General manager Brandon Beane conceded during Tuesday's season-ending press conference that he has some tough, unsentimental decisions ahead as the Bills continue laying the foundation for a consistent winning program. But there's one call that should be easy:
Release Richie Incognito.
Yes, Incognito is a Pro Bowl guard and one of the presumed leaders on a team that reached the playoffs for the first time in 18 years. He's good for a quip in the locker room, a refreshing character. But if there's a shred of truth to accusations that he made racially insensitive comments to a Jacksonville player, he has to be gone.
Yannick Ngakoue, the Jaguars' second-year defensive end, tweeted after Sunday's wild-card game that Incognito had spewed racial slurs at him. A day later, he repeated his claim, saying that in 12 or 13 years of playing football he had never experienced an opponent making demeaning comments about his "ethnicity."
Ngakoue wouldn't get specific, but said he didn't recall hearing the N-word. He was born and raised in Maryland (and played collegiately at Maryland). But Ngakoue's father was born in Cameroon and his mother is a native of the West Indies.
While playing in college, Ngakoue once said, “It’s a blessing having my roots not from the United States and being able to represent my culture on the field. It is very special.”
If Ngakoue is to be believed, what happened Sunday was especially ugly. Beane said the Bills and the NFL are looking into the matter, but until all the facts are gathered, he didn't want to comment further. But something happened on that field Sunday.
"There was definitely an exchange," Beane said. "I think there's a misunderstanding with what was said.
"Any time you have an accusation like that, you take it very seriously. We have spoken to Richie and we understand his side of the story. Richie is trying to reach out to the other young man who was involved."
Incognito hasn't helped matters by going underground. As of Tuesday afternoon, two days after the game and more than 24 hours after the Bills cleaned out their lockers and met the media Monday morning, he still hadn't commented publicly about Ngakoue's accusations.
Six hours after the scheduled Monday media sessions, Bills PR staff were still hoping to get Incognito to meet with reporters. A few waited in the media room, but were finally told that Incognito wouldn't talk that day and would issue a statement on Twitter. A day later, still no tweets.
So Incognito hung his own PR guys out to dry, allowing two of his teammates, Eric Wood and Dion Dawkins, to defend him in public. But if he had nothing to hide, why didn't he come out right away and explain himself?
Well, it might be because Incognito has forfeited all benefit of the doubt on such matters. Four years ago, he was the subject of a bullying scandal that rocked the NFL. An investigation revealed that Incognito had harassed teammate Jonathan Martin, subjecting him to racially and sexually insensitive slurs.
Incognito was suspended for the last eight games of the 2013 season and missed all of 2014 as a league pariah. At Rex Ryan's urging, Terry and Kim Pegula conducted exhaustive research on Incognito in the winter of 2015 and anguished for weeks before deciding he was duly penitent. They gave him a second chance, signing him to a one-year contract in early April 2015.
This is a huge embarrassment to the Bills and the Pegulas, just one week after their team inspired such good will around the country for breaking the playoff drought and having their loyal, joyous fans contribute to the Andy and Jordan Dalton Foundation.
Taking into account the climate on race in the league, not to mention the raging national reckoning on harassment, the Incognito incident couldn't come at a worse time. Considering his past, there's no player in sports who warrants less sympathy when it comes to racial slurs.
"Again, we're still gathering the facts," Beane said. "So until we really know what happened from all sides of the story, that's where we're at."
There are always two sides, and Beane declined to reveal what Incognito told team officials.
Incognito felt his side wasn't sufficiently understood in the infamous bullying scandal. So maybe he's taking his time to craft a properly remorseful response and make sure his story gets a fair airing. Before signing in '15, he said he had been "conditioned" by his agent.
But employers are notoriously quick to act on miscreants nowadays. If you're an actor or comedian or talk show host credibly accused of harassment, the private sector doesn't hesitate. The tendency is to believe the accuser. It's not always fair, but we're talking about Richie Incognito.
Why would Ngakoue make this up out of thin air? Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell backed up his 22-year-old linemate. Campbell said the Bills were doing so much trash talking, it seemed they had been coached to "try and get us to lose our cool."
That makes it even worse for the Bills, who are reeling from one of the worst offensive showings in NFL playoff history and contemplating the future of coordinator Rick Dennison and perhaps other offensive assistants. If they set the tone for Incognito's lapse, they'll be on thin ice, too.
"You know what? They won the game," said head coach Sean McDermott, "and the whole situation to me is very unfortunate, and I'll just leave it at that."
Beane and McDermott haven't been reluctant to part with players who don't fit their culture. They've moved out nine first- or second-round picks in the last year. Marcell Dareus, a repeat knucklehead under previous regimes, ran out of second chances and was shipped to the Jaguars for a fifth-round pick.
Like Dareus, Incognito has lost the benefit of the doubt. He's also on the books for a $6.3 million salary next season. This might be a convenient reason for the Bills to part ways. You don't lay the foundation for a sustainable playoff contender around 35-year-old guards.
The Pegulas went out of their way for this guy when no other NFL team would give him a job. Incognito had zero room for error. If Ngajoue is telling the truth, you don't stand behind him anymore. You take a knee.