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 spoke.
"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 financial stability.
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 to prove."
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 balance."