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.
Bennett has been named to the Pro Bowl five straight seasons. The Colts had some residual success, winning one division title with Dickerson, then fell to the bottom of the AFC East. The Rams reached the playoffs twice, then collapsed.
"We didn't feel it was a gamble at all," Polian said about giving up three high draft picks. "We were sold that Cornelius was the best player out that year . . . that was the [draft] that put us over the top. It took us from pretender to Super Bowl contender."
In 1988, the Bills were both good and lucky in the draft. They reeled in Thomas, a running back with a rebuilt knee, when he dropped to the 40th pick. Thomas, who played ahead of Barry Sanders at Oklahoma State, was the eighth running back taken in the draft, behind the likes of John Stephens, Brad Muster and Tony Jeffery.
"I'd like to say we were astute and expected that to happen," said Polian, "but I can't. Every year, there are one or two players who drop markedly. We thought he might because of his knee. In Indianapolis [at the NFL scouting combine], he had a huge brace. We thought that might scare some people away."
LTC The Bills requested a tape of the operation on Thomas' knee and ranked him as the best running back in the draft, ahead of Lorenzo White. When Thomas fell through the first round, Polian went to Wilson to get approval.
"We went into Mr. Wilson's office and said Thomas was our guy," Polian said. "He was the only back left who could do anything for us. I said we'd take a guy in the second round with a medical history, and he [Wilson] ought to hear the ramifications. "Mr. Wilson said: 'Life's a gamble -- go for him.' "
The gamble paid off handsomely. Thomas, with no knee problems, has led the NFL the past four years in yards from scrimmage, breaking the record of three consecutive seasons held by Jim Brown. He was the league's MVP a year ago.
The Bills got better in a hurry. They went 12-4 in 1988 and won the first of four straight division titles. They posted back-to-back 13-3 seasons in 1990 and 1991, and went to the Super Bowl each year.
This year they lost the division title to the Miami Dolphins, but made the Super Bowl as the first wild-card team since the New England Patriots in 1985. One more time they will try to win with a lineup populated by first-round picks.
They have nine first-round picks on the roster, including Bennett. All but one -- offensive lineman John Fina, class of 1992 -- are starters.
Polian found talent in a variety of places. When the USFL folded in 1986, he signed center Kent Hull and free safety Mark Kelso. He drafted wide receivers Andre Reed (1985) of Kutztown State and Don Beebe (1989) of Chadron (Neb.) State. He found nose tackle Jeff Wright at Central Missouri State in the eighth round of the 1988 draft.
In 1989, the Bills made a key free-agent signing, getting wideout James Lofton after he was released by the Raiders. And in the final year of Plan B free agency, the Bills signed kicker Steve Christie. Christie kicked five field goals in last week's 29-10 victory over Miami in the AFC championship game.
Polian, the architect of this AFC dynasty, has earned a reputation as one of the league's most effective leaders.
"He's an understated guy who has a real good eye for talent," said Kansas City president Carl Peterson. "Some of the best things he did was hold that team together two years ago when they were the Bickering Bills.
"He's done a heck of a job, win or lose, getting to three straight Super Bowls. There are a lot of teams that haven't been there yet."
How Cornelius Bennett became a Bill
The trade that brought Cornelius Bennett to the Bills in 1987
Received: LB Cornelius Bennett from Colts
Gave up: 1st-round pick in 1988, 1st- and 2nd-round picks in 1989, and RB Greg Bell to Colts
Received: RB Eric Dickerson from Rams
Gave up: Own 1st- and 2nd-round picks in 1988, own 2nd-round pick in 1989, RB Owen Gill, along with all three picks from Bills and Bell to Rams
Received: RBs Bell, Gill and Gaston Green (Bills' 1st-round pick in 1988); WR Aaron Cox (Colts' 1st-round pick in 1988); LB Fred Strickland (Colts' 2nd-round pick in 1988); RB Cleveland Gary (Bills' 1st-round pick in 1989); LB Frank Stams (Colts' 2nd-round pick in 1989); and DB Darryl Henley (Bills' 2nd-round pick in 1989).
Gave up: Dickerson to Colts
How the Bills, Colts and Rams fared since the trade
.. .. .. .. Record .. .. .. (division titles) .. .. . Playoff record
Bills .. ...65-30 .. .. .. .Last five (4) .. .. .. 8-4, reached Super
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Bowl for 3rd straight
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . year
Colts .. . 43-52 .. .. ., .. .. 1987 (1) ... ... .... .. .. .. . 0-1
Rams .. .. 41-54 .. .. .. .1988, 1989 (none) .. .. . .. 2-2, lost NFC
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ... .. .. .... .. ... ... .. . championship game
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . in 1989
Who are these guys?
Running backs taken ahead of Thurman Thomas in 1988 draft:
.. .. .. .. .,, ,, ,, ,, ,, ,, Round/
Player .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. pick .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . Team
Gaston Green .. .. .. .. .. .. 1/14 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . Rams
John Stephens .. .. .. .. .. . 1/17 .. .. .. .. .. ... Patriots
Lorenzo White .. .. .. .. .. . 1/22 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Oilers
Brad Muster .. .. .. .. .. ... 1/23 .. .. .. .. .. .. ... Bears
Craig Heyward .. .. .. .. .. . 1/24 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Saints
Ickey Woods .. .. .. .. .. ... 2/31 .. .. .. .. .. .. . Bengals
Tony Jeffery .. .. .. .. .. .. 2/38 .. .. .. .. .. .. Cardinals
Thomas 2/40 Bills