Finally, Quinn Early liked what he was hearing. In March the
coveted free-agent receiver had narrowed his choices to the
Bills, the Jets and his most recent team, the Saints. Talks went
well in New York and New Orleans, but neither team said the
magic words: We can win the Super Bowl this year. "When I
visited Buffalo, everyone from the front office to the players
talked in terms of the Super Bowl," Early says. "I hadn't heard
that before." The day he toured the Bills' practice facility, he
had lunch with quarterback Jim Kelly. Moments after being served
his chicken parmesan, Early decided where he would play. "Even
the waiter talked about the Bills winning the Super Bowl," says
Early, who signed a four-year, $8.8 million deal. "I liked that
Of all the teams in the division, Buffalo is the only one that
hasn't undergone a major renovation either in the front office
or on the field since last season. That stability has the Bills'
marquee players predicting that they'll be playing in their
fifth Super Bowl in seven years come January. "Heck, I think
we're going to win the Super Bowl next year," defensive end
Bruce Smith said in February. When tailback Thurman Thomas
signed a three-year contract extension in March, he echoed
Smith's sentiments. "With all the changes being made in the
AFC," Thomas said, "this is a great opportunity for us to go out
and win a Super Bowl."
Kelly hasn't been able to quench his enthusiasm for Buffalo's
chances either. Soon after Early's signing, the quarterback
called Thomas, sounding like a kid with a new toy. "Jim said,
'This is the year we have to make our run at the Super Bowl,'"
Thomas says. "I felt like I was 25 from the way he was talking."
If it sounds like a little desperation is sprinkled in with the
trio's enthusiasm, it's certainly warranted. All three future
Hall of Famers know that this is their last, best chance to
finally win it all. Although Thomas is only 30, 1996 will be his
ninth pro season. He may be showing his age: In '95 Thomas
averaged fewer than four yards per carry for the third straight
season. Meanwhile, the 36-year-old Kelly played most of the year
with a throwing arm that seemed only loosely attached to his
body. He often didn't throw during the week at practice and
underwent surgery on his right shoulder in January. Kelly led
Buffalo to the AFC East title as much on instinct and willpower
as on physical ability.
Given that the Bills seemed to win with smoke and mirrors in
'95, the team has high hopes for this season. In addition to
acquiring Early, Buffalo upgraded the receiver position with
first-round pick Eric Moulds from Mississippi State. That duo
gives the Bills' no-huddle, K-Gun offense the bullet speed it
lacked with wideouts Steve Tasker and Bill Brooks last year.
The return of the club's alltime leading receiver, Andre Reed,
also adds promise. At first it seemed that Reed, a free agent
who missed 10 games in 1995 with a pulled left hamstring, would
sign elsewhere, having openly feuded with his teammates
throughout the season. But Reed had a heartfelt conference call
with Kelly and Thomas and re-signed with the Bills in May. "I've
been with these guys through good and bad," Reed says. "We've
yelled at each other on many occasions. Last year was blown out
Over the last decade Buffalo's potent offense has been credited
with the team's success. Last season Smith and linebacker Bryce
Paup--who, with 17 1/2 sacks, was named NFL Defensive Player of
the Year--led a resurgent defense that overwhelmed opponents.
Paup's presence on the line forced teams to choose between
double-teaming him or Smith, which is a bit like picking between
lethal injection and the firing squad. "It's funny watching our
films and seeing how confused teams were, trying to figure out
how to block us," says linebacker Mark Maddox.
The defense, like the offense, will only get better. Maddox and
cornerback Jeff Burris have recovered from reconstructive knee
surgery (both were healthy enough to play beach volleyball on a
Caribbean cruise in March). Though Buffalo lost locker-room
leader Cornelius Bennett to Atlanta, he'll be capably replaced
by former Lion Chris Spielman. At the press conference
announcing the four-time Pro Bowl player's signing, Spielman
requested that, should he ever lie down on the field with an
injury, someone take out a hunting rifle, shoot him and "put me
out of my misery." If they miss this chance at winning the Super
Bowl, Spielman's new teammates may well be making the same
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON COVER [REGIONAL] Beware of the Bills Thurman Thomas and Buffalo are eyeing the Super Bowl--again
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Thomas, now in his ninth season, continues to carry the Bills' load. [Thurman Thomas]
BY THE NUMBERS
1995 Yards per Game (NFL rank in parentheses)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 124.6 (6) 195.3 (21) 319.8 (20)
DEFENSE 101.6 (11) 218.9 (16) 320.5 (13)
A Knack for Sacks
Bruce Smith has 126 1/2 career sacks, tied for fourth best since
the league began keeping the stat for individual players in
1982. But Smith has never led his own conference--let alone the
NFL--in sacks for a single season.
Bruce Smith's Yearly Sack Totals vs. the AFC Leader's
Smith AFC leader
1985 6 1/2 Andre Tippett, 16 1/2
1986 15 Sean Jones, 15 1/2
1987 12 Andre Tippett, 12 1/2
1988 11 Greg Townsend, 11 1/2
1989 13 Lee Williams, 14
1990 19 Derrick Thomas, 20
1991 1 1/2 William Fuller, 15
1992 14 Leslie O'Neal, 17
1993 14 Neil Smith, 15
1994 10 Kevin Greene, 14
1995 10 1/2 Bryce Paup, 17 1/2
PLAYER TO WATCH
How excited does second-year left guard Ruben Brown get on the
football field? On two occasions last season teammates sat him
down and told him to either quit dancing after making plays or
be prepared to incur the wrath of every defensive lineman in the
league. Some Bills coaches think the 304-pound former
first-round draft pick is light enough on his feet to trade
places on the line with left tackle John Fina. Wherever he
plays, don't expect Brown to slow his routine down to a waltz.
"I love dancing around and acting the ham," Brown says. "I just
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
Head coach: Marv Levy
QB Jim Kelly 458 att. 255 comp. 55.7%
3,130 yds. 22 TDs 13 int. 81.1 rtg.
RB Thurman Thomas 267 att. 1,005 yds. 6 TDs
FB Tim Tindale 5 att. 16 yds. 0 TDs
TE Lonnie Johnson 49 rec. 504 yds. 1 TD
WR Quinn Early[*] 81 rec. 1,087 yds. 8 TDs
WR Andre Reed 24 rec. 312 yds. 3 TDs
WR Eric Moulds (R)[*] 62 rec. 779 yds. 6 TDs
LT John Fina 6'4" 285 lbs.
LG Ruben Brown 6'3" 304 lbs.
C Kent Hull 6'5" 284 lbs.
RG Jerry Ostroski 6'4" 310 lbs.
RT Glenn Parker 6'5" 310 lbs.
PK Steve Christie 33/35 XPs 31/40 FGs
LE Phil Hansen 10 sacks 1 fum. rec.
NT Ted Washington 2 1/2 sacks 0 fum. rec.
RE Bruce Smith 10 1/2 sacks 1 fum. rec.
OLB Bryce Paup 17 1/2 sacks 2 int.
ILB Chris Spielman[*] 1 sack 1 int.
ILB Mark Maddox 0 sacks 0 int.
OLB Sam Rogers 2 sacks 0 int.
CB Jeff Burris 1 int. 0 sacks
SS Henry Jones 1 int. 0 sacks
FS Kurt Schulz 6 int. 0 sacks
CB Thomas Smith 2 int. 0 sacks
P Chris Mohr 86 punts 40.4 avg.
PR Steve Tasker 17 ret. 12.0 avg.
KR Eric Moulds (R)[*] 9 ret. 28.8 avg.
[*] New acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)