Usually, it’s the other way around.
Players leave the Buffalo Bills for the New England Patriots, looking to find out firsthand what it’s like to be on the dynastic side of the NFL tracks.
Stephon Gilmore, Chris Hogan, Mike Gillislee and Scott Chandler are among prominent former Bills who recently got their taste of being a part of the league’s gold standard. Gilmore and Hogan have Super Bowl rings to show for their Patriot experiences.
For the past four seasons, LaAdrian Waddle was a Patriot. But the offensive tackle’s career has traveled in the opposite direction of the Orchard Park-Foxborough, Mass., path. In March, Waddle signed with the Bills as a free agent.
“It’ll definitely be interesting, once we come around to playing (the Patriots),” Waddle said during a recent conversation with The Buffalo News. “But I felt like this was a good opportunity for me. I felt like the Bills believe in a lot of things I believe in, as far as hard work and kind of a blue-collar attitude and just how to go about things.
“So, I felt it was a great fit, and here I am.”
Waddle, 27, was one of six offensive linemen the Bills signed in free agency. He’s among three tackles the team added, joining fellow free agent Ty Nsekhe and second-round draft pick Cody Ford, who the Bills initially plan to play at right tackle.
Waddle was a part-time starter for the Patriots. He’ll compete for one of the starting spots Dion Dawkins and Jordan Mills filled last season. At the very least, Waddle should provide solid depth one would expect from a veteran entering his seventh season.
“As of now, it’s just a bunch of guys trying to learn each other, trying to get to know one another,” Waddle said before the draft. “And as a group, we’ll slowly grow. It takes some time, honestly. That’s what this time is for, to get to know each other, to get the bond. Once we start doing more football stuff, we’ll pick that up and we’ll kind of see the personalities, how guys play. Then it’s up to the coaching staff to put that all together as the product on the field.
“I could do anything you want me to do. As far as physically, I feel like I can handle whatever blocking assignment I need to do. And then, as far as the mental part of the game, I’m seven years in now. I’ve seen a lot of stuff playing against a lot of guys, and I feel like I can digest the playbook well and I have a good understanding of what’s going on. So that kind of helps me play faster than, I guess, someone who doesn’t know the playbook as well without that experience.”
He has coaching connections with the Bills. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll was an offensive assistant with the Patriots for part of Waddle’s time in New England, and Bobby Johnson, the Bills’ new offensive line coach, was assistant offensive line coach of the Detroit Lions for a portion of the three seasons Waddle spent with them. The Lions signed him as an undrafted free agent from Texas Tech in 2013.
Waddle started 24 of the 30 games he played for the Lions before assuming more of a reserve role in New England. Yet, even though he made only seven starts for the Pats, he left with Super Bowl rings. That puts him in a far loftier place than everyone else on the Bills, who have made only one playoff appearance in the last 18 seasons … and it was as fluky, one-and-done wild-card entry.
As far as Waddle is concerned, however, the contrasting history of the franchises doesn’t tell the whole story, especially in the time that he resided in the AFC East penthouse.
“I think a good saying kind of describes that: football is a game of inches,” he said. “Being over in New England, every time we played Buffalo, they definitely always played us tough. They always gave us a hard time and playing them, you can see those guys play hard. The defense finished second last year, they gave us a hard time. I actually played the Monday night game here (last season, when the Patriots won, 25-6). I started that game, so seeing that and being on the other side, you kind of grow to respect that.
“Patriot guys definitely respect the Bills, as far as (knowing) they’re going to bring it every time, regardless of how the season’s going and I always respected that. And just seeing how they go about things and the heart they play with, I don’t think the Bills are that far off from that. Hopefully, getting a couple more things to go the right way and a little thing here, a little thing here, it’ll make a big difference in the end.”
The biggest difference of all must come from quarterback Josh Allen. Since 2015, Waddle has had an up-close view of arguably the greatest quarterback – if not player at any position – in the history of the game.
He realizes there will be an adjustment from protecting Tom Brady, regardless of who is working behind him.
“There’s only one Tom Brady, let’s be real,” Waddle said. “But seeing Josh and what he’s capable of and just knowing the talent’s there … and I think, going from your rookie year to your second year, that’s when you take a big jump, personally. I know he’s going to do everything in his power to improve and get better. It’s just something that, obviously, we don’t know how it’s going to play out, but I believe he’ll do the right things and I think he can really make an impact.”
As iconic as Brady might be, Waddle always felt they had mutual respect as players who saw each other as nothing less than teammates striving for a common goal. It’s one of the tenants of the “Patriot Way.” “Team-first, players play for each other,” Waddle said. “That was a big deal there, and I know it’s huge here.”
Bill Belichick is the architect of the “Patriot Way” ethos. Going from the very top of the NFL’s coaching food chain to Sean McDermott, who enters his third season as a head coach with a 15-18 record (counting the postseason) is another significant transition for Waddle.
He hasn’t spent enough time around McDermott to make too deep of a comparison, but he likes what he has heard so far.
“I feel like he’s a guy who is a straight-shooter, first off, which I feel like that’s the way it has to be,” Waddle said. “You can’t really tiptoe around things. You’ve got to be honest with your players and he expects that honesty back and I respect that as a man. Honestly, it’s kind of hard to compare the two … but, obviously, I felt comfortable enough to leave that situation to come here and, really, just take a leap of faith.”
Until this offseason, the leap was usually in the other direction.