The American sports fan loves offense. Whether it's the home run, the long bomb or the fast-break dunk, they can't get enough scoring, and the sports leagues have done everything possible to keep the scoreboard clicking.
If there's one thing more popular than offense, it's the underdog. So it's no surprise that Doug Flutie has become the primary focus of Buffalo football fans. Last year's regular season was perceived as his triumph, the playoff loss in Miami his personal failure.
Flutie has given fans courage to think about the Super Bowl again. He has raised the standard of expectations in this town, and people won't be quite as forgiving if he fails to measure up.
That's fair enough. But you know the old saying: Offense sells club seats, but defense wins championships. So if the standard has been raised for the star quarterback this season, it should also be elevated for the Buffalo defense, which has the talent to be among the best in the NFL.
The Bills' defense was ranked sixth overall in the NFL last year. It was dominant at times. But like so many Buffalo defenses of the last decade, it seemed to fall a little short of its reputation, especially in the most important games.
The defenders allowed two mediocrities, Greg Hill and Tony Banks, to steal the St. Louis game. In the first Jets loss, they didn't get near Vinny Testaverde. Say what you will about the officials; the defense didn't contain Drew Bledsoe in the loss at New England. They didn't have a takeaway in the home loss to the Jets that decided the division.
In the playoff loss at Miami, they forced only one turnover. They allowed the Dolphins to rush for more than 100 yards and control the clock for 37:32. Granted, the defense was without Phil Hansen and Thomas Smith. But Ted Washington, the highest-paid player in team history, was a virtual no-show, his effectiveness compromised by his shoddy physical conditioning. Bruce Smith was ordinary.
Regular-season numbers are fine. But it's December and January that really matter. If Buffalo expects to be a Super Bowl contender, it needs to do better.
"I'm a defensive coach," head coach Wade Phillips said. "Yeah, I want to be the best on defense. I think defense wins championships for you. The whole team makes a difference, but we've got to be strong on defense this year."
It's a talented "D." But it's time some players stepped forward. Gabe Northern didn't progress as expected a year ago. Sam Rogers hasn't exactly been a big-play machine at the other outside linebacker. Marcellus Wiley should make a bigger impact. Ken Irvin has to be better than average to justify his $2.7 million salary.
Ted Cottrell, the second-year defensive coordinator, has to find more creative ways to unleash all this ability.
But the success of the defense depends largely on its two big stars, Smith and Washington. Smith got his 10 sacks last season (and boy, was he happy about it!). But at 36, he is a shadow of the player he was in his prime.
Washington must return to his overpowering form of two and three years ago. He had 105 unassisted tackles in both 1996 and '97. Last year, he had 65. In '97, he blocked six passes. Last year, he had none. Numbers can be deceiving, but you can bet Washington had his '97 numbers on the table when he bargained the biggest salary in team history.
He has admitted that his '98 performance wasn't up to his standards, and that he could do a better job of watching his weight. Phillips conceded that his nose tackle "probably laid back a little, like any of us would."
That quote was an insult to all the fans who paid their hard-earned dollars to attend games, and who don't have the luxury of "laying back" on the job. Washington gets indignant when anyone dares make an issue of his weight. Sorry, but when the highest-paid player in team history is too fat to play at his peak in the biggest game of the year, the public deserves to be outraged. Washington says the team's slogan should be "No excuses." That sounds about right. The AFC is wide open. If the Bills' defense is as good as people say, it's time to show it -- not just at home in October, but on the road and in the playoffs.
People call this Flutie's team. But it'll go only as far as the defense takes it -- when it becomes Washington's and Smith's team, too.