MINNEAPOLIS -- One day after Bruce Smith fanned the flames of his simmering feud with the city of Buffalo, the Bills defensive end assumed a familiar fallback position.
"It was totally blown out of proportion," Smith said yesterday, as the first -- and only -- controversy of Super Bowl XXVI swelled up around his interview table at a downtown St. Paul hotel.
On Tuesday, citing racial hate mail he had received in Buffalo this season, Smith raised the possibility of leaving the Bills after Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins.
"After this particular ballgame, there are going to be some optionsthat I'm going to try to explore," he said Tuesday, "and we'll just take it from there. But the most important thing is that we win this ballgame."
Asked whether one of those options was leaving the team, Smith said, "That's a good possibility, yes."
In the aftermath of those comments, members of the Buffalo media asked Smith whether he wanted to apologize to the Bills fans or to clear the air about a potential trade request.
He declined to do so, saying, "From my standpoint, I don't think an apology is in order."
Nor did he rescind his statement about leaving after the season.
Reminded that he brought up the subject on Tuesday, Smith said: "Yeah, I did. And I'm putting it to rest . . . today."
This is not the first time Smith considered leaving Buffalo, however. He attempted to bolt when his first Bills contract expired after the 1988 season. The Denver Broncos tendered a contract offer of $7.5 million over five years, but the Bills matched the offer and Smith remained in Buffalo. That was the same season he was suspended for four games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
"I didn't say I was leaving. I'm under contract. I can't go anywhere," said Smith, who has two years remaining on the contract.
Bills general manager Bill Polian and coach Marv Levy have rejected the notion that the team would trade Smith, who was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 1990.
Levy tried to play down the situation. "Bruce has received a few letters from bigots," he said. "He has received a flood -- a flood -- of letters from people in Buffalo and western New York decrying that type of letter, bolstering him and backing him you.
"I'll tell you what I'm going to tell Bruce Smith: 'Don't let a bigot or two chase you out of town. You're bigger than they are. You don't have a problem; that guy has the problem.' "
While he backpedaled on trade possibilities, Smith reinforced his stand against racism. He said he felt obligated to address the issue, rather than ignore it.
"This is a serious problem we have all over the world," he said. "The only way to do anything about it is attack the issue head on. You don't accomplish anything by holding it deep-down inside because it's just going to tear and eat away at you.
"I truly believe the fact this happened and I'm speaking out about it, a lot of people don't like. For those people who don't like it, I truly believe they're guilty as well because if you don't mind it happening, you're just as guilty."
He said he believed the racists were small in number: "Ninety-eight percent of the people in Buffalo are really fantastic. I've met some wonderful people in Buffalo that stand by you no matter what."
Smith says he was viewed as a malingerer by some fans when he was forced to sit out 11 of the team's first 12 games this season with a sore and swollen left knee.
He had surgery on the knee shortly after training camp began July 22 to remove "loose bodies." He tried to come back too soon after surgery and continued to have trouble with fluid in the knee.
"What happened was, in trying to please everyone, I got into a rush-rush situation," he said. "We never gave the knee enough time to heal. Instead of two months off . . . to let all the fluid get out, it was just too rush-rush. I feel the biggest mistake I ever made was playing the Chicago game [on Sept. 29]. I should never have been out on the field."
After Smith played against the Bears, he was placed on injured reserve and missed the next seven games.
The loss of Smith for a total of 11 games, and nose tackle Jeff Wright for seven, had a devastating effect on the Bills defense this season. It ranked next-to-last in total yards, but improved markedly when both players returned late in the season. Smith, who had 19 sacks a year ago, has 2 1/2 sacks in seven games this season.
In Sunday's Super Bowl, Smith will be matched against Redskins tackle Jim Lachey, who has yet to give up a sack.
"I think I'm very effective when rushing [the quarterback]," Smith said. "Without a doubt, Bruce Smith last year and Bruce Smith this year is something totally different. I still can't run full speed. But I am able to do some things to help the team."
The question posed to Smith yesterday, though, was whether he figures to be part of the Bills' future.
"I'm definitely part of it," he said. "I've been part of it since 1985. But the most important thing right now is this ballgame. We want to make history."