When Jerry Hughes looks around the Buffalo Bills’ locker room, he doesn’t see a single teammate who was here when he first arrived in 2013.
Back then, every locker stall was occupied by someone else.
Back then, he was angry. Not at being shipped to Western New York, traded by the Indianapolis Colts just three seasons after they made him a first-round draft pick, the 31st overall selection in 2010, but by the way he’d been disrespected.
Hughes hadn’t earned a starting job by the start of his rookie season, no surprise given the reigning AFC champs featured Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, but he wasn’t even on the game-day roster. He was listed as inactive for the Colts’ season opener in Houston, a healthy scratch in his hometown, an indignity that still stings.
“I think that’s why I’m still here the way I am today, playing the way I played. It certainly does,” Hughes said this week. “You never really want to be inactive in your hometown, but that’s how things roll.”
His words drip with a still-simmering animosity. Ten seasons in the NFL can alter a man’s perspective, if not mend a wounded ego. But today, Hughes returns to his hometown a franchise cornerstone, the longest-tenured player on a Bills team that will face the Houston Texans in an AFC wild-card game at 4:35 p.m. Saturday at NRG Stadium.
The contest marks Buffalo’s second trip to the playoffs in three seasons, but this team, which finished the regular season with a 10-6 record, is radically different both in players and mindset from the group that needed help to sneak into the postseason in 2017.
“I think we approached this season going out there with our backs against the wall,” Hughes said. “We were going to come out swinging no matter who we played, and it showed in the results. So I think we need to take that same approach that we had all year. Our backs are against the wall. We’re not picked to win, so we’ve got to come out swinging. No matter where we’re at, we’re going to be the underdog, so you’re going to have that hostile environment, being on the road, having to take out the crowd – a playoff crowd, at that – in their stadium.
“We understand, and especially I understand, what’s at stake now. It’s a lot more than just going out there playing football. It’s more of going into someone’s home and trying to take something from them. You’re trying to take a Super Bowl trophy, an AFC championship banner, so you’ve got to have that mentality. And when you’re going into someone’s home to take something, you’ve got to give them four quarters of just hell.”
Impact and influence
Hughes, 31, has started all 16 games this season but recorded one of the worst statistical campaigns of his career.
He's been credited with 23 tackles, six of them for loss, and nine quarterback hits, all marking his lowest totals since his second season in the league. He has 4.5 sacks, his second-lowest total since being traded to the Bills, and no forced fumbles for the first time in his Bills career.
Hughes experienced a significant drop in production the second half of the season, managing just three tackles (two solo) and a sack in his last five complete games.
He was held without a tackle in victories against Denver, Dallas and Pittsburgh, had two solo tackles and a sack in a loss to Baltimore and assisted on a tackle in a loss against New England.
Like most starters, he played sparingly in the meaningless finale against the Jets.
Hughes, who signed a two-year, $21.5 million extension in May, makes no excuses for those statistics. But he, his teammates and coaches know those numbers fail to measure his true contribution to the Bills’ success.
“I told Jerry a couple weeks ago that maybe the numbers aren't there, but his impact and his influence on our defense, it hasn't waned in the least bit,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “Teams are always trying to account for Jerry, and the fact that he's played a little bit banged up this year with his wrist and he's come out there every Sunday and given us everything he has.
“Although the numbers aren’t where he'd like for them to be, he's still been an impact player for us. I think he's had a very, very good season, minus the numbers. His impact for our defense has been exactly what we needed. He's allowed a guy like Jordan Phillips to put up the kind of numbers he's put up. He's allowed a young guy like Ed Oliver to mature and grow. Jerry still requires a lot of attention, they still chip him, they still run screens to his side, they still try to occupy him and that helps our defense.”
Buffalo’s defense ranks second in the NFL in points allowed and third in yards allowed.
Hughes, who suffered ankle and right wrist injuries during the preseason, has appeared on the injured list with a malady just twice during the regular season. He missed practices with a groin injury in Weeks 11 and 12, but didn't miss a game.
Hughes did not practice Wednesday, which was designated a rest day, and does not carry an injury designation into Saturday's game.
“Jerry is dealing with a lot of things that he probably won’t even mention,” said veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, “and it’s just amazing the way he’s approached this year and gone out, no excuses, and plays 110%. He’s a guy that plays with his hair on fire and trying to get after guys, a lot of passion, and has really over the years inspired me to play the game the same way, with that type of fire.
“I’ve really enjoyed playing with Jerry. He’s really helped me take my game to another level and I think he excites people around him, as well, especially once he gets going.
“He’s just a guy that’s underappreciated nationally, as far as what he’s able to do, because he doesn’t have the numbers, but when you turn on the tape and watch him play the run, watch him affect the quarterback, watch him just dog guys, watch how he runs to the ball and plays, you have a lot of respect for what he’s able to do.”
Alexander, the dean of the defense with 13 seasons of NFL experience, is looking for his first playoff victory, winless in four trips to the postseason with three franchises. So is Hughes.
Hughes is winless in three career playoff games. He reached the postseason twice in his three seasons with Indianapolis, but was a non-factor in both games.
‘Leave it all out there’
Hughes still tries to disassociate from his rookie season. The Colts made the playoffs – Peyton Manning’s last in Indianapolis – but lost a wild-card game to the Jets, 17-16, at home, on a field goal as time expired.
Hughes was active that day but didn’t play.
“I really try to block it out,” Hughes said of his rookie year. “I didn’t really play. I try to forget about it. That whole season it was kind of up and down. I was inactive the first couple of games, so it wasn’t really a season for me. It was more a season for them.”
Two seasons later – Andrew Luck’s first with Indianapolis – Hughes recorded one tackle in a 24-9 wild-card loss at the Baltimore Ravens, the eventual Super Bowl champions. Then he was dealt to the Bills for linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, a former third-round pick who lasted one season in Indianapolis.
Five years passed before Hughes’ next trip to the postseason, after the 2017 season, when he started and recorded three tackles in the Bills’ 10-3 wild-card loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“It was exciting to get out there, get down to Jacksonville, have the fans behind us, rooting,” Hughes said. “From what I remember, it was just the whole experience of being in that environment and understanding that this is single-game elimination. What I took from that experience is you’ve got to leave it all out there.”
Hughes is one of just nine who played that day and are still on the Bills’ 53-man roster, the others being Alexander, cornerback Tre’Davious White, safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, left tackle Dion Dawkins, fullback Patrick DiMarco, kicker Stephen Hauschka and long snapper Reid Ferguson. (Linebacker Matt Milano was injured and didn't play. Shaq Lawson was on injured reserve.)
Plenty of players on this team have been to the postseason with other franchises. Hyde went five years in a row, including his first four seasons with Green Bay. But that type of stretch is an anomaly, and 28 of 53 players have no playoff experience.
Some of the 25 Bills who have been to the postseason, like Hughes and Alexander, have yet to experience a victory. And only a handful know what it’s like to reach a Super Bowl, including DiMarco, Frank Gore, Kurt Coleman, Star Lotulelei and Hauschka, the only player on the active roster to own a Super Bowl ring, having won a title with the Seattle Seahawks.
“The stakes are higher, but the task is the same, at least for kickers,” Hauschka said. “You’ve just got to keep it simple and execute your task.”
All about the ‘right now’
Those who have tasted the postseason, win or lose, have learned that nothing is guaranteed and to never take a trip to the playoffs for granted.
They understand that just because the Bills won 10 games this season and appear to be trending upward, doesn’t mean they’ll enjoy similar or greater success next season.
Coleman played for a Carolina Panthers team that went 15-1 during the 2015 regular season before losing Super Bowl 50.
“Media and critics and fans like to look ahead,” Coleman said, “but the one thing that I know, speaking about the 2015 team that went to the Super Bowl, is we were supposed to come back and have another great year and we ended up going 6-10. And so you’ve got to capitalize on every single moment. You can’t say, ‘Well, all right, let’s go on to next year.’
“You lay a foundation and you hope that next year will be even better and better and better, and that’s obviously the goal, but you never know with injuries, you never know when one game is decided, the close games that we’ve won this year — sometimes the ball just doesn’t roll your way. So you’ve got to capitalize on every single moment. And in this moment, we’ve got a great thing going on.”
Lotulelei played on that Panthers team as well under then-defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who brought him to Buffalo in 2018.
“You never want to take for granted the opportunity to be in the playoffs,” Lotulelei said. “We didn’t make it last year – we weren’t close last year – and then this year we’re in, so you never know what next year’s going to hold.
“You’ll never have the same teammates again, so this team will not be the same next year. You just never know. Guys are going to be gone, so then you don’t have the same guys in the locker room. You may not have the same coaches that you had this year. With this business, it’s all about the ‘right now.’ It’s not about the past. It’s not about the future. It’s about right now.”
There are previously successful teams that regress each season.
“The L.A. Rams are a prime example,” Hughes said. “You’ve got to come out every year, every week and prove yourself. Guys are going to be gunning for you. That’s just the nature of the business. That’s just us as competitors. Everyone is going to be at home watching us play, so certainly when we come around next year, they’re going to be gunning for us.”
Hughes imagines what it’ll feel like to notch his first career playoff victory in his hometown, in the same stadium where a decade earlier he began his NFL career as a healthy scratch.
“Words couldn’t describe the feeling,” Hughes said, “just because we put so much work into it throughout the week, coming in early, showing up here at 6:30 (a.m.), getting in extra film study, things like that. It’d be great to get that first win, especially with these guys, with the kind of team we have. I’m just excited for the game.”
The longest-tenured player on the Bills’ roster, the man who’s seen more turbulence and turnover in his time with the franchise than every one of his teammates, offers his best advice to everyone willing to listen.
“Relax, enjoy the moment, don’t try to play bigger than what needs to be done,” Hughes said. “Let’s not lose track of what got us here. I think right now, like Coach McDermott says, our core principles are being fundamentally sound, understanding field position, understanding everyone doing their 1/11th. That doesn’t change. The stage may, but what we do, what got us here, doesn’t. We just keep that mentality.”