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These Bills Stack Up

Dec. 07, 1987
Dec. 07, 1987

Table of Contents
Dec. 7, 1987

New Orleans Saints
The Stakes Match
America's Cup
Miami-Notre Dame
The Flyers
DeBerg
Kasparov-Karpov
Buffalo Bills
Hot Stuff
Focus
Nostalgia
Update
Point After

These Bills Stack Up

Through the draft and now a big trade, Buffalo has built a tough young defense it can bank on for the future

Among the many hundreds of Americans recently traded for Eric Dickerson was a certain medium-range missile formerly housed at the University of Alabama, Cornelius (Biscuit) Bennett, who was signed for the price of a small van Gogh by the Buffalo Bills. Dicker-son got the headlines, yes, but it turns out the Biscuit end of the swap was a honey. Seems Bennett goes after a quarterback the way the young Professor Ginsburg once went after a midnight bag of Doritos. And there's even more surprising news at Basement Buffalo, where a 4-12 record used to be expected. With Bennett, Buffalo has got a stack of Bills you wouldn't believe.

This is an article from the Dec. 7, 1987 issue Original Layout

To wit, the Bills have: a) the first player taken in the 1985 draft, defensive end Bruce Smith, whom John Elway called "the best defensive lineman we've seen in the last couple of years, and that includes Howie Long"; b) the second player taken in the '87 draft, Bennett; c) the eighth player taken in '87, former Perm State All-America linebacker Shane Conlan; and d) Buffalo's wings, quarterback Jim Kelly.

Not only that, but Buffalo also has: e) a coach (finally) who may stay around long enough for his magazine subscriptions to catch up with him, Marv Levy; f) a pair of wins over Miami—including last Sunday's 27-0 shutout—which were only the fourth and fifth times in 36 tries that Buffalo had beaten a Don Shulacoached team anywhere; g) a 21-14 strip-mining of the Denver Elways (Nov. 8); h) one of the youngest rosters in the NFL; and i) for once, a future.

"This city is going crazy," says Conlan, who admits it's a strange feeling for both him and it. "After we beat Miami [the first time], I came off the field and I was kind of mad at myself, even though we'd won. At Penn State we always won, but Joe would yell at us anyway. And when I got in the locker room everybody was going nuts. Whatever you did wrong didn't matter. And when we got back home, the fans were going nuts, too. I guess they're not used to this."

You bet they're not. But with the new Million Dollar Bills, they might soon be used to it. All Buffalo's defense did on Sunday was hold the Dolphins to 23 yards on the ground and shut Dan Marino off without a touchdown pass—the first time any team had done that to him in two years. This thing seems to be legit.

"Put it this way," says the Bills' weathered noseguard, Fred Smerlas, "when you've got a millionaire to the left of you and a millionaire to the right and another one behind you, you feel pretty comfortable."

Our Forbes 400 profiles begin with Bennett, the photographic negative of the Boz. He's excruciatingly quiet and ignorant of hair paints. However, they do have some things in common: vast wealth (Boz signed for about $850,000 a year for 10 years; Bennett for $775,000 a year for five); earrings (Boz out-studs Bennett three to one—"I'm more conservative," says Bennett); and animosity toward the NFL establishment (Bennett refused to sign with Indianapolis, Boz with almost everybody else).

Maybe that's why Buffalo could hardly believe its frostbitten ears when it heard that Bennett—unlike Tom Cousineau, Chip Banks, Joe Cribbs, etc., but like Conlan—wanted to be there. "The Bills have a great tradition with O.J. Simpson and Joe Ferguson, so I'm just glad to be a part of it," said Bennett. Hey, what's going on here?

It took two plays to see Biscuit was hot. On his second play against Denver, Bennett went past Broncos tackle Ken Lanier like Willard Scott past a blow-dryer sale. Elway tossed a pass to nobody out of fear for his limbs. Later Bennett lined up behind Smith, a sight that stultified Elway into calling a timeout. By the game's end, Bennett had one sack, two hurries and films of his performance climbing the NFL coaches' sales charts. Said Bills receiver Chris Burkett, "He may be All-Pro this year."

"I think we've got all the ingredients for a great cherry pie," says Bills defensive end Leon (Dr. Sack) Seals. "We've got the cherries and the crust. Now we just need to let it bake a little."

Don't say pie! Not while our second subject, Smith, is around. This is a 285-pound man who, at one point in his life, had to be restrained from riding out of restaurants on the dessert cart. When he arrived in Buffalo, Budd Thalman, the then public relations director, picked him up at the airport and took him out to dinner to discuss the following day's press conference. Went to a seafood place. Smith ordered first.

"I'll have the large porterhouse steak, soup, salad, baked potato, butter and sour cream on that, please."

And Thalman said, "And I'll have the...."

"And," Smith broke in, "the lobster and...."

In Smith's senior year at Virginia Tech he reportedly played some games while weighing more than 300 pounds. "I didn't know how to eat then," he says. "Red meat? I loooooved red meat. Dessert? Ooooooh, I loooooved desserts. I used to have a banana split every day.... Fast food?" We know, we know. He loooooved fast food. "I used to go out and load up at Burger King or someplace like that. Get two or three Whoppers, fries, apple pies. Then just go home and let it just sit in there." O.K., so he knew how to eat, just not how much.

That first year with the Bills he played like a human air bag. He had 6½ sacks, true, but this was the Outland Trophy winner, the guy Pete Rozelle flew to New York on draft day just to warm his palm. Smith was depressed. A sensitive fellow, he took unkindly to the critiques by Hank Bullough, then the defensive coordinator and subsequently the head coach. "When you come into a meeting at nine a.m. and your coach is screaming at you that you're never going to be the player they thought you'd be, how are you supposed to feel?" says Smith.

But in the middle of the 1986 season Bullough was yanked back to civilian life, Levy was hired, and Smith announced, "Football is fun again." Except for visiting quarterbacks, it was. Smith blossomed. He julienned offensive tackles to get 15 sacks—second in the AFC behind Raider Sean Jones's 15½—and did it while being routinely tag-teamed.

It was some turnabout. At 285 pounds Smith was suddenly a new man, a mere shadow of his former self, a dieting dynamo. ("Now I just go home and eat popcorn; two Jiffy's a night," he says.) Says Levy, "Ted Cottrell I the Bills' defensive line coach I told me he used to call up Bruce at 10 in the morning in his first off-season, and somebody at the other end would say, 'Wait a minute, I'll go wake him up.' This year when he called at that hour, Bruce had just come back from running or weightlifting."

All of which is why Smith nearly snapped public relations director Denny Lynch in half when Lynch walked up to him after the season and said, "Congratulations, Bruce, you have been named the first alternate to the Pro Bowl."

First alternate? That's all you get when your team is 8-40 over the past three years, when your team's last Monday night appearance, its last nationally televised weekend game and its last All-Pro selection came in 1983? As Smerlas, a four-time All-Pro, puts it, "When you're losing, this place is a vast wasteland. The only ones who'll come see you are the snowflakes."

Now, thanks to some very rich rookie linebackers, Smith is getting people to come see him. And they like what they see. "Bruce Smith is the finest defensive end in the league," Elway said after looking up at Smith one time too many. Says Broncos offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan, "We saw him make some moves we haven't seen on film all year. One time he took our guy outside, then spun back inside like somebody who weighed about 210 pounds. Very graceful."

And with Bennett outside, rushing frequently and fervently, Smith's salad days literally are here. "They can't double us both, right?" Smith says. And he doesn't even mind that he's making a lot less gravy than Biscuit. "I was thrilled when I looked at Biscuit's numbers," he says. "I just can't wait to get back to the bargaining table. Yesssssssss!" Smith's contract is up after next year. Sounds expensive.

With Bennett on one side, Smith on the other and Conlan in the middle, it works out to something of a human disposal unit, even if Conlan, our last subject, has to go through life as the second-most-famous big-buck Bill linebacker choice from the '87 draft. Not only did Bennett's arrival push Conlan, against his wishes, from outside to inside linebacker, but he's making less wampum than Bennett—about $200,000 per year less. He doesn't mind. "I'd pay Bennett more, too," he says. Of course, he isn't speaking for his agent, Brett Senior, who asked his client if he wanted to renegotiate. (Conlan said no.) Nor for his mother. "She tells me, 'He's not that much better than you,' " says Conlan.

She might be right. Conlan's no blitzer like Bennett, but he's thirsty for tackles. On a third-and-one late in the first Miami game, Conlan threw off a tight end, ducked under a fullback and tripped the ball-bearing tailback. Buffalo tied the game on the next series. "We'd have taken Conlan before Bosworth," says Levy. "People told me, 'Bosworth can make the Pro Bowl someday.' And I'd say, 'Yeah, but I want a guy who can make the Super Bowl.' "

O.K., reality break. The Super Bowl is a good bit down the yellow brick road—Buffalo is 6-5—but if it ever happens, Levy has as good a chance as anybody of being there. Already, with his Smotherers Brothers threesome, he's winning games no recent Bills coach would have dared to waste prayers on. Typical was the 17-14 upset of the New York Jets on Nov. 22. Conlan had 12 tackles, three hurries and two near interceptions (all right, he dropped them both). Bennett was only fantastic, too, with six tackles, 1½ sacks and two batted passes. And Smith, playing with the flu, gave Jets quarterback Ken O'Brien a case of the chills. He had five tackles, 1½ sacks and two hurries.

Said Jets All-Pro center Joe Fields of Bennett, "I knew he was quick, but he still beat me. I thought I had him. But he had the speed to turn the corner and go right by me." Said Jets guard Ted Banker of Smith, "He's the best pass rusher in the game." As for Conlan, he was named the NFL rookie of the week for the second time in the last three. This makes his mother very happy.

Levy is happy, too, just to be staying where he is. That's another change for Buffalo. Two years ago Kay Stephenson began the season as coach. Bullough finished it. Last year Bullough began it, and Levy finished it. So tired were the Bills of having to reshoot team pictures that Levy volunteered to just have a shot of himself taped over Bullough's for last year's team photo, an offer the Bills accepted.

But this year's photo shows a team with only five players over 30, only nine who were with the team before 1985, and—most fortuitous of all for Levy—Smith, Bennett and Conlan. Put away the scissors and the glue, boys. Looks like Marv will be in the picture for a while.

PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONNow that he's playing inside linebacker, Conlan's specialty is filling the gaps.PHOTOJOHN IACONOBennett—that's him on Conlan's back at left and in repose below—is one tough Biscuit.PHOTOCARL SKALAK[See caption above.]PHOTOJOHN IACONOSmith has slimmed down, but at 285 he can still blanket any ballcarrier.