First, let us regard the wondrous personnel of the Buffalo Bills: Jim Kelly, the best quarterback in the NFL in 1990; Thurman Thomas, the league's finest running back and the best player on the field in Super Bowl XXV; an offensive line that has savvy on the left side in Will Wolford and Jim Ritcher, an All-Pro center in Kent Hull, and 625 pounds of drive-blocking power in John Davis and Howard Ballard on the right; an All-Pro wideout in Andre Reed and James Lofton on the other wing; a defense that features three Pro Bowl linebackers and star right end Bruce Smith (page 28).
Now we get into the offensive formation, the no-huddle, with Kelly calling his own plays, a blitzkrieg that reached a furious climax (44 and 51 points) in two playoff victories and marched down the field against the Giants in the Super Bowl's dying moments, only to have the evening end with a missed field goal. Now we get into the head scratching:
?How can a team that finished first in the league in scoring end up seventh from the bottom in time of possession? Answer: Maybe the Bills scored too quickly.
?How can a team with so many defensive standouts have allowed the Giants so many brutal drives in the Super Bowl? Answer No. 1: Buffalo is too light through the middle. Noseguard Jeff Wright and the inside linebackers, Shane Conlan and Ray Bentley, are not sturdy, no-neck, run-plugger types. Answer No. 2: The Bills' defense relies on quickness and pursuit. It's not a rock-'em-and-stop-'em unit.
?Is there a correlation between questions 1 and 2? Answer: Yes. An old NFL theory says that if you've got a flashy offense, then that's what your defense practices against every day, and that little fiber of toughness will be missing.
O.K., coach Marv Levy knows that the rest of the world has had the off-season to prepare for his no-huddle, and he'll probably cut back a little, replacing it with more meat in the grinder. Further, the first four draft choices were all for defense. The best of the bunch, Phil Hansen, has been solid, filling in for Smith, who had arthroscopic knee surgery and sat out the preseason.
Kelly has a sore ankle, and Smith may miss the first game, maybe more. Defensive end Leon Seals has a sprained left knee, and linebacker Darryl Talley was a holdout. Still, I believe the Bills' superior talent will get them into Supe XXVI. This time the field goal won't go wide.
It has long been suspected that the day would come when a coach would not require his players to be tucked in every night at training camp, but no one knew who the pioneer would be. Guess what? It was Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, the darling of the establishment. That's right, his lads spent every night of the preseason at home with the wife and kiddies.
What does this tell you? Well, Shula must have been mighty pleased with his 1990 team, especially with a running game that finally showed some life, thanks to tailback Sammie Smith, to two terrific rookies on the left side of the line, Richmond Webb and Keith Sims, and to a Plan B steal, Tony Paige, the best blocking fullback in the business. The magnificence of the 12-4 season was tempered by the 44-34 loss to Buffalo in the playoffs, and people said, "See, the Dolphins still can't play defense." Miami, though, caught the Bills at their best that day.
The Dolphins are a solid playoff team, but the first part of the schedule will be troublesome, with five of the first seven games on the road and with Smith and Webb both sidelined with knee injuries. Brilliant rookie wideouts seemed to dominate the NFL preseason, and Miami has one of the Swiftest in Randal Hill. Third-round pick Aaron Craver might take over Jim Jensen's role of possession receiver out of the backfield.