Taiwan Jones is the Buffalo Bills' heartbeat, Part II: 'Our mission'
From Monday through Saturday, this is the captain who sets the standard. Taiwan Jones is a source of energy giving a Super Bowl contender exactly what it needs. Now, there's only one thing left to do.
Miss Part I? Read right here.
One month ago, during a team meeting, Sean McDermott plastered a picture of Isaiah McKenzie up on a screen for all to see. “What can you tell me about this guy?” he asked. Teammates naturally had much to say. Next, he put up a picture of Taiwan Jones, then Dion Dawkins, and yes. Jones knew exactly where this was going.
The Buffalo Bills’ head coach told everyone that this was the team’s official boy band. The trio had livestreamed their Friday karaoke sessions twice by then.
“Why don’t you guys come down to perform right now?” McDermott said.
So, they did.
The lights were turned off. NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” blared. Teammates all cheered, held up their cell phones and Jones felt like an actual rock star.
“Like I was at a real concert,” Jones says, “looking out at everybody!”
Players on all teams typically cannot wait to get out of dodge on Fridays. Here, guys love hanging around. One day, someone put on music and Dawkins started singing. Jones heard the ruckus from afar, started singing himself and decided to go live on Instagram. Soon, McKenzie joined in and a tradition was born. As Go Long readers know, the “ShnowMan” and “Lil Dirty” are the same breed of personality: unapologetically fun. Over these last three years, Jones believes management has done an outstanding job of constructing a roster full of unselfish players who play together. Everything you see on TV — from Allen and Diggs’ heartfelt embrace on Thanksgiving Day to the choreographed handshakes at practice to the joyous snow angels last week — is the reality inside the building. “We’re a real tight-knit group of guys,” Jones says. “A family.” Work concludes around 5:30 p.m. on weekdays and teammates still want to hang out.
They’ll stick around until 7, even 8 p.m. to take care of their bodies and watch film and talk trash. Jones even believes McDermott has evolved.
“When he first got here,” Jones says, “he was a lot more militant. Rightfully so. First-time coach. He needs to set the standard of what he expects. Fast forward to now, a lot of us have been with him for some time. He’s a lot more laidback.”
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More than anything, scenes like this are the product of a maturing roster. As the Bills’ core aged from 2017 to 2022, the locker room organically began to police itself with no need for a head coach to butt in as some sort of drill sergeant. The head coach doesn’t have to be a “stickler,” Jones says, with captains setting a tone. Captains like Jones. And that’s where you truly begin to see Taiwan Jones’ imprint on this contender. Monday through Saturday is his time to shine. He’s responsible for this healthy locker room as much as anyone in the entire organization. It’s quite simple. Jones is determined to bring positive energy into the building every morning and pushes everyone around him to do the same.
Jones is keenly aware that every single person, every single day is either a “plus” or a “negative.” A plus creates more pluses. A negative creates more negatives.
No question, players deal with all sorts of shit in their everyday life. Jones is the one who ensures bad energy does not spread at One Bills Drive.
“I’m always paying attention to the team — Are we quiet? Are we down? I’m trying to lift it and encourage others to do the same.”
Even if nobody sees it in the form of rushing attempts within one of the NFL’s best offenses, Jones’ role has grown exponentially. He believes you receive the energy you emit, so he tries to build meaningful relationships from every crevice of the locker room. Take Duke Johnson. The eight-year veteran with 843 career touches for 5,135 yards with 23 touchdowns is currently buried on Buffalo’s practice squad. Very rarely are such accomplished pros stashed like this so, his frustration has been obvious to teammates this 2022 season.
The monotony of an NFL season affects guys like this most. There are times Johnson shows up to work down and out and Jones reminds him that there’s no use fretting over something out of his control.
“What can you control? You can control your effort. You can control your attitude,” Jones says. “I’ve seen guys get cut from teams for having bad body language. For having bad energy. I try to remind him of those things. You don’t want to get cut for something you can control. You can control that. So, he’s better about it today. If I see something, I try to speak about it.”
Such energy is a force multiplier in pro football. We’ve seen how a head coach, like Mike Zimmer, can create a toxic environment. Employees of the Minnesota Vikings dreaded going to work because of him. He made life miserable. We’ve seen the power of positivity, in Miami and Detroit. The entrails of an organization too often go ignored by fans, by GMs, by everyone. We’re all utterly oblivious to everything that leads up to that kickoff at 1 p.m. on a Sunday. Jones can identify with vets like Duke Johnson because he felt like that himself his first go ‘round with the Bills. Hell, even in his 12th season Jones believes he could give the offense a spark when, at this point, the fella currently snowplowing Route 219 has a better shot at running a toss sweep at Highmark Stadium.
It’d be easy for Jones to interpret Brandon Beane’s maneuvering at running back as the ultimate slap in the face. The team’s GM has been aggressively pursuing a receiving back for a full calendar year. He was incensed after J.D. McKissic was coaxed to return to Washington. Chase Edmonds told us he was going to sign with the Bills before taking a closer look at those egregious NYS taxes. Beane drafted Georgia’s James Cook in the second round and said the team viewed him as another wide receiver, and then he flirted with Christian McCaffrey midseason.
When, uh, Jones was here all along. You know, the back who ended your 2019 season. Maybe that guy is worth more than the two targets he’s received in three seasons.
“As a competitor, you naturally feel like, ‘Do they not think I’m good?’ And you get mad. You get down,” Jones says. “I have to check myself often. More so, in my first two years than now. I get it. We’re all competitors. You want players who always feel like, ‘I can start. I can play with the best of them.’ That’s a good trait to have. You can’t let it interfere with the reality of someone else’s plans. You’ve got to stay positive.
“It’s a day-to-day struggle but I just always try to look at the bigger picture. I have a role, and I’ll try to do my role the best I can.”
That role was put to the test this season because the aftershock of “13 seconds” is an aftershock that typically nukes sports teams for good. There was never closure after that stunning loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. After playoff losses, it’s not like everyone gathers to watch film as a whole. Still, the quiet was strange. Eerie. Forget fans and media. Players and coaches on the inside were even left without answers. Yet Buffalo’s leaders knew this: all players returning in 2022 needed to face the trauma head-freakin’-on. Nobody could not pretend like that game didn’t happen. The memory of that night at Arrowhead stayed on Jones’ brain for a long time. He was in Los Angeles for the Rams’ 23-20 Super Bowl win over Cincinnati. He watched the Rams bask in confetti and believed damn well it should’ve been the Bills celebrating.
There’s only one way to describe the feeling: “A dagger,” he says, “in my chest.”
He knows he wasn’t alone, too.
“Everybody had to deal with that in the offseason,” he says. “Everyone.”
Jones, as noted, responded by ramping up his offseason training with training-fiend, wide receiver Stefon Diggs. Once players reunited in Orchard Park, NY, he says they all agreed to “flush” that game. Ups and downs would be a guarantee. But from Day 1, reaching the Super Bowl has been the expectation. Never a morning person, Jones lifted weights early in the AM. He stayed on Diggs, too. He’s one of the rare vets who can call out the star receiver for slacking. Jones has zero problem letting the self-proclaimed “Him” know when he’s not living up to the standard they set in LA over the offseason.
As Jones points out, that’s rare. Most star players would look at a special-teamer making minimum wage like he has eight eyeballs. Tell him to beat it.
Instead, Diggs listens. Diggs finds a new gear.
“I’ve been a part of a lot of teams that could’ve been real good,” Jones says. “Real talented. But guys either had their egos or they were just individuals. Here, everybody is all-in.”
This was the key turning point for those Bills in the nineties. Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith, Darryl Talley, Cornelius Bennett. This was a unit flooding with star power but — over time — all of this star power learned to listen to everyone. That group’s rock on special teams, Steve Tasker, lists these six names off. He remembers his own locker room like it was yesterday.
If a star was dragging ass? Mouthing off? Got out of line?
“There were guys on the team who’d say, ‘Shut the f--k up and sit down,’” Tasker says. “They’d be like, ‘What’s wrong?’ And they’d listen. It wasn’t like they said, ‘Shut the hell up.’ There wasn’t any of that going on. That respect from the guys at the top of the roster — like the Bruces and Jims and Thurmans and Andres — all the way down the roster to guys like me and Mark Pike and Carlton Bailey and Carwell Gardner and Chris Hale, that says a lot about how healthy the team is.”
It's important for the lower-paid employees of a roster to have clout in the locker room. Allen signed a six-year, $258 million deal. Diggs, $96 million over four years. Jones was brought back on a one-year, $1.27 million pact. But players don’t care. They’ll all listen to Jones because they know he’s bringing 12 years of wisdom to the room.
“The stars listen to Taiwan,” Tasker adds. “Taiwan has a voice amongst those guys. That’s really, really important for the culture of a team.”
Only when these Bills are thrust into another do-or-die moment will the truth be revealed, will we see if all of these good vibes equate to a finishing touch.
Jones does believe the entire team responded to 13 Seconds the best possible way. The locker room was emotional that night — players couldn’t fathom coming so, so close only to lose in such inconceivable fashion. A touchback. A Tyreek burst. A Kelce seam route. An OT coin flip. And, poof, 2021 went up in smoke. McDermott didn’t say much privately or publicly but Jones has been one of a few select voices imploring everyone to look in the mirror, to figure out what you could’ve done differently to win that game.
“Make sure — this year — those mistakes don’t happen,” he says. “There really wasn’t much closure. But we fell short and we can’t allow it to get that close. We have to finish. That’s been an emphasis: finishing. What gives you hope is it just adds to the story. It’ll make our story that much sweeter and we know the history of this team.”
History, as in the four straight Super Bowl losses a generation prior.
Those Bills were able to lick their wounds and re-climb the mountain. Repeatedly. We’ll never see anything like it again. Clearly, that entire team possessed a special strand of fight in their DNA. We’re about to see if the 2022 Bills possess the same. Once that meltdown was officially flushed and forgotten, Jones began spreading a new message internally.
He still tells everyone who’ll listen that the only team that can beat the Buffalo Bills are the Bills.
Don’t play Superman. Don’t make the moment bigger than it is.
“Making it back,” Jones says, “and getting it done is our focus. Our mission.”
There are no lingering goosebumps. No fear of demons resurfacing. To date, Taiwan Jones has not seen apparitions of Patrick Mahomes floating down the halls at work. Diehards in Western New York unquestionably still fear their collective hearts will be ripped out in a fresh new way come mid-January, and you cannot blame them. Three different sects of Bills fans have now endured three different brands of heartbreak.
Four straight Super Bowl losses… with a Music City Miracle as a final kick to the groin six years later.
A 17-year playoff drought.
Four playoff defeats in five years: A grisly loss to the Doug Marrone-led Jacksonville Jaguars, a blown 16-0 lead in Houston, an AFC Championship blowout to KC and, yes, those “13 seconds.”
Jones has experienced all four of those playoff losses and knows the mentality of the team better than anyone. When this year’s team gets into another close postseason game and they’re seconds from glory and they just need one or two plays to win, he does not expect “here we go again” dread to creep into their minds.
In fact, he laughs at the suggestion.
“We want those moments,” says Jones, smiling. “We have f--king Josh Allen. This dude is a stud.”
These Bills face an extraordinary amount of pressure to win it all. More people bet on the Bills to win the Super Bowl than any team in history. The days of slapping catchphrases like “Trust the Process” and “Playoff Caliber” on signs and t-shirts are over. Embracing the reality that it’s all about the Super Bowl was vital for such a talented roster piloted by such a Minotaur of a quarterback. And they have not flinched. These Bills have weathered inevitable adversity — so far. Von Miller was lost for the season. A UCL injury zapped Allen’s arm strength for a month-plus. The Bills were victimized by one of greatest catches in NFL history. Eighty inches of snow forced the team to fly to Detroit for two games in five days. (They were lucky to even get to the airport.) Yet, Buffalo still has managed to work itself into the pole position. These last five wins have all featured an element of ugly Bills victories past lacked.
It's been more of a slog on offense with Allen not quite Allen. The Bills discovered new ways to win.
“He’s so good that you forget he’s human,” Jones says. “And that’s where it takes the team — from the practice-squad guys to the special teams guys. When your Superman is beat up a little bit, we’ve got to pick up our slack elsewhere. Everybody believes in that. Everybody is holding onto the rope and doing their part. Only us can beat us.”
That’s so true on special teams. Jones does have an important role when it comes to the game itself.
Tasker, arguably the greatest special teams player ever, makes a smart point. Given how much the rules have changed, it’s harder to make a big play covering a kick or punt. But a team sure can lose a game on special teams. There’s immense value in core special-teamers who won’t make the catastrophic mistake over the course of a long season — especially when the margin for error is so microscopic. Nine of Buffalo’s 14 games this season have been decided by one score. Too often, teams with title hopes think they can skate by on special teams with backups at other positions… and it backfires. Miserably.
That’s how the Green Bay Packers have operated most of the last decade and it’s no exaggeration to say it cost them one or two Super Bowl appearances.
It pays to devote players on the roster to this oft-ignored third of the game. All players get to the NFL because they were stars in high school, in college. Few are willing to essentially go back to a trade school to learn how to cover a punt or set up a return.
“Special teams, for a lot of people, is some sort of secretive society,” Tasker says. “It’s like walking into a place you’ve never been. You don’t know how things work. You don’t know what the ins and outs are. What’s important. What’s not. It’s just a mystery to a lot of people. It really feels good when you’ve got guys out there with experience, confidence and the ability to tell a guy, ‘Move in. Move out. Do this. Do that. Watch out for this. Watch out for that.’ For a coaching staff, when you get into games that are teetering on every single play — where if something catastrophic happens, you lose, even if it’s in the third quarter — guys like Taiwan and Siran (Neal) and (Tyler) Matakevich, they’re just such huge security blankets for the whole roster. The catastrophic mistake isn’t going to happen.”
Tasker believes most NFL players don’t want to play special teams because they simply don’t understand it. They’re afraid to fail.
“So they’re really hesitant to even take the role,” Tasker says. “It takes encouragement and positive outcomes to get him some confidence. You have a guy who’s been around 12 years, that helps settle everything down.”
Whereas those six years in Oakland felt like playing for six completely different teams with so many coaches and players passing through revolving doors, this has been a steady build with the same group. A build that feeds a special kinship. On The Isaiah McKenzie Show, Buffalo’s veteran slot man admitted he could’ve signed with several other teams for much more money in free agency. He returned. He had that same feeling of unfinished business with this specific group of players. He, too, had a rough upbringing. McKenzie has seen dead bodies on his doorstep and was once grazed by a bullet. The longer these Bills play together, the closer they become. Jones believes his own past is coming in handy. He compares this moment — this opportunity to be a champion — to growing up in Antioch. Many peers were more talented than him, yet chose gangs, drugs, guns, violence.
Jones did the little things to go the other direction and he’ll most certainly do the little things now.
Because that’s contagious. That feeds positive morale.
“If you don’t address something, you’re allowing that to be the standard,” Jones says. “So we’re good at, ‘Hey, you didn’t run that hard. Let’s pick it up.’ If I see bad body language, I address it. Just trying not to let the little things build up. That plays its part to why we’re having success.”
Starting his NFL career so close to home was both “blessing” and “curse.” He wants to maintain a connection to his roots and even spent time this past offseason speaking to kids in his hometown. But Jones also knows living near Oakland would’ve been a bad decision because so many old friends are still making bad decisions. That’s why Jones ended up buying a ranch in Menifee, Cali., a city between L.A. and San Diego. This gives him more room for his growing business, too. The indestructible Kano launched a love for pit bulls. He now breeds pit bulls at “Bully Ranch,” and Jones views his 13 pits back home as his own pets. It’s always hard to sell one. He tries placing the right dog with the right family.
“Dogs are like people,” he says. “They all have their own personality.”
As for the city he once loathed? Buffalo? What a 180.
He loves it here and is always searching for lives to impact. The more he explored the inner city, the more Jones realized these neighborhoods weren’t all that different from the ones he grew up in. The only pro athlete he ever remembers coming back to speak to kids was former NFL center Jeremy Newberry and Jones was a high-schooler by then. Here, he’s always speaking to kids in hopes that one conversation, one connection inspires someone to make the same life choice he did. If there’s a fundraiser? A food drive? He jumps at the opportunity. Jones is tight with the Bills’ community relations department but doesn’t stop there. He’s also close with Dakarai Singletary, the founder of “Candles In The S.U.N. (Save Ur Neighborhood), whose mission is to inspire the city’s youth.
Whenever Singletary takes on a project, there’s a good chance you’ll see Jones with him.
He doesn’t have a family of his own, so he occupies his free time by giving back.
“I’ve been blessed and I just want to be a blessing for others,” Jones says. “If I can inspire someone or make someone happy, it actually makes me happy.”
The antenna’s always up. A friend from California once sent Jones an article about a man named Valentino Dixon who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Dixon was finally freed in 2018 when the man who confessed to the killing pleaded guilty. Stunned by Dixon’s resolve, Jones felt an urge to do something. Anything. He hooked Dixon up with Bills tickets and the two also went out for breakfast. He was amazed that a man who endured so much emotional trauma wasn’t angry. At all. Dixon explained to Jones how he prepared for a life on the outside even when all hope seemed lost.
The perspective was “mind-blowing,” hitting Jones harder than Uchenna Nwosu ever could’ve in that Bills end zone.
No matter what anyone on this team goes through, someone in the world is experiencing much worse.
“You hear stories like that,” Jones adds, “and that’s why I always want to have good energy.”
That’s how this heartbeat operates. He listens more than he speaks.
One of Von Miller’s (many) stories stood out most. The week of the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl bludgeoning of the Carolina Panthers, Miller described a scene at lunch. Cornerback Aqib Talib first said out loud exactly what he planned to do in Super Bowl 50, before adding the line: “I want you to hold me accountable.” Then, another player did the same. And another. And another. And it created a certainty that they’d dominate the league’s MVP, Cam Newton. That’s precisely what Denver did and Miller was the game’s MVP.
Maybe the Bills won’t be able to unleash the Canton-bound edge rusher on Patrick Mahomes or Joe Burrow or Tua Tagovailoa come playoff time. There’s no replacing his 134 career sacks.
But they have established the same ethos. They do possess a veteran who preaches the same gospel.
Taiwan Jones has the life experiences to back up the rhetoric.
He’ll prank a teammate. Cover a kick. Call out Diggs. Wear wacky outfits on the Bills’ road trips, like this week’s Michael Jackson look. Change a life or two in Buffalo and, yes, pop his shirt off… throw a wig on… grab a mic… and belt Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” on Friday afternoon for you all. This looks like a man who could easily spend another three hours sharing stories. If he does deliver a Vince Lombardi Trophy to this starving fan base, bank on it. He’ll most certainly be creating many more memories. Part III will be a must at Vice.
For now, Jones slides his salmon into a to-go box and heads home.
Right in the city he grew to love.
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