Oh, he’s heard the chatter. Ever since Devin Singletary entered the NFL in 2019, skeptics on radio, social media and bar stools have been saying the Bills needed to upgrade at running back.
Some people screamed for them to draft a running back in the first round last year. Now they’re a Super Bowl favorite. Why not make make a run at Saquon Barkley? Management expressed its doubt by drafting Zack Moss in the third round in 2020 and James Cook in the second last April.
“Of course, of course,” Singletary said after practice on Wednesday. “You’re going to hear things. I say this a lot, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing good or doing bad. Whatever it is, there’s always going to be someone who’s not happy or has something to say. That comes with this game.
“As long as the guys in this building respect me, that’s all that matters.”
The players’ respect for “Motor” couldn’t be more evident. More than once, quarterback Josh Allen has gushed about Singletary’s work ethic after big wins. Unprovoked, he did it again last Sunday after a stirring, 23-20 comeback road victory against the Ravens.
Allen said every aspiring football player should turn on Singletary’s tape to see how much he contributes to his team, how he tirelessly and selflessly runs to the football in practice, whether it’s in his hands or not.
“The dude, all he knows is work and that’s why his name’s Motor and he lives up to the name. I can go on and on about what type of person and player he is. I love the kid,” Allen said.
“Motor’s hard not to root for,” said wideout Stefon Diggs. “He’s a baller. He makes a lot of plays for us, plays that don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet. I have a lot of respect for him.”
When you’re 5-foot-7, though, you get accustomed to being sold short. It’s a common cliche for athletes to say they’re their own biggest critics. In Singletary’s case, it’s very true. He’s well aware that an NFL running back isn’t simply running against defenses, he’s running against time.
“If you keep that mindset that it’s never good enough, I feel you will continue to excel,” he said. “If you get comfortable, that’s when things can start going bad.”
Singletary decided it wasn’t good enough after his second season in 2020, when his rushing yards and average per carry declined from his rookie season. He felt he had let the Bills down in the 38-24 loss to K.C. in the AFC title game. He had only 17 yards rushing and 26 total yards that day.
Early in the second quarter, with the Bills leading 9-7, Singletary dropped a pass in the flat that could have changed the trajectory of the game. He had an open field and would have easily gained a first down in K.C. territory. The Chiefs scored on their ensuing drive and never lost the lead.
“It was one play. I wouldn’t say it defined the game,” Motor recalled. “But I felt if I made that catch, I could have been the burst of energy we needed to get things rolling in the way we wanted. But it didn’t go that way, and I took it upon myself.
“No matter what happens, I’m going to come back harder and continue to get better,” he said. “That’s how I took it. The Covid year was my second year. It was a tough year, just finding ways to work. I knew coming into my third year that was something I wanted to focus on.”
Singletary sought the help of Nick Hicks, a trainer at the PER4ORM fitness center in Davie, Fla., in his native Broward County (he’s from the city of Deerfield Beach). He worked with Hicks and also trained with Vikings star running back Dalvin Cook, a Miami native.
“I got with those guys,” he said. “It was a lot of good work on the field and in the weight room and took it to another level.”
Feeling stronger than ever, Motor had his finest season in 2021. He rushed for a career-high 870 yards and averaged 4.6 a carry. He also had 40 receptions and eight total touchdowns, both career highs. Singletary scored a TD in six straight games, including the playoffs, and had career playoff highs of 81 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the wild-card win over the Patriots.
Still, the Bills drafted a running back, James Cook, in the second round, looking for a more dynamic receiving weapon out of the backfield. Instead, Singletary has become a much bigger part of the passing game and put a vise hold on his role as the featured back.
His rushing performance has suffered some behind an offensive line that was rated by one analytics site as one of the worst in the league after three weeks. Singletary, whose 4.7-yard career average ranks third in team history, is averaging just 3.8 yards a rush this season.
Singletary had nine receptions for 78 yards, both career highs, against the Dolphins. In Sunday’s win at Baltimore, he ran 11 times for 49 yards and caught four passes for 47 yards. He was the Bills’ top offensive weapon during their second-half comeback.
Motor seemed to put it into a higher gear in the rain. He broke an 18-yard run on his first touch of the third quarter. He ran for 9 yards on his next carry. He took a swing pass for 14 years on the Bills’ next possession.
But his most vital plays came during the Bills’ game-winning drive in the final minutes. On second-and-1 at the Ravens’ 27, he took a screen pass from Allen and darted 16 yards. On the next play, he broke over left guard and could have scored a TD. But he wisely went to the ground, as his coaches had instructed, helping ensure that the Ravens wouldn’t get the ball back.
“It’s all about sacrificing,” Diggs said. “I feel like Motor could have scored a TD there and it would have gone on the stat sheet. But people who know football and know the game inside the game, you appreciate Motor for going down. You understand it’s bigger than that.”
Motor seems to find an extra gear as the game goes on these days. He was one Bills who wasn’t worn down in the heat in his native Florida. At 5-7, 203 pounds, he’s extremely powerful and tough to bring down. He takes great pride in being one of the few successful NFL backs at his height.
“I wasn’t the first guy at my size to do this, but I’m one of them,” he said. “I’ve been this height basically since middle school. Maybe I was 5-5. So, I probably grew two inches, which is not nothing in the grand scheme of things.
“So, by the time I hit high school, I knew this was it. This is where I’m going to be, and I was OK with it. Of course, there’s going to be people who doubt you, but who cares? You’ve got to keep working. If I was 6-1, I might be playing a different position. But it is what it is. God blessed me with this for a reason, and I use it to my advantage.”
Maurice Jones-Drew, who stood 5-7 and had 8,137 career rushing yards, is the only man his size among the top 100 rushers in NFL history. Former Syracuse and Giants great Joe Morris, also 5-7, had 5,585 career yards. Barry Sanders, the greatest little back of all, was 5-foot-8 and stands fourth on the rushing list with 15,269.
One spot above Sanders is 5-9 Frank Gore, who gained exactly 16,000 yards in a 16-year NFL career that included a one-year stint in Buffalo in 2019 — Singletary’s rookie year. Gore was a mentor and remains a good friend.
“Oh, I talked to him the other day, actually,” Singletary said. “He was just telling me what he saw, some things I could clean up, and just keep going. He’s like my big brother.”
Singletary had another big brother figure and mentor in high school. Greg Bryant was the No. 1 running back at American Heritage High when Motor joined the team. Bryant went on to play at Notre Dame. He was shot and killed while driving home in South Florida in 2016.
“I think of him all the time,” Singletary said. “I know he’s looking down. He’s proud of me and he’s smiling. He’s hard to forget, especially a guy like that.”
Singletary has an older brother, Devonn Jr., and younger sister, Monet. His father, Devonn, was a football star who played running back at Norfolk State. Singletary said his dad left college to go back home to take care of Devonn Jr. when he was born.
“I heard stories all the time, growing up, about how good he was, things that he did,” Singletary said of his dad. He played running back. That’s how I got the nickname. He’s Motor, so it was passed down. He was the first Motor. Then it was me.
“Once I started playing ball, it stuck.”
As his teammates will attest, the nickname fits. Motor goes about his job with uncommon energy and zeal, as if someone was coming to take it. And who could blame him?
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.