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Timing Would Fit Former Bill

Smith returns to old stomping grounds needing two sacks to break NFL record

October 19, 2003|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Now it can be told: Bruce Smith, the Washington Redskin defensive end on the verge of breaking the NFL sack record, was a troublemaker during his 15 seasons with the Buffalo Bills.

Yes, the man appointed to the Board of Visitors by Virginia Gov. Mark Warner was a most unwelcome guest in the Buffalo backfield, a disruptive influence of the highest order.

"The guy literally, in training camp, would ruin our practices," said Kent Hull, longtime center for the Bills. "He'd get by you so quick, you wouldn't even know he was there. The defensive coaches would have to take him out of practice just so the offense could get some reps in. They were blowing the whistle before the quarterback even got set up."

Smith will be back in Buffalo today, but he won't be catching anyone unaware. He needs two sacks to break Reggie White's record of 198. That means the 40-year-old Smith will be bearing down on Buffalo quarterback Drew Bledsoe, a player he has sacked 12 1/2 times. The only other quarterback felled more often by Smith was Ken O'Brien, sacked 17 1/2 times.

"There's no question he's getting up there [in age] but he still has that burst off the ball," Bledsoe said. "He still has all the great moves that he's developed over the years."

It would be especially interesting if Smith set the record by sacking Bledsoe, and not just because it would happen in the city where he played most of his career. Smith and Bledsoe used to have the same agent, Leigh Steinberg, but Bledsoe later broke away with David Dunn and testified against Steinberg in a nasty court battle. Steinberg plans to be in Buffalo for the game, which pits two 3-3 teams that started strong then dropped off the map.

"My line of thought at this stage is to win," Smith said. "We're coming off a disappointing loss to Tampa Bay, where the roof just fell in on us in the fourth quarter. So the last thing I'm thinking about is breaking some record. The record I want to be broken is the string of [two] losses we've had."

Smith, who has never had fewer than five sacks in a season, has only 1 1/2 through six games, in large part because teams have had success running the ball against the Redskins and have done that to protect leads. The more a team runs, the fewer chances a defensive lineman has to get to the quarterback.

Even though his first goal is to win, and he downplays the sacks, Smith said he was awed by the magnitude of the looming record. He said it had almost crept up on him.

"Five or 10 years ago, I had no idea I'd be in this position," he said. "Reggie White had a phenomenal career. He certainly left his mark on this league, as did Deacon Jones [who played before sacks were tallied as an official statistic]. For me to be in this position is certainly a blessing and hopefully one that can be taken advantage of."

His old buddy, Darryl Talley, another fixture in Buffalo's defense of the late 1980s and early '90s, will be at the game today for two reasons: His name is being added to the Bills' wall of fame, and he's convinced Smith is going to break the record.

Talley and Smith were roommates back in the glory years, the stretch when the Bills went to four consecutive Super Bowls, yet came up empty each time. Talley said he picked this weekend to be honored because he figured it would coincide with Smith's breaking the record.

"My wife thinks I'm crazy," he said. "But I just had a feeling."

Smith already has a record that, in the age of free agency, probably will never be broken. He had the most sacks with one team, 171, building a commanding lead over Lawrence Taylor, 132 1/2; Derrick Thomas, 126 1/2; Richard Dent, 124 1/2, and White, who had 124 sacks with Philadelphia and the rest with Green Bay and Carolina.

The remarkable longevity of Smith, the first overall pick in the 1985 draft, is due not only to his astounding athleticism but his dedication to studying the game. He still watches hours of video each week, honing his craft and searching for weaknesses of opposing tackles. He doesn't have the blistering speed he did when he was in his 20s, "but I still feel like I can be a force to be reckoned with."

It's sobering to him, though, that he's nearly old enough to be the father of players he's facing. Every so often, an opponent will ask him for an autograph.

"A lot of the blows I sometimes can't get used to is when other players come up to me and say, 'Man, I used to watch you when I was in elementary school,' " he said. "I'm like, 'Yeah? Gee, thanks.' "

But Smith never lets that bit of dubious flattery turn his head. After almost two decades in the NFL, he's still intent on turning the corner and adding another quarterback to his legacy.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Hitting the Sack

All-time NFL sack leaders. The sack became an official statistic in 1982:

*--* RK PLAYER SACKS 1. Reggie White (Phi, GB, Car) 198 2. Bruce Smith* (Buf, Was) 196 1/2 3. Kevin Greene (LA Rams, Pitt, SF, Car) 157 4. Chris Doleman (Min, Atl, SF) 150 1/2 5. Richard Dent (Chi, SF, Ind, Phi) 137 1/2 6. John Randle* (Min, Sea) 134 7. Lawrence Taylor (NYG) 132 1/2 7. Leslie O'Neal (SD, StL, KC) 132 1/2 9. Rickey Jackson (NO, SF) 128 10. Derrick Thomas (KC) 126 1/2 11. Clyde Simmons (Phi, Ariz, Jac, Cin, Chi) 121 1/2 12. Sean Jones (Oak, Hou, GB) 113 13. Greg Townsend (LA Raiders, Phi, Oak) 109 1/2 14. Pat Swilling (NO, Det, Oak) 107 1/2 15. Trace Armstrong* (Chi, Mia, Oak) 105 16. Neil Smith (KC, Den, SD) 104 1/2 17. Jim Jeffcoat (Dal, Buf) 102 1/2 18. Charles Haley (Dal, SF) 100 1/2 18. William Fuller (Hou, Phi, SD) 100 1/2 20. Andre Tippett (NE) 100 *active

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