BY JEFF SIMMONS
Over the last decade, hope has been a term not often associated with professional football in Buffalo. But after a 2-0 start, the current Bills are bringing it back.
Bills middle linebacker Nick Barnett is a big part of the renaissance, and believes a major culture change is underway in Orchard Park.
“I’m not saying I came in here and changed (the culture). It’s the guys they brought in last year, and the guys they brought in this year like Shawne (Merriman) and Marcell (Dareus). It’s the attitude change and culture change that we have to go through,” said Barnett in an exclusive interview with Sportsnet.ca.
The winning attitude Barnett brought to Buffalo has paid immediate dividends as the team is off to their first 2-0 start since going 4-0 in 2008. Coming from a Super Bowl winning program, the Green Bay Packers, Barnett has seen a large shift in the team’s focus since training camp began.
Barnett has made the most impact of any defender on the Bills so far this season. Against Oakland, Barnett finished with a staggering 14 tackles and a key forced fumble. He’s added stability to a team and franchise that desperately needed it.
The eight-year veteran was acquired in free agency after two consecutive injury-plagued seasons in Green Bay. The team needed a replacement for Paul Posluszny after he signed with Jacksonville, and he’s greatly exceeded expectations so far this season. Barnett believes in the mentality that head coach Chan Gailey has been building in the locker room. After playing for the Super Bowl-winning Packers, he says the Bills are building the right type of swagger and attitude to become a championship team.
“Last week (against Oakland), was a big building block for us as far as establishing character. You can’t have a winning team without establishing an identity or establishing what team we want to be and what type of attitude we want to have, said Barnett.”
He says the 2-0 start is further proof of the team’s improved mental toughness and a changing mentality within the locker room.
“Everyone knows what it feels like to win on our team. Look at last year, we had a lot of games that were so close and we just couldn’t pull it out at the end. Our team has a better character in the locker room,” explained Barnett.
Barnett doesn’t care to talk about what’s happened in the past and the team’s losing culture. He’s all about the future and what this group can accomplish. He won’t mention the obstacles of playing in the same division as elite teams such as the New England Patriots or the New York Jets. It’s all about developing the right attitude and staying together through the tough times.
“We’ve got a good team and a good defence around me. We’re battling it out. We all got a chip on our shoulder. You can’t lose that confidence. Things are going to happen. You can’t live in the past. You got to live in the future. These guys see it.”
A huge reason for the fast start has been the play of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Harvard product has shocked the league as he’s passed for 472 yards and 7 touchdowns in only two games.
In the off-season when GM Buddy Nix didn’t upgrade the position, Bills fans were ready to pull their hair out. Many were surprised when Nix passed on Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Mallett in the draft. But after two weeks, they couldn’t have made a better decision and Barnett strongly agrees.
“He (Ryan) makes plays and makes things happen. We have enough weapons as far as physical talent and with his brain power; we might have a guy on our hands. To be honest, we have a very good quarterback.”
After being a cornerstone in Green Bay, Barnett is clearly making his mark in Buffalo. You can see the passion when he speaks. You can see how much he believes in the program, his teammates and his coaches.
The Bills face a great short-term test this weekend when Tom Brady and the first-place Patriots come to town. This will serve great proof if this team is for real and can compete in the always-tough AFC East. It’ll serve as further proof if the Bills can finally build some momentum after years of disappointment.
The fan base in Buffalo has been so accustomed to failure and heartbreak after years of bad drafting, questionable coaching, and even worse play on the field. There hasn’t been a more snake-bitten franchise over the past two or three decades.
However times look to be changing as now you can see the talent, see the heart, and clearly see a renewed identity. They don’t want to be laughing stocks anymore. The Bills haven’t made the playoffs since the Music City Miracle in 1999 and Barnett is ready to change that.
“We have a great team and we can do something very special this season. I think were heading on the right path,” Barnett said passionately.