Coughlans, the hopping place on Friday nights in the western New York hamlet of Fredonia, is wall-to-wall people on this particular evening, and one of the reasons is that the boys are back in town. Sitting at a couple of tables in the back of Coughlans, mingling with the locals and telling war stories, are summer campers Jim Kelly, Cornelius (Biscuit) Bennett, Bruce Smith, Andre Reed, Darryl Talley and Thurman Thomas. The Bills' Friday-night meetings are over, and the players are having a couple of cold ones before hustling back to the dorm at Fredonia State University for 11 p.m. bed check.
"Gotta tell you the fish story about Biscuit!" Kelly says, shouting to be heard above The Who on the jukebox and the other people who are shouting to be heard above The Who on the jukebox. "We're down in Miami for Don Shula's fishing tournament in the winter. We're out on a boat, and we take this white pail and wrap Biscuit's line around the pail. Then we lower the pail into the water with the boat moving, and his line starts going zzzzzzt! I yell to him, 'Biscuit, you've got a big one!' So he hustles over to his line and starts working really hard. He's sweating and fighting, and finally he gets it near the boat. I lean over the side to bring it in, and I say, 'Wow, you got a huge white pailfish!' And then I take the pail out of the water and pour it all over him. Ruined his beeper and everything!"
Kelly guffaws. Bennett nods slowly. "Don't worry," he says with a sly smile. "I'll get you for it."
It is six months after the Bills' fourth straight Super Bowl loss, yet among this group that is the nucleus of the winningest team of the 1990s, harmony prevails. There is no sniping about coaches, no bitching about selfish teammates, no white-flag raising for this team that can't seem to win the big one. There is no black cloud over Fredonia. There is only a serene confidence that the Bills will once again secure home field advantage in the playoffs, win the conference title and show up for another Super Bowl.
"Hope springs eternal," says coach Marv Levy. "Remember, I'm a Cubs fan."
You think, as you arrive at Fredonia, that the Bills have to change something. Anything. "It's clear," one rival coach says, "that they can't win that game." So why don't the Bills shake this place up? Why doesn't Levy fire half of his coaching staff and bring in a bunch of drill sergeants to strike some fear into the hearts of these perennial Super Bowl chumps?
Then you see the players, bright-eyed and eager, ready to resume the quest, and the answer is apparent: It ain't perfect, but it ain't broke cither, so don't fix it. Sure, maybe the Bills should have acquired a Super Bowl-savvy leader like linebacker Wilber Marshall or someone to help seal up their porous run defense. Maybe they should rethink their affection for quick, athletic linebackers and begin to embrace the block-of-granite types favored by their NFC superiors. Maybe it's just too darned comfortable here, too friendly.
But the overriding feeling in the organization is that the Bills have gotten to the big one four straight times, and the core of this team is healthy and ready for one more shot.
"Tear the team down?" Levy says. "That's foolhardy. I went by the photo in our office of our first Super Bowl team recently, and I saw 59 players. Only 20 of them are still with us. There's turnover and refreshment, but it doesn't have to be in a flurry of activity just for the sake of change."
The AFC East is still Buffalo's to lose—as long as injuries don't take a toll. Kelly, for instance, has tendinitis in his right rotator cuff. "The tough thing is starting from ground zero year after year, getting almost to the top, then starting over with everyone else," Kelly says. "But I think we know we're still the team to beat in the AFC, and I think everyone in the league knows that." This year we'll find out if that's all there is to this team.
2. Are the Minnesota Vikings the league's most-improved team?
It takes Warren Moon nearly half an hour to walk the hundred or so yards from the practice field to the locker room at the Viking camp, in Mankato, Minn. As he walks the gantlet of fans who are kept at bay on either side of a Cyclone fence, Moon stops to sign autographs. Scores of them. Every seven-year-old from Duluth gets his trading card signed. Every teenybopper from Le Sueur gets her shirt signed. Every beer-gutted leather-lung from International Falls who shoves his kids to the front of the line goes away happy. As Moon signs, this is what he hears:
"Super Bowl this year, Warren?"
"Welcome to Minnesota! Take us all the way!"
"You're the guy we've been missing! We're going to the Super Bowl!"
Moon and tackle Chris Hinton—with 13 Pro Bowl appearances between them—and tight end Adrian Cooper arrived in Minnesota over this off-season (Moon and Cooper by trades; Hinton as a free agent) to join a team that lost to the New York Giants in the wild-card round of the playoffs. The Viking defense, the NFL's best last season, loses only end Chris Doleman from its major contributors. This team will be a Super Bowl contender come December.
Of course, this sounds awfully familiar to Moon, for 10 seasons the mainstay of the best team in recent NFL history that never won anything, the Houston Oilers. "I like this team a lot. But no one knows better than I do that the best talent doesn't always win," says Moon, who was traded to Minnesota in April.
Where the Vikings need help is at defensive end. They've already got the best pair of defensive tackles, Henry Thomas and John Randle, in the league. But to replace Doleman at right end, Minnesota will plug in an undrafted former college tight end and linebacker, James Harris, who played sparingly last season, mostly on special teams. "We have to get 10 or more sacks from the right-end position," says defensive line coach John Teerlinck, who is superb at turning unknowns into players.
Says Thomas, "We're really hard on James sometimes, and then he thinks, 'I'm crap.' But he knows nothing less than 10 sacks is acceptable." Harris will benefit from the presence of the two tackles, who combined for 21½ sacks last year, terrific numbers for inside pass rushers. But the division is filled with good left tackles, who are bound to give a green kid like Harris some long afternoons.
Still, the Vikings are significantly better than the team that sleepwalked through its playoff loss to the Giants. They now have the division's top quarterback, a road-grading tackle and the full-package tight end that coach Dennis Green has lacked in his two previous seasons in Minnesota. "I think we gained ground against San Francisco and Dallas, which is who you have to gain ground against in the NFC," Hinton says. "I can look at this team and say we can go to the big dance and really mean it."
3. Can Buddy Ryan make the difference for the Arizona Cardinals?
How hot has it been in Phoenix? Well, if you stay outside too long, your eyebrows feel singed. Nevertheless, 200 Cardinal fans stood in line in the searing heat outside the Cardinals' Tempe, Ariz., offices a couple of weeks ago on the first day of single-game ticket sales. It wasn't so long ago that a Cardinal fan could walk up to the ticket window a half hour before kickoff and grab prime 30-yard-line seats. No more. The city is nuts about this team, and the players are caught up in the excitement. "It's show time in Phoenix," says defensive tackle Eric Swann, one of the team's rising stars. "This team's so pumped up, so motivated. We all believe we're going to win and win now."
The reason for this giddiness is displayed on billboards all over the region: BUDDYBALL. New coach and director of personnel Buddy Ryan is unquestionably the star of this show, so much so that the Cards' season-ticket sales have already jumped from an anemic 24,842 last season to 48,122 as of last week. (The increase will earn Ryan a tidy bonus; he gets a buck for each new season ticket sold since his hiring.) "I'm the guy who brought all the hope here," says Ryan with typical modesty.
Still, Ryan has done far more than brainwash his fans and players. He now claims to have "the best front seven in football, no doubt," having brought in defensive end Clyde Simmons and outside linebacker Seth Joyner, former Buddyballers on the Philadelphia Eagles who as free agents each signed five-year deals for $14.5 million.
"I've died and gone to heaven," Joyner says. He and Simmons should more than make up for the two front-seven losses—free-agent linebacker Ken Harvey, who signed with the Washington Redskins, and 337-pound defensive tackle Keith Rucker, who was fired on July 7 by Ryan for flunking the club's 880-yard timed run. Ryan called Rucker "Fatso" and canned him the next day.
But is there enough offense to turn a 7-9 team into a playoff contender? The offense is virtually unchanged from last year—when the Cards scored 17 or fewer points in 10 games—except at running back. Rookie Chuck Levy appears to be a Dave Meggett clone, and Ryan seems to have settled on Ron Moore over Garrison Hearst. "Moore reminds me of Walter Payton," Ryan says.
The pressure is on Moore to realize his coach's expectations—but then Ryan demands nothing less of himself, either. In five seasons as coach of the Eagles, Ryan couldn't produce a single playoff win, and the can't-win-in-the-playoffs tag burned him, especially after the defense he constructed with the Chicago Bears under Mike Ditka became so dominant. "Who won all those playoff games in Chicago? Ditka? Gimme a break," he snarls. "In Philadelphia, if the owner [Norman Braman] had kept me, we'd have been the team of the '90s."
Get ready for Buddyball.
4. Whither Deion?
"Beep-beep! Beep-beep! Beep-beep!" Deion Sanders, the Cincinnati Reds' centerfielder, pulled the black beeper out of his Riverfront Stadium locker last week and checked out the number of his caller. It was in area code 404, Atlanta. Sanders thought for a second, then said, "It's Taylor Smith. I got nothing to say to the man."
Taylor Smith is the president of the Atlanta Falcons, and right now Sanders, who became an unrestricted free agent in the spring, is mad at the Falcons. He thinks they made him out to be a greedy fool in his aborted contract talks with the team this off-season, and Sanders will most assuredly not call Smith back. At present Sanders has his sights turned elsewhere. "To the Super Bowl," he says. "I want to go to a team that's going to the Super Bowl this year." When the Miami Dolphins and the San Francisco 49ers are mentioned—both teams have expressed interest in Sanders, though both would have trouble fitting him under the salary cap—Sanders smiles a prime-time smile. "Now, that sounds good," he says. "Real good."
"God, wouldn't that be exciting?" 49er president Carmen Policy says, "But it would be awful tough unless he were willing to take $700,000 or $800,000 for half a season to come to San Francisco for a chance to win the Super Bowl."
Deion's Decision, an annual story, has a different twist this year. In past years the NFL was left to wonder when he would show up and what impact he would have on the season. Last year he showed up after the Falcons had stumbled to an 0-5 start; he sparked them on a 6-2 run before they lost their last three. Sanders's impact as a cornerback-wideout-returner was so great that he made the Pro Bowl and received some consideration as Defensive Player of the Year. "He's the best defensive player in the game right now," former Los Angeles Raider Howie Long says. Sanders's ties to Atlanta are slim because of his May trade from the Braves to the Reds. With the new NFL salary cap, the question becomes, Which team will cut a couple of contributing players in October to make room for a guy who could make a real difference in the playoff race?
The Falcons have told Sanders that they plan to use him more on offense than on defense this year, in a receiver slot. "They said I'd play probably 90 percent of the downs on offense, and second and third downs on defense at the corner," Sanders says. "[Quarterback] Jeff George called me. He said, 'I need you out there. Is there anything I can do?' "
Falcon coach June Jones says he thinks Sanders can be a Pro Bowl offensive player. "I still think it's 50-50 we'll get him," Jones says. "We've set aside a slush fund to compete with any other teams who might try to sign him when baseball's over."
The Falcons have offered Sanders roughly $180,000 a game—$1.8 million if the Reds don't make it to the postseason. Even if there's a strike, he cannot play football until the baseball season is officially ended. Sanders would not discuss his salary demands, but it's likely that he would take less to go to a Super Bowl contender. In any case, he will have to continue to put baseball first until the end of the 1995 season, when his three-year, baseball-as-priority contract expires. "Football's my true love," he said, gathering up his gear to prepare for batting practice. "Just wait till I get to a Super Bowl. I'm going to light it up." If the cap doesn't get in the way.
5. Have the New England Patriots turned it around already?
Absolutely. They're better than the Dolphins, perhaps, if Bill Parcells's plans are followed, and if running back Marion Butts can stay healthy. Butts came to the Pats on draft day, when the San Diego Chargers, bowing to the salary cap, dumped his $1.4 million salary on New England for a fifth-round pick and a swap of third-rounders. When the lopsided trade was done, Parcells smiled so broadly that new owner Bob Kraft told him, "Bill, this is the happiest I've ever seen you."
"Well," Parcells said, "I've wanted the guy for five years."
Butts, 28, had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on July 25 but should be ready to play in New England's final three preseason games, and the Patriots are counting on him to be their workhorse. If healthy, he's the perfect Parcells back: reliable (averaging one fumble per 34 quarters), experienced but not burned out (averaging 206 carries in five seasons), and productive (averaging 4.2 yards per carry, with a total of 31 rushing touchdowns). And a hard runner. "If I'm not hustling and making a decent block," free-agent guard import Bob Kratch says, 'he's running right into my back. Hard."
The competition has noticed. The Bills, in particular, think they're looking at a team very much like the one they lost to in Super Bowl XXV—Parcells's Giants. "The Patriots scare me more than any team in our division," Buffalo special-teamer Steve Tasker says. "Bill Parcells's teams don't make many mistakes, and if they play ball control, they'll be tough to beat."
6. Does it even matter who will replace Phil Simms at quarterback for the New York Giants?
The Giants lost three fourths of their secondary—cornerback Mark Collins and safeties Myron Guyton and Greg Jackson—to free agency in the off-season. They lost superb insurance back Lewis Tillman, guard Bob Kratch and center Bart Oates to free agency, as well. Then, saying that the salary cap and Simms's questionable shoulder left them with no alternative, they waived him and his $2.55 million salary. The move, by general manager George Young, was opposed by team president and patriarch Wellington Mara. But on Giant personnel matters, Young has the last word.
The Giants couldn't have kept all of their free agents, obviously, because they spent profusely—and wisely, as it turned out—in the 1993 market, bringing in linebackers Carlton Bailey and Michael Brooks and wideouts Mike Sherrard and Mark Jackson. But inasmuch as the Giants fell just one overtime period short of winning home field advantage in the NFC playoffs last year, the dumping of Simms is most curious.
An NFC general manager and his coach were discussing the Giants recently. The G.M. said, "They're going with one of those kids at quarterback, Dave Brown or Kent Graham." The coach replied, "Let's make sure we never get ourselves into that situation—having a winning team without a quarterback."
Part of the reason the Giants found themselves in a salary-cap jam was their decision not to use the NFL's deadline of Dec. 23, 1993, to sign players to long-term deals, which would have allowed them to assign part of a player's compensation to the 1993 uncapped season. "We were on a run to the playoffs, and we didn't want to disrupt our chemistry," said Young. The players don't buy that.
"They said it would be a distraction," guard William Roberts said last Saturday night after the Giants opened the preseason with a 20-19 home loss to the Miami Dolphins. "But San Francisco got their guys signed by the 23rd. [The 49ers signed 11 players to long-term deals by the deadline.] The Cowboys got their quarterback [Troy Aikman] done. Their guys weren't distracted."
Simms will be missed, though Brown, a skinny kid from Duke, looked good (8 for 12, 107 yards) against Miami and is favored at this point to edge Graham for the quarterback job. Guyton's absence will hurt too. The defensive backfield is a mishmash, and the Giants need second-rounders Jason Sehorn, a safety, and Thomas Randolph, a corner, to learn their jobs quickly. Fortunately for the Giants, their coach, Dan Reeves, is an expert at getting the most out of his personnel, and his staff knows how to teach.