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You want to make a case for the Detroit Lions' Barry Sanders being the best running back in the NFL? Fine. He's the flashiest, he makes the niftiest cuts, he's a pleasure to watch, but for my money I'll take Thurman Thomas of the Buffalo Bills.
Jim Kelly is the mind of the Bills, who are 3-0 after their 23-20 victory over the New York Jets at Giants Stadium on Sunday, the guy who makes the no-huddle offense go, who pushes the buttons and makes the decisions. But Thomas is the heart and soul of this team. And when things are going wrong—as they were against the Jets in a game that Buffalo should have lost—when the pass rushers are pouring in on Kelly, and his receivers are getting mugged downfield and the defense is giving up long, grinding drives, Thomas is always around to take a hand-off or a dumpoff and make something good happen.
He seems to thrive in tough conditions. Who can forget that Monday night game against the Los Angeles Rams in 1989, when Kelly was injured, the Bills were a struggling 3-2 club with Frank Reich at quarterback, and L.A. was coming in with a team that would reach the NFC title game? Thomas played himself into a state of groggy exhaustion that night. He handled the ball 33 times, piling up 172 rushing and receiving yards, and was the hero of the final, winning drive.
How about Super Bowl XXV last January, when Buffalo marched from its own 10-yard line to the New York Giants' 29 in the game's dying moments and Thomas kept the drive going with runs of 22 and 11 yards? His total yardage for the game (190) was almost double that of his Giants counterpart, O.J. Anderson (109), but Anderson got the MVP trophy and Thomas got one vote. Some of the writers doing the balloting were under the impression that they weren't allowed to vote for a guy on the losing team.
So on Sunday, when the Jets came up with an almost perfect scheme to stop an offense that was on a pace to break every yardage and scoring record for a season, when the Jets limited the Bills to only 19:25 of possession time—two fewer seconds than what the Giants had allowed them in the Super Bowl—it was time for Kelly to turn to Thomas. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry (11 for 62 yards), and he added 112 yards on 13 receptions, the 13th being a 15-yarder for the touchdown, with 4:14 left, that gave Buffalo the win.
Thomas had come out of the 52-32 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 8 with minor injuries to his groin, heel and ankle, and for a while last week, he was iffy for the game against the Jets. Afterward, he mentioned that bruised ribs could be added to the list.
Thomas said he felt the groin pull "starting to go on me" during his first carry of the game, a five-yard run off tackle. So he caught a nine-yard pass on the next play and ran for 11 yards on the play after that. The no-huddle offense, which had produced 87 points, 1,119 yards and 64 first downs in Buffalo's first two games, was off and running—down to the New York 21, where Kelly tried to hook up with tight end Keith McKeller on a crossing pattern. Linebacker Kyle Clifton, one of the Jets' heroes of the day, intercepted the pass. But Thomas saw something.
"I told Jim that when they were in a two-deep coverage [two safetymen back] like that, I was open on the post pattern over the middle," he said. Kelly filed the information for later use.
One of the nice things about Buffalo's no-huddle attack, with Kelly calling his own plays, is that all the offensive players have input. They simply tell Kelly what they think will work. They don't have to go through a complicated chain of command: sideline to coaches' booth upstairs, back down to the sideline and then onto the field. Kelly does a lot of the play-calling while the Bills are on the way back to the no-huddle. "I try to make sure I'm somewhere near Jim when we're going back," says wideout James Lofton. This no-huddle offense has been called a sandlot approach to football, but actually it's a sensible way to get things done.
On Buffalo's next series, Kenneth Davis was in for Thomas, and the Bills went three plays and punted. "When you've got a groin injury, you don't want to ice it or it'll stiffen," Thomas said later. "So on the series I was out, I kept walking around, and then it felt O.K. It's just a thing I have to contend with. You're in, you're out. It's not going to keep me from playing."