Three years ago, before the NFL draft, the Buffalo Bills had to decide whether to use their second-round choice—and their first in that draft—on a running back from Oklahoma State named Thurman Thomas. Thomas had been a productive college player, but he had a tear in the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, which scared off most teams in the league. Still, Buffalo general manager Bill Polian thought Thomas was a tremendous talent, and he appealed to the Bills' owner, Ralph Wilson. "Boss, this is a first-round player," Polian said. "As the doctors will tell you, his knee's risky. He's a gamble. But we'd like to take him."
"Well," Wilson said, "life's a gamble. Go ahead."
Fast-forward to the AFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Raiders at Rich Stadium on Sunday, and look at what happens on the first series of the day: Thomas bursts through the middle for 12 yards; Thomas takes a pass in the flat from quarterback Jim Kelly and bounces for 14; after Andre Reed pulls down a pass for 15, Thomas ricochets through traffic up the middle for five; Thomas takes another dump-off pass and burrows for nine. Less than two minutes into the game, the Raiders, reeling, take a timeout, like a basketball team trying to stop its opponent's momentum. "They weren't ready for this," Thomas would say later.
When play resumes, Kelly passes to Thomas for five, and then Thomas runs up the gut again for three more. The Bills' no-huddle attack is a fast-break offense, and Kelly and Thomas are Magic Johnson and James Worthy. This particular fast break ends with Kelly hitting wideout James Lofton for a 13-yard touchdown. It's hammer time.
By the end of the first half, Thomas had 170 rushing and receiving yards, and Buffalo led 41-3. The final score was 51-3, with Thomas responsible for a total of 199 yards from scrimmage (138 rushing and 61 receiving). Thomas was that quick, that powerful, that elusive—that good. "It's like he runs with snow tires and everybody else on the field has on sneakers," Raider defensive coordinator Dave Adolph said. Now Thomas and the Bills are running all the way to Tampa, to play in their first Super Bowl, this Sunday against the New York Giants.
The gamble that Buffalo took in the draft three years ago keeps coming up sevens for Thomas and the Bills, who are 15-3 this year. He has missed only one game in three seasons, he has led Buffalo in rushing all three years, he has topped the NFL in total yards from scrimmage the last two seasons, and he is scheduled to make his second straight Pro Bowl appearance on the Sunday after the Super Bowl. "No guts, no glory," Bob Ferguson, the Bills' director of pro personnel, said before Sunday's game. "That's the kind of chance you have to take to be a winning football team. You know, the Raiders talk about their commitment to excellence. We have that same commitment. We'll do anything it takes to get the right players for this team."
The impact that Thomas has on the Bills' game plan is something just shy of Kelly's. It's best put this way: Kelly draws the blueprint and Thomas erects the building. The only other NFL running back close to Thomas in productivity and versatility is James Brooks, the 5'9", 182-pound Cincinnati Bengal. But Thomas, at 5'10" and 198, is more muscular, more of a load when he hits the hole. Which, in these playoffs, has been quite often.
Just look at his performances against the Raiders and the Miami Dolphins, whom Thomas burned for 155 yards from scrimmage in the Bills' 44-34 playoff win on Jan. 12. Excluding the fourth quarter of the AFC title game, when the Bills were running out the clock and Thomas didn't play, Buffalo has run 125 offensive plays in the two playoff games, with Thomas's number called on 69 of them—57 rushes, eight receptions and four incomplete passes intended for him. On 55% of the Bills' meaningful playoff snaps, Thomas has been the offense.
The Raiders used six defensive backs against Buffalo, which meant conditions were ripe for Thomas to ram the ball up the middle, powering into the teeth of a run defense that had allowed four rushing TDs in 17 games. The Bills' pregame locker-room blackboard message clearly stated their strategy: "6 DBs—Run Football. 4-5 DBs—Basic Offense." And the L.A. defense, which coach Art Shell said before the game was probably the best in the Raiders' history, had no clue. Los Angeles knew the game would come down to stopping Kelly and Thomas. The Raiders couldn't halt either one.
"I love having pressure on me," Thomas said before the game. "A lot of players don't have good games when the pressure's on. But I wish they could throw the whole load on my shoulders every week."