Bills' Thomas unable to turn over different Super image

January 31, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

ATLANTA -- They met on the field afterward, the two Pro Bowl running backs, the friendliest of rivals, the goat and the MVP.

Emmitt Smith introduced his niece to Thurman Thomas.

"This is the best running back in the National Football League," he said.

"No, Emmitt," Thomas replied. "Don't even try that on me."

The MVP rushed 30 times for 132 yards in Dallas' 30-13 victory over Buffalo, becoming the first running back since Larry Csonka to gain more than 100 yards in back-to-back Super Bowls.

The goat lost two fumbles that Dallas converted into 10 points. The goat can keep winning AFC rushing titles, keep piling up all-purpose yards, keep returning to the Super Bowl.

This is how he'll be remembered:

Initials, T.T.

Turnover. Turnover.

You figure him out. Thomas showed none of his usual anger after last night's game, none of his familiar surliness. He stood at a podium, a towel in his left hand, a microphone in his right.

He accepted responsibility.

He answered question after question.

"Throughout my career, I've never been a fumbler," he said. "These guys, you can look at them on film and see they practice that.

"I can't run with two hands on the football. That's not my style. I'm not a fullback. I did what I usually do. They just did a great job knocking away the ball."

Thomas always seems to lose something at the Super Bowl -- his helmet, the football, his composure. But this latest January mishap changed the entire game. It was no joke.

The Bills had a 13-6 lead at halftime. They had the arrogant Cowboys reeling. They even had the ball to start the second half.

Fumble One was already forgotten.

Fumble Two ruined the whole thing.

It came on the third play after halftime. Leon Lett stripped the ball from Thomas. Dallas safety James Washington recovered and raced 46 yards for the tying touchdown.

The entire stadium knew it.

That was the game, right there.

"That really changed the momentum," Thomas said afterward, sunglasses covering his eyes, sweat glistening off his shaven head. "I can sit here and take the blame."

He threw his helmet on the Georgia Dome turf after it happened, then missed nearly the rest of the third quarter with leg cramps. As Dallas built its lead, NBC repeatedly showed him on the bench, head down, dejected.

To think, he rushed for 135 yards in his first Super Bowl, and would have been MVP if not for Scott Norwood's missed field goal.

To think, Smith gained nearly as many yards on one drive last night (61) as Thomas has gained in his past three Super Bowls.

Here's the combined line: 37 carries, 69 yards, three fumbles. You figure Thomas out. A week ago in the AFC Championship game, he rushed for 188 yards against Kansas City.

"It's kind of weird," Thomas said. "I have one of my better games of the year one week before, then come back and play horrible."

Smith never does that. Smith never stops. But Thomas seemed almost relieved when the game was over. "I love you," Smith said. Maybe that was enough.

"I'm still the same Thurman Thomas. I'm not going to change," Thomas said. "Sure, it's a devastating loss, but I'm not going to go out and drink myself to death or kill myself."

That's comforting, but someone in the Bills' locker room screamed, "Go for five in '95!"

By now, the Bills know the routine. They immediately went into damage control, coach Marv Levy refusing to hang the loss on one play, owner Ralph Wilson consoling Thomas.

"I told him I was proud of him," Wilson said. "Without him, we might not have been playing in this game. You can't blame it on one person."

True enough, but Thomas knows he can't escape the inevitable criticism, the inevitable comparison with Smith.

All week, the Bills talked about avoiding a repeat of last year's game, when they committed nine turnovers. This time, they made three, and got the same result.

Emmitt Smith, MVP.

Thurman Thomas, goat.

"A loss is a loss," Thomas said. "You can't do nothing about it. You can't go back and play the Giants, Redskins and Cowboys twice over.

"With some players, it might stick with them for a long time. But me, I can't replay the game. I can't get back the two fumbles I lost."

You figure him out.

"The only thing I can do," Thurman Thomas said, "is go toward tomorrow."

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