Richie Incognito had everyone convinced he changed, when really he never did

Just three years ago, Richie Incognito was making his triumphant return to the NFL after spending a year blackballed from the league for his involvement in a bullying scandal with his former Miami Dolphins’ teammate Jonathan Martin. Naturally, it was the always forgiving Rex Ryan  – entering his first year as the Buffalo Bills head coach – who was willing to give Incognito a shot a redemption on a one-year, prove to us you learned your lesson deal.

A questionable decision wound up being the right one. During the 2015 season, Incognito started every game at left guard, never missing a snap. The campaign ended with his second trip to the Pro Bowl as an alternate.

More important than Incognito’s play on the field though, was his ability to sway public opinion back in his favor. The 2005 third-round pick spent the entire season under a microscope but avoided any drama or controversy. He also said all the right things, answering questions with the publically appealing “team guy” responses, and further showing other NFL teams that he wasn’t the locker room cancer many believed him to be.

With that renewed reputation, he entered free agency that following offseason projected to earn maybe one final large payday as he navigated through his early 30s. Instead, he settled for a hometown discount with a cap-strapped Bills team, signing a three-year, $15.75 million contract to stay in Buffalo as a thank you for giving him a second chance. It was yet another gesture that went a long way in showing that this was a different Richie Incognito than the guy who was suspended three years prior for bullying a teammate.

In 2016 the only bullying he was doing came at the expense of the Bills opponents on the field, as Incognito was once again named a Pro Bowler, this time outright and not as an alternate. He developed a tight friendship with his offensive line-mate Eric Wood and continued saying all the right things publicly. To top it all off, he had become somewhat of a fan favorite in Buffalo.

Then came this past year, one that began with Rex Ryan getting terminated — a coach Incognito spoke favorably of on numerous occasions — and replaced by Sean McDermott as head coach. At least outwardly, Incognito seemed to buy into McDermott’s process, once again saying all the right things. But a drastic switch from a more laid back culture to one rooted in discipline and accountability isn’t for everyone.

Regardless, the 34-year-old put together another Pro Bowl season, starting all 16 games as the anchor of the Bills offensive line, and had a hand in snapping the franchise’s dreaded 17-year playoff drought. Another banner season by all accounts ended with controversy though.

Just hours after taking a 13-7, Wild Card loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in Buffalo’s first playoff game since 2000, Incognito was accused of directing a racial slur at Jaguars DE Yannick Ngakoue. Ngakoue targeted a series of tweets at Incognito, addressing his apparent usage of racial slurs during the contest. Inside the Bills locker room, Incognito’s teammates came to his defense. Rookie left tackle Dion Dawkins claimed to not have heard anything. Wood cited his friend’s efforts to fix his reputation, doubting that he’d throw it away over a few words.

Publicly though, it was far less surprising to fathom. The man who was once exiled from the league for bullying took things too far and used racial verbiage? You don’t say. It was totally believable.

We may never know what exactly was said on the field between Incognito and Ngakoue that day, or if anything was at all. Ultimately the two parties kissed and made up while spending a week together at the Pro Bowl in Orlando a few weeks later, prompting the end of the NFL investigation into the incident. Still, it was a bad look for Incognito.

Things only got weirder as the offseason drew on though. In March, Incognito agreed to take a pay cut to save the Bills some cap space as he entered into his age 35 season and the final year of his deal. At first Incognito seemed satisfied with the decision, tweeting out a picture of himself walking off the field with McDermott while expressing his support of the team’s vision and excitement to be staying in Buffalo.

All those emotions seemed to quickly sway towards reluctance when he again took to Twitter two weeks later, on April 5, to announce he was firing Athletes First as his representation. The unprofessionalism of such a move was astounding, but suggested that perhaps he wasn’t so happy with the pay cut after all.

Just five days later came the news that Incognito was retiring, as health issues were believed to be the main contributor for to the decision. But Incognito was curiously humorous about the whole situation, which left some blurred lines over its authenticity until the NFL Player’s Union confirmed that he was in fact retiring. If he had left it there everything would be kosher. Instead, the 11-year veteran continued to make a mockery out his “retirement,” joking about showing up for the start of the offseason program. Then tagging the Buffalo Bills team and PR twitter accounts in a tweet asking to be released, signed with a laughing emoji. Of course, the Bills didn’t budge and kept Incognito on the reserve/retired list.

The bizarre saga played out on social media over the course of several weeks and culminated in his inevitable release earlier this week. Upon being reinstated by the league office, he’ll be free to sign anywhere.

It’s obvious the relationship between Incognito and the organization deteriorated throughout the offseason, why is unclear. It could have been a byproduct of the racial slur incident. Or maybe more simply, the four-time Pro Bowler’s frustrations over being asked to accept a pay cut. Whatever the reason, the marriage is over and Incognito leaves Buffalo as more of a pariah than an icon.

That’s not to say fans will forget his contributions during this second stint with the franchise. And they certainly won’t forget his efforts in exorcising the 17-year playoff drought. Everyone on the 2017 Bills will be remembered forever for that alone. But when push comes to shove, Bills fans want players who want to be here, not players who childishly force their way out when they don’t get their way.

On a deeper level, the way Incognito handled this entire ordeal speaks to his character as a whole. Three years of saying all the right things, staying out of trouble — for the most part anyway — and dominating on the field did his image some good. He fooled enough people into thinking he was truly a changed man or at least not the man he was accused of being back in 2013. But to publicly broadcast his exit strategy over social media, drag the organization through the mud and toy with fans on the way out, reduces it to more of an epic ruse.

Truth is, Richie Incognito’s personality didn’t change at all. It’s always been there. And all the work he did to get back into the good graces of  NFL teams and fans, was a waste. Incognito is who we thought he was. And if he hasn’t yet again scared off teams from signing him with this latest shtick, whichever one does better be ready for drama that comes with him.

Follow: @Spencito_

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