When the Bills' wide-open K-gun offense was eating up yardage in
huge chunks in the early and mid-'90s, Jim Kelly made an
interesting observation. He had been one of the original
run-and-shoot quarterbacks with the old Houston Gamblers of the
USFL, and when Buffalo's attack was being compared with that
operation, Kelly said, "Don't forget that it's called the
run-and-shoot for good reason. It's run first and then shoot,
and there," he said, pointing to Thurman Thomas, "is the guy who
makes it go."

Thomas, of course, is the brilliant little running back who has
made a career of breaking tackles and bleeding yards out of
no-gainers; his traps and counters were the heart and soul of
the Bills' offense. Well, now Thomas is 31 and has trouble
sustaining his intensity throughout an entire game. And Kelly is
gone. So is the outstanding center, Kent Hull, who called the
blocking switches and kept everything running smoothly up front.
Andre Reed, the possession receiver, is 33. That's four
potential Hall of Famers who are either gone or in decline, and
that, along with the fact that Buffalo did nothing in the
free-agent market, is why people are predicting a big slide for
the Bills in '97.

Well, don't be so sure. They're perhaps not as good as last
year's 10-6 playoff team, and they're certainly different, but
the defense will keep this team in a lot of games. It's a big
switch from the days when the offense scored so quickly that the
defense barely had time to catch its breath. Last year, as the
attack faltered, the defenders toughened, and a unit that ranked
ninth in the league in total defense is back intact.

Bruce Smith is unhappy about his contract, more so this year
than ever before, but he has never held back on the field, and
he and Reggie White have given the NFL its finest defensive end
play of the decade. On the other side, seven-year veteran Phil
Hansen is Pro Bowl-caliber. So is nosetackle Ted Washington.
Pass-rushing linebacker Bryce Paup, the NFL Defensive Player of
the Year in '95, has recovered from a groin injury that
sidelined him for four games last season. Strong safety Henry
Jones is back from a broken leg. Chris Spielman is sturdy in the
middle. And on and on. It's an impressive array of stars, but
not a young group. So while the offense won't be expected to
carry the load, it's nevertheless important that it doesn't have
too many three-and-out series.

Enter Dan Henning, the new offensive coordinator, who says the
attack will be more crunch and less flash. It certainly makes
sense. Third-year quarterback Todd Collins is no Jim Kelly, but
he's durable and courageous. In three starts and four other
appearances spelling Kelly last year, Collins displayed a good
feel on the underneath routes. He was expected to battle for the
job in training camp with former Raider Billy Joe Hobert, whom
the Bills had acquired for a '97 third-round draft choice, but
Hobert played himself out of contention, and now the job belongs
to Collins. He'll be fortified by a two-tight-end, one-back
offense that should afford him maximum protection. There's also
a running game, if Thomas can return to top form and if
first-round draft choice Antowain Smith from Houston looks as
good in the regular season as he did in the preseason.

The weak link, as it is with many teams searching for an
identity, is the offensive line. It remains in flux. If the
Bills tumble, this is the unit that will bring them down.

Long-range prospects for Buffalo aren't encouraging. Ralph
Wilson is one of the league's most respected owners, but he's in
a small market and it's getting tougher for him to lay out the
necessary cash up front. Big companies aren't knocking at his
door. Unlike, say, Dallas, Wilson can't draw on Nike's
promotional dollars to help him with the big signing bonuses.
Bruce Smith's holdout, which dragged through most of training
camp, will not be the last by a Bills star. It may be that it is
just beyond Wilson's means to keep his best players happy and
prevent them from heading elsewhere, which is one reason this
might very well be Smith's last season in a Bills uniform.

It's just another sign that things are changing in Buffalo.


COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER If the Buffalo offense lets them catch their breath, Paup (95), Spielman (54) and the aging defense can handle backs like the Cowboys' Emmitt Smith. [Bryce Paup and Chris Spielman tackling Emmitt Smith]