During a recent radio appearance in Buffalo, NFL Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith called the current Buffalo Bills' front four "the most talented defensive line the Buffalo Bills have ever had", a statement that has perplexed and bothered me since.
Now, this is one of the top NFL players of all-time talking and he's certainly the best player in Bills history.
Bruce still holds the record for most sacks in a career with 200 (171 with the Bills, twice as impressive because he did it out of a 3-4 defense), along with 46 forced fumbles, 1,225 tackles, two interceptions, and even a touchdown (off a fumble recovery) over his 19 seasons.
He was the first pick of the 1985 NFL Draft and spent the next 279 games proving Buffalo was right to take him tops as he went on to be elected to a staggering 11 Pro Bowls, won four straight AFC Championships, and elevated the Buffalo defense to elite status every time he stepped on the field.
He was the fuel on which the Bills' defense ran for 15 seasons.
So, knowing what he's accomplished, realizing the respect and love he receives in the Queen City, and accepting that his time in the trenches makes 78 a pretty good judge of defensive lines, it's maddening to hear him refer to Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Mark Anderson (or Chris Kelsay) as "the most talented" in franchise history.
Sure, he acknowledged that Buffalo's present line was still a "work in progress" and said they "have not had an opportunity to gel", but unless he's purposely trying to pump up fan confidence (something sorely missing even after their win in Arizona), you've got to be amazed he could have made such a bold and currently erroneous statement.
To this point, the four/five names that make up the core of the Bills' defensive line have amassed a decent total of 76 tackles and 11.5 sacks through six games. However, without last week's flare up against the Cardinals, the Bills are looking pretty average with 65 tackles and eight sacks, and are downright horrid defending the run either way, ranked 32nd in the league, giving up 173.5 yards per game.
They've also allowed a 31st ranked 32 points per game..
It was nice to hear Bruce Smith, without argument the biggest sports star to ever play in Buffalo, heap so much praise on the new guys, and I do believe he's right that their talent will only become more visible the longer they play, but most talented in franchise history? Ridiculous.
In fact, two defensive lines the Bills have fielded in the past spring to mind that easily disprove Mr. Smith's claim (one of which, of course, has Bruce on it). Sorry to have to fact check you, sir, but you're words have been eating at me since you said them and I have to get this out.
1964 - DE Tom Day, DT Tom Sestak, DT Jim Dunaway, DE Ron McDole
Dialing up the time machine to travel back to the old AFL days when Buffalo was winning Championships, this foursome was big for their day, but never at the expense of quickness, as even at 300 lbs Ron "the Dancing Bear" McDole was able to drop back in to coverage when called on.
These four were innovators at the time, a force against which opposing offenses just couldn't contend, leading to a 12-2 record and the Bills' first of two AFL Championships. In their time together, they went on a streak of 17 games without allowing a rushing TD, only allowed 242 total points, and kept opposing teams to 913 rushing yards that year (an amazing 65/game).
They were the first team to win 13 games in a season (counting the championship game) and set a record with 50 sacks that year (as a whole defense), the only team to do that to this day (and they did it in just 14 games).
Though McDole was the big man on the line and it was a group effort to be sure, it was Sestak to whom fans and players in Buffalo give pay true homage. Talk about talent, the 6'4", 272-pound defensive tackle may have been a 17th round pick from little McNeese State University, but Sestak's play was so big on the field he likely could have kept up in the current game.
Sestak just muscled offensive linemen off the snap, was the unanimous All-AFL Defensive Tackle of the Year from 1963-1965, and returned not one, but two interceptions for TDs in his career. Though the AFL may not have recorded defensive stats in those days, they definitely paid attention to them, and Sestak's insane play on the field made him a standout, but he was really just one of four uber-talented linemen who played on Buffalo's first Championship defense. With Day and Dunaway, they made for a much more potent force than the Bills have shown to this point in 2012.
1988 - DE Bruce Smith, NT Fred Smerlas, DE Art Stills (and DE Leon Seals... and rookie NT Jeff Wright)
Buffalo's first winning season since 1981, the 12-4 Bills were the third best defense in the NFL that year, allowing just 237 points. It would result in their first postseason since the same 1981 season, based largely on a defense that gave up the fewest yards in the NFL that year, just 4578 (...and it helped to have a rookie upstart named Thurman Thomas, of course).
First, there was the man himself. Bruce, in his fourth NFL season, had 56 tackles, 11 sacks and a safety, bringing his sack total to 44.5... in four years.
Fast forward to Mario Williams, who was getting whispered and ridiculous Bruce comparisons when he was brought in based on his rather imposing size, who had 37.5 sacks his first four years (and Bruce played in only 12 games in 1987 and 1988, while Mario played in all of his first 64). The following season, Bruce would go on to set the Bills franchise sack record, one which will likely be not be in danger anytime soon. especially not from any currently rostered players.
Then there was Bruce's supporting cast. Start with Fred Smerlas, perhaps THE prototypical nose tackle for the 3-4 defense.
And 1988 was his tenth season in the NFL, all with the Bills to this point, and though it may be disappointing to find that he had only four sacks on the year (Mr Smith had a way of hogging all the sacks, no matter if he was double or triple covered), it was Fred who was largely responsible for Buffalo's ability to stop the run.
The 6'3", 270-pound Smerlas may have looked to be all moustache, but he was a powerful run stuffer, who drew his own double coverages with big results for his teammates.
Then there's Art Still, who has just one season out from retirement, but still put up six sacks on the other side of Smerlas in his first year with Buffalo (after 12 with the Chiefs).
In relief, there was Leon Seals, who played ably in place of Bruce for several games, amassing just two sacks, but also getting three fumble recoveries, one he returned for a TD.
And finally Jeff Wright, just a newbie in 1988 and an eighth round pick at that, but still able to put up five sacks and 22 tackles in limited play replacing Smerlas (something he would do permanently by 1990 for big results).
Talk about talent.
Though fans in Buffalo likely appreciate the sentiments Bruce Smith was espousing and the very emphatic delivery of them, to say that the talent currently on display is the best in franchise history is just being too generous... in fact,it smells similar to what the Bills sold fans in the offseason, when they were led to believe they'd have a top ten, playoff caliber team right out of the gates.
It's not that the defensive line doesn't have the potential to be really good over the next few years, it's just that they certainly aren't the best seen in Western New York.
Maybe that's the distinction. Sure, the four/five Bills' defensive linemen are all talented this year, but just because a group has the potential to be "the best", doesn't mean they'll ever achieve that. Maybe he meant potential to be the best.
Or maybe, he meant that top to bottom, the group is the most talented at each position it's ever been at one time, which, again, looks good on paper, but may not translate to being the best on the field.
Or perhaps Bruce was just being modest... or wasn't knowledgeable about the 1964 line... or really was just trying to get the fans to cheer a little more come Sunday against the Titans.
Either way, it's just difficult to agree with his thoughts on the defensive line to this point of 2012, as we just haven't seen the type of play of even the 1996 line of Smith, Ted Washington, and Phil Hanson, who combined for 25 sacks that year; or the last playoff team Buffalo fielded in 1999, when the same three up front were part of the second best defense in the league, allowing just 14.3 pts/game.
I mean, I'd love to be proven wrong here, but it'll take a boatload more evidence than last week's squeaker against an Arizona team with a porous offensive line, shaky quarterbacks, and two injured running backs.