Three years ago, before the NFL draft, the Buffalo Bills had to decide whether to use their second-round choice—and their first in that draft—on a running back from Oklahoma State named Thurman Thomas. Thomas had been a productive college player, but he had a tear in the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, which scared off most teams in the league. Still, Buffalo general manager Bill Polian thought Thomas was a tremendous talent, and he appealed to the Bills' owner, Ralph Wilson. "Boss, this is a first-round player," Polian said. "As the doctors will tell you, his knee's risky. He's a gamble. But we'd like to take him."
"Well," Wilson said, "life's a gamble. Go ahead."
Fast-forward to the AFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Raiders at Rich Stadium on Sunday, and look at what happens on the first series of the day: Thomas bursts through the middle for 12 yards; Thomas takes a pass in the flat from quarterback Jim Kelly and bounces for 14; after Andre Reed pulls down a pass for 15, Thomas ricochets through traffic up the middle for five; Thomas takes another dump-off pass and burrows for nine. Less than two minutes into the game, the Raiders, reeling, take a timeout, like a basketball team trying to stop its opponent's momentum. "They weren't ready for this," Thomas would say later.
When play resumes, Kelly passes to Thomas for five, and then Thomas runs up the gut again for three more. The Bills' no-huddle attack is a fast-break offense, and Kelly and Thomas are Magic Johnson and James Worthy. This particular fast break ends with Kelly hitting wideout James Lofton for a 13-yard touchdown. It's hammer time.
By the end of the first half, Thomas had 170 rushing and receiving yards, and Buffalo led 41-3. The final score was 51-3, with Thomas responsible for a total of 199 yards from scrimmage (138 rushing and 61 receiving). Thomas was that quick, that powerful, that elusive—that good. "It's like he runs with snow tires and everybody else on the field has on sneakers," Raider defensive coordinator Dave Adolph said. Now Thomas and the Bills are running all the way to Tampa, to play in their first Super Bowl, this Sunday against the New York Giants.
The gamble that Buffalo took in the draft three years ago keeps coming up sevens for Thomas and the Bills, who are 15-3 this year. He has missed only one game in three seasons, he has led Buffalo in rushing all three years, he has topped the NFL in total yards from scrimmage the last two seasons, and he is scheduled to make his second straight Pro Bowl appearance on the Sunday after the Super Bowl. "No guts, no glory," Bob Ferguson, the Bills' director of pro personnel, said before Sunday's game. "That's the kind of chance you have to take to be a winning football team. You know, the Raiders talk about their commitment to excellence. We have that same commitment. We'll do anything it takes to get the right players for this team."
The impact that Thomas has on the Bills' game plan is something just shy of Kelly's. It's best put this way: Kelly draws the blueprint and Thomas erects the building. The only other NFL running back close to Thomas in productivity and versatility is James Brooks, the 5'9", 182-pound Cincinnati Bengal. But Thomas, at 5'10" and 198, is more muscular, more of a load when he hits the hole. Which, in these playoffs, has been quite often.
Just look at his performances against the Raiders and the Miami Dolphins, whom Thomas burned for 155 yards from scrimmage in the Bills' 44-34 playoff win on Jan. 12. Excluding the fourth quarter of the AFC title game, when the Bills were running out the clock and Thomas didn't play, Buffalo has run 125 offensive plays in the two playoff games, with Thomas's number called on 69 of them—57 rushes, eight receptions and four incomplete passes intended for him. On 55% of the Bills' meaningful playoff snaps, Thomas has been the offense.
The Raiders used six defensive backs against Buffalo, which meant conditions were ripe for Thomas to ram the ball up the middle, powering into the teeth of a run defense that had allowed four rushing TDs in 17 games. The Bills' pregame locker-room blackboard message clearly stated their strategy: "6 DBs—Run Football. 4-5 DBs—Basic Offense." And the L.A. defense, which coach Art Shell said before the game was probably the best in the Raiders' history, had no clue. Los Angeles knew the game would come down to stopping Kelly and Thomas. The Raiders couldn't halt either one.
"I love having pressure on me," Thomas said before the game. "A lot of players don't have good games when the pressure's on. But I wish they could throw the whole load on my shoulders every week."
"Thurman's acceleration through the hole, his quickness through the hole, and his cuts are unmatched," said Buffalo tackle Will Wolford. "He hits a hole as fast as anyone I've ever seen, and it makes the linemen's job a lot easier. You know if you have your man blocked well, Thurman's not going to make the bad cut."
He's lucky he can still make cuts. After running for 1,553 yards in his sophomore season at Oklahoma State in 1985, Thomas tore that ligament playing pickup basketball. The examining surgeon performed an arthroscopic procedure to determine how much damage there was to the knee, but he didn't do the major knee surgery most anterior tears require, because Thomas's mobility wasn't severely affected. After a rest period of several weeks, he fitted Thomas with a sophisticated knee brace. Thomas rushed for 741 yards his junior season and then returned to All-America form with 1,613 yards as a senior.
But when NFL scouts heard the three dirty words—anterior cruciate tear—and saw Thomas playing with that big knee brace, they backed away. "I thought he had major reconstructive surgery in college," one NFL club official said last week. In fact, Thomas flunked the first physical the Bills gave him. But in the weeks leading up to the draft, Polian asked team doctor Richard Weiss to have another look. "If the knee didn't hold up," Weiss says, "we decided we'd reconstruct it, bring him back the next year and see if he could do it."
Three years later, the only casualty, besides opposing defenses, has been Thomas's college knee brace, which he wore until it finally gave out in the playoff game with Miami. The brace—and a replacement Thomas wore on Sunday—is made of the same material as the shell of a stealth bomber (a graphite composite), which is fitting, seeing as how Thomas has emerged as a state-of-the-art running back. He's so versatile that the Bills now use him as a single setback most of the time, and he runs screen, intermediate and deep patterns from the backfield when he's not carrying the ball. Thomas finished second in the NFL with 1,297 yards rushing this season, and he has tacked on another 255 in the postseason. He has superb hands, balance and explosiveness and the smarts to make the right choice of holes to run through.
About the only thing he lacks is a high profile, a shortcoming he hopes to correct this week in Tampa. "No one writes about me," Thomas says. "I've led the league in yards from scrimmage for the past two years, but I don't get the credit I deserve. They always write about Barry Sanders, Neal Anderson, Bobby Humphrey."
The rest of Kelly's Heroes also are eager for a night in the spotlight at Super Bowl XXV, and they seem set to excel. Against the Raiders, Lofton had his second straight 100-yard playoff game. He was a seven-time All-Pro with Green Bay, but his career hit a dead end when he was released by the Raiders before the start of the 1989 season. But he's still too smooth for most cornerbacks in the league, with little wasted motion in his routes and enough speed to win a footrace to the post. When opposing defenses commit to double coverage on star wideout Reed, whose speed and productivity are among the best in the NFL, they then leave Lofton in single coverage, and he's out there beating good corners like Tim McKyer of the Dolphins and Lionel Washington of the Raiders. "When I look at myself on film now," Lofton says, "1 see the same guy I saw in 1978."
Reed caught only two passes on Sunday, but he has been the Lou Gehrig of the Bills, playing every game but one in the last four seasons and catching 57, 71, 88 and 71 passes, respectively. "It's tough to change, to go to a different guy, when you've got a weapon like Andre," Kelly says. But the diversity of the Bills' offense this season has forced Kelly to consider his other options more often, to look for Lofton, or tight end Keith McKeller, or Al Edwards or Steve Tasker, who share time at the third wideout spot, or Thomas, especially when they are single-covered. "They can double me if they want," Reed says, "but somebody's always going to be clear in this offense."
Which brings us to McKeller, a former Division II college basketball star at Jacksonville (Ala.) State. The Bills took a ninth-round flier on him in the 1987 draft, and he has become the perfect tight end for them after three years in training. Kelly has a formidable offensive line, so he doesn't need a Mark Bavaro-type blocker at tight end. And McKeller isn't a Bavaro. But he does have good hands and above-average speed for a tight end.
"Two years ago, it was Andre Reed," says Kelly, clicking off the weapons that have been made available to him in recent seasons. "Last year, it was Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas. This year, it's Andre Reed, Thurman Thomas, James Lofton and Keith McKeller. We can do a lot of things right now."
Good teams make the right decisions. The Bills made one when they drafted Thomas, and now they are a good team—Super good.