AFC North: Richie Incognito


Weeks after the sudden departure of Doug Marrone and couldn't-miss-it introduction of Rex Ryan, it seemed as though the Buffalo Bills had reached a lull in their offseason.

Enter Richie Incognito.

Just as quickly as Bills fans could say "circle the wagons," the Bills are back in the national headlines and on the verge of signing the free-agent guard, a source told ESPN.

This is a move that would help the Bills on the field, but it would add a layer of risk in their locker room.

From a football standpoint, it makes sense for the Bills. They're in desperate need of help at guard, and Incognito is a low-cost option to add to the mix. Expect his deal to be short-term and at a fairly low price.

If he can shake off a season and a half away from football and regain his form from 2012, when he made the Pro Bowl, he could plug one gap along an offensive line that was a leaky mess last season.

Incognito
The arrival of Incognito, 31, would mean that pending free agent Erik Pears -- who started 16 games at right guard last season after starting 16 games at right tackle in 2013 -- is a low priority for the Bills to bring back.

It also would mean that Kraig Urbik, who started the final nine games at left guard last season, could be squeezed out of a starting job and potentially off the team if the Bills deem his $3.675 million cap number too high. By releasing Urbik this spring, they would save $2.275 million off their 2015 cap, or nearly $3 million if the move happened after June 1.

Incognito would also add a layer of insurance for Chris Williams. The former first-round pick, teetering on going bust, signed a surprisingly rich four-year, $13.5 million deal with the Bills last season, only to miss part of the preseason and 13 regular-season games with a lower-back injury. Williams told me in December that he'll be ready to go for next season, but little is ever guaranteed with back injuries in football.

Signing Incognito also means that Cyril Richardson and Cyrus Kouandjio, two of the Bills' offensive-line selections in the 2014 draft, can continue to develop without having to be thrust into starting roles.

But signing Incognito would come with a lot more than just his on-field production. He was named among the NFL's dirtiest players in a poll of players conducted by Sporting News, and that was before a 2013 bullying scandal that altered the careers of Incognito and fellow Miami Dolphins lineman Jonathan Martin.

Suspended eight games by the NFL in the midst of the controversy, Incognito's behavior spawned a 144-page report following an NFL investigation. Among the findings was a 2013 voicemail in which Incognito referred to Martin by a racial slur and added, "I'll kill you."

How would Incognito be received in the Bills' locker room? Few of Incognito's teammates remain from his brief stint with the Bills in 2009, but one of them -- center Eric Wood -- is a team captain. To an extent, he defended Incognito back in 2013.

"He gets on me. I get on him. But I can take it. I have respect for Richie; he has respect for me," Wood said at the height of the controversy. "It sounds really weird to outside people, but it's part of the culture. Guys give people a hard time. Especially O-lines that are really close. But you really have to get a feel for guys. As a leader of a football team especially, just a case of misjudgment, I believe."

Wood could be a potential ally for Incognito within the locker room, and there would likely be other teammates who believe Incognito's ribbing was misunderstood or blown out of proportion. Sensitive to how the situation exploded in 2013, it would be reasonable to assume that Incognito would avoid the same sort of actions that nearly ended his NFL career.

Yet it would also be naive to think that Incognito would be a model citizen, or that every player in the Bills' locker room would side with the decision to bring Incognito aboard. If his signing disrupts the cohesion of the locker room, then that would trump the impact he could have on the field.

That's why, in an offseason when the Bills have already added an outspoken head coach, bringing Incognito into the fold could be adding gunpowder to a powder keg.

But if Ryan truly meant that he wanted to "build a bully" in Buffalo, then he's got his guy.
PITTSBURGH -- Was a Steelers player prepared to lobby Pittsburgh to sign guard Richie Incognito had the Dolphins cut him in the aftermath of bullying allegations that generated national headlines?

Consider what Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said Wednesday morning on ESPN’s "First Take."

"The only person that I know that knows Richie Incognito personally said the day after (the story broke), ‘If Richie Incognito gets cut I’m walking upstairs and telling coach to pick him up,’ " Clark said. "He’s like, 'That’s the type of football player I want to play with. All of that stuff in the locker room, that’s how they act, that’s how they talked but as far as playing football I want you to play nasty, I want you to be like that.’ "

Clark did not reveal the name of the player who told him that, and it could well have been someone on other team with whom the veteran free safety is friendly. But it is reasonable to assume that there is a good chance Clark’s conversation took place with a Steelers teammate.

Would the Steelers have given any consideration to signing Incognito had the Dolphins released him last November? Not a chance.

But Clark's revelation shows a different side of NFL locker rooms, one in which players are able to separate or overlook behavior, no matter how coarse it is, from the business of winning games.

It is also consistent with how a significant number of players in the Dolphins’ locker room felt after offensive tackle Jonathan Martin abruptly left the team last October and later leveled bullying charges against Incognito.

The accusations led to Incognito’s suspension -- it was lifted earlier this week -- and a host of Dolphins teammates defended him and backed Incognito’s claim that he and Martin were friends.

The recent release of text messages between the two, bawdy as they were, appear to support what Incognito has maintained all along and that there may have been a rush to judgment.

Clark did not defend Incognito or the offensive language he used freely around teammates.

But he questioned whether the physical and psychological stress of playing football had led to Martin breaking down and then scapegoating Incognito for his hasty exit from the Dolphins.

Clark recalled a conversation he had with former Dolphins executive vice president of football operations Bill Parcells in 2010 when he nearly signed with Miami as an unrestricted free agent.

"He said ‘One day Ryan you’re going to walk out of the huddle, it happens to every player, and you’re not going to want to hit the person on the other side of the ball and when that happens it’s time to let it go,’ " Clark said. "I just think Jonathan Martin got there earlier than most people do."

As for the NFL futures of both players, Clark said, "I think (Incognito) will get a chance before Jonathan Martin. The way he behaves is genuinely who he is where Jonathan Martin behaves more to me like a person who is being advised."

Dolphins' offensive line in shambles

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
10:40
AM ET
The hits keep coming for the offensive line of the Miami Dolphins.

Pouncey
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports starting center Mike Pouncey (illness) will not play in Sunday’s game against the San Diego Chargers. Both teams have 4-5 records, so Sunday's meeting should serve as an elimination game of sorts in the AFC playoff race.

The Dolphins are now without three starters on the offensive line Sunday: Pouncey, Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin -- due to a combination of illness and in-house controversies. Top reserve Will Yeatman also suffered a significant knee injury in practice Wednesday and was put on injured reserve.

Miami’s offensive line is in shambles. This is the same group that was a part of a franchise-low 2 rushing yards in last week’s 22-19 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The offensive line has been Miami’s biggest weakness all season, and Pouncey was easily its best player up front. Not having Pouncey will impact both quality of play and communication between the linemen and second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

The Dolphins have two choices to replace Pouncey against San Diego. Miami can either start backup center Sam Brenner, who was just called up from the practice squad on Saturday. Or, the Dolphins can shift starting guard Nate Garner to center and start backup Danny Watkins at guard. Neither choice is ideal.
CINCINNATI -- An anonymous, unscientific survey of 72 NFL players conducted this week by ESPN.com's team reporters revealed that Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin was overwhelmingly viewed as the more favorable teammate in the now nine-day-long saga involving him and teammate Richie Incognito.

Incognito, who has been suspended indefinitely by the Dolphins for his part in a bullying scandal that has swept over the league and saw Martin leave the team, has received public support from many of his teammates in recent days, including quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Support for Incognito has run thin in other locker rooms, though. The survey, which was released Friday afternoon, found that only 21 percent of NFL players would consider Incognito a good teammate. Another 47 percent believe Martin was the better teammate.

And then there's that other 32 percent who don't side with either one. In their eyes, both Martin and Incognito were at fault in this situation that has already spilled over into its second week of games. Their thinking, it seems, is that Martin could be tougher, and that Incognito should have had a better grasp on what specifically he was saying or doing to a particular teammate.

"It's all about knowing personalities," was the way one Cincinnati Bengals player put it.

To that player, who was one of the 23 respondents who said both Martin and Incognito were poor teammates, there were no "real men" in this incident.

"That's the thing about this locker room," he said, speaking of the Bengals. "We have real men in here. There's none of this fake, facade thing where you don't know what you're getting. If I have a problem with one of my teammates, I let him know. We all let each other know. You've got to talk."

Both Martin and Incognito would make bad teammates, according to this Bengals player, because "one was too soft and one was too aggressive." The player bemoaned the fact that there was seemingly no middle ground between Martin and Incognito. Since neither appeared to properly hold the other in check, he didn't feel comfortable saying he wanted either to be his teammate.

His sentiments were echoed by another Bengals player who also questioned Martin's ability to stand up for himself, while also wondering how Incognito thought it was OK to leave the type of messages laced with racial epithets and profanities on Martin's phone that he did.

In addition to the bullying issue, the issue of hazing, both financially and physically, has come up this week because of the scenario that's playing out in South Florida.

The first Bengals player said he felt a measure of hazing occurred in the league, and that when he was a rookie, he spent as much as $10,000 on dinners purchased for teammates. He said he viewed the purchases as the equivalent of "a tax write-off."

"It will all come back to you," the Bengals player said. "That's the thing you have to realize is that it'll all come back."

Asked to explain that comment, the player said that form of hazing was just one way of having the young players feeling they belonged to something bigger than themselves. Near the end of the year, he said players on that team all bought one another Christmas presents as a way of making sure no one on the team felt they were investing so much externally without feeling that they weren't part of the team.

It should be pointed out that this player did not begin his career in the Bengals organization. Other players who did had vastly different and much less expensive rookie seasons. The other Bengals player mentioned above said he helped pitch in to buy chicken from Popeye's for veterans when he first arrived to Cincinnati. He figured he might have spent $50 helping with the whole meal.

With so much still unknown in the Incognito-Martin story, it's tough to say who is completely right and who is completely wrong at this point. What is known, though, is that there are a lot of NFL players who wouldn't lose any sleep if either player never stepped foot in another locker room again.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith says hazing and bullying doesn't exist on the team, even though he didn't believe it at first.

After watching the rough initiations on HBO's Hard Knocks, Smith prepared for the worst when he reported to training camp two years ago.

"To my surprise, I came in and Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, [Terrell] Suggs, Haloti [Ngata] took us right in [saying], ‘Alright, we need you to be ready to play. We don’t have time to haze. You’ve got to sing, buy Popeye’s, but that’s it,'" Smith said. "It’s more so about a family atmosphere and welcoming you in instead of tearing you down and trying to isolate you. I don’t get how hazing even brings a team closer. It’s stupid to me.”

Hazing and bullying has become hot topics in NFL locker rooms since Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito was suspended Sunday amid allegations he bullied a younger teammate, Jonathan Martin, who left the team and recently checked himself into a South Florida hospital to be treated for emotional distress.

Multiple sources confirmed to ESPN on Monday that Incognito used racial epithets and profane language toward Martin on multiple occasions.

"It's surprising for me to see any player using these kinds of remarks and these kind of attacks in this day and age; even going back to the Riley Cooper thing back in the beginning of the season," defensive end Chris Canty said. "It's unfortunate this is continuing to take place. I do want to commend the Miami Dolphins for setting the precedent in the course of action they've taken as opposed to what the Philadelphia Eagles decided to do, giving Riley Cooper a slap on the wrist. I think that emboldens people to continue to use those kind of slurs, make those kind of remarks and have those kind of texts."

Does Canty believe there's a place in the NFL for Incognito?

"Playing in the NFL is a privilege, not a right and I think it should be treated as such, and I don't think there's any place for racism, racially charged attacks," Canty said. "I don't think there's a place for it."

Smith was among those Ravens who defended Martin's actions for coming forward.

"Guys are going to say that (blame the victim) because football's a manly sport, a sport that's typically about dominance and you're going to hear guys react that way -- stand up for yourself, fight back," Smith said. "But at the same time, if he did that, where would it have gotten him? We don't know if it would've worked."

Smith added, "People don't bully the strong links. So clearly there was something that he saw that he took advantage of. You don't just bully anyone, and it's very unfortunate. I'm not going to disrespect their locker room, I don't know anything about it. But if you have great leadership in there, you can see what's clearly a problem where it goes from being fun to a problem, which it escalated to and hopefully they'll get it right."
PITTSBURGH -- Ryan Clark applauded the restraint Jonathan Martin showed in dealing with alleged harassment from a Miami Dolphins teammate.

But the outspoken Pittsburgh Steelers free safety would not have faulted Martin had he reacted in an extreme manner after enduring bullying from Richie Incognito.

“I honestly wouldn’t have had any problem with Jonathan Martin hitting Richie Incognito in the head with a weight,” Clark said, “but that’s illegal and he’d go to jail and he shouldn’t do that. I think he handled it the right way by not being physical, by not causing more trouble by making a rash, emotional decision to retaliate with physical action.”

Martin abruptly left the Dolphins last week, setting in motion a story that has transfixed the nation because of its many layers, including NFL locker-room conduct and the issue of bullying happening in the most unlikely of places.

Steelers right guard David DeCastro is good friends with Martin -- the two started on Stanford’s offensive line for three seasons together -- and he said he has talked to his former Cardinal teammate.

“I just called him to make sure he was alright,” DeCastro said. “I could care less about football. I just wanted to make sure he was OK as a person and he is so that’s good, that’s what’s important.”

When asked if he thinks Martin still has the desire to play football, DeCastro said, “That’s up to him.”

Clark said the atmosphere that caused Martin to leave the Dolphins -- and put his football future in question -- needs to be addressed with some sort of league guidelines.

But, Clark conceded, a uniform policy is tricky since there can be such a fine line between what is considered a rite of passage for a young player and hazing -- or bullying in the extreme case that the NFL and Dolphins are sorting through right now.

“It’s not like a helmet-to-helmet hit that’s obvious where something like this you have to look subjectively and say, ‘Ah, this is how egregious I think this is,’ and that’s extremely hard,” Clark said. “I think some guidelines should be set in place. No one should have to endure that in their workplace whether they work for IBM or for the Miami Dolphins.”

Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson agreed.

“It’s a tough issue but at the end of the day you’ve got to respect each other man,” Johnson said Wednesday during a conference call with Pittsburgh reporters. “That’s what it comes down to.”
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was not present for the first day of offseason workouts.
Morning take: It's no surprise Roethlisberger is laying low. At this point it's probably best, considering his legal situation.

Morning take: This is a good sign, because Suggs usually is absent this time of year. I have a feeling he's motivated to have a bounce-back season in 2010.

Morning take: Quinn needed a fresh start somewhere and got it in Denver. Can he take Kyle Orton's starting job?

Morning take: With nothing finalized with free agent Bobbie Williams, the Bengals need to begin checking other options. The draft also is a possibility.

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