"Sam was a tremendous athlete for his position," Butler says. "Some guys are tougher-than-nails inside backers. They'll play tackle to tackle and fill holes. Sam could do that, and he had great lateral speed. You know the term sideline-to-sideline? That's Sam Cowart."
It didn't take long for Cowart to prove himself to the Bills. "It was about the third day of his rookie camp when we knew we had something special," Cottrell says. By the fourth week of the 1998 season, Cottrell had enough confidence in Cowart to start him against the San Francisco 49ers. In a team meeting a few weeks later, Bills coach Wade Phillips announced that he was permanently switching the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4 alignment because, he said, "we have guys who are ready to play, and we're going to play them." Then as the meeting broke up, he approached Cowart and said, "It's time to step up, rookie."
Though Cowart had started the year as a starstruck rookie awed by the sight of Bruce Smith in the locker room, he totaled 119 tackles that season and teamed with John Holecek to give the Bills one of the more productive inside linebacker tandems in the league. "When we went to the 3-4, that's when we became a dominant defense, because of Sam and the other personnel we had," Phillips says.
Cowart continues to improve. Known primarily as a run stopper before this season, he was usually pulled in passing situations, but this year he has become an every-down player. Teammates think that can only help his stock rise, since it'll give him more opportunities for sacks and interceptions. Cowart is also becoming more comfortable dealing with all the attention that comes with being a star.
"I've probably surprised a lot of people because for a long time I've been considered a second-tier player," Cowart says. "But after losing the guys we lost, people are starting to recognize that we still have some good players here."