It had been a superb bounce-back season for Kyle Williams, a season in which the burly Buffalo Bills defensive tackle rebounded from a leg injury to earn his fifth Pro Bowl invitation. But the greater reward—the one he’d been yearning for since being drafted 11 years earlier—had eluded his grasp once more. The Bills had gone 7-9 and missed the playoffs for a 17th consecutive season. And there was about to be yet another coaching change, making this the seventh in Williams’ career and the team’s fifth in seven years.
So, while the announcement was being made last January that Sean McDermott would become the new Bills head coach, Williams contemplated whether he wanted to subject his soon-to-be 34-year-old body to the ravages of another season in the trenches. Perhaps it was time to pull out the golf clubs and pursue birdies rather than ballcarriers.
But after taking a few weeks to heal his body and mind, and after meeting the super-intense McDermott, Williams felt rejuvenated. He immediately connected with his new coach, liked his passion for the game and his calls for accountability and discipline. Williams was ready for some more football. He re-upped for a 12th season.
Unfortunately for him, it looks like another season without a post-season. The major roster overhaul by McDermott and hand-picked general manager Brandon Beane tells me that the future isn’t now, but rather two or three years down the road. There will be more pain before there’s gain.
The roster features 29 new players, a 55 percent turnover from last season, about 20 percent above league average. Only six players drafted by former GM Doug Whaley remain. In Sunday’s season opener against the New York Jets at New Era Field, there could be close to a dozen new starters, depending on injuries. There will be four new defensive backs in the lineup, and two, possibly three new starters at wide receiver.
The trades of wide receiver Sammy Watkins and cornerback Ronald Darby along with the free agent losses of cornerback Stephon Gilmore and running back Mike Gillislee have weakened the Bills. But sometimes you have to take two or three steps back to go forward. And no one knows that better than Williams, who’s been through several of these extreme makeovers.
“I’ve been around long enough to know that the only constant thing is change,’’ he said resignedly in training camp after the blockbuster trades of Watkins and Darby on the same day. “Nothing totally shocks me anymore.”
Williams joked that he was taught long ago, probably in Pop Warner football, that you have to keep your head on a swivel because you never know where that next big hit might come from. Sage advice, whether you’re a Bills player or fan.
“If you aren’t winning, there’s going to be change,’’ he said. “And there should be change, until you get it right.”
Change is indeed a constant. And so is Williams. If you are looking for a diamond amid the ashes of this ridiculously long post-season famine, look no further than No. 95. Williams has been the one thing the Bills have been able to count on, every play, every game, every season.
He gets kind of lost in the losing, but he will go down as one of the greatest Bills of all-time. Only two defensive linemen in franchise history have received five Pro Bowl invites: Bruce Smith (11) and Fred Smerlas (five). That’s pretty good company—and Williams belongs. The man with the relentless motor has more tackles (533) than any defensive tackle in the league since 2006.
What makes his story even more appealing is that Williams was a long-shot to make the Bills roster in the first place, let alone star for a dozen seasons. Despite an outstanding career at LSU, he lasted until the fifth round because scouts thought he was too small (6-foot-1, 303 pounds) to be an interior defensive lineman in the NFL. The talent evaluators and analytic geeks still haven’t found an accurate way to calibrate heart, so their assessment of Williams proved to be as far off-target as that EJ Manuel training camp throw into the hospitality tent at St. John Fisher College a few summers ago.
Williams not only made the Bills in 2006, but barreled his way into the starting lineup. He’s been there ever since, with the exception of a couple of seasons when he was sacked by injuries. His quickness, smarts and hustle have made him a complete tackle, effective against the run and pass. His 40.5 sacks are the most ever by an interior Bills lineman.
And then there are the intangibles: his leadership by voice and example. He’s pulled younger players aside, to offer counsel or, if need be, some stern words. Unfortunately, Williams doesn’t appear to have been able to fully reach his linemate, Marcell Dareus, who has a world of talent, but who has been plagued by off-field problems. If Dareus had followed Williams’ lead on and off the field, he’d be blazing a path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
McDermott has talked extensively about changing the culture, filling his roster with “character” guys. Well, he knows he has one in Williams. The Bills elder statesman is working with his seventh coach, starting with Dick Jauron during his rookie season.
“One of these times it’s going to work out,’’ he said. “From what I’ve seen, Sean has the potential to be that guy.”
We shall see. What the rookie head coach won’t have to worry about is Williams’ performance as a player and leader. The future Bills Wall-of-Famer learned long ago that you can only control what you can control. Amid constant change, the one constant has been Kyle Williams. Through the leanest stretch in franchise history, he’s been a guy you can always count on.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.