When Bills defensive lineman Harrison Phillips was recovering from a season-ending ACL injury three years ago, assistant strength and conditioning coach Will Greenberg passed along a book for some motivation.
In it was a parable about the Chinese bamboo tree. The lesson about patience left an impression on Phillips, who was barely two years into his NFL career.
“For four years, you have to water it every day, nurse to it every day, and for four full years it doesn’t even break the surface,” Phillips recalled. “Then in the fifth year, it grows 100 feet.
“So did it take the bamboo tree one year to grow 100 feet or did it take five years? It took all five years. So even if you can’t see those results, you have to keep pouring in.”
Phillips has emerged as an anchor on the Buffalo defensive line, one of the leaders of the best defense in the NFL. Growing into that role, he said, was similar to the bamboo tree breaking the surface.
“It’s been a really natural thing that I’ve wanted to do is that leadership role,” he said. “Even my rookie year, because the playbook came so easy to me, I turned around and was trying to help other rookies — or even guys who were even in year two or year three and just didn’t pick it up as quickly as I did.”
Coming out of Stanford as a third-round pick in 2018, Phillips was talented and precocious, but becoming a leader in an NFL locker room is a process.
“In the NFL, there’s two different types of power: there’s personal power and there’s positional power,” Phillips said. “So I’ve built up as much personal power as I can — which is being a good dude in the locker room, working my [butt] off, [having] a personal relationship with someone. There’s leadership sides to that.
“There’s also positional power. Your middle linebacker, your starting quarterback, those people are in positions to have that leadership role. You kind of have to have some notches under your belt in order to get that positional power and a little bit more respect and leadership.”
As a younger player, Phillips wanted to take on a larger leadership role, but knew patience was important. He took on a “work while you wait” mentality. In his fourth season, he is having a career year, starting eight games and making 51 tackles with one sack, six quarterback hits, and a fumble recovery.
“The personal stuff I’ve always had, and those leadership traits of mine have been able to flourish a little bit better because I’ve been making plays on the field,” he said. “Leadership comes hand-in-hand. There’s not too many captains of football teams that aren’t making plays as well. So I think that’s been the biggest help to my leadership.”
Depending on what kind of weather is coming on a given game day, Bills coach Sean McDermott will ask his staff to have the practice footballs match the conditions.
If it’s rainy, make the footballs wet. Or, given the freezing temperatures expected for Saturday night’s wild-card matchup against the Patriots, make the footballs freezing cold.
The Bills practiced indoors Thursday, but the staff let the footballs sit outside as long as possible.
“Those guys tried to cool those balls down a little bit,” McDermott said. “Just trying to make sure, just like anything, that we try to adapt our guys to that as much as possible.”
Tight end Dawson Knox noticed.
“There’s a little difference, but it’s nothing to where you’re worried about it,” he said. “It’s something that during the game you’re like, ‘Oh wow, that ball’s a little harder than what it normally is.’ ”
Knox, however, likes to rebel against the elements. No matter how cold it gets, he never wears sleeves, and doesn’t plan to even though Saturday’s temperatures are expected to dip into single digits.
“It’s a tradition,” Knox said. “How can I go away from my routine? I can’t change things up now just because it’s a little colder.”
At the most, Knox said, he might have a hand warmer around his waist.
“In my mind, if I go out there with sleeves, I wouldn’t be able to let myself live that down,” he said.
The Bills will have their full roster available Saturday.
Receiver Emmanuel Sanders (knee) and defensive end Efe Obada (ankle) were both full participants in all three practices this week.
Sanders missed the previous two games. Obada missed last week’s game against the Jets.
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.