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They May Have Struggled at Times, but It Seems the Buffalo Bills Are Back on Their Game and Once Again . . . : Running on Super

January 14, 1994|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Before we go any further, the Buffalo Bills would like to get a few things straight.

To the Buffalo media: We are not the bickering Bills.

To the Raiders: We are not cocky.

To those across the country who do not want to see the Bills in yet another Super Bowl: We are not planning on staying home.

If it sounds as if there's a large chip on the collective shoulders of the Bills, that's understandable.

Although Buffalo finished the regular season with a 12-4 record and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, it has been a rough year for the Bills.

So what's new?

In the mid '80s, Buffalo was a bad team. Over a period of four seasons, beginning in 1984, the Bills won a total of 15 games.

Then, they got respectable. Then, they got good. Then, they got great.

But they couldn't shake the losing image.

For each of the last three seasons, Buffalo has made it to the Super Bowl. And each time, the Bills have lost.

Never mind that they finished ahead of 26 other teams. Never mind that the Miami Dolphins are the only other team in NFL history to have made it to the Super Bowl three times in a row.

Buffalo couldn't win the big one. And it hurts.

No matter how much the Bills talk about winning them one at a time, the Super Bowl is always in the back of their minds.

Buffalo defensive end Bruce Smith was asked about it after practice at Rich

Stadium on Thursday. Surrounded by reporters from around the country, Smith was in a good mood, talking easily about everything from his new potato-chip commercial to the predicted bad weather for Saturday's AFC playoff game against the Raiders.

But when Smith was asked about the importance of finally winning a Super Bowl, he got very serious in a hurry.

"It needs to be done with a great deal of urgency," he said. "We've been at bat three times, and we've struck out each time."

If you have to lose three consecutive times in the national spotlight, it at least helps to have as your coach a thoughtful, philosophical leader who has a real talent for putting the ups and downs of sports into perspective. The Bills have such a man in Marv Levy.

"You agonize about it, but not for as long as people think," Levy said of the Super Bowl losses. "It hurts like hell for three days, maybe for a week, maybe for 10 days. Then, you forget about it and go back to work.

"I talked to our team at the beginning of this season and I said, 'You know something? Winning the Super Bowl is not our goal. Our goal is to win next Sunday. And if you keep winning next Sunday and next Sunday and next Sunday, winning the Super Bowl will be the result."

But it proved harder for Buffalo to win each Sunday in 1993 than in seasons past. The club's once highly potent offense was impotent at times.

This was the team that intimidated opponents with the no-huddle offense, with long bombs by quarterback Jim Kelly, with the speed and hands of receivers Andre Reed and James Lofton, and with the legs of Thurman Thomas and Kenneth Davis.

In each of the last four seasons, the Bills led the AFC in points scored, leading the entire league in 1990.

But not this season.

Buffalo finished fourth in the AFC and seventh in the NFL with 329 points, 52 fewer than a year ago and 129 fewer than two years ago.

So what happened?

Several things. With Bill Brooks replacing Lofton, who became a free agent after last season, the Bills have not had as many long plays downfield. Thomas has not been as involved in the passing game. Changes in the offensive line caused disruptions at times.

It all came to a head for Buffalo when the Raiders were here in early December.

Reed had just been fined for criticizing the coaches. Thomas was also criticizing the offense. Kelly was criticizing teammates for not putting a full effort into every play.

It brought back memories of earlier stormy times in Buffalo, when the team was known as the bickering Bills.

After the Raider game, the Bills' third loss in four games, Thomas exploded at the Buffalo media.

"There is no damn controversy around the Buffalo Bills," he said. "We're a good team and if you don't like it, you don't have to write about it. There's no bickering Bills going on."

Indeed, the Bills are no longer bickering. Of course, winning their last four games--and scoring 47 points against the Dolphins--relieved a lot of worries.

It was also after the Raider game that defensive tackle Nolan Harrison accused the Bills, specifically Thomas, of being cocky and arrogant. Thomas swaggered into the end zone on an easy touchdown run that day.

"I don't think there's any cockiness about anything that we do," Buffalo linebacker Darryl Talley said. "We play aggressive football and we get excited. Now if somebody misconstrues that as being cocky, I'm sorry."

When the Bills played their final regular-season game at Indianapolis, someone hung a banner in the Hoosier Dome that read, "Like it or not, they're baaaaack."

That they are. Despite the struggles and the controversy, Buffalo managed to win the AFC East title and finish with one more victory than a year ago.

Bickering, battling, boastful. . . . Say what you want about them.

The Bills have heard it all. But they keep coming back, still hoping to someday hear three very different words: Super Bowl champions.

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