Nearly an hour after practice has ended for the Buffalo Bills, Sam Cowart flops down on the black leather couch in the living room of his suburban town house. Clad in sweats with a baseball cap pulled down low on his forehead, Buffalo's inside linebacker is easygoing and sincere enough that he doesn't come across as aloof. He doesn't seek out the spotlight, which helps explain why he's one of the most underrated players in the NFL.
But as Cowart begins to talk about his past, a funny thing happens: His ego betrays his humility. For while he's sitting there downplaying his talents, an image flashes across his big-screen television, a highlight on the local news of Cowart's tackling Green Bay Packers running back Ahman Green. He tries to keep his gaze fixed on his guest, but his instincts tell him to take a peek, and then he points at the screen, beaming. In that moment Cowart's secret is out. For as quiet as he may be, he's proud of what a special player he has become.
"I remember having a conversation with Sam in the off-season," says John Shannon, Cowart's godfather. "He said [defensive end] Bruce Smith, [wideout] Andre Reed and [running back] Thurman Thomas were all gone this year and it was time for him to step to the front of the class. He said, 'If I keep playing well, sooner or later, people will start looking at me.' "
In many ways, the 6'2", 245-pound Cowart is emblematic of Buffalo's defense, a stellar unit whose efforts have gone relatively unnoticed. Despite leading the NFL in total defense and passing defense and ranking second in points allowed last season, the Bills didn't send one defender to the Pro Bowl. Many with the club believe that Cowart, who finished with a team-high 186 tackles, suffered the most egregious snub.
This season, despite the departure of four starters—Smith, linebacker Gabe Northern, cornerback Thomas Smith and free safety Kurt Schulz—the Bills again are fielding one of the league's top defenses. Buffalo ranks second in the league against the run, and Cowart is leading the charge. As Buffalo (2-1) prepares to meet the Indianapolis Colts this week, Cowart already has 51 tackles, a pace that would give him a team-record 272 by season's end.
"In this league you need a year to gain some recognition, and then you need to be consistent," says Cowart, who had 23 tackles and an interception in the Bills' last outing, a 27-14 loss to the New York Jets on Sept. 17. "I was disappointed that nobody from our team made the Pro Bowl, but I knew that last year would be a chance for me to get my name out there. Plus, you have linebackers like [the Baltimore Ravens'] Ray Lewis, [the Miami Dolphins'] Zach Thomas and [the San Diego Chargers'] Junior Seau in the AFC, so you can't just be good every week. You have to play great to be recognized."
"Some guys play like they're the only one out there and they have to make the tackle," says Packers director of pro personnel Reggie McKenzie. "Sam is like that. Whether he gives ground or he has to run under or around a blocker, he does whatever is necessary to get in on the play. You can teach technique and proper angles, but the things he does instinctively are not the norm."
Wherever the 25-year-old Cowart has played, he has found a way to shine quickly. He can get so focused on his job that his teammates occasionally ride him about his seriousness. They say that when the defense meets during the week and players are trading wisecracks, Cowart sits stone-faced, his attention directed to whatever strategies defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell is devising. "You could count the times Sam says something to you other than 'Hello,' " quips Bills defensive end Marcellus Wiley.
It may seem odd, then, to learn that Cowart, who minored in communications at Florida State, envisions a career in television after he's done playing. He even spent a week this summer at Craig James's broadcasting school in Dallas. But it's just one more sign that Cowart, a quiet leader and self-described loner, is blossoming.
"Sam is speaking his mind more, which is good, but he never said anything before," says defensive end Phil Hansen. "He just put on his pads, went about his work, got his treatment and went home."