For better or for worse, Buffalo is no longer the forgotten child in the NFL family. A joke... nay, a disappointment for far too long, the rest of the football-loving world had almost seemed to erase the Queen City and its Bills from their collective memories. Outside of the AFC East, many are often surprised when they see Buffalo's name on their schedule of games and can be heard remarking, "Wow, they still have a team?" or, "Didn't they get sold to Canada, or something?". They're an automatic win for your squad, a team you don't expect to get a Monday night, national exposure game, and, because of that, their past accomplishments are largely ignored.
However, with their new-found pass rush making some headline noise around the league (doesn't Williams, Williams, Anderson & Dareus sound like a good personal injury law firm? "They'll fight to get you the ball!"), Buffalo is no longer flying under the radar as they were when they rattled off a 5-2 record to start 2011. A surprise for even the most die-hard Bills fan last season, Gailey, Fitzpatrick, and the boys put together a nice seven-game run that was both exciting to watch and showed the promise of a team evolving into... well, something, that's for sure. Though it proved to be a false dawn, the long night of Buffalo ineptitude and disappointment seems poised to be broken by the faint light of promise we see glimmering just over the horizon for 2012 and its gotten me all nostalgic for those successful Bills teams of the past.
I mean, there were some monster ballers on some of those past Buffalo squads, especially in the early 90s and though you may know the Hall of Famers like Kelly, Thomas, and Smith, there are too many others that just don't get the recognition they deserve. Well kids, I'm going to just have to tell you about a few, as before the Bills go forward with what may come in 2012, there surely needs to be a nod to those who came before. Ignored too long as Buffalo wallowed in losses, these names are some of the pillars of those past successes, and though they are currently not enshrined in Canton, they remain Hall of Famers in the hearts of their fans. List them? Well, sure...
Cornelius Bennett, OLB: The Biscuit. An Alabama alum, Bennett was drafted by the Colts in 1987, but soon came to Buffalo through the menage-a-trois deal known as the "Trade of the Decade", the one which sent Eric Dickerson to the Colts (the Rams got Bills' RB Greg Bell and some Colts' draft picks). Though many know that Dickerson became the first Colts player to lead the league in rushing as a result, what many outside of Buffalo don't realize is how important that trade was to those Buffalo Super Bowl runs.
Over nine years with Buffalo, Bennett was the AFC Defensive Player of the Year Twice (1988,1991) and distinguished himself on a defense largely owned by Bruce Smith (and rightly so). He was a five-time Pro Bowl selection, played in four Super Bowls (and no, I don't need to be reminded how many of those were wins), and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame (his 1986 sack of Notre Dame QB Steve Beuerlein is immortalized in a painting known, oddly enough, as "The Sack"). In his 14 NFL seasons, Biscuit (awesomest nickname ever) racked up 1,190 tackles (just 35 less than Smith), 71.5 sacks (just... 128.5 less than Smith... damn, Bruce was beastly), and had 27 fumble recoveries, just five less than the record for a defender (held by Rod Woodson). He scored 3 TDs on his career (an INT, a fumble, and a blocked field goal). but more importantly, his boyish smile and violent, explosive play on the field make him one of the more revered players in Buffalo sports history. A true unsung hero, he may have finished his career in Atlanta and retired with the Colts, but Bills fans only remember him in red, white, and blue.
Kent Hull, C: Still a tender spot for many who remember the Bills' brilliant runs as the NFL's top offense (really... they were that good), the passing of former center Kent Hull in 2011 marked the death of perhaps the greatest player at the position in Buffalo history. Originally a player for the USFL's New Jersey Generals, Hull came with teammate Jim Kelly to the Bills in 1985 and retired with him in 1996 (an NFL record 157 starts together). Statistically speaking, Kent played 121 straight at one point, kept Kelly's sack total under 30 in every season he played, and appeared in 3 Pro Bowls. However, trying to judge the value of an offensive lineman by stats is difficult and Hull was so much more than just a center for the Bills.
When you hear about Buffalo teams in the 90s, you may often hear about their "K-Gun" formations, a pedal-to-the-metal, no-huddle offense that kept defenses off-balanced and was largely responsible for the team's success. A hurry-up offense like no other, it amassed an amazing 26.8 points per game when Coach Marv Levy unleashed it in 1990, then went one better and averaged 28.6 in 1991. Though the "K" in the name may have implied Kelly (the unquestioned general on the field), Kent was just as vital to the speedy offense and the many, on-the-fly adjustments. Sure, all plays came from Jim, but they were fed through Hull up and down the offense, who organized the players and ensured communication of the audibles.
Without Hull's simpatico with Kelly and his abilities to recognize defenses up front, many of those Super Bowl runs could have ended in the regular season. A vaunted member of the Bills Wall of Fame and a seven-time team captain, as well as tragic loss to Buffalo sports history that came too early (he was only 50 when he passed), Kent Hull was the class of an incredible offensive line that never got the glory it so tirelessly sought. He deserves a place in the Hall of Fame just as much as those who are already in from that Bills team, perhaps more so now than before.
Andre Reed, WR: Poor Andre, if he hadn't come from an era in the NFL when there was such a glut of wide receiver talent (Cris Carter, Tim Brown, Michael Irvin, etc), he may have already gotten his bust in the Hall of Fame. Perhaps the most important piece of those Super Bowl Bills not yet enshrined, Reed is among the top receivers ever to play in the NFL and its a foregone conclusion that he'll one day get his gold jacket. Statistically speaking, #83 has virtually every major Buffalo receiving record and is in the top ten league-wide in several areas. For his career of 16 seasons (15 with Buffalo), Reed only missed 21 games (meaning he played in 234), allowing him to amass a total of 951 receptions (tenth all time), 13,198 yards (ninth), and 87 TDs (88 if you count his one rushing score, but 11th ranked either way).
Even in those big Lombardi losses for four straight years, Reed managed to find success, as he has the second-most Super Bowl receptions with 27 and the third-most yards with 323 (of course, Jerry Rice holds both those records). A fourth-round pick for Buffalo in 1985, the seven-time Pro Bowler was a mere 6'2" and 190 lbs, but would burst across the middle for big grabs in traffic, ignoring the inevitable double teams and thriving in the fast-paced, no huddle offense. He and Kelly were magic together, connecting for 65 TDs in their illustrious career, (the fifth most by any QB/WR tandem), but Reed was more than just Kelly's go-to guy. When Kelly went down before the 1992/93 Playoffs, Frank Reich took over the QB chores for the first round game against Houston and dug himself into a 35-3 hole. What followed was the Greatest Comeback blah blah blah and to those who saw the game, it wasn't so much Reich, but Reed who actually willed the Bills to victory that day. In that one, unlikely Wild Card win against Houston, Reed grabbed eight receptions for 136 yds and 3 TDs, including one beauty that just sailed through a defenders hands to find Andre waiting in the end zone for the go-ahead score. When the winning kick went through the uprights in overtime sealing the victory, the cameras found Reich and kicker Steve Christie, but the true hero of that game was Andre Reed, undoubtedly the most valuable Bills player not in the Hall of Fame. In an era of the diva receiver, Reed carried himself with a silent dignity both on and off the field, using his hands and feet to get attention rather than his mouth (or a Sharpie).
Do I see another Biscuit on the 2012 defense we've been hearing so much about? Will Steve Johnson ever have the stats or the respect the name Andre Reed conjures for people? Can Eric Wood become the solid field commander for Fitzpatrick that Hull was for Kelly? Apples and oranges comparing these things, I know, but next year has given Bills fans a rush of old feelings, conjuring up memories of hope again, and that can't help but lead us back to that run in the early 1990's when you didn't have to be ashamed to wear a Bills cap. In looking back on these players, here's hoping we recall the respect we once had for our proud Buffalo football franchise, see some more from that era get into the Hall of Fame, and, perhaps, find ourselves looking at a new class of heroes ready to put the Bills back on the NFL map.
Come on season... Let's get going already.