How do the Buffalo Bills replace the leadership of Kyle Williams?
Simple answer: They don’t.
The veteran defensive tackle’s retirement announcement Friday leaves the team with a hole both on the field and maybe even more so, in the locker room.
“I don't think anybody can ever replace Kyle, honestly,” safety Micah Hyde said. “I'm not just saying that because he came out today and said it's his last season. No one can replace Kyle.”
Hyde recalled Friday preparing to face the Bills in 2014 as a member of the Packers. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy raved about Williams in the week leading up to the game.
"That was kind of my first 'knowing' of Kyle,” Hyde said. “Then fast forward a couple years later, coming here and just seeing the impact he has on everybody. I'm not talking about just the guys on the team. I'm talking about coaches, cafeteria ladies, the janitors, people in the mailroom. Everybody here respects him, just because he treats everybody with so much respect.”
For as great a player as Williams has been, his legacy will be that of a player who provided unmatched leadership.
"The guy as a teammate was second to none,” former Bills defensive end Chris Kelsay said in a phone interview with The Buffalo News on Friday night. “He played his entire 13-year career in one place and he played at an extremely high level. A level that was unmatched many of those seasons. To be a teammate of his for a few of them was an honor. Some of my fondest memories of being a Buffalo Bill was lining up next to him. Very close teammate, very close friend and will be forever. My hat's off to him, because he had a hell of a career.”
Kelsay was a fourth-year veteran when Williams joined the Bills as a fifth-round pick out of LSU in 2006.
"I remember as a rookie, I didn't even know if he spoke or not," he said. "He just came in with his hard hat on and went to work. He earned everything he's got. He's never been given anything without putting in the work. I admire him for that."
That admiration is shared by hundreds of Williams' current and former teammates.
"He's that type of player. He's that type of leader," Kelsay said. "Guys swarm to him because of that. He's been through it. Older guys know what kind of player he's been, but the younger guys, too, instantly pick up on that and realize there's a lot to be learned from a guy like that. I think Kyle does a good job of making himself available to younger guys and showing them the ropes, teaching them what it's like to be a professional."
Before Williams heads home to Louisiana, the Bills and their fans will have a chance to say goodbye Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. You can bet he’ll give one of his now-legendary pregame speeches before taking the field one final time.
"It's like he thought for a year about what he was going to say, then came in the locker room and said it,” Hyde said. “That's how good they were. Sometimes he didn't say a lot, but you could just feel the urge and want to go out there and play beside him. That's the guy we all rally around. He's irreplaceable. He really is."
That’s the task left for General Manager Brandon Beane, but it’s one left for another day. Friday was all about Williams, as Sunday will be at New Era Field.
"If there were some people who were waffling whether they were going to show or not, I hope they'll come out,” Beane said. “You know, you get emotional talking about it. What he brings, and what he deserves. I told him, 'You had every right to do, what I call the victory tour – when some guys announce their retirement the whole year. Hey, this is the last time he's going to play at New England or this is the last time he's going to go against Tom Brady or whatever.' He didn't do that because he didn't want to be a distraction.
“He had earned that right if he wanted to, but he didn't. I don't even know if he half wanted to mention this without playing the game, but we told him he needed to. It's great that our fans and our building and everybody in Buffalo can come out and watch him play 60 more minutes.”
What had been looked at as a largely meaningless season finale suddenly took on added significance Friday with Williams’ announcement.
“I love the fact that Sunday, I’ll know, you know what I mean?” Williams said. “I can enjoy it for what it is: An opportunity to go back out, play in front of what myself and a lot of other people regard as the best fans in the league. An opportunity to compete with my team and hopefully go and get a win. Those are the most important things to me, so I’m excited about that.”
“It could be special Sunday,” coach Sean McDermott added. “I want it for the fans. To end it at home, I think, is fitting for Kyle.”
It was McDermott who sold Williams on continuing to play shortly after he took the Bills’ head-coaching job in January 2017. During a 20-minute phone conversation, McDermott laid out his vision for the team to the veteran defensive tackle, whose contract was up.
"He was at his hunting cabin. I had called him and he didn’t call me back,” McDermott recalled Friday. “It kind of irked me a little bit. … A day or two later, he got back to me and apologized for the delay – he didn’t get good reception there.”
Once they connected, though, Williams was sold.
"So that’s the hard thing for me. You get Brandon and Sean in here and you’ve been through ups and downs and staffs, different people that have come in and out,” Williams said. “You get an opportunity to kind of pull the curtain back and sit with two guys that are transparent with you and share their vision with you. I’ve never had a checklist with things that I wanted the coach or the GM to say to make me come back and continue to play. When they share a vision and it literally clicks with everything that you want, the kind of teammates that you want, the kind of organization you want to be a part of. That is what makes it tough moving away.”
Throughout the season, McDermott looked for signs of which way Williams was leaning in regards to his future. Last Saturday, before the team’s final road trip, he saw one.
"We have the families come in when we play away for the Saturday practice,” McDermott said. “I was able to watch Kyle with his kids, watch him run around. To watch (Williams’ wife) Jill hold her phone up and film Kyle was one of the signs – ‘could this be it? They're trying to capture those special moments.’ ”
The coach’s suspicions were confirmed Monday when Williams told him of his intentions – “The worst Christmas present a man could get,” McDermott joked.
Despite that disappointment, McDermott said he didn’t lobby too hard for Williams to change his mind.
“I respect him even more because of the fact that he can still play and he’s decided to spend more time with his family,” the coach said. “If I tried to change his decision, I wouldn’t feel good about it as a human being. I know what he’s established. I know what he’s ready to go do.”
When Beane heard the news, he had two questions.
“Are you sure? Have you thought about this?” he said Friday. “I could instantly tell that he was resolute and that he didn't just wake up 24, 48 hours earlier with this decision. He's been thinking about it. … He's well thought it out. I'm happy for him, but it's a void for us as player on the field and obviously what he brings to the building and the leadership.”
Once Williams’ decision was made public in an announcement by the team, reaction poured in from throughout the NFL.
Former Bills receiver Stevie Johnson said in a text message to The Buffalo News: "All I can think of with Kyle is how he'd be in every room around the facility as if he owned the place. Not in a negative way, though. I would see him chilling in the coaches' office, the weight room, the equipment office, training room. It was essentially his home."
On Twitter, Johnson called Williams "the Buffalo Bill of my generation."
"Kyle Williams, congrats on a great career,” Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, a former teammate with the Bills, posted on Twitter. “Thanks for everything you did for me during my time in Buffalo. Great player, even better person. Always will be one of my favorite players to play the game of football with.”
“I got goosebumps,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone told reporters in Jacksonville. “I get sad, I get emotional. I really can’t put into words how a great player … unbelievable story, work ethic, a family. I know his wife will call my wife and we’ll stay in touch.”
Marrone, who has become a sort of enemy in Buffalo after he walked away from the Bills’ coaching job after the 2014 season, said that bad blood never spilled over to his interactions with Williams.
“Despite all the stuff every time we play them, he’d be a guy that would always look for you afterward and that I would look for afterward,” he said. “One thing about this game of football, the one thing you always appreciate is the adversity, the success or failure, whatever it may be, but the guy that you can walk together with, next to, knowing that you fought it the same way, you have an unbelievable respect for those players.”
Williams is a five-time Pro Bowl selection who Sunday will appear in his 183rd game with the Bills, extending his franchise record among defensive tackles. His 48.5 sacks are tops at the position, as well.
“For a guy who plays our position, to do it at such a high level for all 13 years of his career, it's remarkable,” said Bills defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who has lined up next to Williams this year. “I can't be anything but happy for him and his family. I wish it wasn't happening. He knows that. I wish I had a little bit more time to play next to him and learn from him and all that.”
Lotulelei said Williams’ presence was a big reason he signed in Buffalo as a free agent in March.
“He was a selling point for me to come here,” he said. “I had a couple offers, and to have the opportunity to come here and learn from him – I mean, I've been watching him since high school. He's old. That kind of shows you how old he is. Just to have the opportunity to come here, watch him, learn from him, see what he does to be able to have done it for 13 years, and at a high level every year. To me, he still has juice left.”
“He didn't accidentally fall into (five) sacks. He's still a good player,” Beane added. “He can rush the passer. We know in this game, you've got to have a quarterback and you've got to affect the quarterback. He's done that for many years and has continued to do it this year. That is a hole we'll have to try to fill as a player. I don't think we'll be able to fill the leadership void right now that he brings to that D-line room.”
Beane had one more worry to share. With Williams set to retire, he’ll have plenty more time to work on his golf game, which is already at a scratch handicap.
“The last time we played, he shot 32 on the back nine,” Beane said. “I was beating him on the front, and I think he had about four birdies on the back nine. It still (ticks) me off. Not only to lose to him, but he took a Ben Franklin from me on it. ... But the positive is, I told him I wrote in his contract, in the fine print, that I get his membership up at Oak Hill. I'll gladly take that now that he's done.”