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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.

I still have visions of the 1990 preseason game between the New York Jets and the Giants, when the Jets pass rushers poured in like crazy and Giants coach Bill Parcells said, "It was like a jailbreak at Rahway State Prison." Boy, docs this club have linemen who can get after the passer, and if they're matched against the right kind of team, heavy and slow-footed, they'll raise hell.

Now the bad news. The Jets lost four games in the fourth quarter last year, a quarter in which they were outscored 117-57. The defense wore down, a situation brought on by an offense that died in the third quarter. Remarkably, the offense scored only four touchdowns all season in the fourth quarter. This is an offense that can look very good, with a well-conceived running game and Ken O'Brien moving the sticks with little control passes to Al Toon and Rob Moore. Then things seem to go flooey.

The defense got shoved around on occasion, but the return of tackle-end Paul Frase—who is sound against the run but didn't play in '90 because of a thyroid problem—will help, and cornerback James Henry has Pro Bowl potential. Trades brought in Irv Eatman to supply offensive-line depth and Lonnie Young to wake up free safety Erik McMillan, who missed too many tackles in '90. Plan B supplied Bobby Houston to fortify a subpar linebacking group. Quarterback Browning Nagle was the top draft pick, but he's an investment for the future.

They laughed when the Indianapolis Colts gave Seattle two first-round draft choices in 1988 for linebacker Fredd Young. They laughed again in 1990, when the Colts gave Atlanta two good players, Andre Rison and Chris Hinton, plus first-and fifth-round picks for the chance to draft Jeff George, a quarterback many clubs thought would never play in the NFL. The laughter stopped in November, when George had big days in back-to-back wins against the Jets and the Bengals. Then, when the Colts got a 1992 first-round pick from Tampa Bay for quarterback Chris Chandler, the word went out that Indy had gotten the hang of this trading business.

After three years of .500 football (24-24) the Colts seem to be on the rise. The Irsays—owner Bob and son Jim, the general manager—are starting to spread around some of the bucks from the steal of a deal they made when they moved the team to Indianapolis. There were no holdouts this year, and four vets received contract extensions. The downside is that the Colts finished 26th in defense last season and 27th in offense, but George and running back Eric Dickerson missed eight games between them. The franchise is on the way back, but it has a ways to go.

From the campuses of Syracuse and Miami come coach Dick MacPherson and chief exec Sam Jankovich, to pump a little hooray into the New England Patriots, the league's weakest franchise. A sample from MacPherson: "When you throw it deep a few times, it causes the people to go, 'oooh, ahhh,' even if you don't hit it. At $43 a ticket a guy deserves a few 'oohs' and 'ahs.' "

Jankovich's job is to keep things businesslike, keep owner Victor Kiam as far away as possible and, yes, be frugal. Case in point: Tim Goad, an unknown and an overachiever, but one of the best nose-guards in football. He has started 46 of the Pats' last 48 games, and in '90 his salary was $127,000. New England offered him $441,000 for three years. Sixty defensive linemen make more. Naturally he held out. He finally signed last Friday.

When wide receiver Irving Fryar went through his typical I-want-to-be-traded spiel in the off-season, MacPherson and offensive coach Dick Coury assured Fryar he would be the focus of a long-ball offense. Trouble is, Fryar hasn't done much in his seven years in Foxboro, and he'll have a green-as-grass Tommy Hodson or journeyman Hugh Millen throwing to him behind a patched-up line.

Maybe New England will wind up running the ball. Two rookies, first-round pick Leonard Russell and fifth-rounder Jon Vaughn, have shown flash. John Stephens, the top back, was a long holdout. The beat goes on. And the beating.




The finest player on the field in Super Bowl XXV, Thomas runs with the best in any stadium.