ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- In between stalls for the offensive and defensive lines in the Buffalo Bills' locker room sits one of the team's most popular acquisitions of the most recent offseason: a ping pong table.
Players have wrapped the handles of the paddles -- all emblazoned with the Bills' logo -- in athletic tape for a better grip, and a cup from the cafeteria has been fashioned with some string into a makeshift holder for the ping pong balls.
When players have downtime between practice and meetings, it's at that table where you're likely to find Richie Incognito.
More than two years after the Miami Dolphins suspended Incognito and the NFL commissioned attorney Ted Wells to investigate claims that the Pro Bowl guard harassed teammate Jonathan Martin and other team employees, Incognito has not only found a new home in Buffalo's locker room -- he has returned to the league as one of the NFL's best at his position.
Incognito -- who wasn't on a roster last season, even though the NFL had cleared him to return -- has emerged both a candidate for the Pro Bowl and the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award. The voting for the latter is organized by the Associated Press and allows writers from across the country to submit their choice. There are no specific criteria to qualify for the honor.
Similar to the Bills' spirited ping pong games -- with each serve met by a return volley -- mentioning Incognito as a comeback candidate will prompt opposition from those who raise legitimate points. After all, Incognito came back from a mess of his own making. And there might simply be more deserving players.
There's also a question that might have nothing to do with the award, but is difficult to ignore. Has Richie Incognito changed? Really changed?
Opening serve: Incognito's return to form
It didn't take long for Incognito, in his oversized shoulder pads and with his tattooed biceps, to look like the burly guard who earned his first Pro Bowl nod in 2012, his most recent full season in the NFL.
Pro Football Focus, which analyzes every offensive lineman in every game and grades their performance, ranks Incognito as the second-best guard in the NFL. Only Baltimore's Marshal Yanda has received a better grade through the first half of the season.
"He hasn't missed a step since he's been here, man," left tackle Cordy Glenn said last week. "He's been dominant since Day 1."
Although he's 320 pounds, Incognito has established himself as the go-to player when the Bills need a lineman to pull, or to move to a different part of the formation after the snap to block on the run.
"He's real, real good at it," Glenn explained. "Really agile. Some of the little guys, they see him coming, they just get out of the way. You can just see it. He's real agile for a big dude."
Incognito, 32, made an impression with his conditioning. Bills coach Rex Ryan said Incognito was 20 or 30 yards ahead of his peers in the conditioning run at the start of training camp, and center Eric Wood jokes that other lineman should take a year off, like Incognito did, to get in tip-top shape.
Unraveling tape from his wrists after a practice last week, Incognito reflected on spending last year working with strength and conditioning experts in Arizona.
"I'm moving pretty well. I'm bending well," he said. "I attribute that to just offseason training, the year off -- getting fresh."
As Incognito chatted about his appreciation for his second chance, a crowd of reporters started to form around his locker. He has gotten used to this -- his last name is hardly an accurate descriptor for his status -- so he stood up and grabbed a Bills baseball cap from his locker to wear on camera.
One reporter mentioned that Incognito could be the Bills' best player this season.
"I don't know how much truth there is to that," Incognito responded. "I'm playing well. I'm doing my job. And that's it."
Incognito took questions about his time with the Dolphins, the Bills' opponent last week, noting how he felt "miscast and thrown out" by that organization two years ago and how that "sense of abandonment" has motivated him to return at a high level.
A reporter wondered if Incognito could be on a path to be elected to the Pro Bowl again.
"That's the goal, man," Incognito said. "We play well, we win ballgames, all that stuff takes care of itself. I just focus on playing at the highest level every Sunday. I think that's the one thing that guys around me can hang their hat on: They know I'm going to show up every Sunday and bring it."
As the crowd thinned, another potential postseason accolade was mentioned: comeback player of the year. Surely, Incognito will have his detractors. How will he react if they say he isn't deserving because of how he left the game two years ago?
"I have no reaction," Incognito said, sitting back down at his locker. "I think all that stuff handles itself. I control what I can control, and that's playing well, playing at a high level, playing physical. And a lot of that stuff handles itself. I don't get into that conversation."
Among those who do deliberate over the award, several names are likely to be mentioned besides Incognito's.
The list starts with Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who had to stop playing late last season upon a diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma. The former fifth-overall pick spent the spring receiving chemotherapy treatments. He hasn't missed a game this season.
There's also quarterback Carson Palmer and running back Chris Johnson, who have been instrumental in the Arizona Cardinals surpassing the Seattle Seahawks as the team to beat in the NFC West. Palmer, who suffered a torn ACL last November, has the NFL's highest Total QBR (84.8). Johnson, wounded by a gunshot to his shoulder in March, is the NFL's third-leading rusher. With 676 yards, he has already surpassed his total for the New York Jets in 2014, Johnson's worst season as a pro.
Incognito might be playing at the highest level of his career, but could his return from exile actually trump Berry's recovery from cancer? Does the performance of Palmer or Johnson for a contending team outweigh what Incognito has done for the Bills, who are 4-4?
Second set: The ping pong pals
Tight end Matthew Mulligan, a 270-pound blocker who can deadlift more than twice his weight, began staying in the locker room to play ping pong with Incognito long after players with families had gone home after their workday.
"We had nothing else to do," Mulligan, whose wife and two children live in Maine, said last week. "I was terrible [at ping pong]. I mean, we were awful. But we were equal. We were equally bad for each other."
Joking that it might be only the second or third time that he has been interviewed this season, Mulligan wasn't shy about defending Incognito on both a personal and professional level.
"Something that should be said about Richie Incognito is that, obviously, he's a great football player. But to me, Richie's best asset is his personality," Mulligan said. "The guy knows how to have a good time with everyone. And he continues to show leadership through the fact that anything you get involved in with Richie, there's like a congealment that happens.
"He attracts people because he's such a good person. You want to be friends with him. You want to hang out with him. I think that's one of the things that motivates you as a teammate: If you really enjoy playing with the guy who's next to you or on the other side of the line, I feel like you play harder and there's more camaraderie."
That's why, Mulligan continued, the ping pong games go deeper than just being a mindless activity for football players when they're off the clock.
"Honestly, it's benefited us in a lot more ways than maybe we can imagine," he said. "If you can really get to know someone and really feel like there's a bond growing, I think that's really important, and I think that's what the ping pong table has done."
Incognito -- perhaps, in part because of his stall's proximity to the table -- has become the ringleader of the Bills' ping pong games. When reporters are in the locker room immediately after weekday practices, it's a strong bet you'll see Incognito playing with Mulligan, Wood, guard Kraig Urbik or fullback Jerome Felton.
The games get intense. There's shouting and occasional name-calling. But never -- at least when reporters are watching -- does it feel uncomfortable. It's friendly banter, in stark contrast to the details that emerged from Incognito's time in Miami.
As much support as Incognito has in the Bills' locker room, what can't be overlooked is what the Wells report concluded: that Incognito and teammates John Jerry and Mike Pouncey subjected Jonathan Martin to a "pattern of harassment" that included racial slurs and sexual taunts about his family. And Martin wasn't their only target.
(After the Wells report was made public, Incognito's attorney released a statement saying the report was "replete with errors.")
The extent of the alleged bullying led Martin to leave the team, prompting the investigation. Martin, now retired from the NFL, revealed earlier this year that he suffered from depression and had attempted suicide during his career.
In order for Incognito to continue his own professional career, he needed to stay out of trouble. He is playing this season on a heavily incentivized one-year contract that gives him an opportunity to earn a more lucrative deal on the free-agent market next spring.
Those who might not believe that Incognito is deserving of the comeback player of the year award -- or other postseason honors -- can make a legitimate argument that he had no choice but to toe the line this season, and that his behavior might be less than genuine.
Match point: The second chance
Mulligan is adamant that his teammate has "paid his dues" and done "what the NFL mandated needed to be done." He wants people to move on.
"We all have times in our life where things go on that maybe don't show our best side," Mulligan said. "I know I've had them. You've probably had them. Anybody that's a human being has had times where it's been, 'Man, I wish I could have that back.'"
A pair of Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackles that Incognito faced last month both gave positive reviews when approached this week.
"He's the same type of player he was when he was in his prime," Tyson Alualu said. "Every time you watch film, you know he's that O-lineman that will play chippy and try to get in people's heads with going all the way to the whistle -- even after sometimes. As a D-lineman, you respect that, and I think O-lineman are supposed to be that way. Play nasty.
"I respect his game and he definitely could be comeback player of the year."
Roy Miller agreed, calling Incognito "one of the better guards" in the NFL.
"Everybody makes mistakes," Miller said. "A lot of times you don't get a second chance, and when you do like Richie did, he took advantage of it. I think he's making the best of the situation. He's being a great teammate. He's really bought in. I think he's one of the leaders on that team."
Incognito emphasized this summer that he learned from his mistakes, telling ESPN in an interview published in August, "The biggest thing I learned is sometimes there are some things that I found funny that other people don't find funny. When you're with your brother, and you're in the locker room, you find things to nitpick at each other and you find those weak areas, and I think my fault was going after those weak areas. The thing that I learned to improve is to treat everyone with respect. Treat everyone how I want to be treated. And just kind of grow and learn from there."
If growing and learning is what Incognito truly has done, one could argue that he deserves to be a candidate for comeback player of the year because he has fixed the problems for which the NFL punished him.
But then again, the questions remain: Wasn't it a mess of his own making, and is he simply now meeting a standard of conduct that many other players have already met?