Rebuilding the Bills
Heading into the 1985 NFL Draft, the were reeling after a 2-14 campaign the previous season. Not only did the club post the worst record in the National Football League, it was the team’s worst performance since 1971. At that time, one thing was certain for Buffalo – they needed to rebuild.
Thanks to the Bills last-place record, that rebuilding effort was made easier with the fact the club owned the first overall selection in the upcoming draft. Only three times prior to that year’s draft had Buffalo picked first overall. In 1969, the team selected Heisman Trophy winner and future Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson from Southern California. In 1972, the Bills tapped highly touted Notre Dame defensive end Walt Patulski and then in 1979 chose linebacker Tom Cousineau out of Ohio State.
is a member of both the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1980s and 1990s.
Buffalo had many holes to fill on both offense and defense heading into the ’85 draft. The team quickly realized that they needed a cornerstone player around which to rebuild the franchise. While Buffalo prepared for the draft, all signs seemed to point to one player, defensive end .
Smith, a standout from Virginia Tech, terrorized opposing offenses during his tenure with the Hokies. An All-America selection following both his junior and senior seasons, he racked up 46 sacks and 25 tackles for losses during his four years at the school. His efforts during his senior season landed him the Outland Trophy, given to the nation’s top interior lineman.
Listed at 6-4 and 280 pounds, Smith was truly a physical specimen. He combined his size with amazing acceleration and speed. In fact, he ran a blistering 4.71 in the 40-yard-dash prior to the draft, an unheard of number for a defensive lineman of that size.
All of these qualities made the selection of Smith a very easy one for the Bills. So confident was the team, Bills President and Owner Ralph Wilson, Jr. compared him to former Steelers great Joe Greene shortly after signing the prized draft pick to a four-year contract.
Smith’s rookie season, however, included a number of ups and downs. He emerged from training camp as the starter at right defensive end but was replaced by veteran Don Smith after just the second week of the season. Bruce returned to the starting lineup by Week 6 and remained in that spot for the rest of the year.
As a rookie, Smith led the team in sacks (6.5) and opponents fumble recoveries (4). His 48 total tackles were second most on the defensive line. For his efforts, he was voted the AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year by the NFL Players Association and also named to Football Digest’s All-Rookie team.
“I didn’t have my priorities straight,” commented Smith when asked about the 1985 season.
Smith’s decorated rookie season was the lone bright spot in what was otherwise another dreadful 2-14 season for the Bills. Bruce, however felt he had much to improve on. His first course of action to improve on the NFL level was to get in better shape. Amazingly, he had played his rookie season close to 20 pounds overweight.
Gone were the fast food burger and fries, Buffalo wings and late-night dessert. They were replaced with a low-fat diet and an exercise regimen that would test an Olympic decathlete.
“ does a workout designed for defensive backs, wide receivers, and marathoners,” once commented then Bills strength and conditioning coach Rusty Jones.
Smith’s hard regimen of stair climbers and treadmills helped him trim down to a slender 265 pounds and a frame that looked as if he was sculpted from granite.
The result was a 1986 season that saw Smith register 15 sacks (a team record at the time) and 63 tackles. He also led the Bills in fumble recoveries (3) and had five tackles for a loss. The improvement landed him All-AFC second team honors.
Soon thereafter, the Bills fortunes took a major upswing highlighted by an unprecedented run of four straight Super Bowl berths.
Throughout the remainder of his 19-year career, many awards and honors came Smith’s way. Not only did he set the all-time record for most career sacks, but he established himself one of the most dominant defensive players in NFL history.
Smith is just the 13th member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to have been a first overall pick in an NFL draft.
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