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.