Leadership was not an issue for the Buffalo Bills in 2017.
With respected veterans Kyle Williams, Eric Wood, Lorenzo Alexander, Tyrod Taylor and Stephen Hauschka being voted by their teammates as captains, the Bills had a tight-knit locker room that stuck together through the ups and downs of a 9-7 season that ended with the team’s first playoff berth in 17 years.
With Wood’s retirement, however, the Bills are staring at the possibility of losing at least three of their captains. The expectation is that the team will move on from Taylor at quarterback, while Williams’ contract is up and the 34-year-old defensive tackle has to decide if he wants to keep playing.
Additionally, Alexander turns 35 in May, so he’s at the age that the Bills could decide they would be better off going with a younger player on the 53-man roster. That leaves Hauschka as the only captain.
Both General Manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott put a high emphasis on team chemistry, so that potential leadership void is a concern.
“That’s certainly something we have to keep our eye on … to make sure we’ve got enough leadership on this football team,” McDermott said Monday. “That is something, as you build a team, as you build a roster year to year, that you want to make sure you’ve got enough of the player-driven leadership.”
Wood’s departure, brought about by a neck injury that leaves him unable to play again, is not something the Bills planned for.
“It’s a big void,” Beane said Monday. “You guys know what leadership he brought. There’s a reason we re-signed him in August and had hoped – you know, we extended him two years and you always hope to get all the years. It doesn’t always happen and unfortunately, here, it didn’t. It’s a big void on the field and in the locker room and we’ll do our best to try and (fill that)."
From a (selfish) media perspective, Wood's departure hurts. From the moment he was drafted, he could be counted on to talk about what was going on with the team. After Buffalo's Week 3 win over Denver, a game in which about a dozen members of the team took a knee during the national anthem to protest in, Wood was one of three players made available to speak the following day, even though he did not kneel. Part of the reason for that is because he had the ability to speak eloquently in public on behalf of the team. That doesn't impact wins and losses, but it's important nonetheless.
"Eric’s a good guy and he brought a good personality to the locker room," Beane said. "He was one of the guys I know everybody media-wise went to in certain situations, good or bad, for this team. Even as I was coming on board, I was looking at some of the guys that generally are in front of the microphone and so he brought a leadership – captain – all those things."
Alexander and Wood often drove to home games together.
"He’s a guy that myself, Kyle Williams, LeSean McCoy, and other veterans on this team that are seen as leaders are willing to follow," he said. "I think that’s the ultimate testament, when you have people in your peer group and who have accomplished the same things that you have that are willing to follow you."
Wood indicated during his statement Monday that he is "still on the Bills’ roster and look forward to helping out the team in some capacity."
The first part of that is a money issue. The contract extension Wood signed in August included a $6.5 million signing bonus and there is a question if the Bills will seek to have some of that returned. The second part remains to be seen.
"Based on that press conference, hopefully he’s still with the organization in some type of capacity," Alexander said. "Obviously, he won’t be able to play on Sundays, but just being in that locker room, whether it’s being an assistant coach in some fashion and just being able to speak to young guys and still mentor and tutor them and just being around" would be valuable.
McDermott sidestepped a question Monday about what a role for Wood might look like moving forward.
"I don’t really get involved in those discussions very often," the coach said. "Those are conversations for another time."
Soon enough, they need to be held. The Bills will report for the start of their offseason program in April. At that time, the vision and expectations for 2018 will be set. Player-driven leadership, as McDermott called it, will need to be identified.