Richie Incognito is relentless.
His motor just won’t quit, his enthusiasm for the game just won’t die.
His mouth? Yeah, that doesn’t tire either.
On any given day, his voice can be heard over the locker room chatter and the occasional freestyle battle raps in one corner of the room. When he’s not offering insight into the Bills’ offensive schemes and their upcoming opponent, Incognito is a playful pest. His words are a barrage of witty one-liners and sarcastic comebacks, designed to keep the mood light and his teammates on their toes and delivered with a mischievous grin designed to disarm and entertain his audience no matter how small it may be.
It’s his endearing personality, and his dogged pursuit of perfection on the field, that has made the veteran guard a fan favorite and a beloved figure inside One Bills Drive.
To Incognito’s immediate left in the locker room sits Eric Wood, an equally massive man with a placid disposition. The team’s longtime center is the antithesis of his linemate in many ways, even down to his shag of blond curls and easygoing temperament.
“We play well off each other,” Incognito said curling his thin lips into an impish grin. “He’s a smart, consistent, good Christian guy. And I’m like the crazy drunk uncle, ya know? I bring the energy and the passion.”
Like a showman on stage, he paused to survey his handiwork.
He had succeeded, garnering a laugh from his audience of one.
His work here was done.
Wood, meanwhile, is the straight man, often times the quiet observer to his best friend’s boisterous but good-natured antics. But as different as they may appear on the surface, both are respected by their teammates because of their shared traits on the field.
They arrived in Buffalo via vastly different paths, but their intention always was the same: to help rebuild a franchise Bills fans can be proud of and to cement their legacies here in Western New York.
“We have those conversations all the time,” Incognito said. “Me and him are constantly talking about winning and playoffs and legacy and leadership and how we want this thing to look and how we want it to feel.
“It’s great to have a buddy like that, it’s great to have another guy on the O-line, it’s great to have another leader, to bounce ideas off of and talk about it. It’s great to play with a guy like E-Wood who cares about football as much as I do.”
They’ve come this far together, becoming reliable anchors on the offensive line and neighbors who share an affinity for the Kentucky Derby and even a racehorse — Ms Card Nation, a name hand-picked by former Louisville Cardinals basketball coach Rick Pitino.
Players and coaches have come and gone over the past two seasons, but Incognito and Wood remain pillars of consistency and leadership. Incognito, 34, has played in all 41 games since rejoining the Bills in 2015 (he was claimed off waivers from the Rams in 2009, the same year Wood was drafted 28th overall, but was not re-signed at the end of the season). And for almost a decade, Wood, now 31, has remained the consummate professional on the NFL stage and a philanthropist in the community.
But long before head coach Sean McDermott and new general manager Brandon Beane arrived this offseason, Wood and Incognito committed themselves to leading the Bills’ charge toward the playoffs. No matter who calls the plays, “we’re going to have our style up front,” Wood said, “We want to knock people around. We want to be physical, we’re going to lead by example and with our voices.
“We’re antsy,” he added. “Neither of us have been to the playoffs yet. That’s a long time.”
With Sunday’s comeback win over Tampa Bay, the Bills improved to 4-2. It was the type of gritty comeback rarely seen from this franchise and the type of victory that finally quieted the nonbelievers.
Here’s the thing: These aren’t the same ol’ Bills. At least, they haven’t shown themselves to be.
Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and offensive line coach Juan Castillo used the bye week to revamp their approach, tailoring their blocking schemes to what their linemen do best. And those adjustments proved the difference in their 30-27 win over the Bucs. The Bills rushed for 173 yards, their highest total since their Week One win over the Jets when LeSean McCoy broke out for 110 yards on the ground.
Five weeks later, the star running back registered his first two touchdowns of the season. His first score was celebrated with an end-zone dance featuring oversized offensive linemen swaying side to side in an attempt to mimic McCoy's moves. His second, which tied the score at 27 late in the fourth quarter, was punctuated by an emphatic Incognito TD spike.
A self-described "eternal optimist," the longtime guard said he always believed this Bills team would be competitive. “Only time will tell how close we are (to being playoff-caliber),” Incognito cautioned. “But I feel it coming. I feel it building for this team.”
Their confidence lies in their individual talents and the vision of the man in charge.
The players McDermott brought in this season “kind of have our DNA as football players,” Wood said, adding that they’re prepared, they show up on time and they just do their job.
“At practice, the guy that’s showing good effort never sticks out. It’s the guy who’s kind of dogging it,” said the Pro Bowl center, who signed a two-year, $16 million extension in August. “It really shows up on film now. And that wasn’t always the case here. There’s just an accountability from everyone that allowed it to work faster than a lot of people outside the building thought.”
McDermott’s authenticity and deliberate focus on “the process” have been his best attributes. And his self-confidence, even as a first-time head coach, has had a dramatic impact on his locker room.
Guys respect that,” Incognito said. “I think we’ve got all the troops in the boat, rowing in the same direction and it makes a difference. When you have accountable guys, working hard, doing the right thing, playing for one another, that translates to wins and losses.”
When Incognito arrived in 2015, via a one-year deal, former Bills coach Rex Ryan was determined to “build a bully” in Buffalo. The irony, of course, is that was a label the three-time Pro Bowler had spent the previous year and a half trying to shed.
His career was derailed and his reputation was sullied by the bullying scandal that rocked the Miami Dolphins in October 2013. Incognito was suspended by the team for the final eight games after then-teammate Jonathan Martin alleged he was repeatedly harassed and bullied by Incognito. A subsequent NFL investigation resulted in a 144-page report that documented a culture of harassment within the organization. And by the time Incognito’s suspension was lifted in Feb. 2014, he was damaged goods. He spent that entire season unemployed.
Since then, however, he’s rehabilitated his image and become a trusted friend and locker room favorite. More importantly, he’s proven himself to be invaluable on the field.
Incognito’s past didn’t keep Wood from believing his best friend had a future with the Bills. The center still remembers the text message he received from former GM Doug Whaley during the 2015 offseason: “What are your thoughts on bringing Richie here?”
“I said, ‘Do it,’ ” replied Wood, who is represented by the same agency as Incognito, Athletes First.
“And it’s worked out great. He’s been nothing but great here. Awesome player. No issues at all off the field. It’s been good.”
Wood said he never second-guessed wanting Incognito on his team, adding: “I had a little better understanding than maybe some on the situation down there (in Miami) and I wasn’t worried about him coming in here at all.”
Incognito had been in Phoenix during the week of Super Bowl XLIX when his agent informed him that the Bills were interested.
“I actually saw E-Wood at dinner that night and I told him, ‘Hey, I think I might be coming to Buffalo.’ And he said, ‘Let’s do it,’ ” Incognito recalled. “So it’s kind of funny how it all worked out.”
Since then, the pair has spent much of their time together talking about the end of their careers. And what they hope to leave behind.
Neither player has any doubt that this team has playoff potential and that McDermott is trying build a foundation for sustainable success for seasons to come. And both linemen are eager to see that process through.
“I just want people to remember me as a hard-working guy, who loved the game, who played for his teammates, his family and his city, and who just wanted to win,” Incognito said. “I want to restore the glory to Buffalo as a football team and destination.