'Warrior' mindset: Bills safety Jordan Poyer, in possibly final season with team, thrives despite constant injuries

'Warrior' mindset: Bills safety Jordan Poyer, in possibly final season with team, thrives despite constant injuries

Updated: 10 days, 11 hours, 8 minutes, 20 seconds ago

Any NFL player on the less-desirable side of 30 years old and north of 125 games of experience understands the injury risk only increases. They have made a deal with a boogeyman of sorts. The pounding catches up with them. Their training room visits become more frequent. They miss practices. And they sit out games when Sunday arrives too quickly for their busted-up body.

Safety Jordan Poyer is the Bills’ example this year.

Poyer missed two games in his first five Buffalo seasons, a rock of consistency and productivity. But then the boogeyman arrived … and hasn’t left.

August (elbow). September (foot and lung). October (elbow). December/January (knee). The gray clouds that dominate these parts are a metaphor for Poyer’s season and have only periodically lifted for him as he grinded to play in 13 of the Bills’ 17 games (all wins).

“It seems like one thing after another,” Poyer told The Buffalo News last week at his locker inside the Bills’ facility. “I’ve been hurt all season, playing through injuries and trying to do what I can to help this team win football games. It hasn’t been easy at all. I’m just fighting through it for my boys.”

It seems like one thing after another because it has been. In earning Pro Bowl recognition for the first time in his career, Poyer has battled two opponents: The one on the Bills’ schedule, and his body, which hasn’t totally failed him, but has toyed with his mind and routine.

“He’s doing whatever he can to make sure he’s been on the field and I respect the hell out of him,” nickelback Taron Johnson said.

Poyer made 63 tackles and a team-high four interceptions and is currently nursing a knee injury entering Sunday’s AFC Divisional Round playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Bills’ final game could also be Poyer’s last game with the franchise. Scheduled to be a free agent in March, he wants to play well to win for his team and this city and region, but he also wants to make sure he can maximize his market value for one last kick at the contractual can.

“I know I still have a lot of football left in the tank, whether that’s here or someplace else,” he said.

Early injury started wave

Poyer was unable to reach even the opening exhibition game before his first injury, sustaining a hyperextended left elbow Aug. 2. He sat out until the end of the month.

It was the beginning of a long, winding and painful journey. Through Friday, Poyer had missed 18 practices and been a limited participant 13 times.

The maddening part – and the concerning part – for Poyer is it just wasn’t one thing. It wasn’t like he had a tricky hamstring or partially torn labrum that he would focus treatment on and learn how to manage. When one part was declared ready for play, another injury would set him back.

Poyer sustained a foot injury against Tennessee in Week 2 and missed the loss to Miami. He landed awkwardly while making a key interception (which allowed the Bills to beat Baltimore as time expired), injuring his ribs and lung. He sat out the win over Pittsburgh and played at Kansas City only because he traveled by van because of the collapsed lung, which was never reported by the Bills. And a second elbow injury, in the win over Green Bay, shelved him for losses to the Jets and Minnesota.

Bills Titans fourth

Poyer has appeared on the Bills’ injury report before every game except Tennessee (Week 2), at New England (Week 13) and the second Miami game (Week 15).

“Poyer is a dog,” defensive end Greg Rousseau said. “Week in and week out, he’s always going hard. You know how much he means to our team. Special player and we couldn’t have a better dude in the secondary than J.P.”

Sunday will be Poyer’s 148th career regular season/playoff game, experience that has proved even more beneficial this year. He has mastered the art of absorbing the game plan while watching practice, earning the trust of the coaching staff.

Often during individual drills, when practice is open to the media, Poyer would work off to the side to maintain his conditioning. Other times late in the season, he would do limited work Wednesday, watch Thursday and do everything Friday.

“I feel like, playing this game a long time, I’m able to watch and understand schemes, offenses and concepts and really apply it to Sundays,” he said.

What Poyer has applied on Sundays is a consistent presence. In the Bills’ secondary, cornerback Tre’Davious White (knee) didn’t debut until Thanksgiving. Safety Micah Hyde (neck) hasn’t played since Week 2. Ten players have played at least 100 snaps. Nine players have started at least one game.

Poyer drives the play in the secondary. Communication via pre-snap adjustments. Key plays such as his late interception against Baltimore in Week 4. And pass breakups (eight).

“Great awareness and recognition of what offenses are trying to do,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “You can tell he plays with a bunch of intelligence and knows where to be and how to be there. And he’s a good athlete on top of it – he can come and tackle and do all of the things you need safeties to do. He’s been a really fine player for a while now.”

Strong mindset

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Poyer told The News multiple times during the interview about his “mindset,” to return from injury quicker than expected so he could contribute. Is that an ingrained or learned characteristic?

“Realistically, it can be a bit of both,” said Dr. Ilan Danan, who works at the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai’s Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. “The more these athletes advance from high school to college to the professional level, (the mindset) gets fine-tuned. There may be a sense that it was ingrained during their adolescent years, but for some, it may not evolve beyond that and for others, it continues to mature. To a large extent, that’s what can separate pro athletes from athletes who don’t necessarily play behind high school or college.”

The psychological toll of dealing with myriad injuries – painful, yes, but not of the season-ending variety – must be monitored among the players. Treat the injury, but also treat the psyche. Positive reinforcement is a must.

“What’s most important is making sure they have the right type of individuals around them, which in (Poyer’s) case is teammates, coaches, athletic trainers as well as medical personnel who all have the approach of staying optimistic, not just because realistically, we are optimistic people, but most importantly, to get his level of enthusiasm going because there are certainly periods of time during one’s recovery that they may have a bad day or stretch of bad days,” Danan said. “Optimism can go a long way.”

A few lockers down from him at the Bills’ facility, Poyer could turn to defensive end Von Miller, who has two torn ACLs (including one on Thanksgiving) and a season-long foot injury on his medical chart. Poyer also leaned on the other defensive backs.

“Quite a bit,” Poyer said. “I had guys like Von and being able to lean from his experiences. Those are the guys I ride with every day so they keep me motivated. It’s been hard, but guys like them in the locker room, it makes it a little easier (to deal with).”

Danan said that likely proved to be critical in Poyer’s multiple recoveries.

“In terms of somebody they can fall back on or find reassurance from because they’ve been through it, they understand it, they can connect, they can be empathetic and sympathetic, that goes a long way,” Danan said.

The way his teammates talk about him, Poyer can be classified as a servant leader, a person who prioritizes team over self. But let’s face it, team success in the NFL often leads to individual financial security.

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“He’s always out for the betterment of others,” said safety Dean Marlowe, in his second tour with the Bills. “Even if he may be dealing with something, he’s still trying to get things right for the group.

“The bigger picture is to win the Super Bowl.”

Respected by teammates

In his second decade as a pro, Miller signed with the Bills in March and didn’t know Poyer personally.

“I knew of him – I know everybody in the league,” said Miller, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of NFL depth charts, gaining chops to become a future executive.

Game respects game so Miller was aware of Poyer’s career and that he was a first-team All Pro selection in 2021. The last eight months have been enlightening.

“Being here and witnessing him, it’s been an honor and a privilege,” Miller said.

Miller calls Poyer a “Navy SEAL,” for his toughness, dedication and fortitude.

“Navy SEALS, super respect to them for what they do for our country, but it’s more about the mindset they have,” Miller said. “(Poyer) embodies that. Even keel every single day. Excited to be here every single day. Pushing through injuries. Battled through all types of (stuff). And he shows up every single time.”

New players such as Miller instantly see Poyer’s value and players who have been with the Bills for several years still marvel at it.

“That’s a warrior right there,” said third-year safety Cam Lewis, pointing to Poyer’s locker after last week’s win over Miami. “Dealing with all of his injuries, you see what type of guy he is. He’s taking his rest during the week and then on Sundays, you see him playing full speed and flying around.”

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The more Poyer shows up and flies around and helps the Bills win this postseason, the tougher the decision gets for general manager Brandon Beane. Poyer, defensive tackle Ed Oliver and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds are all free agents and it is unlikely there is money to sign all three. Oliver and Edmunds will playing their age-26 seasons in ’23 so they could be the more feasible long-term play. But there is something about Poyer and what he brings to a defense and a culture.

The free-agent safety class lacks depth after Poyer and Cincinnati’s Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell. So long as the injuries don’t require a lengthy offseason rehabilitation, Poyer will have a market. According to Over The Cap, Poyer has career earnings of $36.68 million.

“I know I can still play at a high level when I get healthy this offseason,” he said. “But for right now, I’m focused on trying to win a Super Bowl and the rest will take care of itself.”

Said Bills coach Sean McDermott: “When you look up the words ‘football player’ in the dictionary, you would see a picture of Jordan Poyer. He loves the game. He’s committed. Extremely tough. You look at the injuries he’s had and what he’s come back from, maybe some guys wouldn’t have come back.”

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy. Ryan O'Halloran

Sports Reporter

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