The Bills went through much of the 1989 season with a receiver on their bench, James Lofton, who had 600 NFL receptions on his record.
With Lofton starting now and Don Beebe out until the 1991 season with a broken left leg, Buffalo's reserve receivers for Sunday's game at Washington have only 44 career catches TOTAL, and all but one of those catches are owned by Steve Tasker, who is valued more for his special teams play.
Rookie Al Edwards, who will step into Beebe's role, has had one catch this season for a 5-yard gain against Denver. Another rookie, Vernon Turner, will be suiting up for the first time in an NFL regular-season game and his first game of any kind with the Bills.
All season long the Bills have managed to fill in for the loss of starting talent. John Davis for Leonard Burton; John Hagy for Mark Kelso; J.D. Williams for Kirby Jackson; Clifford Hicks for Williams; David Pool for Chris Hale; Frank Reich for Jim Kelly. How well equipped are they do deal with the loss of Beebe as the third receiver spot? Worse, what if something happens to the two starters, Lofton or Andre Reed, the AFC's leader in receptions?
The Bills have confidence that Edwards and, if needed, Turner, can provide some insurance but coach Marv Levy admits there is concern.
"It isn't that we're apprehensive," Levy said. "We really don't lack faith in them. I think they're both darn good young prospects.
"They study hard. They're very conscientious on how they work, very good speed both of them. They're catching the ball in practice.
"They're untested, however."
Edwards and Turner, who has been on the Bills practice squad, will probably get into Sunday's Washington game early and often.
"We could go at times in the game with a shotgun combination of Steve Tasker, Al Edwards and Vernon Turner if we wanted," Levy said.
Edwards is primed for his most extensive regular-season action.
"We'll probably be in a lot of 'gun (shotgun formation), and in turn I'll get a lot of playing time," Edwards said.
It's almost a forgotten fact that Edwards started two games this season for the Bills, against the New York Jets at Giants Stadium and the following week at home against Denver. In both games, Buffalo opened with three wide receivers, two running backs and no tight end in the lineup.
"When 'Beebs' got hurt I got a little playing time," Edwards said, referring to Beebe's early-season battles with a persistent hamstring problem. "I caught one pass and that was it," Edwards said.
"We haven't really thrown in his direction that much," Levy pointed out.
Most of Edwards' playing time has been as a punt and kickoff return man. He became the regular punt return man after Hale suffered a torn Achilles at Cleveland and he's been back on kickoffs with Don Smith most of the season except for a few weeks when he was recovering from a bruised shoulder.
Two weeks ago, he returned a kickoff 54 yards against the Giants for the Bills' longest of the season. He reeled off a 47-yarder last week against Miami, but a holding penalty left him with a 26-yard gain instead.
"That was the second time this year that happened to me," said Edwards, who was a running back in high school and began his college career at Northwestern (La.) State as a back before he was moved to receiver. "Hopefully I'll break one this week and they won't bring it back."
Listed at 5-foot-8, 171 pounds, Edwards would seem to be a bit lighter than NFL coaches prefer their return men. "He's deceptive," Levy said. "He's a strong guy. He looks real little out there, but he's well knit. He's not a lightweight. I think he weighs close to 180."
When the Bills drafted Edwards in the 11th round last spring it didn't raise much of a stir. But he opened up some eyes with his speed and catching ability at mini-camp and since has proved he belongs.
Edwards said he isn't bothered by the responsibility he inherits as the third receiver with Beebe sidelined. He thinks he's well-prepared.
"Coach (Nick) Nicolau and James (Lofton) and Andre (Reed) have taught me a lot of about professional receiving," he said. "There's lot of things you have to learn, but it's basically technique."
By now, Edwards has practiced all the receiver positions and can fill in adequately at any of them, the Bills believe.
Turner is built along the same lines (5-8, 185) as Edwards but is perhaps a little stronger. He also was a running back in college, at Carson-Newman in Tennessee. He rushed for 869 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior and returned 10 kickoffs for 263 yards, including one for 73 yards. He was signed as an undrafted free agent by Denver. The Bills added him to their practice squad after he was waived by the Broncos.
The Bills may look at some experienced receivers such as ex-New York Giant Lionel Manuel for depth before the playoffs, but they are anxious to see Turner in action first.
"If we're going to bring this young fellow on active, we would look for an opportunity to play him," Levy said of the Redskins game Sunday. "We think he's got the potential. . . . "
What about Tasker, who once caught 17 passes for 447 yards (a 26.3 average) with the Houston Oilers?
"Steve may well be a lot better receiver than we're giving him game opportunities to show," Levy admits. "He's unique. His special teams ability makes him very valuable to us. He is smart, can play all the positions well. He can catch the ball. He runs good routes. We brought him into several games where we had only four receivers on the roster, with him being the fourth. He steps in and keeps our shotgun combinations going."
There are other ways the Bills can cope with a shortage of receivers that crops up during a game. They can use tight end Keith McKeller set wide as they have done often. They can also set running backs Thurman Thomas or Smith out from the formation as well.
"There's a myriad of ways that we can run our single-back," Levy said. "And all of our no-huddles have had a little different twist to them every time in terms of the combination of personnel and where we align them in relationship to one another.
"If we came out with one no-huddle look all the time it would be a lot easier for people to scheme coming in to cope with it."
The Bills collected five places on Dr. Z's All-Pro team, selected by senior writer Paul Zimmerman for Sports Illustrated. Zimmerman's picks from Buffalo:
Quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas and center Kent Hull on offense and end Bruce Smith and outside linebacker Darryl Talley on defense.
Buffalo was the only team with more than three players on Dr. Z's team. Kansas City had three picks (offensive tackle John Alt, nose guard Dan Saleaumua and cornerback Albert Lewis), and Atlanta (offensive tackle Mike Kenn and wide receiver Andre Rison), Philadelphia (receiver-back Keith Byars and linebacker Seth Joyner), Pittsburgh (strong safety Carnell Lake and cornerback Rod Woodson) and San Francisco (wide receiver Jerry Rice and free safety Ronnie Lott) had two each.