'Skins' Smith keeping Buffalo return in check

Visiting first NFL stop, end needs 1 1/2 sacks to tie all-time league mark

Pro Football

October 17, 2003|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

ASHBURN, Va. - People who have been in Bruce Smith's company know that he is reserved, even-tempered and relaxed.

That's why, as Smith's Washington Redskins (3-3) prepare to visit the Buffalo Bills (3-3) at 4:15 p.m. Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the defensive end is single-minded - almost guarded - about returning to the birthplace of his NFL career.

"I haven't been back there in four years," Smith, a defensive end, said. "I'm going there with a purpose right now and that's to win a ballgame. I'll use the time after to visit with friends and relatives and so forth."

No mention of the four consecutive trips to the Super Bowl as a Bill. Not a word about his unceremonious release by Buffalo after the 1999 season. And certainly no prediction about breaking the NFL career sack record against his former team.

His teammates have noticed Smith's reticence.

"He's been good at hiding it," said defensive end Renaldo Wynn. "I know he's excited about coming back to Buffalo, but he's been kind of low-key."

Smith, from Virginia Tech, had been a fixture in Buffalo's success after the Bills made him the No. 1 overall choice in the 1985 NFL draft. Teamed with quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas and wide receiver Andre Reed, Smith anchored a defense that helped Buffalo reach four straight Super Bowls (1991, '92, '93, '94).

But on Feb. 10, 2000, Smith - along with Thomas and Reed - was cut by the Bills in a salary-cap purge. Two days later, Washington signed him.

Smith collected 10 sacks in his first season with the Redskins, but has only 14 in the past two seasons. This season, Washington recruited former Oakland Raider Regan Upshaw to be the starting defensive end opposite Wynn, but Upshaw's surgically-repaired knee hampered his return during the preseason, and Smith assumed his usual starting position.

Even at 40, Smith still has the skills and smarts to hold off younger backups like Peppi Zellner and Ladairis Jackson.

This week, defensive coordinator George Edwards said that the coaching staff is considering cutting Smith's time to keep him fresh for obvious passing-down situations.

Smith, who has heard similar talk from former head coach Marty Schottenheimer in 2001 and from former defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis last year, smiled when asked about less playing time.

"That's been a theory for the last five or six years now," said Smith, who was persuaded to hold off retirement for at least one more season by the late Gerald S. Snyder, the father of Redskins team owner Daniel M. Snyder. "If that's the scenario that has to run its course, then so be it. My main concern is winning and whatever we have to do to get that job done, that's what I'm for."

Smith, who has 1 1/2 sacks this season, is 1 1/2 sacks away from tying the league career record of 198 held by Reggie White. Smith has sacked a quarterback from each NFL franchise but three - the Ravens, Bills and San Diego Chargers.

That could change Sunday when Smith lines up to rush Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who was sacked by Smith 12 1/2 times when Bledsoe was with New England - the most among any active quarterback.

"He is one of the great players ever to play the game," said Bledsoe, who added that his first sack as a pro was registered by Smith. "I know the fans here in Buffalo have a great deal of appreciation for Bruce and all that he accomplished as a Buffalo Bill. ... We're just trying to do everything we can to prevent him from breaking the sack record when he comes back here."

Next for Redskins

Matchup: Washington Redskins (3-3) vs. Buffalo Bills (3-3)

Site: Ralph Wilson Stadium, Buffalo, N.Y.

When: Sunday, 4:15 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 45, 5/WNAV (1430 AM), WJFK (106.7 FM)

Line: Bills by 3

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