On the second day of the NFL draft, Thurman Thomas was relaxing
at home in Houston when he received a phone call. The voice on
the other end of the line, a rumbling Barry White-like bass, was
familiar to Thomas, but it seemed more confused than it had
sounded before. "Do you believe they took a running back and a
defensive end?" grumbled Bruce Smith into Thomas's ear. "Are
they trying to tell us something?"
In a word, yes. By selecting running back Antowain Smith of
Houston in the first round and defensive end Marcellus Wiley of
Columbia in the second, the Bills brass had begun rebuilding in
earnest. Thomas and Bruce Smith may stick around for one or two
more years, but Buffalo, after making the playoffs last season
for the eighth time in nine years, is poised for a free fall.
Beware, Bills fans: The fall is about to begin.
"A lot of young guys are going to have to step it up," says
coach Marv Levy, who will tie George Halas's record as the
oldest coach in league history when he turns 72 in August. "New
guys are going to have to emerge."
Who those new guys will be is a bit of a mystery. Quarterback
Jim Kelly retired in February, and along with him went the K-Gun
offense--a version of the no-huddle. The new scheme, designed by
first-year offensive coordinator Dan Henning, features a
one-back, two-tight-end set that emphasizes protecting the
passer, reducing turnovers and increasing possession time. The
system isn't exactly sexy, but the conservative playbook will
take pressure off third-year quarterback Todd Collins, Kelly's
likely replacement. "Todd is smart, he can scramble, and he
doesn't put the defense in a bad situation with turnovers," says
Bruce Smith. "He knows his limitations."
While that hardly constitutes a ringing endorsement, Smith's
comments help explain Collins's 2-1 record as a starter last
season while Kelly was injured. Collins has thrown just 128
passes in his pro career, and as with any young quarterback,
he's in for some growing pains. If he should falter, Billy Joe
Hobert, acquired from Oakland in the off-season for a
third-round draft choice, will get a chance. But Hobert is no
panacea: In five career starts, his record is 0-5.
On the bright side, the new quarterback will be surrounded by an
impressive cast. Though Thomas no longer has the spunk in his
legs to carry the ball 300 times per year, he can still set a
defense ablaze on any given play. Last season, at age 30, Thomas
became only the second player in league history to rush for at
least 1,000 yards in eight consecutive seasons. That string may
snap this year with the presence of first-rounder Smith, a 6'2",
224-pounder who runs the 40 in less than 4.5 seconds. Wide
receivers Andre Reed, Quinn Early and Eric Moulds won't see the
ball as much in the new offense, but they still form one of the
more capable triumvirates in the conference.
"Our new style of offense will help the defense," says Levy,
referring to the fact that the ball-control scheme is designed
to keep the defense off the field. "We played good defense last
year, but the philosophy change will help even more."
The Bills ranked fifth in the AFC last season in total defense,
but this year the defense will be relied on to win games, not
just to keep them close. A daunting task, to be sure, but there
is a solid core of talent. Bruce Smith, the 1996 NFL defensive
player of the year, and Phil Hansen combined to form the
fourth-most-prolific pass-rushing duo in the NFL last season,
with 21 1/2 sacks between them. Linebacker Chris Spielman was
second in the NFL in tackles, and cornerbacks Jeff Burris and
Thomas Smith were standouts.
"We feel we can be one of the best defenses in the league," says
Bruce Smith. "That's the kind of talent we have."
However, immediately after praising his teammates, Smith's
thoughts begin to wander. "I have one year left on my contract,
and so far the Bills have done nothing but make an absurd
offer," he says. "I didn't set the market, but I did set the
standard by which all other defensive players are measured.
Right now, if things don't change, my focus for this year is
just to stay healthy so that next year I can go somewhere else
to accomplish my goals."
Smith had yet to sign a new contract as camp opened, and at the
time he talked to his good friend Thurman, he didn't sound like
someone who would be willing to endure a major rebuilding
effort--like the one the Bills are just beginning. --L.A.
COLOR PHOTO: JOE TRAVER COVER [REGIONAL] Wild Bill Fiery Chris Spielman and the defense carry Buffalo's hopes
COLOR PHOTO: JOE TRAVER Unlike in past seasons, Smith (78) and the Bills may have little to celebrate in '97. [Bruce Smith]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 10-6 (second in AFC East)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 118.8 (8) 201.1 (17) 319.9 (16)
DEFENSE 104.3 (14) 191.8 (8) 296.1 (9)
With Jim Kelly retired, Marv Levy finds himself in a position he
has largely avoided in his 11 years as Bills coach: having to
break in a new starting quarterback. Todd Collins will probably
begin the season under center, although Billy Joe Hobert could
see playing time too. Since 1988, Buffalo has used only three
starting quarterbacks, the fewest in the league over that period.
Fewest Starting Quarterbacks Since 1988
Bills 3 Todd Collins, Jim Kelly, Frank Reich
Giants 4 Dave Brown, Kent Graham, Jeff Hostetler, Phil Simms
49ers 4 Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac, Joe Montana, Steve Young
Broncos 5 John Elway, Gary Kubiak, Tommy Maddox, Hugh Millen,
Dolphins 5 Steve DeBerg, Craig Erickson, Bernie Kosar, Dan
Marino, Scott Mitchell
Steelers 5 Todd Blackledge, Bubby Brister, Jim Miller, Neil
O'Donnell, Mike Tomczak
PLAYER TO WATCH
Now that Buffalo's offense has shifted into a two-tight-end
formation, offensive coordinator Dan Henning is expecting
fourth-year tight end Lonnie Johnson to emerge as a star.
Johnson had 46 receptions for 457 yards in '96 but was often
criticized by Jim Kelly for his lack of effort. "There's no
reason Lonnie can't be a top-notch tight end in this league,"
says Henning. "He's got speed, he's got good hands, he's tough
and he's smart." Indeed, if Johnson can put it all together, he
may find himself in Honolulu at season's end.
PROJECTED LINEUP With 1996 Statistics
Head Coach: Marv Levy
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Todd Collins 183[*] 99 att. 55 comp. 55.6% 739 yds.
4 TDs 5 int. 71.9 rtg.
RB Thurman Thomas 71[*] 281 att. 1,033 yds. 3.7 avg.
26 rec. 254 yds. 9.8 avg. 8 TDs
RB Antowain Smith(R)[A] 120[*] 202 att. 1,239 yds. 6.1 avg.
28 rec. 201 yds. 7.2 avg. 15 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Andre Reed 108[*] 66 rec. 1,036 yds. 6 TDs
WR Quinn Early 206[*] 50 rec. 798 yds. 4 TDs
TE Tony Cline 257[*] 19 rec. 117 yds. 1 TD
TE Lonnie Johnson 203[*] 46 rec. 457 yds. 0 TDs
PK Steve Christie 178[*] 33/33 XPs 24/29 FGs 105 pts.
KR Eric Moulds 170[*] 52 ret. 23.2 avg. 1 TD
PR Jeff Burris 372[*] 27 ret. 10.6 avg. 0 TDs
LT John Fina 6'4" 285 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
LG Ruben Brown 6'3" 304 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
C Dusty Zeigler 6'5" 298 lbs. 2 games 0 starts
RG Glenn Parker 6'5" 305 lbs. 14 games 13 starts
RT Corey Louchiey 6'7" 305 lbs. 15 games 4 starts
LE Phil Hansen 80 tackles 8 sacks
NT Ted Washington 92 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
RE Bruce Smith 90 tackles 13 1/2 sacks
OLB Bryce Paup 48 tackles 6 sacks
ILB Chris Spielman 157 tackles 1 int.
ILB Damien Covington 21 tackles 0 int.
OLB Gabe Northern 19 tackles 5 sacks
CB Jeff Burris 50 tackles 1 int.
SS Henry Jones 25 tackles 0 int.
FS Kurt Schulz 68 tackles 4 int.
CB Thomas Smith 43 tackles 1 int.
P Chris Mohr 101 punts 41.5 avg.
[A] New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
[*] *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)