ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Isaiah McKenzie has never lacked for confidence.
He'll interrupt safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer’s post-practice news conferences by noting how they can’t defend him.
And let’s not forget this past summer, when McKenzie playfully went to social media to concede his place as “the face of the franchise” to Josh Allen after the quarterback signed a six-year, $258 million contract extension.
“It’s all fun and games,” said McKenzie in calling his bold claims a self-expression of what he believes he’s capable of despite being buried as the fifth receiver on the depth chart.
It’s a quality beloved by his coaches and teammates, with Allen referring to McKenzie as being “a glue guy” in the locker room for refusing to settle for a secondary role.
“He’s scrappy. He’s hungry,” Allen said. “He’s competitive as heck, and that’s what makes him who he is.”
Never, perhaps, did the fifth-year player need to lean on his self-belief more than this past month.
McKenzie went from landing flat on his face by fumbling away a kickoff return in a 41-15 loss to Indianapolis and being benched the following two games, to playing a significant role in helping Buffalo (9-6) reclaim control of the AFC East race by leading an undermanned offense in a 33-21 win over New England last weekend.
With receivers Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis on the reserve/COVID-19 list, McKenzie had team-leading and career-best totals with 11 catches for 125 yards, while scoring the game-opening touchdown on fourth-and-2 from the Patriots 3.
“It was an emotional roller coaster,” McKenzie said, acknowledging he spent the week following the Colts game being angry at himself.
“But at the same time, I never let my confidence go. I never let down. I may have had some thoughts here or there. I probably vented to a couple of receivers,” he added. “But other than that, I just stayed the course and (my opportunity) finally came up.”
McKenzie’s perseverance is what stood out as Buffalo prepares to host Atlanta (7-8) on Sunday.
“You root for guys that have to go through some of the things that may not be perfect,” offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said. “He’s a guy that means a lot to me. He’s been through a lot and I’m very appreciative for his hard work, his determination and his resolve.”
Left tackle Dion Dawkins referred to McKenzie’s playful personality in what his performance meant.
“He put his money where his funny trash-talk is," Dawkins said. "It just shows day in and day out why he’s here and why his piece is just as crucial as the next guy’s piece.”
More often than not, McKenzie has made the most of his opportunities in his three-plus seasons in Buffalo since being claimed off waivers after being cut by Denver.
He’s established himself as a jack-of-all trades player by scoring seven TDs receiving, three rushing, one returning a punt and completing a 12-yard touchdown pass to Allen last year. He even had three snaps at defensive back in a 2019 season-ending loss to the New York Jets.
McKenzie’s value is also apparent on the practice field, where he plays various roles on Buffalo’s scout teams as a receiver and quarterback. He mimicked Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson in the days leading up to Buffalo's 17-3 divisional-round playoff win over the Ravens in January.
“Nobody was really surprised. I wasn't surprised. I know what he can do,” said receiver Stefon Diggs before making a joke at McKenzie's expense. “I try not to give him too many pats on the back because he's going to pat himself on the back.”
Confident as he is, McKenzie refused to say, “I told you so,” when asked what the performance meant to him.
“I’ll put it this way, I’ve already spoken about it because I trash talk. I said, 'I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that,’” he said. “I got the chance. I did it. And I don’t have to speak anymore. I let everybody speak for me.”
McKenzie's most memorable moment following the game came on the bus ride to the airport. His brash demeanor began to melt when referring to the phone conversation he had with his grandmother, Valarie Mitchell, who raised him since he was 5 years old.
Mitchell isn’t into football, so McKenzie’s outing for the Bills winning meant little. She was more interested in knowing when her grandson might next come home for a visit.
The moment stood out for McKenzie because if not for Mitchell he would not have had this opportunity. Mitchell opened the door for him to attend Florida’s American Heritage by taking a job as a custodian at the private high school, which led to McKenzie eventually landing a scholarship at Georgia.
The two would catch the bus at 5:30 a.m. each day for the hour-long trip to school.
“She did everything for me,” McKenzie said. “So I try to work for her each and every day.”
NOTES: The Bills activated Beasley, Davis, OL Jon Feliciano and DE A.J. Epenesa off the reserve/COVID-19 list. ... DT Star Lotulelei rejoined the team and practiced after being excused last weekend for a personal reason.
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