As the Buffalo Bills were preparing for their preseason opener
against the Broncos in Denver last Saturday morning, Buffalo
defensive end Bruce Smith sat at the end of his dock in Virginia
Beach, peering out at the inlet that feeds into Chesapeake Bay.
Except for the occasional trout breaking the surface of the
water or the cry of a seagull, it was eerily quiet. Until Smith
"If they make me play without negotiating a fair contract, my
sole purpose on the football field this year will be to stay
healthy," he said. "No more playing with a torn rotator cuff or
a knee that needs surgery, like I've done. I'll just make sure I
don't get hurt."
With the off-season retirements of quarterback Jim Kelly and
center Kent Hull, the aging of running back Thurman Thomas and
the mothballing of their trademark no-huddle offense, the Bills
as we have known them are no longer. With Smith, the 1996 NFL
Defensive Player of the Year, engaged in a holdout over a
contract extension, the esprit de corps that made this team
special is also threatened.
Beyond those impediments to a successful season in '97 is the
question of the team's long-term security in Buffalo. Owner
Ralph Wilson has been negotiating a new lease at Rich Stadium to
replace the one that expires after the '98 season. With
season-ticket sales having plummeted from 57,132 in 1992 to a
projected 34,000 this year, Wilson is looking for at least $60
million to make the stadium state-of-the-art. "We've got to get
a lease that works, and we've got to make the Bills more of a
regional franchise," Wilson said at halftime of Buffalo's 31-10
loss to the Broncos. "I'm disappointed in the lack of enthusiasm
in Buffalo for the team. With Jim gone, people seem to have lost
interest. But look out here on the field in the first half. Look
at our new players."
They include third-year quarterback Todd Collins, second-year
center Dusty Zeigler, rookie running back Antowain Smith and
second-year pass rusher Gabe Northern. Suddenly Buffalo's four
straight Super Bowl appearances beginning in January 1991 seem
so long ago. When coach Marv Levy gathered the squad on July 11
for his opening address at training camp, he looked the
neophytes in the eye and said, "Jim Kelly's gone, Kent Hull's
gone and [former star linebackers] Shane Conlan, Cornelius
Bennett and Darryl Talley are gone. They're part of a great
tradition we'll treasure. But I was a young man when President
Kennedy made his speech about a new generation of Americans. Now
you're the new generation of Buffalo Bills. It's time for you to
create a tradition."
Age, and necessity, can force a team to do that. The Bills are
one of the NFL clubs that aren't rich enough to pay free agents
or their own stars the huge signing bonuses the market now
commands. Buffalo's offer to Bruce Smith of $22 million over
five years includes a $5 million bonus, which pales in
comparison with the bonuses the Green Bay Packers gave Brett
Favre ($12 million) or the Detroit Lions gave Barry Sanders
($11.5 million) or the Kansas City Chiefs gave a player inferior
to Smith, linebacker Derrick Thomas ($7.5 million). Paying out
such bonuses, the Bills say, would jeopardize the team's
Still, this might not be such a bad team in '97. "We can play
defense, and that'll always help a young offense getting on its
feet," says defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Buffalo retains
the core of a defense that ranked sixth in the league in points
allowed in '96, and if Smith returns in earnest, linebacker
Bryce Paup regains the form that made him the NFL's best
defensive player two years ago and Northern continues to improve
at right outside linebacker, Buffalo could have its best pass
rush in several years. The 6'3", 240-pound Northern, a
second-round pick from LSU last year, is a voracious rusher with
a knack for getting past blockers. On the last play of the first
quarter against the Broncos, he weaved through traffic to sack
backup Jeff Lewis. Imagine an energized Smith with Northern
playing over his shoulder, and 25 sacks between the two of them
doesn't sound far-fetched. "I think I've opened some eyes about
who Gabe Northern is," Northern said after last Saturday's game.
"I'm one of the young guys here who thinks he can do what the
Bills of the past have done."
Things aren't so clear-cut on offense except that Collins, who
started three games in place of the injured Kelly last season,
will undoubtedly beat out strong-armed but erratic Billy Joe
Hobert, a fifth-year veteran who was acquired in an off-season
trade with the Oakland Raiders. Collins was in control last
Saturday (5 of 9 passing for 63 yards), but he did nothing to
make fans rush to the ticket windows. What will help Collins is
the run-oriented offense of new coordinator Dan Henning. What
will hurt him is an oft-leaky line, the pressure of succeeding
Kelly and the Bills' lack of a deep threat to stretch defenses,
a shortcoming that was painfully obvious against Denver.
"I understand the perception that we're going down because of
Jim leaving, but that's football," Levy says. "The Washington
Redskins won three Super Bowls with three different
quarterbacks. When Joe Montana leaves, you've got to find Steve
Young. You don't know if we have Steve Young, so we've got a lot
Henning will try to alleviate Collins's growing pains by
alternating the 10-year veteran Thomas and the 6'2", 224-pound
Antowain Smith. The first three times the rookie touched the
ball against the Broncos, on consecutive plays late in the first
quarter, were memorable. On second-and-10 he banged behind right
tackle Corey Louchiey, powering through four defenders for nine
yards. On the next play defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry
busted through the line, but Smith still burrowed for two yards
and a first down. Then Smith turned an over-the-shoulder catch
of a screen pass from Collins into a 10-yard gain. Two series
later, he burst through the right side for a 31-yard touchdown.
His game totals: eight carries for 52 yards, one reception,
immediate respect. "He runs like Herschel Walker in his early
years," Henning said afterward. "Power, quick feet, great
Great story, too. Raised by grandparents Clara and John Smith in
Millbrook, Ala., Antowain turned down a chance to play college
football in 1990 because he had to help support the family.
Clara was on kidney dialysis and John had lost one arm, so
Antowain mixed dye at a nearby textile plant for $5.50 an hour.
For 3 1/2 years, until Clara died in '93, Antowain would take
$20 or $30 a week for himself and turn over the rest of his
paycheck to his grandparents to pay medical bills. "It's
something I just had to do, and something I was honored to do,"
Smith says. He watched football games on TV--he remembers
pulling for Thomas in the '91 Super Bowl against the New York
Giants because he liked his running style--but never envisioned
himself in the NFL.
Clara changed that. On her deathbed, she made her grandson
promise he would get a college education. After playing for East
Mississippi Community College in '94, he attended Houston on a
football scholarship, majored in kinesiology, led the Cougars to
the '96 Liberty Bowl and became a top pro prospect at age 25.
Some teams thought he was too old, but the Bills snapped him up
with the 23rd overall pick of the April draft.
A quiet man, Smith may have said more after Saturday's game than
he did during his first couple of weeks of training camp. The
biggest night of your life can do that to a person. "I'm living
a dream," Smith said. "I went out on the field tonight, and
there's Michael Dean Perry and Neil Smith on the Denver side,
and it finally hit me: I'm in the NFL. All the adversity I had
to overcome finally was worth it. I'm so happy I can't express
Thomas and Smith could be one of the most productive tandems in
the league if Thomas wisely doesn't push to be the
285-carry-a-season workhorse that Bills fans are accustomed to
seeing. "There may be four or five games where I'm a 30-carry
guy, but I've taken a pounding over the years," says Thomas. "I
think we've got the ability in our backfield now to have a bunch
of guys run with it."
While he thinks people are underestimating the Bills, Thomas
also admits that Buffalo's success depends largely on the status
of Bruce Smith. "Without him, who knows?" he says.
At the heart of the hulking defensive end's dispute with the
team is his claim of a broken promise. Smith, who didn't do
himself any favors when he was charged with driving under the
influence after an early Sunday incident in Virginia Beach, says
that in renegotiating his contract at the club's request in '95,
he consented to extending it a year (to '97, at $2.2 million)
and flip-flopping his '95 salary ($2.2 million) with his '96 pay
($3.9 million). He says that in return for helping to clear room
under the salary cap, Bills management told him that if he
played up to his standard, the club would void the final year of
the deal and do a new contract.
General manager John Butler vehemently denies making any such
deal with Smith or his agent, but Wilson acknowledges that
Smith's contract was to be reviewed after the '96 season. Smith
wants about $25 million over five years, and because most
football contracts are not guaranteed, he would like about $10
million of that (signing bonus and salary combined) in '97.
Buffalo's offer provides a total of $6.2 million this season. "I
do them a favor so they can clear some cap room to sign new
players, and this is the thanks I get," Smith says.
"Baloney!" Wilson bellowed in his box at Mile High Stadium last
Saturday. "This idea that Bruce did us a grandiose favor by
redoing his contract is nonsense. Look, Bruce Smith is the best
defensive end I've ever seen. He's been paid well over the
years. It just so happens that our review of his contract and
his review were about as far apart as this football field. I
can't adjust my contract structure because of what Derrick
Thomas gets, or because of what some owner in Albuquerque pays
his guy. All I know is that at the end of last year, I told
[Bills treasurer] Jeff Littmann, 'Give Bruce $100,000 more a
year than [Packers defensive end] Reggie White got.' And we did,
if you average the first three years of our offer to Bruce and
compare it to Reggie's."
The bottom line, as linebacker Chris Spielman says, is that most
Bills players believe Smith will play for Buffalo and play hard.
If he doesn't sign a new deal, he'll have to have another big
year for prospective suitors to pay top dollar for a pass rusher
who will be 35 next season.
Spielman, a free-agent pickup by the Bills in '96, has Buffalo's
situation pegged when he says NFL teams don't go through classic
rebuilding anymore. "Teams reload now," he says of quick-fix
acquisitions. "We're in a pretty good reloading position. We've
got good veterans and some rookies who look good. If the young
guys live up to our standard, we won't fall off."
That's a big if.