Last week, Doug Marrone and I had a chat about motivation. The head coach had taken the Bills on a team bonding trip the day before.
He’s looking to build team unity, which can be an elusive quality at a time when money and ego often rule in pro sports.
Marrone has one theory that I agree with wholeheartedly: Players can find a great source of competitive identity and motivation when they believe they’re playing for something bigger than themselves.
It’s true. Sometimes, an outside event can galvanize a group of players and remind them how powerful a force it can be when a team is united in a common, emotional cause.
People ask me what was different about the Red Sox last season. How could they go from losing 93 games to winning the World Series?
There were tangible explanations, of course. Starting pitching is generally the answer to any baseball turnaround. But the Boston Marathon bombing was an undeniable factor. Watching a city bounce back from tragedy had to elevate the players at times during the daily baseball grind.
The Yankees didn’t win it all, but they did some unforgettable things in the aftermath of 9/11. Marrone was an assistant with the Saints when they became winners soon after Hurricane Katrina. The New York Rangers rallied around Martin St. Louis when his mother died during the recent Stanley Cup playoffs.
Anyway, I was reminded of that talk with Marrone when I heard that Jim Kelly had addressed the Bills at the end of practice on Thursday. Kelly, just two weeks removed from a battery of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, told the players it was time to win again.
Marrone said Kelly’s address wasn’t planned. But no team bonding exercise could accomplish what the ailing Hall of Fame quarterback did during those two emotional minutes at One Bills Drive.
Really, what player wouldn’t be motivated to hear one of the greatest leaders in Bills history tell them how much it meant for him to be part of a great team, one that’s forever attached to an adoring community?
“This is what you need to put your arms around,” Kelly said. “Make this your team. Make it very special. Realize it, because when it’s all over, the things that you have are your memories.
“The people that you built that relationship with – not just on the football field,” Kelly said, “but away from the field.”
It was moving to hear Kelly utter those words, and especially touching to see Thurman Thomas, his former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer, standing beside him. Kelly called Thomas, who has been by his side throughout his cancer ordeal, “one of my brothers.”
I have to smile when I recall the days of the Bickering Bills, when Thomas called out Kelly for a lapse in leadership. But that’s what set those teams apart – they fought and challenged each other, like brothers in any family, and it forged a rare competitive bond.
Those teams absolutely hated losing. I suspect that’s one of the things troubling Marrone, that many of today’s players lack that fundamental loathing of defeat, which supersedes money and ego and social status.
The Super Bowl teams were supremely talented, of course. But a lot of teams have talent. They also had a bunch of warriors, players whose desire measured up to their physical ability, guys who would not tolerate complacency within the group. You know the names.
It was their bond that defined them in the end. That point was driven home to me when I did a series on the 20th anniversary of Super Bowl XXV. Reflecting back as older men, all those players said it. It was their connection with each other, and an adoring town, that carried them along and allowed them to bounce back from repeated disappointments.
Bill Polian, who built those teams, told me, “There was a unique bond between the team and the town.” Yes, and it has been so very long since any Bills team has even approached it.
Listening to Kelly, it makes you wonder. The Bills haven’t made the playoffs in 14 years. They have finished 6-10 three years in a row. When I was asked to predict next season’s record the night the NFL schedule was released, I said 6-10. That’s what they’ve earned.
They have the talent to do better. But I wonder about their competitive character. Last year, too many of them seemed content with average.
There was little discernible passion, outside of Fred Jackson and a few others. They didn’t despise losing. They accepted it.
I felt the Jairus Byrd situation became toxic for that team. When management let Byrd dangle, it sent the wrong message. It told players you needed to look out for yourself first, that the ultimate motivation was self-preservation and the next contract.
Those things are always present in pro sports. But maybe Kelly got them thinking. Yeah, the money is important. You play a violent game for a league that cares mainly about the bottom line.
But when you’re older and your body is breaking down, it will be the bonds that you remember most, the teammates and the memories and the way Buffalo fans cared beyond all understanding. One day, it might be you fighting for your life, and one of those teammates standing by you the way Thomas did Thursday.
Sure, it’s a romantic, fanciful idea, but wouldn’t it be nice if this team found something bigger to play for, if they rallied around Kelly’s illness and Ralph Wilson’s death and the impending sale of the team, and found their competitive soul?
It won’t make EJ Manuel a better passer, or plug the hole on every opposing run. But as the Kelly teams showed us, it’s not all about talent. Teams can do wondrous things when they share an emotional bond.
You listen to Kelly, and his amazing family, and you realize the common thread in all of this. It’s what keeps them going and what Marrone is desperately trying to develop in his team. Belief.