ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — They welcomed Greg Bell back to Buffalo with open arms and clenched fists. They welcomed him back with taunts and banners that detailed their every feeling.
"Hey, Bell," read one sign, "we all hated you, not just Smerlas."
They booed his every success and cheered his every failure.
In short, they remembered.
Bell returned Monday evening to the stadium from which he came and it wasn't exactly the triumphant homecoming he or the previously undefeated Rams had in mind.
The Bills won, 23-20, in a game dipped in emotions. Bell did his part and, if anything, may have made the Rams' task that much more difficult with a series of pregame comments that had his former Buffalo Bill teammates seething and Coach John Robinson reaching in vain for the mute button.
Bell had accused Fred Smerlas, the Bill nose tackle, of being a "redneck." He opined that Buffalo Coach Marv Levy was "more con artist than coach." And to complete the insults, Bell questioned the medical skills of Bills' physician, Dr. Richard Weiss.
You think those remarks found their way to a Buffalo clubhouse wall or two? Put it this way: There probably weren't enough thumbtacks to go around.
"There was plenty of ammunition for the bulletin board," said Smerlas, who helped smother the Ram running game (translation: Bell). "He gave us an incentive to get up there and rack up on him.
"By the way," he said, "I'm not a racist--I hate everybody equally."
Bill defensive end Bruce Smith was more diplomatic, but he got his point across.
Yes, he said, the Bills had read with interest the earlier comments of Bell. And yes, Bell may have helped bring together a team that has struggled this season. But as far as vendettas, well . . .
"Our goal was to stop the running game," Smith said. "I don't care who was running the football. It didn't matter if it was (Buffalo News sports columnist Larry) Felser who was running the football. Well, maybe if it would have been Felser.
"But Greg's a hell of a player. If he jumps on you early, you're in for a very long day."
Bell had his moments, and they were early too. He gained 14 yards in his first three carries. He added another 16 yards two series later. He dashed through tiny openings and squirmed for extra yardage. It was vintage Bell.
By the time the first half ended, Bell was jogging to the Ram locker room with 44 yards to his credit.
But then came the second half and with it an eight-man defensive front by the Bills. They dared the Rams to run and gambled that they couldn't pass in the damp, chilly weather. They were sort of right.
"We came early (with the run) and we were very effective," Bell said. "They made their adjustments and they were good coaching moves. Give them credit."
Said Robinson: "It wasn't a night for offense."
Mostly it wasn't a night for Bell, who began the evening needing only 88 yards to overtake Chicago's Neal Anderson for the league lead in rushing. Now he needs half that much.
Also forgettable for Bell was his second-period fumble that later led to a Buffalo field goal and cut the Rams' lead to 7-3.
"The ball was a little slippery," he said. "It was just one of those type of days. I thought I still had the ball."
Whatever his difficulties--and there many Monday night--Bell didn't think they had any connection to his comments of midweek. In fact, he said, "I think the media tried to hype this game."
Bell helped. So did the upcoming two-year anniversary of the Eric Dickerson deal that sent, among others, Bell from Buffalo to the Rams. With that in mind, it was little surprise that he found himself showered with attention this week. Nor was it any surprise that Bell basked in it.
But did it have anything to do with the Bills' victory?
"I don't think it had anything to do with the game," Bell said.
The Ram running back added that there was no on-field badgering or threats or talk of bounties fulfilled. "Nothing was being said. Everybody just wanted to play football."
At game's end, Bell lingered at midfield to shake hands with the victorious Bills. Andre Reed, who caught the winning touchdown pass, offered a hug. And even Smerlas put an arm around Bell.
Then again, they could afford to be generous.