CAN'T BUFFALO THESE BILLS

In an amazing turnaround, the patsies of the mid-'80s have become this season's heroes, soaring to a grand 11-1 record
November 28, 1988

Leon Seals, the 6'4", 265-pound defensive end of the Buffalo Bills, came bolting toward the tunnel in the rain, heading for the locker rooms under Rich Stadium. He glanced up and saw the Bills' right outside linebacker, Darryl Talley, standing on a TV-camera platform at the tunnel's mouth. Talley yelled at Seals above the din.

"Come on up!" Talley said. Seals scrambled onto the platform, joining not only Talley but also the two men who are known by some people in Buffalo as The Bruise Brothers—6'4", 285-pound defensive end Bruce Smith and 235-pound outside linebacker Cornelius Bennett.

Just a few minutes earlier, the 78,389 fans who packed the stadium in Orchard Park had experienced the moment they had long awaited. Going into Sunday's game against the New York Jets, Buffalo had a 10-1 record, the best in either conference. A win over New York would give the Bills the AFC East title and enable them to enter their next game, against the Bengals in Cincinnati, with a chance to gain the home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The ending was swift and dramatic.

Tied 6-6 at the end of regulation play—Buffalo's 280-plus-pound nose-tackle, Fred Smerlas, blocked Pat Leahy's 40-yard field goal attempt with 25 seconds left—the game went into overtime. Fullback Roger Vick fumbled on the Jets' first possession, and Bennett recovered on the New York 32-yard line. Five plays later, with the ball on the Jets' 12, Bills placekicker Scott Norwood trotted onto the field. By now, Buffalo fans were out of their seats and in the aisles. The Bills had not won their division since 1980, and in the intervening years they had fielded some of the worst teams in the history of the franchise. Suddenly, they were racing to clinch first place with four games still to play.

Norwood nailed his 30-yarder to win the game 9-6, and thousands of spectators surged onto both ends of the field, sending players scampering for the tunnel. They mobbed the ones who remained on the field and pounded on their helmets. "It was kind of scary out there," said the Bills' 255-pound defensive end, Art Still. "I was getting hit harder coming off the field than I was in the game."

They shinned up the goalposts. They grabbed the net behind the posts near the tunnel and tore it down. And there, helmets off, the four defensive players crowded aboard the TV platform. The NFL had outlawed the sack dance, but the crowds called for one now. "Do the dance!" they hollered over and over.

It was a bizarre and memorable twilight scene played out in the chilling mist and rain. To the beat of Shout, which blared over the stadium's loudspeakers, the four led the thousands in dance and song. The celebration was marred a bit by some of the frantic fans, who pulled at the goalposts, which swayed and then fell.

"It was weird," Seals said of the atmosphere. "It was the first time I ever experienced anything like that. It was the highlight of my life."

Weird may have been an understatement. That such an achievement should come in the 1988 season was almost unimaginable two years ago. At that time the Bills were mired in a string of losing seasons that had begun with the Great Collapse of 1984, when they had a record of 2-14 under coach Kay Stephenson. They went 2-14 again in '85 and seemed, curiously, to mirror the fortunes of Buffalo itself. The city was reeling from the recent closing of two steel plants and struggling to make the transition from a blue-collar, manufacturing economy to one that would be increasingly white-collar and service-oriented. Buffalo's identity was so bound up with the Bills—its most vital, visible tie to big-time sports—that a psychic pall settled over Erie County whenever the team took a beating.

Former county executive Ed Rutkowski, who played for the Bills in the '60s, once said, "A lot of business executives tell me that worker productivity on a Monday is directly related to whether the Bills lost the day before."

It's a wonder the city functioned with all the man-hours lost in the mid-1980s. Around town, cars began sporting bumper stickers that proclaimed: BRING PRO FOOTBALL BACK TO BUFFALO. A kind of siege mentality took hold in the locker room. Asked what the atmosphere was like, Smerlas, who is in his 10th year with the team, said, "Remember Saigon in 1975, with everyone trying to get out by helicopter?"

The revolving door was spinning in those years. Tight end Pete Metzelaars, who came in a trade from the Seattle Seahawks in 1985, recalls that the Bills had six tight ends when he arrived. "Yeah, six," he says. "We used to meet in a room at the beginning of the season. There was an orange chair in the room. It seemed like every time someone sat in it, he was gone the next day. The dreaded orange chair. And every Tuesday it seemed like someone new came in. There was a lot of turmoil."

Home games were brutal. Attendance was down, and those who came were seen fleeing the stadium before game's end. "They'd all clear out during the fourth quarter," says Metzelaars. "The only ones left in the stadium were the drunks."

The fans didn't know that the remaking of the Bills had begun. After the 1984 season, Stephenson had asked his director of pro personnel, Bill Polian, to prepare a scouting report on the team for the purpose of identifying where it most needed help. A month later, when he handed Stephenson his report, Polian said, "Coach, we were two and 14 on merit. We've got the worst personnel in the NFL."

But not for long. Through shrewd trading, intelligent drafting and the astute acquisition of free agents, Polian assembled the players who became the born-again Bills. Today, only seven players remain from the '84 season (see box). All the rest arrived later, including most of those who make up the leading defensive unit in the AFC. In 1985, with the No. 1 pick in the draft, Buffalo took Bruce Smith, the MVP of last February's Pro Bowl. Smith was suspended for 30 days earlier this year for substance abuse, but he is regarded by many as the best defensive end in the league.

"I was an assistant to George Allen at the Los Angeles Rams when Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen were there," says Bills coach Marv Levy. "They did it over a long period of time, but Bruce is right there, in their ballpark."

In 1987, Polian put together what has since become one of the best corps of linebackers in the league. He drafted Penn State's Shane Conlan—the man Joe Paterno calls the best linebacker he ever coached—and in the spectacular three-way deal that sent Eric Dickerson from the Rams to the Indianapolis Colts, he landed Bennett. Polian gave up two first-round picks, a second-round choice and running back Greg Bell and in return got one of the elite linebackers in the game. Says Buffalo's defensive coordinator, Walt Corey, "Make a list of the things you are looking for in a linebacker—quickness, strength, vision, anticipation—and you have Cornelius."

This year Polian strengthened the left side of the defensive line when he gave the Kansas City Chiefs a conditional draft choice (which will be a fifth-rounder) for Still, a former All-Pro who's in his 11th season. Still's half-speed approach to practicing did not sit well with Chiefs coach Frank Gansz, a drillmaster. Says Levy, who got to know Still when he was head coach at Kansas City, "Art is a unique person."

Charmingly so. Still lives way out in the country in a three-bedroom house with his wife, Liz, and their five children. They all sleep in one room, side by side, on blankets spread across the floor—a practice that Still says is a Sa-moan tradition he admires because it fosters family unity. "The only problem," he says, "is you have to be careful where you step if you get up in the middle of the night."

Quarterback Jim Kelly has a charm of his own. He wins. That Polian persuaded him to play in Buffalo—three years after the Bills drafted him and he chose instead to sign with the USFL Houston Gamblers—was a masterstroke. Polian pursued Kelly as the USFL was going under, believing Buffalo needed him to get to the Super Bowl. Despite Kelly's vow that he would never play in that cold-weather port—"I cried when I was drafted by Buffalo," he says—banner-waving spectators cheered Kelly as a black stretch limo whisked him from the airport into town for his first appearance after signing an $8 million contract in August 1986. He was just what the Bills' offense needed.

"No quarterback fits this team better," says Levy. "He has a superior arm, he's the toughest quarterback in the league—mentally and physically—and he's tremendously team-oriented."

None of these acquisitions would have been possible had Ralph Wilson, the only owner the Bills have ever had, not spent freely to sign the young stars. The 70-year-old Wilson decided he was tired of waiting to win a Super Bowl. "I can't afford to wait 10 years," he says. "I want to get there, for everybody concerned. That's what the players want. That's what I want. The money is really incidental to the ring. It's much nicer to have someone come up to you at a game and ask for an autograph than to get a program thrown at you. I've had both happen to me."

Wilson acknowledges having made mistakes. Chief among them, he says, was his failure to recognize the importance of the general manager's role in running a football operation. He says he learned that lesson after he gave the job to Polian, the last of six general managers to work for him, in late 1985. "He's the only one who knew anything about football," says Wilson. "A G.M. doesn't just sign contracts, run a staff and sell tickets. After 25 years it finally sank in. It didn't take too long."

When Polian took the job, everyone understood that it was only a question of time before the Bills hired Levy; Polian had been a scout for the Chiefs when Levy was head coach and he considered Levy his football mentor. Stephenson had been fired as coach early in the '85 season. Hank Bullough took his place, but his malapropisms—he admired his players for their "good work ethnic"—were more entertaining than his teams. He was fired during the '86 season as the Bills were struggling with a 2-7 record. That was when Buffalo hired the witty, avuncular Levy, who has a master's degree in English history from Harvard.

Lou Saban and Chuck Knox both coached Buffalo, but according to Wilson, "Marv is the best coach the Bills have ever had. He is a phenomenal organizer." Last year, their first full season under Levy, the Bills were 7-8, and this year they were a popular pick to win the AFC East. "I have watched this game for over a half century," says Wilson, "and this is the most dramatic improvement of a team I've ever seen."

The franchise is prospering as a result. Sunday's game marked the seventh consecutive sellout this season, a club record, and it should have another when the Bills play at home against the Raiders on Dec. 11. Wilson hasn't had such a good time since he founded the franchise in 1960 as part of the old AFL, not even when the Bills won back-to-back league championships in 1964 and '65. "This is the most fun I've ever had with the team," he says.

In fact, it's really the most fun that people have had in Buffalo in years. You should have seen them on Sunday, singing in the rain.

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PHOTOJOHN BIEVERAfter the Bills were shut out in the first half, Norwood supplied all the points they needed. TWO PHOTOSJOHN BIEVERSmerlas (right), with four tackles and a sack, blocked a field goal to save the win; Riddick (below) ran for 103 yards on 18 carries. PHOTOBILL BALLENBERG PHOTOJOHN IACONOOverwrought fans caused at least one injury by hauling down the goalposts as others scrambled on them. PHOTORICK STEWART/ALL SPORT USAThe team's long-suffering followers are looking ahead.

NEW STACK OF BILLS

Thanks to shrewd moves by Polian (below), more than 70% of the Bills' starters have been acquired since '85.

POSITION

PLAYER

HOW ACQUIRED

WHEN ACQUIRED

OFFENSE

WR

Chris Burkett

2nd Round

'85

LT

Will Wolford

1st Round

'86

LG

Jim Ritcher

1st Round

'80

C

Kent Hull

Free Agent

'86

RG

Tim Vogler

Free Agent

'79

RT

Joe Devlin

2nd Round

'76

TE

Pete Metzelaars

Trade

'85

WR

Andre Reed

4th Round

'85

QB

Jim Kelly

1st Round

'83

RB

Thurman Thomas

2nd Round

'88

Ronnie Harmon

1st Round

'86

Robb Riddick

9th Round

'81

FB

Jamie Mueller

3rd Round

'87

K

Scott Norwood

Free Agent

'85

DEFENSE

LE

Art Still

Trade

'88

NT

Fred Smerlas

2nd Round

'79

RE

Bruce Smith

1st Round

'85

OLB

Cornelius Bennett

Trade

'87

ILB

Shane Conlan

1st Round

'87

ILB

Ray Bentley

Free Agent

'86

Scott Radecic

Waiver

'87

OLB

Darryl Talley

2nd Round

'83

CB

Derrick Burroughs

1st Round

'85

Wayne Davis

Trade

'87

CB

Nate Odomes

2nd Round

'87

FS

Mark Kelso

Free Agent

'86

SS

Leonard Smith

Trade

'88

P

John Kidd

5th Round

'84

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)