As they closed packing boxes the day after another disappointing season, Buffalo Bills players opened up about what they viewed as a primary cause for the continuation of the franchise's 17-year playoff drought.
Simply put, they did not see enough accountability.
They saw teammates showing up late for meetings. They saw teammates not always paying close attention in meetings or practice. They saw teammates generally uncommitted and ill prepared to properly carry out assignments during games.
It was a damning statement about Rex Ryan's 31-game run as head coach, which had been over for nearly a week at that point.
It also should serve as an important cautionary tale for Ryan's successor, Sean McDermott.
Ryan was well known for being a players' coach long before arriving in Buffalo in 2015. He was never big on discipline during his six seasons as head coach of the New York Jets and that continued with the Bills. He proudly boasted that he didn't put "muzzles" on his players, and a few promptly took full advantage of that by openly complaining about the complexities of Ryan's defense and how poor a fit it was for them.
Consequently, it shouldn't have come as a tremendous surprise that some Bills players thought some other Bills players weren't as accountable as they should have been.
But how much of that is the responsibility of the head coach and how much of that should fall on the collective shoulders of the players? If too many members of the roster aren't self-motivated or willing to take it upon themselves to make sure they and their teammates pay close attention to detail and take it upon themselves to make sure they're fully invested in everything necessary to succeed, does the coach's style matter?
Lorenzo Alexander, the Bills' Pro Bowl outside linebacker, didn't think so.
"A coach can implement a structure," he told reporters during the locker-room cleanout. "But if guys are not holding teammates accountable – because that’s where you alter your most peer pressure, that’s where guys get in line – if we can’t make guys come our way, then that’s a hit on leadership on players more so than coaching implementation."
Alexander, 33 and a 10-year NFL veteran, emerged as one of the Bills' leaders in only his first year on the team, as did another first-year Bill, veteran defensive lineman Leger Douzable. Veteran defensive lineman Kyle Williams has long been regarded as a top leader, along with veteran center Eric Wood. Veteran guard Richie Incognito took on more of a leadership role in 2016, his second season on the team.
Yet, it's fair to question whether the Bills had enough leaders or enough good ones, especially on a club lacking a strong leader as a coach. They didn't have much of one at the most natural leadership position on the roster, quarterback, largely because Tyrod Taylor didn't have that sort of personality. He chose to lead mainly by the example of his work ethic and performance on the field.
The fact Taylor's play regressed from his first season as a starter in 2015, raising questions about whether the team would pick up the option on his contract extension, also helped diminish his ability to lead. Since late in the season, there has been considerable speculation the Bills intend to move on from Taylor.
"A team is led by the coach," former NFL safety and current CBS Sports analyst Solomon Wilcots said. "You've got to have players who kind of lead it, too, but the players are an extension of the coach. For instance, when you bring young players into your building, they're waiting to see how they need to be. 'Who are we going to take our cue from?' And the coach is laying down the templates for how to behave; there's going to be consequences for (bad) behavior.
"So older players who have been in the program, they're going to relay that to younger players. It makes the head coach's job easier, because now he's not as hands-on. So it really does depend on where you're at in the evolution of your program. If you're trying to establish a program, like when Bill Walsh first got to San Francisco, you really have to emphasize certain things. But once he was able to build it so quickly when he got players like Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana, you've got veterans like Randy Cross, now it becomes sort of like a self-fulfilling deal where the younger players follow the older players that have kind of gotten the message."
The Bills clearly are, once again, in the establishment phase of their program.
New coach. New coaching staff. New philosophies on both sides of the ball. And many new players.
On average, NFL rosters turn over by a third each season. Given that the Bills have 24 players due to enter free agency, they're expected to undergo a considerable makeover.
For all of that change, however, there's the distinct possibility that remnants of the relaxed atmosphere under Ryan could linger at One Bills Drive, at least during the initial stages of transition to McDermott's program. No matter how strict a disciplinarian McDermott might be, expecting him to bring about a dramatic shift in the way the team goes about its business might be expecting too much.
"You're dealing with cultures," Wilcots said. "Sometimes coaches don't understand this, and any time you're hiring a first-year coach, like you are now, I don't know that McDermott knows that he's coming into an environment where the foundation's already been laid. And he's going to try to do things his way, but does he realize ... that when you come in, you're inheriting what the previous guy has laid down?
"I think it's much harder, as Todd Bowles is finding out (with the Jets), to inherit a team (from Ryan) where things have been Kumbaya, and you're trying to instill discipline. And (the players) are like, 'That ain't how we do things around here, that ain't what we're used to.' That's what (McDermott) is dealing with. He's going to try to come in and turn around something that's been like the local YMCA. It's like Burger King, 'Have it your way.'
"You can't lead from the back. You can't ask the inmates, the plebes, 'What do you guys want to do here?' They're waiting to be given direction. 'Here is how we're going to do it, and when you don't do it that way, there's going to be consequences. ... And we're all going to be held accountable.'"
A classic example was the Houston Oilers of the early 1990s. Wilcots recalls, as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals, then-Bengals coach Sam Wyche telling players to expect the Oilers teams of the late 1980s, coached by Jerry Glanville, to be prone to mistakes because of the lack of discipline created by the ultra-loose environment Glanville created.
That was a mindset inherited by the Oilers' next coach, Jack Pardee.
"And that's the team that collapsed in that (1992 wild-card) playoff game against the Bills," Wilcots pointed out. "That's how undisciplined stuff happens."
Marv Levy coached the Bills team in that game and through their appearance in four consecutive Super Bowls. He was hardly known as anything remotely close to a drill sergeant. The signature of Levy's Hall-of-Fame career was that he allowed the many large personalities on the roster, with their even larger egos, to be themselves.
Yet, the players largely were able to maintain the necessary focus and work be a perennial contender.
"The best players on the team were the hardest working," former Bills special-teams ace and current CBS Sports analyst Steve Tasker said. "Bruce (Smith), Jim (Kelly), Thurman (Thomas), Andre (Reed), Darryl (Talley), Kent Hull ... when practice was on, those guys were committed. We had a ton of guys who were self-motivated. And those were the kind of guys (then-General Manager) Bill Polian looked for and brought in.
"Around the edges were guys who were or weren't (self-motivated), and there were plenty of instances when young guys would come in and they liked to party like Jim or Bruce did when they were young and single. But they didn't work as hard or they would let it affect their work when they got to the stadium. And when a young guy did that, Marv would get rid of him."
Another major factor during the Bills' Super Bowl Era was the consistent unity shown by Levy, Polian and late club owner Ralph Wilson.
Players never had a doubt about what they were being directed to do, because they knew the hierarchy always was of one mind and spoke with one voice. Wilcots thinks that is especially crucial now with team owner Terry Pegula, GM Doug Whaley, and McDermott.
"All three of those guys need to be up there in front of that team saying, 'It's a new day. The last two years, we have been very unhappy with the way it's been done here,'" Wilcots said. "They need to lay it out and they need to be honest, but they need to be unified. They need to let the players know, 'You're not going to be able to come behind (the coach) and talk to the GM and have the GM fend for you to the coach. You're not going to be able to come by to the owner and do something different than what the coach has said.' You have to do that, because players will try to circumvent leadership.
"Every year I was in Cincinnati, (then-Bengals owner) Paul Brown used to stand there with (son and current owner) Mike Brown, he used to stand there with Sam Wyche. Paul Brown would tell you exactly the pecking order of things. And he would always tell us, 'Every man is needed, but not one man is necessary.'"