Shuffled down in Buffalo

Top NFL draft choice Bruce Smith doesn't fit the Bills—so far, anyway
October 06, 1985

Last Thursday afternoon defensive end Bruce Smith, the first player chosen in this year's NFL draft, flopped wearily into a chair in the bowels of Buffalo's Rich Stadium after a tough day of practice and lifting weights. "Man, another long day," Smith said. "Whoever said 'Nothing in life is easy' must have had the NFL in mind."

There was a desk nearby with a piece of paper on it. It was the Bills' depth chart, and there on the second team was Bruce Smith's name.

Bruce Smith on the second team? Please. This has to be a typo. Some secretary messed up. Come on, this is the Bruce Smith, the 6'3", 280-pound, two-time All-America from Virginia Tech who won the Outland Trophy last year as the college game's best interior lineman. Forty-six collegiate sacks. Feet so fast they blur in photos. The fellow whose huge frame features a big butt, no waist and no neck but who says, "I look in the mirror and say, 'Oh, my, this body of mine do look good.' " The thoroughly rowdy football player who has been described as playing like the lead boulder in an avalanche, who had few minuses with NFL scouts save a quibble about his weight and whispers that he was inclined to take occasional downs off. Translation: immediate pro starter who will be All-Pro soon and often.

Don't forget, this is the Bruce Smith who owner Ralph Wilson said reminded him of Joe Greene and player personnel veep Norm Pollom said was the best he had seen in 25 years. Pollom compared Bruce with Lee Roy Selmon and said, "He will turn our program around."

For the moment, however, the Bills are 0-4 and Bruce Smith is playing mostly in pass situations. Otherwise he's No. 2 to Don Smith, a seven-year veteran acquired from Atlanta in August. Says Don Smith, "All Bruce has to learn is that it's a hard game." Bruce is learning. On Sunday, he showed some improvement, getting two sacks, but had trouble with the run, reacting poorly to Minnesota's game-winning Statue of Liberty play.

Before Sunday's 27-20 loss, Smith was subdued. "I looked for a reason for all this, and the reason was obvious: I wasn't developed enough. And I think I was not giving 100 percent. Maybe 99.8 percent, but that's not good enough. I'm sure that in the next couple weeks things will be back to normal."

How did Smith take the news of his demotion? "I hope badly, like any competitor should," says defensive coordinator Hank Bullough. Indeed, Smith did take it badly. He is depressed, but he is fighting. What this all is, of course, is the education of Bruce Smith. He was drafted to shore up the Bills' pathetic pass rush (only 26 sacks last year, ranking them 27th among the 28 teams), and nobody in college rushed the passer better. But Smith has had trouble playing the run. He admits being befuddled by some of the opponents' blocking schemes, not to mention the wily ways of rival running backs. The Bills' own defenses have contributed to his confusion. "We have 75 defenses, and three or four are giving me trouble," he says.

Buffalo coach Kay Stephenson insists that moving Smith to second team—Sunday's game marked the second week in a row he hasn't started—should reduce the pressure on the rookie. The central point is that at Virginia Tech, Smith was the bully—bigger, faster, stronger—who could do essentially anything he wanted. Suddenly he is confronted with people, especially offensive tackles, who are dismayingly similar in size and ability.

No wonder that Buffalo's All-Pro nosetackle, Fred Smerlas, was saying just after the draft, "You always see these rookies who are supposed to come in and burn down the house, and when they get here they can't even light a match. We can win with Smith, and we can win without him. A pass-rush specialist can't save you if you get behind and the offense can't score." Prophetic, that. The Sack Man didn't have one before Sunday's game, and his deficiencies against the run were evident when the Jets rushed for a whopping 288 yards against the Bills two weeks ago, humiliating them 42-3. Of the Jets game, Smith says simply, "I had a bad day at the office."

So far Smith's performance gets serious notice because the Bills are an organization with the demonstrated ability to shoot themselves in both feet. Remember their making Walt Patulski the first player chosen in the 1972 draft? Remember 1977, when they took Phil Dokes No. 1? "Look," says Smith in exasperation, "I'm not Superman. I'm just trying to be an impact ballplayer. And I think I'm on the verge of turning it loose. This adversity is making me want it a little bit more. That's good."

It's also good that Smith is apparently keeping his weight down. Everyone felt he should play at no more than 280 pounds, but Smith went somewhere above 300 pounds at Virginia Tech for a while as a senior. Indeed, this is a guy who can have a serious relationship with a Dorito. Yet for a guy who at times has been bigger than two states—small states, of course—Smith has been disciplining himself at the trough. On Thursday he weighed 281. Happily, he finally seems to understand that his agility, speed (4.71 in the 40) and quickness are what set him apart and that too many close encounters of the sweet and starchy kind could be his undoing.

A beleaguered Stephenson runs his hand through his hair repeatedly and downplays Smith's second-team status. "We always wanted to bring Bruce along more slowly," he says. "Any young player is better off if he has a chance to learn slowly. Now I think Bruce knows he needs to work that much harder." Smerlas, who was demoted himself for a time in his rookie year in 1979, has tried to buoy Smith's spirits. He says, "Bruce has a lot of talent, but he has to make sure everybody doesn't keep talking about his potential, which is a French word meaning 'not worth a damn.' "

The Bills signed Smith for $2.6 million over four years. Smith promptly gave his parents back home in Norfolk a $20,000 Volvo, even though they would have preferred a $14,000 Buick; he also endowed a $50,000 scholarship at Virginia Tech because, Smith says, it was "a tax advantage, plus they told me it would make me look good."

Smith, while admitting he is trying to repair his battered ego, still lights up when he gets to talking sacks. "I get the quarterback in my eyes and in my scope, and I can't wait to pull the trigger. Then I think, Man, I can't wait to do it again. What I like is being a gladiator, to dominate and prevail."

Which Smith may eventually do. As soon as he advances from the second team.

PHOTOJOHN D. HANLONDefensive line coach Ardell Wiegandt basically has had to convince Smith that NFL offensive linemen aren't a bunch of dummies.
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