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4 - Buffalo Bills
Thanks for the memories, but don't expect new coach Wade Phillips to wax nostalgic as he tries to restore luster to these faded former champs
But there was defensive end Bruce Smith, citing shoulder and knee soreness, sitting out his first of many training-camp practices (just as he did under Levy) and taking a ribbing from Thurman Thomas. "Some things never change," Thomas said to Smith, "like you never practicing in camp." The proceedings had all the intensity of a YMCA summer camp, not unlike the way Levy ran things during his 12 years in charge. Similar offensive and defensive philosophies to what Levy had employed were also in place. So what had changed? You had to look closely to see two things that will set the '98 Bills apart from their previous editions.
For starters, there will be no more blind allegiance to the incumbents. For the first five plays of camp, there was Thomas, the 32-year-old running back, standing among a group of backups and rookies, watching as second-year man Antowain Smith took handoffs. Thomas will likely be a third-down specialist this year, a role he should have filled exclusively last season. Instead, he split the running chores down the middle with the 224-pound Smith, the perfect back for the grind-it-out offense Buffalo tried to implement last year and will again this season. Phillips, who spent the last three years as Buffalo's defensive coordinator, also wasted no time jettisoning quarterback Todd Collins from the top of the depth chart by dealing Buffalo's first- and fourth-round draft picks to the Jaguars for Johnson. Among Phillips's free-agent acquisitions were power fullback Sam Gash, formerly of the Patriots, and run-blocking guard Joe Panos, late of the Eagles.
Phillips, who was 16-16 in a two-year head-coaching stint with the Broncos in 1993 and '94, won't sweat the small stuff. His coaching credo is simple: Play the best players. And he won't be too sentimental about those halcyon days of championships past, when the Bills reached a league-record four consecutive Super Bowls.
"Marv's a Buffalo Bill forever, a great guy, and he recommended me for this job," Phillips says. "But he's not here now. And Jim Kelly's not throwing touchdown passes anymore. You can't go back. So where are we? We just went 6-10. We led the NFL in fumbles. We led the AFC in throwing interceptions. We had the worst third-down conversion rate in NFL history. [Actually the Bills' 25% conversion rate (53 of 212) was the league's lowest since 1976.] We had the lowest yards-per-pass average in the AFC. Special teams needed an upgrade. I want the quality team that people are used to having around, so we had to adjust."
There could be more than a dozen new faces on the roster this fall. "I've got to make an awful lot of new friends," 13-year-special-teams veteran Mark Pike says.
The most important new face is Johnson, who, despite having only one NFL start under his belt, signed a five-year, $25 million contract extension in July. He has Southern California written all over him. A tan, handsome cross between Nicolas Cage and Keanu Reeves, he has but one nonfootball goal: to own a beach house at Laguna Beach, California. "Dude," "whatever" and "cool" are among his favorite words. But he's also a gym rat. "I know there's a sense of urgency," says Johnson, who moved to Buffalo immediately after the trade. "We're in a ruthless business. And Jim Kelly's an icon around here. I know what I have to do. I grew up a quarterback, and I know you get all the credit and all the blame. There comes that time in your career when you've got to put up or shut up, and get out there and do it. I'm ready for it."
He'd better be. Bills fans are ready for a lot of change, most notably a change from the recent losing trend back to the winning ways of years past.
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