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The Buffalo Bills' secret weapon? Isaiah McKenzie
Week after week, somebody new steps up for the Bills. In the AFC Championship Game, this 5-foot-8 dynamo could be next. McKenzie explains to Go Long how he has always seized the opportunity.
Imagine being Isaiah McKenzie.
Not the stars on the marquee. Not the players we’ve been obsessing over all week.
Imagine being this 5-foot-8, 173-pound rocket missile of a wide receiver who only touches the football two times per game. You trot onto the field and the defense, instantly, is on high alert. The middle linebacker points and screams out your number — “19! 19!” — and it’s particularly noticeable without roaring fans in the stands. As you motion left… then right… you know all eyeballs are squarely on you. All 11 players on defense are fully aware and fully prepared for your breakneck speed.
This time, you’re getting the ball, too. Finally. It’s the play you’ve perfected all week.
The play clock ticks down, 5... 4… 3…2…, and, right then, your nerves should spike uncontrollably. Right then, you should convulse in panic because there simply aren’t many professions loaded with this much pressure. You’re playing in front of 54 million viewers, for starters. But, as Isaiah McKenzie, you also only get one or two of these chances a game to ball out. So, hell, you better perform flawlessly because if you screw this up? If you drop the ball from this MVP candidate of a quarterback? Good luck getting your number called again. This Buffalo Bills offense has been so good, so electric that there’s no room for anyone who chokes in this moment.
The ball’s snapped. It’s showtime. The pressure would most likely spiral all of our psyches into a dark place.
But not McKenzie. McKenzie relishes this all.
McKenzie knows the onus is on those 11 other players.
“When I’m in there,” he says, “you really need to watch 19. Things could get out of hand.
“You don’t know what I’m capable of. You don’t know what I’m about to do.”
McKenzie knows — with certainty — he can deliver the play that changes the game. He’ll catch that bullet or throw that spiral or, simply, speed past everyone with his 4.42 wheels. That’s why in the locker room before Buffalo’s Week 17 game against Miami, McKenzie told No. 1 receiver Stefon Diggs repeatedly, “I’m going off.” If Diggs was pulled for precautionary reasons, as anticipated, McKenzie knew he’d get the ball more than usual.
And he was right. He scored three touchdowns. He was out there straight “freelancing.” And, now, he had some ammo in this locker room to tend to his favorite pastime: talking trash. McKenzie loves pushing Diggs’ buttons. Sometimes, he’s joking. But sometimes, like this occasion, he sincerely wonders: Damn, maybe that is true. After that Week 17 explosion, McKenzie just had to point out to Diggs that he was able to score seven touchdowns this season on a minuscule fraction of the touches so… you know…
“Who should be getting paid more money?” McKenzie asked Diggs.
Which struck a nerve. Which prompted Diggs to snipe back that McKenzie’s touchdowns were all on jet sweeps. McKenzie pointed out that he was dead wrong, that only one score came on a jet sweep, and when all Diggs could muster was a half-hearted “whatever,” McKenzie got in the final word: “I guess you should give me some of your money!”
And back to waiting he went. Back to the sideline. Back to seeing only four snaps total against Indy and eight snaps against Baltimore.
“I was kind of bitter,” McKenzie says. “I was like, ‘Man.’ I just came off this three-touchdown game and I was hoping to get some more reps. But, at the same time, I also get that it’s the playoffs. You want to get the ball to the guys you paid the big money to. You can’t get mad at that. I know my role and I take pride in it.”
Because he knows his moment is coming. He knows there’s a chance the Bills could unleash him in this AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
“Listen,” McKenzie says, “if they’re saving me for this game or maybe the Super Bowl, shoot, I would be more than happy.”
Say hello to the Bills’ secret weapon, the next mystery man who just may save the day.
Such is the theme of these 2020 Buffalo Bills. There’s no telling who’ll make the crucial play game to game. It sounds corny, but it’s been unequivocally true all season long. Tyler Bass kicks six field goals to beat the Jets. Justin Zimmer forces the fumble to beat the Patriots. A.J. Klein puts the Superman cape on against the Chargers. Gabriel Davis tightropes the sideline in the wild card. Taron Johnson runs a pick back 101 yards to the house in the divisional round. None of this is by accident. Not through 15 wins in 18 games.
Clearly, this is who the Bills are. A team that relies on the unknown star stepping up.
And in his hour-long chat with Go Long this week, Isaiah McKenzie sure sounds like the player who is next. Because — as the 25-year-old with the infectious, energetic raspy voice details — he should’ve disappeared into oblivion countless times over. Growing up in Miami Gardens, Fla. That godforsaken SAT. Fumbling nonstop in Denver. Every single time that McKenzie should’ve faded away, never to be heard from again, he endured. He got to the other side.
Which, truly, is what makes him uniquely qualified for this role in this offense.
McKenzie explains. First, he learns his job. Then, Diggs’ plays. Then, Cole Beasley’s plays. Then, John Brown’s plays. Then, Gabriel Davis’ plays. Then, a pinch of running back. A dash of returner. Because he’s a receiver in name only. As a sheer weapon who could be released anywhere on a football field at any given moment, he needs to know everything. That’s why offensive coordinator Brian Daboll loves having him. And, of course, McKenzie is constantly pretending to be someone else on the scout team. Last week, he masqueraded as Lamar Jackson. Not surprisingly, thanks to McKenzie, the Bills completely shut down the 2019 MVP.
“There’s a lot of things I have to juggle,” he says, “but they feel I can do it.”
That sure is a hell of a lot to handle for only getting the football a couple times a game.
“I joke with the guys all the time,” McKenzie says, “but it’s also true. They’re talking about, ‘Hey, you only get two plays a game.’ I was like, ‘Out of those two plays something big is going to happen — always — when the ball’s in my hands.’ …You’ve got to take advantage. Diggs, ‘Beas’ and ‘Smoke?’ They’re going to get theirs. Gabe is going to get his. Josh is going to get his. The running backs are going to get theirs. So, when it’s my turn and I happen to get the ball? I have to make something happen.”
So at some point this Sunday, likely in the red zone, you’ll see 19 trot onto the field. He won’t break a sweat, either.
Because 19 was born for this moment.
“If the ball is thrown my way,” McKenzie says, “and I’m only getting that one pass, I know one thing: I’m not dropping it.”
Down in his neighborhood, in Miami Gardens, Fla., you’re going to see some shit. The razor-thin line between life and death is presented to you daily. Once when he was 12 years old, maybe 13, McKenzie saw a dead body laying outside of his apartment building. Right there at his doorstep laid a man with a gaping bullet hole in his stomach.
Blood was everywhere. He tells this story with striking nonchalance.
“I was kind of already used to it,” McKenzie says. “So when it happened, I was like, ‘Whatever. It is what it is. I can’t really do anything about it.’ Other than that, it was normal life.”
There are more stories just like this one. Trust him. But the weird thing is, living here, you genuinely become numb to it all. You see that dead body, you’re sleepless for a few nights and you move on. You come to terms with the reality that the murder rate is simply higher here and gangs are everywhere and that you, as a teenager, simply need to avoid these landmines best you can.
It’s inescapable, of course, with bodies literally dropping at your doorstep.
The more you’re exposed to sights like this, the more it becomes the norm.
“I knew this stuff was going on around me,” McKenzie says. “Whether it’s killing, robbing, stealing, I knew everything was happening around me and I just had to stay away from it. Stay out of it. And not let it be a part of who I am.
“I would hate to leave this Earth early. At my younger age, I wouldn’t risk my life doing anything I shouldn’t be doing, or putting myself in any situation I shouldn’t be in. I felt like that helped me along the way, knowing that life is short and you have to take advantage of every day you have. I did that.”
He admits this: He was no saint. But that’s where his grandmother, Valerie Mitchell, stepped in. He and his younger brother were both raised by Mitchell, who was never afraid to drop the hammer.
Says McKenzie: “She gave us whuppings when we needed them.”
No doubt, Mitchell is a major reason McKenzie is here. She helped steer McKenzie away from trouble. She worked at the school cafeteria to keep food on the table, working early in the AM and getting home late at night. Most of all, she provided an environment that wouldn’t allow McKenzie to end up on that pavement.
Mom and Dad were not in the picture and McKenzie leaves it at that.
Talk to any NFL player from South Florida and they’ll eventually tell you how lucky they are, how there were an infinite number of kids more talented than them in their community that simply could not get out. Drugs. Gangs. No guidance. Something held them back. McKenzie’s own teammate, Zack Moss, spoke at length about this with Go Long a month ago. For all of the ridiculous talent in Miami, McKenzie adds, there’s “only a slim chance” those with that talent are able to stay out of trouble. Rising up takes more than talent and commitment, too. You need one gleam of light, one bit of good fortune and, then, you need to be able to seize that moment.
McKenzie’s gleam of hope came while playing basketball in the park with his friends. He was nine. A youth coach named Marcus Vandiver who had been watching him play from afar approached him and asked, “Hey, do you want to play football?” He never played organized football before — only pick-up here with these same friends.
Vandiver told McKenzie he had already spoken with his grandmother at their apartment. She was cool with it.
So, he played. He lit it up. He went on to star at American Heritage High with 30 receptions for 842 yards (28.1 avg.) and 15 touchdowns his junior year, earning his “Joystick” nickname.
He even received a scholarship offer from Cincinnati.
Colleges wanted him.
There was just one problem.
The next test
When he first heard that word — “college” — McKenzie chuckled. No way was this possible. He told his high school coach he hadn’t gotten one good grade in his life.
But, hey, McKenzie loved football so he figured he’d give this a shot. He knew he needed to take something called an “SAT” to get into one of these schools interested in him. What he did not know was how to take the SAT. He had no tutor, no guidance, no clue what he was getting into that first crack at this centralized exam and the end results were not pretty.
McKenzie says he scored a 700 on the 2400-point test which is, quite literally, as low as you can score.
He was in the last conceivable percentile.
All along, the best college programs in the country wanted him. One of those schools interested, Notre Dame, did everything it could to get McKenzie help by setting up prep courses for him to take. And all of these extra classes before and after school certainly helped the second time around. McKenzie scored a 1300 on his next attempt, which moved him up into the 27th percentile. Of course, this then presented another problem for McKenzie.
He was flagged. Colleges were stunned to see this big of a jump.
“I was like, ‘Listen. I did what you told me to do. I did it. I made good grades,’” McKenzie says. “And now, I’m getting flagged for it. That’s a big jump — I get it. But I told ‘em, ‘Yo, I didn’t have a tutor at first! I thought I could just go in and, with whatever I knew, just do it. Obviously, I didn’t know much. But the second time, I knew a lot. I knew I didn’t have to answer the questions if I didn’t know them. I could just leave ‘em blank. And all the questions I did know, I just answered them first.”
Notre Dame backed off. Notre Dame wasn’t seeing the grades it needed.
But McKenzie had improved enough to get his shot at Georgia with his high school teammate, Sony Michel.
Predictably, he wasn’t a fan of college classes. After two seasons as a return specialist, McKenzie made a point to tell coach Kirby Smart after the third game of his junior season, “No matter what happens, I am leaving to the NFL.” He didn’t care how his stats looked. He didn’t care if the NFL would deem him undraftable — he was out the door. His role expanded, he finished with 767 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns and off he went. He figured he wasn’t getting any bigger or any faster so McKenzie declared — with Smart’s full support.
To this day, they speak regularly. He’s grateful the ball started coming his way.
Many classes were difficult but, more than anything, McKenzie just loathed the monotony of waking up, going to study hall, to a tutor, to class, etc., etc.
“I was like, ‘Yo! I’ve got to get out of here!’” McKenzie says. “School wasn’t for me. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t for a lot of people.”
He survived that 700.
And it’d sure be fun to see how McKenzie would fare on that SAT today. He reads all the time now. He loves to learn and even says he’d like to complete his degree. What’s he reading these days? McKenzie sets his phone down and you can audibly hear him shuffling through all of his books in the background from his place in Western New York. Most recently, McKenzie read “Legacy” by James Kerr about the legendary All Blacks, the most successful sports team in the world. And “The Body” by Bill Bryson. And “The Love Dare.” And all the psychology books he still has from Georgia that he never actually read in full when he took classes.
Says McKenzie: “I wanted to keep my mind fresh and keep my mind always stimulated with things I need to learn.”
The kid who once flunked test after test can now handle one of the most complex roles in the sport.
As he learned, however, so much of football is precisely what he studied at Georgia: psychological.
In his head
A sizzling 4.42 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine helped McKenzie get drafted by the Denver Broncos with the 172nd overall pick in 2017 and he was installed as the punt returner.
Everything went downhill from there.
He got the ball. Often. He dropped the ball. Often.
His pro career should’ve deteriorated before it even had a chance to begin. In 11 games, he muffed six punts and lost three of them. His confidence was shot. The buoyant, life-of-the-party, salsa-dancing McKenzie in Buffalo today cannot even recognize that McKenzie because that McKenzie was trapped in his own mind. That McKenzie allowed bad thoughts to multiply and lived in fear.
“I’ve never felt like that in my life,” McKenzie says. “Those moments, those fumbles, those muffs. It was bad. It was bad. I started losing confidence. I started overthinking. I started questioning myself. I started saying things in my head — like, ‘Bro, that’s not me.’ I was very successful in college. I dominated in high school. I was like, ‘No. There’s no way my career is going to end like this.’”
In 2018, Denver lost faith in McKenzie. He toggled between the active roster and the practice squad and, eventually, was waived a second time on Nov. 2. The Bills, in the midst of a total rehaul on offense, pounced. The Bills, breaking in a rookie QB, needed someone to stretch the field.
To this day, McKenzie can vividly remember stepping onto the plane eastbound to Buffalo, NY, and telling himself, “I can’t mess this up.” He knew this was it. This was his second crack at the SAT, his only chance to make professional football a career. And that ’18 season, McKenzie was a welcomed shot in the arm. He earned a roster spot in ’19 and, all along, McKenzie made an extremely conscious effort to hold the football tight. Always. He never sought sports therapists or anything like that to clear his mind. He never blamed the coaches or the front office in Denver for giving up on him, either.
He only repeated three words in his head, the same three words he repeats often in this chat: Seize the opportunity.
By this 2020 season, gripping that ball tight was second nature. Those dark thoughts from Denver never creep in anymore.
He plays with zero self-doubt.
“That’s not even in my brain anymore,” McKenzie says. “That’s not even a part of who I am anymore. I’m all about big plays now.
“I went from making no plays to making big plays.”
Those big plays are a sight to be seen, too. Isaiah McKenzie is the ticking time bomb in this offense — statistically the best in franchise history — that could detonate at any given moment.
Nothing is ever the same.
Each strike is more devastating than the last.
Fans didn’t get to see his first big play, in Week 2, because CBS’ power went out. Nobody was able to witness McKenzie turn cornerback Nik Needham into an human pretzel for a 46-yard reception. It’s worth the Game Pass subscription alone. Right there on the Coaches’ Film, you’ll see McKenzie line up left, run a hard crossing route right and — with one hard turn upfield — cause Needham to completely wipe out like he’s on Nickelodeon’s Double Dare.
Into November, McKenzie was still sneaking up on unsuspecting defenses. He got the party started in Buffalo’s 44-34 statement win over the Seahawks by knifing right up the middle of the defense where free safety Quandre Diggs awaited and, honestly, looked half-shocked to even see No. 19 enter his patch of the field.
Defensive coordinators have to spend time preparing for McKenzie as a passer now. In Arizona, he cradled a jet sweep, spun the football’s laces to his fingertips and threw the ball back to Josh Allen for a touchdown.
Hesitating for one split-second vs. McKenzie costs you, too. On Monday Night Football, the 49ers were a tick slow reacting to McKenzie’s pre-snap motion and, in a flash, he was gone. He swooped up the sideline, the DB couldn’t keep up, and Allen hit him for the 23-yard TD strike.
McKenzie then, of course, went nuts in the finale against Miami. He caught seven- and 14-yard touchdowns from Allen and exorcised any remaining demons he had in the punt return game with an 84-yard TD that was a work of art. One Dolphin had McKenzie dead to rights. He juked him. Another attempted a lunging arm tackle. He ripped through that. And, no, the punter stood no chance. McKenzie slowed to crawl almost to mess with him, taunt him, before prancing into the end zone.
That return did feel something like an out-of-body experience. In his mind, McKenzie thought, I really did that? What has gotten into me?
And it was back to waiting, back to not knowing when the football will come his way again.
“And that’s the hard part,” McKenzie says. “After a three-touchdown game, you feel like you’d get a couple more opportunities. But in my mind, I know my role and I know when I get my opportunity, I have to take advantage of that. … I knew at the same time, when it comes to the nitty-gritty — like the playoffs — I know my role. I know I’m going to run jet sweeps. I’m going to get in here or there to run off. That’s just what I have to do and I understand that. So I don’t really get mad at it because I understand. All I told myself in this playoffs is, ‘Listen. I don’t care how many plays I get. As long as we get to where we need to get to? I don’t care what happens.’
“When the ball comes to me, I’ve gotta do what I’ve gotta do.”
Left tackle Dion Dawkins calls McKenzie a character who’s going to salsa dance, going to crack jokes and going to always stay ready for his moment.
“Honestly, the kid is great,” Dawkins says. “He is truly great. I enjoy watching him play because he’s himself. And he runs around. He doesn’t care that he’s one of the shortest guys on the football team. He consistently makes plays.”
Everyone on this roster also knows that McKenzie was the most important player on the team the week leading up to the Bills’ 17-3 playoff win over the Ravens. Because all week — on the scout team — he played the role of Lamar Jackson to a “T.” More specifically, he kicked the defense’s collective asses all week.
After botching a few of Jackson’s reads during a walkthrough, McKenzie went home and studied the quarterback closely on a YouTube highlight reel for a good 20 minutes. He already had Jackson’s shimmy ‘n shake down in the open field but, now, McKenzie was studying the way Jackson threw the ball. How he ran the read option. How he sold the bootleg action off a handoff. His propensity to throw most often to “89” (Mark Andrews) and “15” (Marquise Brown). And, of course, precisely when Jackson would turn on the jets to scramble.
McKenzie made sure that Buffalo’s No. 1 defense didn’t stand a chance the next practice.
“I was on fire,” McKenzie says. “I dominated the defense like no other. I talk a lot of trash. So when I was back there, I was talking a lot of trash, I was making moves, making people miss, throwing the ball. Every time I got a first down, I was celebrating.”
McKenzie got under everybody’s skin and loved every minute of it. The coaches had to love this, too. Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier surely would rather see their players embarrassed in practice than a game. They’d much rather work out all the kinks on Wednesday and Thursday than see Jackson leave them in the dust under the lights on Saturday. McKenzie got this Bills defense all accustomed to the speed they’d see at this position vs. Jackson.
Of course, not everybody was pleased.
McKenzie got into the habit of freelancing off of whatever the play cards instructed him to do because, hey, that’s what Jackson would do.
One player was especially pissed.
“Micah Hyde is probably my worst enemy right now,” McKenzie says. “Micah Hyde is the one — ‘Yo, why you running so fast! Why don’t you throw the ball!?’ I’m like, ‘You want me to throw a pick? I’m not trying to throw a pick.’ He got mad at me because I was running the ball more than I was throwing it. But when I did throw it, they’re like, ‘Oh man. Why are you throwing it? Do what the paper says!’ I’m like, ‘No. We’re going to do what I want to do because I’m Lamar Jackson.’”
Earlier this season, he was Tyreek Hill. And Jamison Crowder. And he always tears it up. He always tries to “destroy them every chance I get.” Of course, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to be himself once in a while. Maybe the coaches are just trying to keep his legs fresh but, this week, there was a sign of hope. Kenny Stills played the role of Hill in practice. Not McKenzie.
Maybe, juuust maybe, the Bills are planning to unleash McKenzie on the world Sunday.
Right, Isaiah? You’re telling me there’s a chance?
He’s not tipping his hand and/or not getting his hopes up.
Asked if there’s anyone in the NFL like him and McKenzie mentions Carolina’s Curtis Samuel and Miami’s Jakeem Grant but quickly points out that both of those receivers are used far, far more than him. That’s life in this Diggs-, Beasley-, Smoke-, Davis-powered passing game. So, he’s not complaining. He’s staying ready.
And he knows damn well how crazy this city would get if the Bills pull off the upset at Arrowhead.
“The city’s shutting down. Everybody’s on the street. Corona’s about to get wild.”
After everything, McKenzie knows he can be the weapon who vaults Buffalo into its first Super Bowl since 1993, too. That’s how this season has gone for the Bills. It’s always a player nobody outside of the 716 has heard of.
One opportunity is all Isaiah McKenzie needs.
“When I get my opportunity,” he says, “I will seize the moment.”