MINNEAPOLIS -- The Buffalo Bills walked unsuspecting into the circus-like atmosphere of their first Super Bowl a year ago.
This year, they are the circus.
In what has the appearance of a team pulling apart at the seams, the Bills have set Super Bowl standards for indignation this week.
First it was defensive end Bruce Smith suggesting that a trade might solve his continuing problems with a handful of racist fans in Buffalo.
Then it was running back Thurman Thomas pouting over what he perceived as preferential treatment given to a few of his teammates.
Yesterday, the Bills' reign of outrage reached all the way to the top when team owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. issued a thinly veiled threat to Erie County politicians. Wilson, one of the founding fathers of the AFL, wants his lease on Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., sweetened.
"A county in Buffalo is going to have to make the Bills, at the end of the lease, financially competitive with other teams in the NFL," Wilson said three days before the Bills meet the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XXVI.
"I'm very, very sincere about that, whether it's sky boxes or some sort of subsidy."
The Bills' lease at 80,290-seat Rich Stadium runs through 1998. This season, the Bills shattered their league record for in-house attendance with a total of 635,889. That represents 98.9 percent capacity at Rich. The Bills previously set an attendance record in 1988, when they won the first of four consecutive AFC Eastern Division titles.
Wilson's statements came on the heels of a furious week of whining for the Bills, who, only two years ago, were known as the "Bickering Bills" because of turmoil within the team.
Thomas, the league's Most Valuable Player this season, has become a central figure in this storm. On Tuesday, he complained that he hasn't received the respect he feels he deserves. On Wednesday morning, he walked away from the team breakfast in an angry mood and refused to participate in a mandatory interview session.
Thomas confirmed that he was agitated Wednesday morning, but declined to specify why. It is believed he was upset over media attention given to quarterback Jim Kelly and Smith.
Thomas apparently has taken issue with a statement made by offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda, who said often this season that Kelly is the Michael Jordan of the Bills.
Thomas wouldn't say if the Jordan quote upset him, but did say he felt he deserved equal billing.
Does Thomas think he is the Michael Jordan of the team?
"I think I am," he said. "I guess we have two Michael Jordans on the team, me and Jim."
As recently as 1989, Thomas publicly berated Kelly after the quarterback criticized some of his Bills teammates. Kelly shrugged when asked about the newest controversy involving Thomas.
"Thurman is going to say what Thurman wants," Kelly said. "Any time anything comes out, we just laugh about it. Thurman deserves a lot [of attention]. Whether he's getting a lot, I'm not one to sit here and say anything.
"All his talking is done on the field. He's proved he's one of the greatest running backs right now. Whatever he says, that's OK, but we just sit back and laugh about it."
Is the latest flap a distraction this close to the Super Bowl?
"We're used to him," Kelly said, laughing.
Marchibroda said he saw no indications that the petty jealousies that triggered the "Bickering Bills" label two years ago were born anew.
"The thing I've said about our ballclub right from the beginning, and what I like about the team, is that we have a very unselfish football team," Marchibroda said. "The Thomases, the Kellys, the [James] Loftons, the [Andre] Reeds, the offensive line . . . overall, since we got over the Bickering Bills, they've been happy for the other guy's success. There hasn't been this problem since the Bickering Bills."
Jim Ritcher, a 12-year veteran guard, said the Thomas affair had not become a distraction for the team. He also said players on the team have grown to accept these kinds of comments.
"We know each other better now, and we know what [players] mean when they say something," Ritcher said. "It might not be derogatory, but maybe before, it was taken in that manner."
Respect is the keynote of the Bills' outrage this week. Smith said the team hasn't gotten it.
"Number one, who thinks we're going to win? Not very many," he said, taking his media inventory. "That's what we're talking about. We just don't get the respect we well deserve.
"But that's OK. . . . We don't mind earning it. I truly believe that the Washington Redskins do not respect our defense, and right now it's really ticking me off. We're trying to make history and the way we can do it is to win this game."
Super BOWL MATCHUP
Analysis: Thomas is the most dangerous player in the game today. In last year's Super Bowl, he rushed for 135 yards and caught five passes for 55 more -- even though the Bills had the ball for slightly less than 20 minutes. If Scott Norwood had made the field goal, Thomas would have been the MVP. He thinks he should have been even though Norwood missed. In Marshall and Collins, though, the Redskins have a pair of outside linebackers who don't figure to let Thomas control the game. Both are sure-handed tacklers, so when Thomas tries to sweep, he's not likely to break out of their grasp even though Thomas has a knack for making tacklers miss. Marshall and Collins are also both quick enough to cover Thomas coming out of the backfield. Collins is just reaching his peak in his second year and Marshall is having his best season since he joined the Redskins. They'll be keeping their eye on Thomas on every snap to try to contain him. This will be a matchup that could turn the game either way.