MIAMI – Buffalo broke Sammy Watkins.
A former first-round draft pick of the Bills in 2014, Watkins was fed up with losing, fed up with being hurt, fed up with it all.
So much so, Watkins said this week, that he was ready to retire.
“At that point in my life, I didn’t want to be there,” Watkins told The Buffalo News on Thursday. “Somehow, miraculously, I got traded, like, the next week.”
The Bills shipped Watkins to the Los Angeles Rams before the start of the 2017 regular season. After one season there, he signed a three-year contract with the Kansas City Chiefs, which has led him here, preparing for Super Bowl LIV.
“I think it helped me a lot. It left me scarred by just not trusting coaches in general, but I think it revived my whole career,” Watkins said of being traded. “Go to the playoffs my first year with the Rams and now to be in this situation, last year one game away from the Super Bowl and to be in the Super Bowl this year is blessings. … It was definitely needed for my career, my confidence, everything. It's just been up since I left Buffalo.”
There was a time Watkins was excited to come to Buffalo. He grew up a Bills fan in Fort Myers, Fla., so when his favorite team traded up to get him, Watkins was on cloud nine.
“Going first round, fourth pick, you think everything is great,” he said. “You've got a lot of money, but there's a lot of little things that come with it. I had to go through the struggles and pains of injuries. I had to find myself, had to rely on God and my faith.”
The injuries started early in Watkins’ time with the Bills. He hurt his ribs in the third preseason game of his rookie year, and would go on to deal with groin, hip, glute, calf, ankle and foot injuries. The last of those was the most serious – Watkins needed a pair of surgeries to repair a Jones fracture in his foot.
Watkins called the injury catastrophic – the pain was so bad it had him “wanting to retire and be like, 'Man, I'm done with this.’ ”
“It was the most hurtful thing going through injuries and losing,” he said. “I never was used to losing, but I think it helped me as a man and a person, to get through all the bad stuff.”
The injuries had a negative impact on his performance, which took Watkins to a darker place. He lashed out at fans and even publicly put his teammates on blast. Infamously, in an interview with The News in October 2015, he said he needed “the ball at least 10 times – I need 10 targets.”
Those days are long gone.
“It doesn't matter. It's not about the numbers,” Watkins said Wednesday. “It's about winning. The fun is in the winning.”
Watkins had modest numbers in 2019. He started the year with a huge performance, catching nine passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Watkins didn’t catch another touchdown pass the rest of the season, though, finishing the regular season with 52 catches for 673 yards.
“At this level, in our lives, we all get frustrated here and there like, ‘Man throw me the ball.’ We all get in a mood sometimes like, ‘Man, I need the ball more,’ ” Watkins said. “It's a little joke. There's some serious to it, but it's a joke. I think all of us understand that there's only one ball and there's seven superstars on this team, literally. There is only so much time in the game and we know we've got to run the ball. I think we all understand what position we're in. When our number is called, just make the best of those opportunities. We all know that we all can score, we all can run, we all can catch.”
Watkins’ future will be the source of speculation after Sunday’s game. He has one year left on his contract. His salary cap charge balloons to $21 million in 2020, and his base salary is $13.75 million. That makes Watkins a potential cap casualty. Worrying about that is for another day, though. Watkins has the opportunity of a lifetime Sunday.
“This is why we get up at 5:30 in the morning. This is why we go through hard injuries,” he said. “This is why we sacrifice so much. To get here man, I don't think people know what it takes. It takes a lot of heartaches, a lot of pain, a lot of suffering. But you know, it's a lot of good things, also. These are the moments that we dream about.”
Watkins finished third on the Chiefs in both catches and yards, trailing tight end Travis Kelce (97 catches, 1,229 yards, five touchdowns) and wide receiver Tyreek Hill (58 catches, 860 yards, seven touchdowns).
“I feel it's hard for coach (Andy) Reid and (offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy). Every day they've got to come to work and be like, ‘Man, how am I going to get Sammy the ball? How are we going to get Tyreek, how are we going to get Kelce the ball?' ” Watkins said.
Somehow, league MVP Patrick Mahomes finds a way. The Chiefs’ star quarterback has a way of keeping his teammates happy.
“He sees us in the game. Like, I might not even have a target, he'll be like, ‘Hey man, go run this route. I’m going to throw it to you,’ ” he said. “It's those small things that you understand that everything that we do, I mean, it's good for the whole team collectively. If we just continue to do what we're doing, I think we'll be OK.”
Reid has been a huge influence on Watkins in their two years together. Watkins said Thursday he passed up other offers in free agency that would have paid him more to play for Reid.
“He's the most genuine coach I've ever had,” Watkins said. “I can go in his office and he'll tell me the truth. Sometimes it's good and bad. He helped me revive my career, my confidence. He just believed in me so much – more than I was believing in myself. He helped me get to this point.”
In turn, Watkins has been a mentor for the Chiefs’ younger receivers, including rookie Mecole Hardman and Buffalo native Jody Fortson Jr., a member of Kansas City’s practice squad.
“He’s teaching me the ropes,” Hardman said. “Just being around him, learning from him has meant a lot.”
The Chiefs have been a machine offensively all season, but reached a new level in the playoffs. In two wins, they’re averaging a whopping 43 points per game.
“When we’re executing, when we're on our game, when everybody is ready and prepared like we've been all season by just watching film and going through the whole year, in the most humble way, I don't think this offense can be stopped,” Watkins said. It’s a “group of guys that's unselfish, a group of guys that's trying to get a ring.”
Watkins had seven catches for 114 yards and the game-clinching, 60-yard touchdown against the Titans in the AFC championship game. He has nine catches for 190 yards this postseason. Last year in the playoffs, Watkins made 10 catches for 176 yards.
“Obviously he’s had a lot of big games in big moments for us, especially in the playoffs the last few years,” Mahomes said. “The way he’s able to attract defenders and get some of the best cornerbacks to cover him so other guys can get open (is important). He’s able to recognize coverages on the fly and get himself open. He’s a guy in our offense that has really helped us get to where we’re at.”
Watkins is 26 now, and is at peace with being a complementary piece of an offense, rather than the main focus. He’s healthy, and he’s happy.
“From being at Buffalo and then going to the Rams, having a good season and then coming to Kansas City and … getting in the Super Bowl, I think my life and everything is starting to come in a full circle. I'm married. I've got kids. I've got my family. Everything is good. Now, I think it's time for me to hopefully bring home a ring.”