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THE NFL PLAYOFFS : The Fires Stay Bright for Lofton : Bills: After being cut by the Raiders, he cooled his heels on the sidelines for a season before coming back.

January 19, 1991|T.J. SIMERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — He was banished to the frozen north, but if there is coldhearted revenge in wide receiver James Lofton's motivation to win Sunday, it is well disguised.

The Raiders cut Lofton, and had he been thrust into a position of power with the Raiders at the time, he said, "I would have done the same thing."

And he insists there are no regrets.

"I have no animosity toward the Raiders," he said. "They had three great receivers they wanted to keep and a fourth guy who could play special teams. I just didn't fit into their plans."

Lofton caught 35 passes for the Bills this season for 712 yards, but when he got to Buffalo last season, he spent much of it in a parka on the sidelines.

"It wasn't that tough an adjustment," he said.

" . . . Sometimes you need supportive people. You need contributors, not complainers."

But he had been the star. Thirty-six times he had caught passes for 100 or more yards in a game, and he was the first player to score a touchdown in the '70s, '80s and '90s.

In seven of his nine years in Green Bay, Lofton had earned a winter reprieve with a trip to the Pro Bowl, and after he was traded to the Raiders in 1987, he started 28 consecutive games.

"But he found himself in a situation where he could sense he was being put on the back burner," said Nick Nicolau, a former assistant with the Raiders, who now coaches the Bills' receivers. "I mean you're the starting split end and they draft Tim Brown, a Heisman Trophy guy, and then they trade for Willie Gault."

The Raiders released Lofton on the cut to 60 players in '89 and when the regular season began, Lofton remained in his living room, unemployed.

But here he is in red, white and blue with the AFC's highest average per catch, 20.3 yards, and the opportunity to deliver his own personal "I told you so" to the Raiders.

In last week's 44-34 playoff victory over the Dolphins, Lofton caught seven passes for 149 yards and a touchdown. He left Rich Stadium with a game ball presented by his teammates.

Lofton has 642 catches for 11,963 yards and needs 184 more yards to move past Charlie Joiner. He will then need 944 more to move ahead of Steve Largent and become the NFL's all-time receiving leader.

Until recently, however, most have regarded Lofton in the past tense. He had eight receptions--for the entire season--in 1989, and by NFL standards, after 12 seasons and at 34, he was near retirement.

"I never thought about retiring," he said. "I'm one of those guys they'll have to run out of the locker room. I'll strap myself to something in the weight room when they come for me.

"But the things I do on the field now are different. The only time two defensive backs get near me is if I'm talking to Andre Reed."

Instead of going quietly into the record books after being released, Lofton responded to casting calls around the league. He was ready to sign with Philadelphia, but at the last moment Coach Buddy Ryan declined the deal.

In late September of 1989, Lofton auditioned for the Bills.

"We brought him in with a bunch of 22-, 23- and 24-year-olds and he outran all of them," Buffalo Coach Marv Levy said. "We wanted to see if he had lost speed and movement, and he hadn't."

Lofton's splendid career in Green Bay had come to an early end after two incidents involving young women. Lofton was cleared of all charges, but public sentiment was unforgiving.

Lofton signed with the Bills on Sept. 26, 1989.

"Jim's addition gave us the big play on the other side from Andre Reed," said Ted Marchibroda, the Bills' offensive coordinator. "Here's one thing I don't think a lot of people have given thought to: Here's a guy who hadn't been with a good quarterback since Lynn Dickey.

"There's probably a stretch of five years, I'm not sure who they were, but you know the guys who were throwing to him. And now he's coming in with a guy that can fire it. That makes a little bit of difference in his play."

Lofton shied away from criticism of the performances of quarterbacks such as Marc Wilson, Jay Schroeder, Steve Beuerlein and Rusty Hilger when Lofton was a Raider.

"Everybody struggled trying to adapt to a new system," he said. "Nobody really caught on to it as well as they would have liked.

"Coming here I got the chance to play with one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and he's taken advantage of whatever skill I have."

Lofton and Kelly went through the rest of the 1989 regular season as if they hadn't been introduced. But after catching only eight passes in 11 games, Lofton grabbed three for 66 yards and a touchdown in Buffalo's playoff loss to Cleveland.

Observers in Buffalo figured that Lofton was on his way out when he was left unprotected in Plan B.

But the Bills not only wanted Lofton, they paid dearly to keep him. They persuaded him to rebuff an offer from Philadelphia, tore up his old contract calling for $352,000 this season, and gave him a $200,000 signing bonus, $50,000 reporting bonus and base salaries of $500,000 for 1990 and 1991.

"I'm still just fighting for a job," said Lofton, who aspires to be an NFL general manager. "You're always trying to prove you still have what it takes."

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