Jerry Hughes hasn't been around forever, but it sure feels that way.
The longest-tenured Bills player came over in a trade with Indianapolis back in 2013. Since then, he's lived through four head coaches in Buffalo: Doug Marrone, Rex Ryan, interim Anthony Lynn and now Sean McDermott. And prior to this year, he'd played in just two playoff games for this franchise. But now, at the ripe old age of 32, Hughes and the Bills are gearing up for the organization's first AFC title game since the 1993 postseason -- and that is going to require a bunch of folks to change their plans.
"It feels amazing " said Hughes, shortly after Buffalo beat back Baltimore in their Divisional Round matchup on Saturday night. "I was telling the guys, finally, I don't have to host the AFC Championship Game at my house. People can actually sit back, and they gotta watch me. The text messages are flying on my phone, 'What do we do?' For 11 years (dating back to his days in Indy), they've been coming over."
This is a good problem for Hughes to have -- and one that, quite frankly, he saw developing back in the spring, even as the team adjusted to the realities of working during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The guys in the locker room, this is something we talked about in April, coming together on Zoom chat, just sitting around talking football because we couldn't be face to face," he said. "And so for us to continue to keep pounding that rock, and just worrying about that next game, not worrying too far into the future, just shows you what you can do."
It was a true team effort to stop the Ravens cold on Saturday, but Hughes continued his habit of showing up big in big games, recording a pair of sacks against Baltimore, giving him five sacks in his postseason career with the Bills. That makes him one of just five Buffalo defenders (including Darryl Talley, Jeff Wright and Bruce Smith) to collect five-plus sacks in the playoffs since 1982.
"Wow. That's an honor. To be mentioned with Darryl Talley and big Bruce, man, that's a huge honor," he said. "Just because walking back into this building back in 2013, I used to see their faces plastered on the wall, of all the great quotes and all the great things they did for this organization."
Seeing Hughes do what he did Saturday came as no surprise to the people who watch him daily.
"I'm glad you brought up Jerry, because he had a game-ball worthy performance; he did a terrific job for us in our playoff game versus the Ravens," said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier on Monday. "One of those games that was a signature game, like you mentioned, just when we needed it. That quarterback (Baltimore's Lamar Jackson) is so elusive ..."
"Jerry is Jerry, man," said safety Jordan Poyer, who has been with the Bills since 2017, on Saturday. "He's been doing that for a long time. He comes to play every week, and he had a hell of a game (tonight). He was definitely a difference maker."
There was never any doubt that Hughes could make this sort of impact, but for years, Hughes often warred with himself. He had, shall we say, an alter ego: a Mr. Hyde to his Dr. Jekyll. Or, in this case, a "Gary" to his Jerry. At least, that's what former Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams lovingly dubbed Hughes for those moments when he would rage at anyone -- teammates or the opposition -- who got on his other side.
Hughes now says he has become older and wiser, learning from guys like Williams, with whom he played from 2013 to '18, and another former teammate, Lorenzo Alexander, with whom he played from 2016 to '19, to become a more level-headed competitor, someone whom the coaching staff clearly leans on.
"His leadership, combined with the fact that he's out there every week, the way he practices, and he's been disruptive throughout our season," said Frazier, when asked if Hughes' ability to stay consistent without always popping on the stat sheet (he hasn't had double-digit sacks since 2014) is a sign of maturity. The coach added that while Hughes didn't always have week-in, week-out standout numbers in the regular season, "sometimes, at the defensive end position or D-line position, the hurries don't create the splash that a sack does, but those hurries, those getting the quarterback off his spot, those are impact plays for our defense, and Jerry has been doing that for us throughout the season."
He'll need to do it again in Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game, especially if star Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, who is in the concussion protocol after being injured in the Divisional Round, is doing what he does. But considering Hughes' recent track record, and what this means to him (remember, he's not hosting the party Sunday, he has the potential to be the party), don't be surprised if Hughes adds to his postseason sack total in an attempt to push the Bills to a place they haven't been in well over two decades: the Super Bowl.