REACHING FOR THE TOP Bruce Smith says he's best, tries to make Bills best, too


Bruce Smith is the best defensive player in the National Football League.

If you have any doubt about it, just ask him.

"I think I have emerged to be the most dominant player in the league," the Buffalo Bills defensive end said last week.

Smith started making this claim two weeks ago, before the Bills played the New York Giants.

He volunteered to speak to the New York writers on a conference call and startled them by saying that he had replaced Lawrence Taylor as the game's topdefensive player.

"Over the last 10 years, (Taylor) has probably been the most dominating player in the league. But I think I've taken it a notch above him. Right now, it's time to give credit to somebody who deserves it. It would be an injustice if I don't get the MVP," he said that week.

It was no spur-of-the-moment comment by Smith. He wanted to get recognition, and he apparently figured the way to do it was to make his case to New York writers.

However, Smith's comments got some negative reaction in New York, where he was accused of downgrading Taylor's accomplishments.

He told Washington writers last week that one fan wrote a New York paper: "Who the hell do you think you are saying you're the greatest, comparing l0 seasons (of Taylor) to 13 games?"

Smith noted he had given Taylor credit for being the most dominant player of the past 10 years, but was saying he now was the best.

"I didn't mean to sound cocky or overconfident or anything like that, and I'm not taking anything away from Lawrence, because Lawrence is going to the Hall of Fame," Smith said. "I'm trying to pave my way to the Hall of Fame. I'm not trying to step on any feet or anything like that. It just comes down to the bottom line. I just want the caredit that I think I deserve."

Buffalo coach Marv Levy wasn't thrilled with Smith's comments.

"I winced a little, I did say to Bruce: 'You don't have to say those things. What you do is going to speak for itself," Levy said.

Levy won't say that Smith is best.

"I don't do any player evaluations. It's like a guy walking into a bar and saying, 'My buddy can lick anybody in the place,'" Levy said.

Since Smith made those comments, he hasn't gotten a sack in the past two games, against the Giants and the Miami Dolphins.

But, with 19 sacks, he is just one behind the Kansas City Chiefs' Derrick Thomas, who has played all his games. Smith also collected 12 tackles against the Giants and kept the pressure on quarterback Dan Marino to help the Bills win both games and get home-field advantage throughout the American Football Conference playoffs.

Praising his play against the run in the Giants game, Levy said, "He played the best run defense that I've seen played since Art Still was young."

Levy said Smith, in his sixth season since he was the first player drafted in 1985, has become a complete player.

"In the past, he was so intent on roaring upfield and trying to get the sack that his total focus seemed to be in that direction. I think he's come to understand playing within the framework of a team scheme on every down. He helps our team defense, and that makes him a better player," he said.

Smith said he was slowed last season by a knee injury, he's been at his best this year since undergoing surgery in the off-season.

Although Smith may not play the whole game against the Washington Redskins today because he's fighting the flu and a minor knee ailment and the Bills don't have anything at stake, he has a special incentive in the game. He'll have a lot of friends and relatives on hand because he's a native of Norfolk, Va.

He'll go against a Pro Bowl left tackle in Jim Lachey, but said the Redskins won't let Lachey go against him one-on-one.

Lachey declined to be interviewed last week, and Jim Hanifan, the Washington offensive-line coach, wouldn't discuss how the Redskins wouyld play against Smith.

"As far as a pure guy on the outside, I think you have to go way back to (Hall of Famer) Deacon Jones to find the type of player that you can compare to this guy," Hanifan said.

Although he grew up in Redskins country, Smith said he was a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the l970s.

"My idol was Mean Joe Greene," he said of the defensive lineman who helped the Steelers win four Super Bowls.

Smith, who still is working to get to his first Super Bowl, said the Bills "don't get the recognition they deserve" because they don't play in a major media center.

The Steelers didn't either, but they got the recognition they wanted when they started winning Super Bowls.

"We're not looking past anybody. We've still got one game left on our schedule ," Smith said when asked about the Super Bowl.

But the Super Bowl is his obvious goal. Now that he says he's the best player, he want's to prove he's on the best team.

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