Late last week, as he prepared for Sunday's game against the New York Jets, Bruce Smith, the All-Pro defensive end of the Buffalo Bills, stroked the salt-and-pepper stubble that dusted his chin and cheeks. "Eleven years," he said, rubbing his face. "Eleven years in this league gives you this white stuff."
This season was supposed to be the autumn of Smith and the Bills, the year we looked at them and said, Nice run, fellas, but this is a young man's game. See you on the golf course. Coming off a 7-9 year, with several key players lost to free agency and only one significant addition, linebacker Bryce Paup, Buffalo figured to be an also-ran in the formidable AFC East.
It hasn't turned out that way. With the possible exception of the 10—1 Kansas City Chiefs, the Bills are the NFL surprise of the year. At 8-3 after its 28-26 win in New York and with three of its five remaining games to be played at home, Buffalo isn't simply closing in on a playoff berth; it's also a couple of Kansas City or Oakland Raider losses away from home field advantage throughout the playoffs. And you know what happens in Rich Stadium in the dead of January. Strange things, man.
Coach Marv Levy has cobbled these Bills together from an odd assortment of parts. Over the previous three seasons, with the Green Bay Packers, Paup averaged eight sacks a year; through Sunday night he was leading the NFL with 14—twice as many as that tandem of longtime Buffalo stalwarts, Smith and linebacker Cornelius Bennett—and he has given the Bills the rush from the left side that Smith, who attacks from the right, has sought for years to take some of the pressure off him. With tailback Thurman Thomas in the twilight of his career, rookie Darick Holmes from Portland State, who was the fifth-to-last pick in the April draft, has stepped in to rush for 509 yards. Star wideouts Andre Reed and Russell Copeland are injured, but 31-year-old Bill Brooks, plodding rookie Justin Armour (hourglass 4.67 speed in the 40) and special teams mainstay Steve Tasker are doing quite nicely in the Bills' three-wideout sets. Among them they caught 12 Jim Kelly passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday.
Before this year Tasker had not played wide receiver since 1981, at Dodge City ( Kans.) Community College. He also had not returned a punt since 1984, when he played for Northwestern. On Sunday he ran back three punts for 39 yards, caught four passes for 91 yards and ran one reverse for seven yards. "I guess I'm our utility infielder," he said.
The success of the Bills actually began during the past off-season when Smith approached general manager John Butler and said, "I need some help rushing the passer, and we need to look at free agency." Butler went out and bought himself a pass rush in free agents Paup, defensive end Jim Jeffcoat and nosetackle Ted Washington, and he did it for the cap-friendly price of $3.27 million in 1995. Nearly $2 million of that went to Paup, whom the Bills wanted so badly that it took only two phone calls and some perfunctory negotiations to get him to Buffalo.
Paup's signing effectively pushed 35-year-old linebacker Darryl Talley—the most popular player among the Bills—out the door, and Paup felt the locker room coolness in a spring minicamp. "The first practice I came out, and there were Bruce and Thurman wearing Darryl's number," he says. "I said to myself, Uh-oh. What have I gotten myself into?"
The right scheme, as it turns out. The Packers had thought that the 247-pound Paup was too light to play head-to-head with linemen, but for the Bills he plays over the tight end in the regular defense, and on passing downs he lines up at an interior line spot or drops back into pass coverage. This hasn't done much to ease Smith's burden. With his 23 quarterback pressures, Smith is drawing as much attention as ever, which has helped to make the 27-year-old Paup's breakthrough year possible. And in the process Paup has revitalized a team tired of hearing how washed-up it was.
"We were too old," Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson said on Sunday with a chuckle. "We lost all our stars. That's what everybody said, right? This is really something to see. We've got some incredible character players."
A character coach, too. On Oct. 17, the 67-year-old Levy had surgery for prostate cancer. The operation was successful, Levy's doctors say, and his return to the sidelines, after 3� weeks of recuperation, motivated the Bills. Levy is more of a father figure to his players than any other coach in the game. He loves life and football, in no particular order. On Oct. 2, two weeks before his surgery, Levy, who at the time was keeping his illness a secret from his players, was on the field at Cleveland Stadium before a Monday-night game against the Browns. He turned to Butler and said, "Look around you, John. What a place this is. Babe Ruth hit home runs here. Jimmy Foxx hit home runs here. Think about the great football players who played here, Jim Brown and Otto Graham. Isn't it magnificent? I mean, is there any place you'd rather be than right here, right now?"