Polian's piecemeal approach brings Bills to big time, where they've stayed

January 24, 1993|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

Bruce Smith was the cornerstone draft pick in 1985, a symbol of the Buffalo Bills' futile past, the hope for the future.

A year later, Jim Kelly arrived when the USFL fell.

The year after that, it was Cornelius Bennett.

The year after that, it was Thurman Thomas.

It took four years, but between Smith's coronation as the top pick in the 1985 NFL draft and Thomas' free fall to the second round in 1988, the Bills acquired the marquee players who would deliver them to three straight Super Bowls in the 1990s.

They were the big-time pass rusher, the big-time passer, the big-play linebacker and the big-play running back. These are the players who will have to produce big-time if the Bills (14-5) are to beat the favored Dallas Cowboys (15-3) in Super Bowl XXVII a week from today.

These were the main cogs in the master plan of Bills general

manager Bill Polian, who put the team together in near classic fashion.

Polian, a red-haired Irishman from the Bronx, arrived in Buffalo in 1984 as director of pro personnel. He had held similar positions with the Canadian Football League's Winnipeg Blue Bombers, where he helped win two Grey Cups, and the ill-fated Chicago Blitz of the USFL.

When Polian was promoted to general manager of the Bills in December 1985, he introduced himself to the Buffalo media as "Bill Who." But it was not long before he was recognized for his ability to find good players and for his knack of getting them onto Buffalo's roster.

Polian overhauled a franchise that had sunk to consecutive 2-14 seasons in 1984 and 1985 with a series of master strokes and a little good fortune. In his seven years as general manager, the Bills have won four AFC East division titles and three AFC championships. What's more, 13 players acquired during Polian's regime have been chosen for the Pro Bowl.

The reconstruction started with the selection of Smith, a defensive end, at the top of the 1985 draft. Bills owner Ralph Wilson had wanted to take quarterback Doug Flutie, the Heisman Trophy winner, but Polian convinced him of the need for a dominating pass rusher.

In August 1986, Polian finalized contract negotiations that brought Kelly to Buffalo. A 1983 Bills draft choice, Kelly opted for the run-and-shoot offense of the USFL Houston Gamblers over cold, barren Buffalo. That November, Polian fired coach Hank Bullough and replaced him with Marv Levy. Polian and Levy had worked together with the Kansas City Chiefs and in the CFL.

The pieces were slowly falling into place.

In 1987, Polian made the moves that ultimately elevated the Bills from also-ran status to legitimate contenders. Wheeling and dealing on draft day, he came away with six players who would start for the team. In October, he came away with arguably the trade of the decade. He landed Bennett in a complicated, three-team deal with the Los Angeles Rams and Indianapolis Colts.

Polian's philosophy was to win with tenacious defense and a running game that would hold up on the frozen tundra of Rich Stadium in late December. The defense arrived with that 1987 draft.

"Our approach was, you win championships with dominant defense," Polian said. "That was the first thing we set out to do, build a defense. We approached the draft in 1987 -- Marv and I -- by saying that if you want to help Jim Kelly, build a defense. The press criticized the draft. They wanted speed receivers and running backs. They wanted the run-and-shoot."

What Buffalo got was infinitely better. The Bills got inside linebacker Shane Conlan in the first round, cornerback Nate Odomes in the second, tight end Keith McKeller in the ninth and tackle Howard Ballard in the 11th. They also got fullback Jamie Mueller (third round) and defensive end Leon Seals (fourth), two players who were productive but who are no longer with the team.

The Bills considered Bennett the best player in the draft. But the Alabama linebacker was destined for Indianapolis on the second pick once the Tampa Bay Buccaneers settled on quarterback Vinny Testaverde with the first.

The Bills traded down from the third pick to the eighth. When the Cleveland Browns took Duke linebacker Trey Junkin with the fifth pick, it allowed Conlan, a three-time Pro Bowler, to fall to the


"The surprise was Junkin," Polian said. "Everything else fell in place. We figured we'd get [Rod] Woodson or Conlan with the eighth pick. We had great needs. We were coming off a 4-12 year and our single biggest need was stopping the run."

The best was yet to come for Buffalo. When Bennett refused to sign with the Colts, Polian began negotiating a trade. The talks evolved into a three-cornered deal where the Colts got disgruntled Los Angeles Rams running back Eric Dickerson, and the Rams got two running backs and six draft picks.

The deal turned out to be a steal for the Bills.

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