You want to make a case for the Detroit Lions' Barry Sanders being the best running back in the NFL? Fine. He's the flashiest, he makes the niftiest cuts, he's a pleasure to watch, but for my money I'll take Thurman Thomas of the Buffalo Bills.
Jim Kelly is the mind of the Bills, who are 3-0 after their 23-20 victory over the New York Jets at Giants Stadium on Sunday, the guy who makes the no-huddle offense go, who pushes the buttons and makes the decisions. But Thomas is the heart and soul of this team. And when things are going wrong—as they were against the Jets in a game that Buffalo should have lost—when the pass rushers are pouring in on Kelly, and his receivers are getting mugged downfield and the defense is giving up long, grinding drives, Thomas is always around to take a hand-off or a dumpoff and make something good happen.
He seems to thrive in tough conditions. Who can forget that Monday night game against the Los Angeles Rams in 1989, when Kelly was injured, the Bills were a struggling 3-2 club with Frank Reich at quarterback, and L.A. was coming in with a team that would reach the NFC title game? Thomas played himself into a state of groggy exhaustion that night. He handled the ball 33 times, piling up 172 rushing and receiving yards, and was the hero of the final, winning drive.
How about Super Bowl XXV last January, when Buffalo marched from its own 10-yard line to the New York Giants' 29 in the game's dying moments and Thomas kept the drive going with runs of 22 and 11 yards? His total yardage for the game (190) was almost double that of his Giants counterpart, O.J. Anderson (109), but Anderson got the MVP trophy and Thomas got one vote. Some of the writers doing the balloting were under the impression that they weren't allowed to vote for a guy on the losing team.
September 22, 1991
So on Sunday, when the Jets came up with an almost perfect scheme to stop an offense that was on a pace to break every yardage and scoring record for a season, when the Jets limited the Bills to only 19:25 of possession time—two fewer seconds than what the Giants had allowed them in the Super Bowl—it was time for Kelly to turn to Thomas. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry (11 for 62 yards), and he added 112 yards on 13 receptions, the 13th being a 15-yarder for the touchdown, with 4:14 left, that gave Buffalo the win.
Thomas had come out of the 52-32 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 8 with minor injuries to his groin, heel and ankle, and for a while last week, he was iffy for the game against the Jets. Afterward, he mentioned that bruised ribs could be added to the list.
Thomas said he felt the groin pull "starting to go on me" during his first carry of the game, a five-yard run off tackle. So he caught a nine-yard pass on the next play and ran for 11 yards on the play after that. The no-huddle offense, which had produced 87 points, 1,119 yards and 64 first downs in Buffalo's first two games, was off and running—down to the New York 21, where Kelly tried to hook up with tight end Keith McKeller on a crossing pattern. Linebacker Kyle Clifton, one of the Jets' heroes of the day, intercepted the pass. But Thomas saw something.
"I told Jim that when they were in a two-deep coverage [two safetymen back] like that, I was open on the post pattern over the middle," he said. Kelly filed the information for later use.
One of the nice things about Buffalo's no-huddle attack, with Kelly calling his own plays, is that all the offensive players have input. They simply tell Kelly what they think will work. They don't have to go through a complicated chain of command: sideline to coaches' booth upstairs, back down to the sideline and then onto the field. Kelly does a lot of the play-calling while the Bills are on the way back to the no-huddle. "I try to make sure I'm somewhere near Jim when we're going back," says wideout James Lofton. This no-huddle offense has been called a sandlot approach to football, but actually it's a sensible way to get things done.
On Buffalo's next series, Kenneth Davis was in for Thomas, and the Bills went three plays and punted. "When you've got a groin injury, you don't want to ice it or it'll stiffen," Thomas said later. "So on the series I was out, I kept walking around, and then it felt O.K. It's just a thing I have to contend with. You're in, you're out. It's not going to keep me from playing."
After that punt, New York launched its finest drive of the day—15 plays, 85 yards, 8:08 time of possession and seven points. The Jets looked like the Giants in Super Bowl XXV. In two possessions the Bills had been stopped twice, and the Jet defense was getting a nice long break to suck up some oxygen. The upset possibilities were real indeed, which was what defensive coordinator Pete Carroll had been saying in the week leading up to the game. "We have to rope-a-dope them," said Carroll. "Play it kind of soft, and let them dump it off. Take away what they kill you with. Try to pick the spot when Kelly's going to get kind of impatient, then send it all in. We're going to give up yards in that defense. We're not going to shut them down. We didn't shut down the Oilers' run-and-shoot last year, but we beat them. The problem is people, though. My god, do they have people."
The Bills came in with Kelly, the NFL's top-rated passer; Andre Reed, the league's No. 1 receiver; third wideout Don Beebe, the newest monster, who caught four touchdown passes against a Steeler defense that had given up only nine in 1990; and Lofton, who needs to average about 70 yards a game this year to become the alltime leader in pass-catching yardage. Then there was Thomas, the top rusher in the league and a formidable receiver as well.
"That's the guy who really scares me," Carroll had said. "He's tough enough to catch stuff inside on the linebackers, and fast enough to go out on the wing and get deep on the defensive backs. He's averaging 6.8 yards per carry, and the rest of their backs are averaging 3.2—behind the same offensive line. But if our offense can hold the ball long enough to let us catch our breath, we've got a chance."
Buffalo's high-scoring wins over the Miami Dolphins (35-31) and Pittsburgh to open the season overshadowed one important fact. Both the Dolphins and the Steelers were able to move the ball on the Bills, especially on the ground. Defensive end Bruce Smith still has not returned from preseason arthroscopic knee surgery. Noseguard Jeff Wright went out with a dislocated right kneecap in the game against Miami.
In desperation against the Jets, Buffalo went to an alignment that featured two down linemen and five linebackers. Buffalo's 2-5 called for Cornelius Bennett, normally an outside backer, to play a kind of interior rover, or soft noseguard. After only three Jet series, one of which was good for seven points and another for three, the Bills abandoned the 2-5 and returned to a normal 3-4. "We just let them run their stunts and picked them up and area-blocked them," said New York center Jim Sweeney.
Thomas returned to the game on Buffalo's third series and accounted for yardage on seven of the Bills' remaining eight possessions of the game, not counting two that consisted solely of a quarterback kneel at the end of each half. Reed, who plays the slot, was held to three catches for 26 yards by James Hasty, one of the league's toughest and most underrated cornerbacks. Beebe, the Steeler killer, had only one catch for 12 yards. Lofton, who wound up with five receptions for 79 yards, was effective, but he never got deep. Although Kelly's numbers looked impressive—27 completions in 37 attempts for 275 yards—he was sacked four times and hurried a few more.
The difference was that when Kelly is under pressure, he can move around and buy time until he finds someone. His Jet counterpart, Ken O'Brien, cannot. When O'Brien is comfortable in the pocket, when the running game is working, as it was on Sunday, he can be effective. But in the final minutes, when he had to put the ball up in the face of a heavy rush, he misfired twice and couldn't bring New York downfield quite far enough. Pat Leahy's 51-yard field goal, which would have sent the game into overtime, fell short with 16 seconds to play.
The Bills' postgame locker room was complimentary to an opponent that had played about as well as it was capable of playing. The Jets had missed getting on the board at the end of the first half, when they drove deep and O'Brien was intercepted in the end zone by cornerback James Williams. And they had gotten a bad call on that final drive, when Williams mugged wideout Rob Moore on a sideline route at the Buffalo 20 and no flag was thrown. The Bills knew how close they had come to losing.
"That Hasty," Reed said, shaking his head. "I voted for him for the Pro Bowl last year, and I will again this year. He's one of the four or five best cornerbacks in football. It's a shame no one knows it. Actually their whole scheme was very good. They dominated us. It just so happened that we won."
"It's going to be like this for us every week from now on," Thomas said. "For a lot of teams, the Bills game will be their Super Bowl, and anyone who thinks we can go out and score 40 or 50 points every week better look at this game again."
Thomas was happy, though, that his first-quarter advice to Kelly had finally paid off. The game-winning TD pass, a fluttery ball thrown under pressure, was right down the seam, just as Thomas had called it. "A real duck," he said.
"Did it take you a while to adjust to the NFL passing game when you first came in?" someone asked him.
"No," he said, "because people weren't throwing to me then."
They are now.