, I’m here. You drafted up to get me. Throw me the ball. I don’t really care what the coverage is anymore.’ As a receiver, you just want the ball. That’s it.”
The result? A budding superstar. A player that was worth the extra first-round pick. As Odell Beckham, labeled a "prima donna" by one Bills cornerback, was suspended for a blatant cheap shot against Carolina, Watkins helped rally a fragmented Bills group.
Whenever Watkins spoke up, he performed.
“You want to emerge as Julio Jones, A.J. Greens, the Antonio Browns, the DeAndre Hopkinses, the Odell Beckhams. Yeah, of course,” Watkins said. “But you also want to win. And I would do anything to win. Of course, getting me the ball more — I feel that does help us win. But there are different situations you go through with different coverages. Like I said, every wide receiver I know wants the ball. You have to see the situation and the game.
“Once you give a wideout opportunities, he’ll make a play.”
Now, he’ll have his first normal off-season.
Last year, Watkins had hip surgery and wasn't able to fix on-field issues from his rookie season. This time, he enters the break healthy, rejuvenated. He’ll take 2-3 weeks off and then immediately embrace a cycle of yoga, pilates, anything that could prevent injuries. Watkins said he’ll “strengthen everything,” including his ankles.
When the Bills do shift into 2016 mode, count on Watkins setting a tone.
“Everybody understands that, hey, we get paid to do this job,” Watkins said. “A lot of people want to do this job. Sell out. Give your best. Be on time. And do a good job. Practice well, practice hard, be in shape. … Go to the playoffs and win championships. That’s all I care about, is winning and these guys in this locker room. Everything else outside of it I honestly don’t care about.”