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Smith Shows He’s the Best, Then Tells Everyone About It : Bills: Defensive end has risen to another level this season and brought Buffalo with him.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Ego has been stumping for this kind of attention, and holy hype, what a grand finale Super Bowl XXV would be for the Bruce Smith “I am the best” tour.

Imagine: Buffalo Bruce doing an updated Hollywood Henderson.

He wouldn’t disappoint.

“Have you seen any one play better?” he wanted to know with a sneer. “You can’t take anything away from a Lawrence Taylor or a Reggie White, but right now I am the best.”

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Don’t hold anything back.

“Hey, I look at it as an insult when a team tries to block me with just one person,” he said. “I demand attention. I have to be double- and triple-teamed.”

The Raiders don’t figure to disappoint Mr. Smith when he lines up at defensive end in Sunday’s AFC championship game in Rich Stadium.

“The Raiders aren’t crazy,” said Larry Beightol, defensive line coach for the New York Jets. “They want to win, so you know they will have a bunch of guys on Smith. We played him twice this year, and you hold him, you kick him, you bite him and you still can’t stop him. This was the best defensive guy we faced all year.”

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While preparing for Smith in the final regular-season game, Washington offensive line coach Jim Hanifan was moved to say: “You think back to guys like Howie Long, Dan Hampton, Randy White, Bob Lilly, and this guy might be better than all of them. He’s truly scary. He’s the most formidable player since Deacon Jones.”

That’s what the Ego has been telling everyone. And if you haven’t gotten the message, he said, “You haven’t been paying attention.”

Last week after the Bills’ 44-34 divisional victory over the Dolphins, Smith filled notebooks by telling everyone he was motivated to greatness by the misguided criticism of Miami rookie guard Keith Sims.

No matter that Smith had no sacks and only five tackles, while quarterback Jim Kelly and wide receiver Andre Reed were crafting the victory. Smith became the story.

“Shoot, he’s put up the numbers for everybody to see this year,” linebacker Darryl Talley said, “and as long as he’s putting the numbers up he can walk his kind of walk and talk his kind of talk.”

But isn’t the campaigning a little heavy-handed at times.

“I’d rather not comment on that,” linebacker Ray Bentley said. “That’s Bruce.”

The Bo-like posters, sans shirt and heavy on the muscles, are selling at the local Super Duper stores. But beyond this outpost, the “Bruce” posters still demand a last name.

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“Apparently, with a town like Buffalo, and I’m not downgrading the town, I don’t get enough publicity out of this area,” Smith said. ". . . So I have to spread the word.”

The word is out. If you value the good health of your quarterback, you assign a platoon of blockers to Smith.

“You watch the film and it’s kind of funny,” Bentley said. “He’ll get rid of two of them, and then someone else will chop his legs out. That’s nice, because then I got less guys hitting me.”

Although the opposition has dedicated itself to stopping Smith, he still managed to compile 100 tackles. It was all part of his new campaign during the 1990 season to concentrate on his defense against the run.

“You have to stop the running game especially against the . . . we’re lining up against,” said Chuck Dickerson, the Bills’ defensive line coach. “The Raiders run the football. If you’re going to rush the passer every down on these guys, you got problems.”

Buffalo had problems, all right, before Smith arrived. But it was Buffalo’s good fortune to go 2-14 in 1984 to earn the first selection in the 1985 NFL draft and the opportunity to employ the Outland Trophy honoree from Virginia Tech.

“I’ll tell you, when Bruce first came here he wanted his sacks,” Bentley said. “He would be storming up the field every down, and when you got a guy like that, the offense can do a lot of things to take advantage of that.

“You don’t see that anymore. He grew up a lot. He’s playing team defense, he’s playing the run, and the coaches finally convinced him he’d be a lot better ballplayer if he listened to them.”

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In the past few years Smith had to overcome a barroom fight, a four-week suspension for substance abuse and a knee injury.

Through much of 1988 and all of 1989, he played on a swollen and painful knee. Last February, he underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair torn cartilage.

“I was considered one of the best and I was playing on a bad knee,” he said. “Now that I’m healthy, I’m on another level.”

The year before Smith joined the Bills, the team had 26 sacks. This season Smith had 19 and was the Associated Press’ NFL defensive player of the year. He will be starting in his fourth Pro Bowl.

“He gets the No. 1 chair in our meeting room, up front, right on the aisle,” Dickerson said. “Why? Because he can send us all to the promised land.

“I don’t know what makes the great ones tick. All I know is, draft them, and then don’t let them get away from you. Pay ‘em, keep them happy, keep them healthy and then turn them loose on Sundays.”

On an earlier Sunday this season, an angry Smith confronted Coach Marv Levy on the sideline. The Bills were trailing Miami, 30-7, with 7:54 remaining, and Levy withdrew his offensive starters from the game.

Smith drew a $500 fine for challenging Levy and telling the media, “We just gave up.” But the Bills went on to win their next eight games.

Like Long, who represents all that is successful with the Raiders, Smith has come to symbolize the rise in respect for Buffalo.

“Howie Long is my idol,” Smith said. “What a great player. I’ve watched him a number of years seeing what I could do to make myself a better player.”

Everyone, of course, knows Howie Long.

“I’m not a national figure,” Smith said. “I started telling everyone I was the best because the fans aren’t able to see what happens on film. I just wanted to give them insight into what teams have been doing, and the way I’ve been helping our team on the field.

“I haven’t said anything about last year or next year. I’m talking about what has just happened, and I’m the best. Watch it on film; watch what teams are doing to me.”

And how concerned were the Raiders with Smith in their 38-24 loss to the Bills earlier this season?

“That was the Raiders’ main concern,” he said, “Blocking me.”


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