Call it romance, call it nostalgia, but I look at the Buffalo Bills and see five proud veterans rallying the troops behind them for one final Super Bowl push: Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Kent Hull. Collectively they have been selected for 27 Pro Bowls. They're all 30 or older. They all know the elation of playing on four straight Super Sundays and the disappointment of four defeats. All of their names will come up when the Hall of lame committee gathers for future selection meetings.
The Bills suffered through a 7-9 post-Super Bowl slump in 1994, but after everybody had written them off, they returned to the playoffs in '95. Now Buffalo has been rebuilt to the point at which it is again a championship contender.
Granted, injuries are a significant factor when you're talking about people with this much mileage on them. Reed, the AFC's top receiver over the past decade, is coming off a serious left hamstring pull from last season. Thomas rebounded from midseason leg injuries to rush for 1,000 yards for the seventh consecutive year. Hull, the 35-year-old center, and Smith, the great pass-rushing end, are healthy, but Kelly had off-season right shoulder surgery, and he's the biggest question of all.
Kelly says he's fine, but he always says that in the summer. If the Bills can squeeze another season out of his right arm, everyone will breathe easier. At 36, he's in the final year of his contract and has a handshake agreement with owner Ralph Wilson that in 1997 he'll get a three- or four-year deal that will put him into the Marino-Elway class of $5 million to $6 million annually. In this cap-conscious climate you rarely see rewards for past performance, but Wilson and coach Marv Levy are old world, and they're telling their players that loyalty goes both ways.
In 1995 the Bills picked off the free-agent plum of the year, pass rusher Bryce Paup. He led the NFL with 17½ sacks last year, and Buffalo's total jumped to a respectable 49 from an anemic 25 the previous season. This year the Bills got two more good players through free agency: Former Detroit Lion Chris Spielman, a run stuffer, replaces Cornelius Bennett, a cover-type inside linebacker who left for the Atlanta Falcons; and former New Orleans Saints wide-out Quinn Early gives Buffalo a deep threat. The hurry-up offense hasn't been the same since losing the speedy James Lofton after the 1992 season, but now it has new zip, aided by Early and first-round pick Eric Moulds.
Everything seems to be in place. Eighteen of last year's starters were Bills draft picks. Buffalo has been selective—and effective—in the free-agent market. With all due respect to my colleague Peter King and his choice of the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC title, the pick here is the Bills to win their conference and to beat the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI. Make it 24-20. Call it destiny.
Is Jimmy Johnson destined to be known as the man who replaces coaching legends? Is that how the world will remember him? First Tom Landry with the Dallas Cowboys, now Don Shula with the Miami Dolphins. And when his four-year contract with the Dolphins is up, who will be next? Levy?
The coaching change in Dallas was a bitter affair, but Johnson's takeover in Miami was smoothly orchestrated. Shula still sits on the Dolphins' board of directors and has made no recriminations, at least not publicly. Scrutiny of Johnson's quotes, though, reveals an annoyance at being left short-handed. Miami tapped the treasury for a one-year Super Bowl push in 1995 and fell flat, leaving the Dolphins without enough money to re-sign defensive stars Marco Coleman, Bryan Cox and Troy Vincent.
Now Johnson has to roll up his sleeves and start building, a task he accomplished memorably in Dallas. Of course, there was no unfettered free agency or salary cap then. He did it mostly through trades and the draft, the two usually overlapping. The question of whether he still has the knack after a two-year hiatus in the Fox TV studio was answered in a series of draft-day moves in which he traded a second-round pick and a fourth-rounder for four picks in rounds 3 through 7. He took 12 players in the seven-round draft, and that's what he likes best, lots of young people. "When you bring in a college player, he doesn't have an opinion on how to do things," Johnson says. "I'm not interested in having a lot of opinions."
He had to address three areas: defense, the running game (Miami hasn't averaged four yards a crack since 1987) and support for Dan Marino. The defense gets an infusion of youth, with two rookies projected as starters: top draft pick Daryl Gardener, a 320-pound tackle, and middle linebacker Zach Thomas. Either Irving Spikes or rookie Karim Abdul Jabbar will be the tailback, and at fullback the Dolphins are looking closely at another rookie, 232-pound blocking specialist Stanley Pritchett.