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Jerry Sullivan: Bills veteran Kyle Williams says 'No tanks'

As we approach the start of the regular season, one question rages among Bills fans: Are they tanking? Let's ask the captain and elder statesman, a man whose career began the same year as the Dick Jauron era.

"Now, let's be honest," defensive tackle Kyle Williams said Wednesday afternoon. "I'm 34 years old. The way the NFL trends, if they were ready to turn the ship in, I would have been a cap hit. Right?"

The man has a point. If you were looking for evidence that the Bills aren't in a full-blown rebuild, you could visit the locker at the far left end of the defensive line row in the dressing room at New Era Field.

Williams is still here, ready and eager to begin his 12th season in Buffalo. Only two other Bills, Eric Wood and Marcell Dareus, have been here even half as long. True, Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott have torn apart the roster, but if there's a stall with No. 95's name on it, that means something.

Maybe Williams is here as a role model, a consummate professional, someone for the young guys to emulate. McDermott made him one of the captains. The new coach can talk all he likes about accountability and process and team unity. At some point, he can stop talking and point to Kyle Williams.

Williams wasn't sure he wanted to stay. I remember him after last year's finale, admitting he didn't know if he would return for 2017. He told a CBS analyst before the game that he didn't want to come back if the Bills were going to "blow up the team."

But Kyle's heart was in Western New York, as it has been since he arrived as a fifth-round draft choice out of LSU in 2006. All Williams needed was assurance that McDermott shared his belief in the virtues of hard work and team, and that he would be part of something meaningful.

So he came back. The Bills didn't make him a cap casualty. They didn't even ask him to take a pay cut. Williams is still on the books for $8.3 million this season. As he said, that's a sizable investment for a team in the tank.

"From being around Sean and knowing what we're trying to do, I've grown to trust him and what we're doing," Williams said. "I think that's the first part of guys buying into being part of a good football team. What players you have or don't have, I can't control. It's not part of my job title."

When the Bills traded Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby, it sent a mixed message about their intentions. They talk about trying to win in the present while building for the future. That's a difficult trick, one that has held the franchise back for years.

It's hard to believe that the veterans were OK with those trades. How do you trade your best receiver and a starting cornerback and claim it hasn't hurt your chances? But if Williams had an issue with it, he wasn't saying.

"You're thinking, 'Are we going to blow it up, are we getting rid of quarterbacks?" Williams explained. "Are we getting rid of Richie (Incognito) and (Eric) Wood and Shady (McCoy)? Then you could say, 'Yeah, they're definitely looking in a new direction.

"But we brought back quality guys and added some quality veterans. And the young guys coming along, I respect the way they approach the game."

Williams wouldn't share his opinion on the players who were let go, but he clearly felt the Bills would be fine without them. He also knows the outside world has a low opinion of the team.

"That's why we play the games," he said. "You want to draw things up on paper? I remember when Philadelphia put together the best individual collection of players you'd seen. It didn't work out for them, because the best TEAMS go to the playoffs.

"I've been on teams where the roster probably wasn't up to snuff, when Dick Jauron and those guys were around .500 because those guys played hard and they played together."

That can't be very reassuring to Bills fans. Those plucky Jauron teams went 7-9 in Williams's first three NFL seasons. It's understandable that some fans would prefer a total tank to one of those heroic runs to mediocrity and a middling first-round draft pick.

But if you want to believe this Bills team could surprise people, then Kyle is your totem, your inspiration. He'll put every ounce of himself into the season. Come December, he'll be a walking glossary of medical woe. Two years ago, it was his knee. Last year, it was his back. Those were only the official ones.

"That's part of the business," he said. "The thing with injuries and this and that, it doesn't matter if you're 21 or 41. This business, it's going to get you. Injury rate in the NFL is 100 percent, no matter how old you are.

"My back is good," he said. "I got hooked up with some new guys and done some new exercise stuff that's been really good."

People assume Williams is at the end of the line, that it's his swan song. When he left for two days recently for a death in the family, there were rumors that he had retired. But this isn't some farewell tour. He did get picked as an alternate to the Pro Bowl last year, his fifth selection.

"That doesn't happen on accident," Williams said in a rare show of ego.  "You've seen some guys 36, 37 playing at a high level. Listen, when I can't play at a high level. I will leave. Because mentally, I can't handle not being able to do what I think I can do and what I've been able to do."

He loves the game. After all these years, he still loves the rush that comes when he runs on that field on Sundays. How could he bear it, otherwise? He has been here for 11 years of the 17-year drought. He's been out there for a lot of crushing defeats, and more than his share of defensive meltdowns.

Part of me wanted to see him to go, to play for a contender the way Fred Jackson did at the end. But Williams says being in the NFL and competing is its own reward. He has five children between the ages of 2 and 10. This is the only NFL home they've known. It would be hard to leave that.

"It has a lot to do with it, yeah," Williams said. "And when you look at it, it's got something to do with fulfillment and what it would mean." To win here, I asked?

"Yeah, to do it here," he said. "To go somewhere else, not to say it wouldn't be a good experience, but the whole heart, body and mind is not as invested as I am here. And I hope, more than anything, the way I play shows it more than what I say. You know what I mean.

"I'd much rather be known for the intensity and passion, the effort, than the words I use."

In other words, they'll tank over his dead body.

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