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It's a wonder the city functioned with all the man-hours lost in the mid-1980s. Around town, cars began sporting bumper stickers that proclaimed: BRING PRO FOOTBALL BACK TO BUFFALO. A kind of siege mentality took hold in the locker room. Asked what the atmosphere was like, Smerlas, who is in his 10th year with the team, said, "Remember Saigon in 1975, with everyone trying to get out by helicopter?"
The revolving door was spinning in those years. Tight end Pete Metzelaars, who came in a trade from the Seattle Seahawks in 1985, recalls that the Bills had six tight ends when he arrived. "Yeah, six," he says. "We used to meet in a room at the beginning of the season. There was an orange chair in the room. It seemed like every time someone sat in it, he was gone the next day. The dreaded orange chair. And every Tuesday it seemed like someone new came in. There was a lot of turmoil."
Home games were brutal. Attendance was down, and those who came were seen fleeing the stadium before game's end. "They'd all clear out during the fourth quarter," says Metzelaars. "The only ones left in the stadium were the drunks."
The fans didn't know that the remaking of the Bills had begun. After the 1984 season, Stephenson had asked his director of pro personnel, Bill Polian, to prepare a scouting report on the team for the purpose of identifying where it most needed help. A month later, when he handed Stephenson his report, Polian said, "Coach, we were two and 14 on merit. We've got the worst personnel in the NFL."
But not for long. Through shrewd trading, intelligent drafting and the astute acquisition of free agents, Polian assembled the players who became the born-again Bills. Today, only seven players remain from the '84 season (see box). All the rest arrived later, including most of those who make up the leading defensive unit in the AFC. In 1985, with the No. 1 pick in the draft, Buffalo took Bruce Smith, the MVP of last February's Pro Bowl. Smith was suspended for 30 days earlier this year for substance abuse, but he is regarded by many as the best defensive end in the league.
"I was an assistant to George Allen at the Los Angeles Rams when Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen were there," says Bills coach Marv Levy. "They did it over a long period of time, but Bruce is right there, in their ballpark."
In 1987, Polian put together what has since become one of the best corps of linebackers in the league. He drafted Penn State's Shane Conlan—the man Joe Paterno calls the best linebacker he ever coached—and in the spectacular three-way deal that sent Eric Dickerson from the Rams to the Indianapolis Colts, he landed Bennett. Polian gave up two first-round picks, a second-round choice and running back Greg Bell and in return got one of the elite linebackers in the game. Says Buffalo's defensive coordinator, Walt Corey, "Make a list of the things you are looking for in a linebacker—quickness, strength, vision, anticipation—and you have Cornelius."
This year Polian strengthened the left side of the defensive line when he gave the Kansas City Chiefs a conditional draft choice (which will be a fifth-rounder) for Still, a former All-Pro who's in his 11th season. Still's half-speed approach to practicing did not sit well with Chiefs coach Frank Gansz, a drillmaster. Says Levy, who got to know Still when he was head coach at Kansas City, "Art is a unique person."
Charmingly so. Still lives way out in the country in a three-bedroom house with his wife, Liz, and their five children. They all sleep in one room, side by side, on blankets spread across the floor—a practice that Still says is a Sa-moan tradition he admires because it fosters family unity. "The only problem," he says, "is you have to be careful where you step if you get up in the middle of the night."
Quarterback Jim Kelly has a charm of his own. He wins. That Polian persuaded him to play in Buffalo—three years after the Bills drafted him and he chose instead to sign with the USFL Houston Gamblers—was a masterstroke. Polian pursued Kelly as the USFL was going under, believing Buffalo needed him to get to the Super Bowl. Despite Kelly's vow that he would never play in that cold-weather port—"I cried when I was drafted by Buffalo," he says—banner-waving spectators cheered Kelly as a black stretch limo whisked him from the airport into town for his first appearance after signing an $8 million contract in August 1986. He was just what the Bills' offense needed.