Logan Thomas carried a basketball as he walked through the Buffalo Bills’ locker room Monday. He was about to place it in a cardboard box, along with other personal belongings.
“It helps keep things light around here,” the Bills’ tight end said. “Half the locker room played basketball at some point in their life.”
Thomas had taken over being the team’s keeper of the basketball – which teammates are free to pull from his dressing cubicle to dribble or just toss around – in 2018 after Preston Brown relinquished that role with his free-agency departure to Cincinnati.
Monday was a good day to keep things fairly light, because the Bills had the unhappy task of being one of 20 of the NFL’s 32 teams packing up for the offseason. The Bills had known for three weeks, after their elimination from the playoffs, exactly when they’d be going through this gloomy exercise.
But actually doing it still has a way of causing a little bit of a jolt, especially for players who were around for last season’s wild-card playoff appearance that snapped the Bills’ 17-year postseason drought.
“Now that this day’s here, it’s reality,” right guard John Miller said, staring at the brown box next to him overstuffed with his belongings. “And so you’ve got to pack up. That’s just the nature of the beast. That’s just the business.”
For rookie left guard Wyatt Teller, the jolt came when the clock showed all zeros after Sunday’s season-ending, 42-17 victory against the Miami Dolphins at New Era Field.
“It was like, ‘Damn, it’s one year in the books,’ ” he said. “Four months (before offseason workouts begin in earnest) is a long time.”
Josh Allen, the Bills’ rookie quarterback, was feeling a similar sense of dread that there would be no games to play or for which to prepare for a long time.
“It stinks, you know, not being able to play in the playoffs,” Allen said. “Missing four games (with a sprained elbow), I felt like the season went by extremely fast. I love playing football, I love everything about it, except the losing part.
“I’m already itching to get back to practicing and getting back in the swing of things. It can’t come soon enough.”
For now, however, the wounds of a 6-10 finish – no matter how low the expectations might have been on the outside – are still relatively fresh.
There wasn’t a whole lot of chatter as the handful of players present during the 45 minutes the locker room was open to the media went about the task of packing jerseys, helmets, shoes and other items they kept in their dressing cubicles to carry with them to their various offseason homes around the country. Even the few who live in Western New York year-round, such as linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, took part in the cleanout.
“I’ll probably just clean up my locker a little bit to make it seem like I don’t have anything, so when the equipment staff comes around, maybe they’ll throw me something nice,” Alexander said with a grin. “Because if you make it look like you’ve got too much stuff, they won’t give you anything. So I’ll clean out what I have and, hopefully, I’ll have some cool stuff when I come back in here in April.”
Players said their goodbyes while exchanging handshakes and hugs. The sense of finality was palpable, because everyone understood that some of the players wouldn’t be returning, that the makeup of the 2019 Bills would be significantly different than that of the ’18 club.
“It’s going to be a different group, so you just cherish moments we have with each other,” defensive end Shaq Lawson said. “We cherish this moment we have right now, packing up, because this group of players will never be together again.”
The same thought crossed Teller’s mind as he walked off the field Sunday.
“The turnover in the NFL, I’ve seen it throughout this year,” he said. “It’s amazing. Obviously, we were hit with some retirements (with cornerback Vontae Davis walking away from the team at halftime of its loss against the Los Angeles Chargers).”
Teller was sprawled on a black leather couch that had three Bills logos centered on its back cushions. The atmosphere made him feeling like he needed to decompress, something he normally doesn’t do during the week in the regular season.
“I would be sitting straight up, getting ready for meetings and all that stuff,” Teller said with a smile. “Right now, it’s nice to just relax. It’s been a long year, a long season. Guys are saying bye, that’s kind of weird. And unless you see them on another team (the Bills face), that might be the only time you see them for the year.”
Alexander’s contract is up, and although he and the Bills would like to reach an agreement on a new one, he knows it could be a bit of a challenge finding a deal that will appeal to both sides.
That’s because, as well as Alexander is playing, he turns 36 in May. It’s an age that typically hurts the bargaining position of nonsuperstar players. Still, Alexander feels there’s plenty of reason for the Bills to feel good about what’s ahead.
“I think there’s a lot of optimism, because I think we have a lot of guys that will be returning,” Alexander said. “Unlike last year, where there were a ton of free agents, you have a strong nucleus of young guys that’ll be coming back next year. So the optimism and hope are different because of that. There’s going to be a lot more carryover from this year to '19 versus what it was from '17 to '18.”
Nevertheless, it never feels good to be filling boxes when other teams are preparing for playoff games.