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A LOOK AT TWO OF THE NEXT RAM, RAIDER OPPONENTS : IT'S A TOUGH LINE OF WORK : Nose Tackle Fred Smerlas Has Toiled for 9 Years in Buffalo, but He's Not Complaining

December 05, 1987|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

Bo Jackson has become richer and more famous after only five games in the National Football League than some guys who have played 126.

Such as Frederick C. Smerlas of the Buffalo Bills.

Nobody ever said life was fair in the NFL, though, and Smerlas certainly needs nobody to remind him of that.

He has played in Buffalo for nine years, experiencing the thick and the thin from a particularly humbling vantage point--nose tackle. He will be there Sunday at the Coliseum, where he will get an opportunity to study the Raiders' Jackson close up.

It used to be said that wanted criminals could hide out indefinitely in the offensive line, but Smerlas begs to differ. If a guy really wanted to go underground--literally--he'd play in the middle of the defensive line where Smerlas plays. In Buffalo.

It's not only that nose tackles function in anonymity.

"How many guys see Buffalo?" he pleads.

But he offered a viewing tip on how to tell when the nose tackle is doing his job.

"When the linebackers are making all the tackles, and (the opponents) are not running up the middle, that's the nose tackle," Smerlas said.

Smerlas plays alongside Sean McNanie, who shares in this selfless contribution to the Bills' 6-5 season.

"Sean and I have only three sacks between us, but we must have 50 pressures," Smerlas said. "We come flying up the middle, and the quarterback says, 'Here come those two crazy guys again,' and rolls out, and the end or outside linebacker makes the sack, right? Fancy that."

But Smerlas isn't unappreciated. A few people know that until the strike he had started in 110 consecutive games, the longest streak of any lineman in the league.

Also: "The coaches give us little awards--'Raging Buffaloes'--for an unrecognized pass rush. I must have a million of 'em. And one sack. They see me coming."

He also has achieved peer recognition. His fellow players have voted him into the Pro Bowl four times. Things like that can carry a guy through the hard times. Smerlas has enjoyed only three winning seasons with the Bills, including this one, which remains marginal.

"The last couple years, I read things about myself and other guys, that we couldn't play anymore and were washed up. But as soon as we start winning, all these guys are revived and playing great.

"Regardless of how you play as a team, it's amazing what a difference two or three points a game can make. I think we lost six or eight games (actually seven) last year by six points or less.

"And when you start winning, it brings a different attitude. Everyone gets closer. Everyone's happy, patting each other on the back. When you lose, everyone's looking around."

Times were tough under Hank Bullough, who coached the Bills for portions of the 1985 (2-14) and '86 (4-12) seasons, preceding current Coach Marv Levy.

"Hank Bullough and I didn't get along too well," Smerlas said. "If I ever screwed up at all--I mean, took the wrong step--he'd be all over me.

"When someone's trying to put you out of the league, it makes you realize what you have to lose. That really woke me up.

"We had a revolving door here. You'd come into the locker room and see who'd parachute out to practice today. We had so many guys coming in, they didn't fly 'em in. They'd parachute 'em in."

Smerlas studied himself on film and concluded that his critics were wrong.

"They'd say, 'This (other) guy is an All-Pro,' and I'd watch the film and I'd be playing better than them all, and I'd say, 'Gee, I wonder where they get their information.' "

Smerlas liked Chuck Knox, who took the Bills to the playoffs twice, and Levy seems popular now.

"He gets wild," Smerlas said. "You look at Marv and you'd think he'd be kind of a passive guy. He's a very articulate fellow . . . been to Harvard, you know. But he gets a little wired if he drinks a lot of coffee before the games."

The misconceptions about talent continue, however, if not on the coaching staff, in the area of publicity. Ask anyone to name two Buffalo defensive players this year and it would probably be rookie linebackers Shane Conlan and Cornelius Bennett. Bennett, especially, has drawn raves since arriving a month ago as part of the Eric Dickerson deal.

"He's playing very well, but there's a guy named Darryl Talley (right outside linebacker) who's playing the best out of all of 'em," Smerlas said. "You don't even know his name, do you? They run away from him. He was one of the boys Hank tried to get rid of.

"Everyone says these young guys come in and mesh the team together, but they forget some of the older guys."

Smerlas, 30, looks at Bennett, 21, and realizes his football mortality. Smerlas is one of only five Bills older than 30.

"The time catches up with you," he said. "It's amazing how fast it goes."

Smerlas and offensive tackle Joe Devlin, 33, are captains. They took charge during the strike, running practices and serving as spokesmen.

"We weren't particularly enthused about going on strike, but we tried to keep the family together," Smerlas said.

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