On the February day that the Bills announced the acquisition of
quarterback Rob Johnson, new coach Wade Phillips stood and said,
"This isn't the Marv Levy-Jim Kelly era. Hopefully, this is the
Wade Phillips-Rob Johnson era." So it was no wonder that during
the early days of Bills training camp in the bucolic college
town of Fredonia, N.Y., fans and media alike were looking all
around for evidence of big changes.
But there was defensive end Bruce Smith, citing shoulder and
knee soreness, sitting out his first of many training-camp
practices (just as he did under Levy) and taking a ribbing from
Thurman Thomas. "Some things never change," Thomas said to
Smith, "like you never practicing in camp." The proceedings had
all the intensity of a YMCA summer camp, not unlike the way Levy
ran things during his 12 years in charge. Similar offensive and
defensive philosophies to what Levy had employed were also in
place. So what had changed? You had to look closely to see two
things that will set the '98 Bills apart from their previous
For starters, there will be no more blind allegiance to the
incumbents. For the first five plays of camp, there was Thomas,
the 32-year-old running back, standing among a group of backups
and rookies, watching as second-year man Antowain Smith took
handoffs. Thomas will likely be a third-down specialist this
year, a role he should have filled exclusively last season.
Instead, he split the running chores down the middle with the
224-pound Smith, the perfect back for the grind-it-out offense
Buffalo tried to implement last year and will again this season.
Phillips, who spent the last three years as Buffalo's defensive
coordinator, also wasted no time jettisoning quarterback Todd
Collins from the top of the depth chart by dealing Buffalo's
first- and fourth-round draft picks to the Jaguars for Johnson.
Among Phillips's free-agent acquisitions were power fullback Sam
Gash, formerly of the Patriots, and run-blocking guard Joe
Panos, late of the Eagles.
Then there is the new Phillips approach when it comes to rules.
Over the course of a training camp, Levy was fond of reading the
full NFL digest of rules to his players, lecturing frequently
from a podium. Phillips had a simple message during his first
training-camp speech to the team: "Be on time for meetings, be
on time for practices and don't embarrass yourselves. I expect
out of you what you expect out of yourselves." That was the end
of Phillips's rules speech.
Phillips, who was 16-16 in a two-year head-coaching stint with
the Broncos in 1993 and '94, won't sweat the small stuff. His
coaching credo is simple: Play the best players. And he won't be
too sentimental about those halcyon days of championships past,
when the Bills reached a league-record four consecutive Super
"Marv's a Buffalo Bill forever, a great guy, and he recommended
me for this job," Phillips says. "But he's not here now. And Jim
Kelly's not throwing touchdown passes anymore. You can't go
back. So where are we? We just went 6-10. We led the NFL in
fumbles. We led the AFC in throwing interceptions. We had the
worst third-down conversion rate in NFL history. [Actually the
Bills' 25% conversion rate (53 of 212) was the league's lowest
since 1976.] We had the lowest yards-per-pass average in the
AFC. Special teams needed an upgrade. I want the quality team
that people are used to having around, so we had to adjust."
There could be more than a dozen new faces on the roster this
fall. "I've got to make an awful lot of new friends,"
13-year-special-teams veteran Mark Pike says.
The most important new face is Johnson, who, despite having only
one NFL start under his belt, signed a five-year, $25 million
contract extension in July. He has Southern California written
all over him. A tan, handsome cross between Nicolas Cage and
Keanu Reeves, he has but one nonfootball goal: to own a beach
house at Laguna Beach, California. "Dude," "whatever" and "cool"
are among his favorite words. But he's also a gym rat. "I know
there's a sense of urgency," says Johnson, who moved to Buffalo
immediately after the trade. "We're in a ruthless business. And
Jim Kelly's an icon around here. I know what I have to do. I
grew up a quarterback, and I know you get all the credit and all
the blame. There comes that time in your career when you've got
to put up or shut up, and get out there and do it. I'm ready for
He'd better be. Bills fans are ready for a lot of change, most
notably a change from the recent losing trend back to the
winning ways of years past. --P.K.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT LABERGE/ALLSPORT WORKHORSE Smith, who ran for 840 yards in split duty with Thomas in '97, becomes the full-time back he should have been last year. [Antowain Smith in game]
B/W PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Hicks [Robert Hicks]
Sept. 6 at San Diego
13 at Miami
20 ST. LOUIS
27 OPEN DATE
Oct. 4 SAN FRANCISCO
11 at Indianapolis
25 at Carolina
Nov. 1 MIAMI
8 at N.Y. Jets
15 NEW ENGLAND
29 at New England
Dec. 6 at Cincinnati
19 N.Y. JETS (Sat.)
27 at New Orleans
1997 Record 6-10 (4th in AFC East) NFL rank (rush/pass/total):
offense 14/25/25; defense 15/12/9
1998 Schedule strength NFL rank: 27 (tie) Opponents' 1997
winning percentage: .465 Games against playoff teams: 6
Doug Flutie last played in the NFL in 1989, when he appeared in
five games with the Patriots. Only one player has returned to
the league after a longer absence. Frank Walton, whose son Joe
would later play and coach in the NFL, played 12 games for the
Boston Redskins in 1934. He then returned to his hometown,
Beaver Falls, Pa., to coach high school football before
rejoining the Redskins (who had since relocated to Washington)
in 1944, when pro football faced a war-related manpower shortage.
Team Games Team Games Years away
Frank Walton, G
1934 Redskins 12 1944 Redskins 10 9
During absence: Coached high school football in Pennsylvania
David Diaz-Infante, G
1987 Chargers 3 1996 Broncos 9 8
During absence: After playing during '87 NFL players' strike,
went to World League and CFL
Tony Adams, QB
1978 Chiefs 16 1987 Vikings 3 8
During absence: Played in CFL; worked in automotive chemicals
business; played during '87 strike
Ross Nagel, T/DT
1942 Cardinals 1 1951 New York Yanks 9 8
During absence: Served in military; attended college
Norm Standlee, RB/LB
1941 Bears 10 1950 49ers 11 8
During absence: Served in military; played four years in
Whoever ends up carrying the ball will have the luxury of
running behind fullback Sam Gash. Gash earned his reputation as
a dependable blocker at New England by chauffeuring Curtis
Martin to three straight 1,000-yard seasons.... How big is
rookie tackle Robert Hicks, a third-round draft pick from
Mississippi State? Equipment manager Dave Hojnowski says Hicks
was the only player he had to have sit so that he could be
measured for a helmet. When Hicks extends his legs to have his
ankles taped, assistant trainer Greg McMillen says he feels as
if he's "a mile away."
Projected Lineup With 1997 statistics
Coach: Wade Phillips
First season with Bills (17-19 in NFL**)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Rob Johnson[N] 91[PVR*] 28 att. 22 comp. 78.6%
344 yds. 2 TDs 2int. 111.9 rtg.
RB Antowain Smith 82[PVR*] 194 att. 840 yds. 4.3
avg. 28 rec. 177 yds. 6.3 avg. 8 TDs
FB Sam Gash[N] 366[PVR*] 6 att. 10 yds. 1.7 avg.
22 rec. 154 yds. 7.0 avg. 3 TDs
RB Thurman Thomas 137[PVR*] 154 att. 643 yds. 4.2
avg. 30 rec. 208 yds. 6.9 avg. 1 TD
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Andre Reed 120[PVR*] 60 rec. 880 yds. 5 TDs
WR Quinn Early 142[PVR*] 60 rec. 853 yds. 5 TDs
WR Eric Moulds 214[PVR*] 29 rec. 294 yds. 0 TDs
TE Lonnie Johnson 221[PVR*] 41 rec. 340 yds. 2 TDs
K Steve Christie 169[PVR*] 21/21 XPs 24/30 FGs 93 pts.
PR Kevin Williams[N] 283[PVR*] 40 ret. 11.6 avg. 0 TDs
KR Kevin Williams[N] 283[PVR*] 59 ret. 24.7 avg. 0 TDs
LT John Fina 6'4" 285 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Ruben Brown 6'3" 304 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Dusty Zeigler 6'5" 298 lbs. 13 games 13 starts
RG Joe Panos[N] 6'2" 293 lbs. 13 games 13 starts
RT Jerry Ostroski 6'4" 310 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Phil Hansen 79 tackles 6 sacks
LT Ted Washington 80 tackles 4 sacks
RT Sean Moran 37 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
RE Bruce Smith 65 tackles 14 sacks
OLB Sam Rogers 53 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
MLB John Holecek 58 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
OLB Gabe Northern 24 tackles 0 sacks
CB Marlon Kerner 20 tackles 2 int.
SS Henry Jones 81 tackles 2 sacks
FS Kurt Schulz 62 tackles 2 int.
CB Thomas Smith 39 tackles 0 int.
P Chris Mohr 90 punts 41.8 avg.
[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 88)
**Includes a 1-3 record as interim coach of the Saints in 1985