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Vic Carucci

How Bills are prepared to handle loss of another leader in Lorenzo Alexander

Vic Carucci

Leadership matters as much to Sean McDermott as anything his football team does on the field.

The Buffalo Bills' coach has always drawn a direct line between how well players are led by coaches and each other, and the way they perform.

"I think it's one of his core values," former Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. "It's something that I think he has just embraced through being on several good teams, going back to William & Mary, being with Philly, being with Carolina and now Buffalo. When he had good teams or teams that maybe outperformed their talent level, he saw how important (a role) leadership played, whether it came from coaches or players or a combination."

That thinking greatly influences the way McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane build their roster.

Sure, they seek the most talented players they can find, but they also want ones who have demonstrated strong leadership qualities on their previous teams: in the NFL, in college, in high school. Captain is almost certain to get as large a check mark as any from the scouts.

In the past three years, however, retirements have taken away three of the best leaders the Bills have had: center Eric Wood after the 2017 season, defensive tackle Kyle Williams after the 2018 season, and Alexander, who announced his retirement after this past season.

"That's something that they've had to adjust to the last two years with two really prominent leaders in Kyle Williams and Lorenzo Alexander both retiring, and this year it'll be the next guy's chance to step up," said Wood, now the Bills' radio analyst. "We'll see who that is. They have done really well drafting. They've drafted guys that were leaders on their college teams – guys like Tre'Davious White, who was a captain at LSU and wore No. 18 there, which is the most prominent honor within their team. Tremaine Edmunds was a captain last year at 21 years old. Josh Allen, super young, and he was a captain as well."

Bills outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (57) intercepts the ball in the first quarter at New Era Field on Dec. 11, 2016. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Before walking away, Alexander did his part to help fill the voids Williams and Wood created by their retirements. How much that had to do with the Bills making the playoffs for the second time in three seasons isn't easy to define.

Still, there's something to be said for the culture and chemistry that exist within the team.

When McDermott and Beane took over in 2017, the mission was to keep and find players who fit a team-first profile. They needed to be the type that could put winning ahead of individual accomplishments. They needed to be all-in on doing their share within the concept of the "One-Eleventh." And the leaders would be expected to reinforce messages from the top.

"You can be really good at your craft and make plays and there are guys in the league that are doing it, but if people don't want to be around you, be next to your locker, you're a pain in the butt to the kitchen staff, the trainers, it drains," Beane told The News last year when asked what makes a "McBeane-type player."

"It takes energy away from what we're doing and, in the end, it's generally not worth it. I've seen guys that are good players, can be Pro Bowl players, but they don't help the team concept and we want guys that care about the we and not the me."

The McDermott-Beane vision and belief there would be an unwavering commitment to it helped convince Williams to return to the Bills for his 12th and 13th seasons after the 2016 campaign.

It's that culture that also should go a long way toward allowing the Bills to be able to fill their latest vacancy in leadership.

"In my opinion, there shouldn't be any (drop off), because the last three years, we've been cultivating guys so that when guys step away – because that's the evolution of football – you have somebody who's just stepping in and it's almost seamless," Alexander said. "Obviously, the presence of that person is missed a little bit, but their purpose isn't. Because somebody else is taking over and they're doing it in a different way, but they're still fulfilling that leadership role.

"It's the same thing with talent. At some point, guys are going to get old, at some point you're not going to be able to pay guys. That's the GM's job, as far as bringing in talent, making sure you have guys in waiting so that when those situations arise, you have guys to kind of step in. Sean takes that same philosophy when we're dealing with leadership. His ultimate goal to cultivate a couple of those younger guys' leadership qualities as well, so when you have guys like me or Kyle or whoever the next guy is that transitions away, he has a new crop of guys, including coaches.

"So there's no, 'What are we going to do? Kyle is not here, Lorenzo is not here.'"

The time has arrived for younger players who have been asserting themselves – White, Edmunds, safety Micah Hyde, center Mitch Morse and offensive tackle Dion Dawkins among them – to assume even greater responsibility on the leadership front.

That shouldn't be too much of a problem, given the structure McDermott has had in place for three seasons.

Eric Wood visits with Alex Heldwein during a family fun night for children with pediatric cancer at the ADPRO Sports Training Center at One Bills Drive in 2017. (Harry Scull Jr./ Buffalo News)

"Sean expects, top to bottom of the roster, everyone to act in a certain manner," Wood said. "So, as a leader of the team, some of the pressure's actually off you because the expectations are so high from the head coach and he's so hands-on with the team that it's not large of a task, at times, to be a captain. But anytime you're a captain, no matter what team you're on, everyone looks to you. They look to see how you play, how you practice. You're expected to be one of the hardest workers, you're expected to be vocal at times in kind of relaying the messages of the head coach."

McDermott gives players constant reminders of the priority he places on what it takes to succeed between games. One is the leadership council he created to give players a voice in a wide range of team issues.

In his 13 NFL seasons, Alexander has been with other clubs that had leadership councils. He said none had the level of coaching engagement he witnessed with the Bills.

"It wasn't just having a group to have a group," Alexander said. "It was guys that actually had some ability to talk to Coach and he heard us. We didn't meet all the time, but we met from time to time when things would pop up. What about padded practice? What about practicing outside? What day should we travel out to a West Coast game? If there was maybe an issue internally with maybe a player or two as far as accountability issues or just being a professional. What can we do to help this guy out? Those type of things.

"We did that a lot our first year. We did it some his second year. I think, as guys felt empowered, guys would approach him before it became (something) where he would come to us."

Additionally, McDermott makes a point of using meetings to share various examples of quality leadership in and out of sports. Sometimes, it might come in the form of a video; Alexander remembers the late Kobe Bryant being a favorite subject of McDermott's. Sometimes, it might come through a speech from a military veteran talking about pushing through harsh realities of combat.

The Bills' Kyle Williams celebrates a sack during a Bills home game in 2012. (Mark Mulville / Buffalo News file photo)

Mostly, though, it's McDermott's conscious effort to create a foundation conducive for players to lead that opens the door for the next wave.

"You still have to have some parameters and guidelines in which your team is operating in, so you know where the fences and boundaries and guidelines in which your team is operating are," Alexander said. "I think Sean has done a great job of not being too overbearing and not giving too much freedom, walking that fine line of giving guys space to work in. He's a man of faith and has used some of those principles in establishing the environment in which we cultivate leadership."

Not all players have what it takes to excel as leaders, although they do need to be substantial contributors if they're to be taken seriously.

As Wood discovered during his nine seasons with the Bills, there's no cookie-cutter approach to leading. His was shaped by the variety of styles he saw from former teammates, including Williams, running back Fred Jackson and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

"You take different things from guys," Wood said. "Kyle was always great with pregame speeches. Freddie was more of a lead-by-example type. Fitz was a great leader on offense. He was vocal and he would take guys under his wing.

"But ultimately, you have to lead to your personality. I think the number one thing is you just have to be yourself, because people will always be able to see if you're being a fake. I kind of felt like I could be vocal at times, I don't mind speaking up, but also definitely tried to lead by example of my actions on a day-to-day basis."

There are rah-rah types. There are those who do much more showing than telling.

Then, there's Alexander, whose leadership style changed dramatically through the years.

"I think, at different points in your career, you have to transition to being a certain guy based on the needs of that team," he said. "Like for me, my evolution was being that worker. I'm going to work hard, try to be the best professional I can and then produce on the field. And I think guys noticed that the way I played and the way I talked and the way I treated people. But never, until Buffalo, did I have to be speaking truth into people's lives and try to raise their game up. That was the role because of my age and some people transitioning away. Obviously, with Kyle and Eric moving on, I had to step into that role a little bit more than I probably naturally I would have.

"Based on where you're at in your career and in your maturity, you may have to do something that's unnatural for you to be the most effective leader for your team. Some guys aren't natural talkers or are reserved. An example would be Tremaine, who's naturally quiet and more conservative and reserved in the aspect of calling guys out, saying, 'This is how we're going to do it! This is the standard for the week! This is what we expect! This wasn't good enough!' He's naturally a bit quiet and I think a lot of that was because I was there, Kyle was there, so he didn't have to be that.

"But he led in other ways, for a young guy, with the way he approached the game, the way he took care of his body, the way he asked questions of older guys, the way he paid attention to details and, honestly, the way he went out there and played. But as that locker room gets younger – and it's really going to be next year – he's going to have to step in the role of being a more vocal voice and speaking his mind to coaches and the players to help keep that continuity of what has been created by guys that have come before him."

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