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AFC column
Thursday, February 17
Bills cut heart, soul for cap relief

Buffalo Bills management, in one historic day of purging last week, tore out the heart and soul from those Bills teams that went to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls.

Norv Turner and Bruce Smith
Coach Norv Turner (left) welcomes Bruce Smith to the Redskins.
That, fortunately for stunned Bills fans, is exactly the point, however.

When the Bills released defensive end Bruce Smith, running back Thurman Thomas and receiver Andre Reed for salary-cap and age reasons, they parted ways with what was the heart and soul of those Buffalo teams.

While Smith arguably still has some fuel remaining in his tank, Reed and Thomas had become players of little impact for the Bills. Thomas couldn't keep himself on the field without injuring himself, and Reed's attitude worsened as his skills diminished -- to the point where, on his personal website late in the season, he selfishly ripped into the very Bills management that made his career.

This is what happens in pro sports. Veteran athletes who were once stars don't know enough to admit their skills have diminished and accept that there might be someone better to take their place.

In the case of the 36-year-old Smith, you could make the argument that Buffalo could have found a way to keep him around for another year or two. But even at his advancing age, his sack numbers were way down (he had only seven in 1999) -- even though he did have 2½ sacks against the Titans in the AFC wild-card loss last month.

As for Thomas and Reed, their roles had decreased so dramatically that it was impossible for the Bills to keep them around -- even at half their respective salaries.

"With the cap situation, you have to feel lucky those three guys played here that long together," Bills coach Wade Phillips said. "I know if they had the salary cap when they had Jim Kelly, Andre, Thurman and Bruce, you wouldn't have kept them together."

"We've lost three all-time players, but we're still on that winning path," Phillips reasoned. "We signed Jay (Riemersma, the tight end). We kept Ted Washington (at a $1 million pay cut). There's no panic here as far as our football team. We'd like to keep everybody, but that's not how the game works anymore."

Added Bills general manager John Butler, "As long as they let us draft, we'll be a viable football team."

With Buffalo believed to be about $3 million under the salary cap, drafting players is about the only way the Bills are going to be able to improve their product for 2000.

"We had a good football team (in 1999), and I think we'll have a good one next year," said Phillips, whose team won 11 games and lost to AFC champion Tennessee on the Music City Miracle in the first round of the playoffs. "We may lose some players, certainly, but I feel we have good players back, our coaches do a good job, and we have enough talent to win.

"I don't see us just dropping off because we lost some players. We change every year. Whoever they are, you change 10, 12, 15 players every year nowadays."

The difference here is that few teams in NFL history have ever said goodbye to such impact stars at the same time. Tremors still exist in Buffalo since the moves were made.

Agent Leigh Steinberg, who represents both Smith and Thomas, called it "a sad day" when the Bills' "big three" were released.

"In case after case around the league, the cap is breaking up happy marriages," Steinberg said.

Smith was asked to stay at a $2.2 million paycut from his scheduled $4.48 million salary. Neither Thomas nor Reed was asked to stay at any price.

When Smith refused and left with Thomas and Reed, Butler called it "a very emotional day for all of us. None of us wanted to see this happen, and we worked diligently trying to avoid this situation. I think everyone knows how we personally feel about these three fine men, and our relationships extend well beyond the field.

"I have to say honestly that this was one of the toughest business decisions we have ever had to make."

The release of Smith is believed to have saved Buffalo $2.5 million under the cap, while the departures of Thomas and Reed saved the Bills about $1 million each for 2000.

"I thought I would have finished my career in Buffalo and had an opportunity to go back and win a championship in Buffalo," Smith said. "I wanted to be in Buffalo more than anything. There are strong ties built over the course of 15 years and now it's gone.

"The salary cap did us in," Smith went on. "Am I pissed off? No. I'm a casualty of war."

That, like any sports reference to war, is taking things a little too far -- especially since Smith, who has already long been a pampered millionaire, quickly signed a lucrative deal with the Redskins (that'll pay him $4.75 million in 2000) before the fans' tears had a chance to dry in Western New York.

With the "big three" gone, here's how it'll look at the three positions: Marcellus Wiley, who had five sacks as a third-down pass rusher in '99, will start for Smith, Jonathan Linton and Shawn Bryson will play for Thomas and Peerless Price, who was already well on his way to a starting job, will step in for Reed.

The bottom line for Buffalo in the wake of last week's upheaval is this: The Bills are not dead. In fact, the loss of the "big three" will prove to be less of an impact on the football field than the losses of some other starters, including cornerback Thomas Smith, who signed with Chicago, and guard Ruben Brown, who's expected to sign elsewhere very soon.

In all, it looks like the Bills will lose seven starters from the 1999 team, also including safety Kurt Schulz, linebacker Gabe Northern and guard Dusty Zeigler.

Smith, Thomas and Reed will forever be appreciated for what they brought to the organization and they'll be missed. But life goes on in Buffalo, where the Bills remain a significant Super Bowl contender without them.

Galloway: Seattle's good riddance
Some in Seattle lamented the departure of Joey Galloway the way they mourned the loss of Ken Griffey Jr. Comparisons were obviously made because the two athletes left town at the same time. That, however, is where the comparisons should cease.

For the Mariners, they should be saddened by Griffey Jr.'s departure, even if it was orchestrated by him and his selfish desires. At least Griffey Jr. put the Mariners on the baseball map before leaving for Cincinnati.

Galloway, for all his talents, turned out to be nothing more than a headache for the Seahawks, winning them nothing.

And his departure to Dallas via a trade that brought two first-round draft picks to Seattle (the 19th overall pick in 2000 and the Cowboys' to-be-determined No. 1 in 2001), should be embraced by Seahawks fans. Galloway's departure also freed up about $4.5 million in valuable salary-cap room.

"The way I look at this, it is really a win-win situation for the Seahawks and Dallas," Seattle coach and GM Mike Holmgren said. "We get a couple of more picks, and we're a growing, young football team with some holes in the dike that we have to fill. And they get a very, very good football player who would probably go nicely with their quarterback."

Galloway didn't go nicely with anyone last year after holding out well into the season for an absurd $12.5 million signing bonus and a $42 million contract.

Once he returned for selfish reasons after missing training camp and the first eight games of the season (by returning before Nov. 14 Galloway was credited for a full year's service), he did little to help what was a successful team. In fact, coincidence or not, Galloway's return began a Seahawks' slide after they'd started the season so strongly with an 8-2 mark.

"The situation in Seattle deteriorated on the field in so many ways," Galloway said at a press conference in Dallas. "I'm glad that is behind me. I hope I shook off the rust in the (nine) games I did play last year."

Fact is, Galloway was of no impact for the Seahawks upon returning from his holdout, catching just 22 passes for 335 yards and one touchdown.

"You compare what he did (in 1999) to what he did previously, and it wasn't the same," Holmgren said. "Regardless of how gifted a player is, to miss all of that time and to think you can come off the street and play like you used to play ... that doesn't happen."

A kinder, gentler Belichick?
Upon his controversial arrival in New England as the Patriots new head coach, Bill Belichick did an interesting -- and smart -- thing. He hired former Jets public-relations assistant Berj Najarian to handle his personal public relations and marketing.

If you listen to people in Cleveland, where Belichick's first head-coaching experience ended amid the Browns' move to Baltimore, you'd think Belichick was orchestrating some sort of Blair Witch Project there. There was a bitter hatred there that was taken out on Belichick instead of on owner Art Modell, who should have taken the brunt.

Belichick is on record as saying that he didn't pay close enough attention to his media and public relations while in Cleveland, instead staying so immersed in the football end of things that he ignored some outside issues.

Thus the hiring of Najarian, who's not on the Patriots public relations staff (Stacey James remains the director of media relations) but on Belichick's staff, helps push Belichick in smarter directions in terms of non-football issues.

Already, reporters in New England have found themselves surprised by Belichick's accessibility.

Mark Cannizzaro of the New York Post writes a weekly AFC notebook for that appears each Thursday.

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