The Buffalo Bills had an inauspicious beginning to their new era with a 31-10 preseason-opening loss to the Denver Broncos Saturday night.
The Mile High Stadium crowd of 69,739 was stoked by the promising start of what is widely believed to be a run to Super Bowl XXXII.
However, the final score notwithstanding, the Bills had some promising sights of their own.
And the brightest was the performance of running back Antowain Smith, their first-round draft pick.
With Thurman Thomas sidelined with sore ribs and incumbent No. 2 back Darick Holmes making only a brief appearance, Smith received the lion's share of work in the backfield. And he made the most of it, rushing eight times for a game-high 52 yards, 31 coming on a pretty touchdown dash with 2:04 left in the first half.
After one preseason game, the battle for the Bills' starting quarterback job looks pretty even between Todd Collins and Billy Joe Hobert. If Alex Van Pelt was ever in the running, he received a major setback Saturday night by suffering a shoulder separation that is expected to sideline him for six to eight weeks.
Collins moved the offense pretty well in 2 1/2 series before giving way to Hobert, who after a shaky start showed some decent play-making skills in leading the Bills to both of their scores.
Quarterback John Elway started for the Broncos and played only the game's first series, just long enough to direct a field-goal drive. Elway made some big plays, with passes of 15 and 12 yards to tight end Shannon Sharpe and 14 yards to wide receiver Rod Smith.
Jeff Lewis, who took over at quarterback for the Broncos for most of the rest of the game, threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Smith to make it 10-0 2:28 into the second quarter.
Collins gave a pretty solid showing against the Broncos' first-unit defense, completing 5 of 9 passes for 63 yards.
In an awkward switch, Hobert entered the game on the play after Collins connected with Andre Reed for a 19-yard gain to the Denver 28 with 10 minutes left in the first half. Hobert's first play was a fumbled snap, but that was nullified by an offsides call on the Broncos. After a couple of penalties and general sloppiness, the Bills were forced to punt.
However, on the next series, Hobert looked much sharper. He connected with Eric Moulds for a 22-yard gain, and a 15-yard facemask penalty on safety Dedrick Dodge moved the ball to the Denver 42. After a 7-yard Hobert scramble gave the Bills a first down to the Broncos' 31, Smith blew through the middle, cut right and went virtually untouched into the end zone to cut Denver's lead to 10-7.
"It was a great hole at the point of attack," Smith said. "I had to make my move, and once I got into the secondary, my eyes just opened up and it was up to me to outrun the defense to the end zone."
Coach Marv Levy made a point of leaving his offensive starters in the game longer than usual in the first half to give both quarterbacks extended work with the first unit. In a rare long preseason outing, Reed finished with three receptions for 36 yards.
"It was our first time out, we got a look at a lot of different guys," Levy said. "I felt our offense worked better than expected. Defensively, we did some good things (but) we're a long way from being where we want to be."
Neither QB had exceptional blocking. Dusty Zeigler, the top candidate to replace retired Kent Hull as the starting center, had his struggles. He was penalized for holding against the Broncos' backup defensive unit, and was overrun on other plays.
Left guard Ruben Brown also was flattened on a sack by defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry. New right tackle Corey Louchiey was flagged for illegal hands to the face while new right guard Glenn Parker was called for a false start.
The Bills' defense looked as strong as always, registering five sacks and generally applying good heat.
Left end Phil Hansen and right end Sean Moran, starting in place of holdout Bruce Smith, made some standout individual plays.
On the game's first series, Hansen stuffed running back Terrell Davis for a 1-yard gain on a first-down play, and sacked Elway for a 13-yard loss on third down deep in Buffalo territory to help limit the Broncos to a 45-yard Jason Elam field goal.
In the second quarter, Moran chased down running back Vaughn Hebron on a 4-yard screen pass, preventing a much larger gain.
Hobert was supposed to have been finished for the night after he gave way to Alex Van Pelt at the start of the third quarter. On Van Pelt's second play, an incomplete pass, he suffered a shoulder injury and was taken to the trainer's room.
Hobert returned and led the Bills to their second score. The drive was keyed by an improbable play by fullback Tim Tindale. Reverting to the form he showed when he ran 44 yards up the middle for a touchdown in a 1995 playoff victory over Miami, Tindale exploded through the middle for 42 yards, then had the ball knocked from his grasp by cornerback Darrius Johnson. The ball rolled forward 23 yards to the Broncos' 2, where it was recovered by Chris Brantley.
A 5-yard illegal formation penalty wiped out a 3-yard touchdown pass from Hobert to Brantley. After an incompletion, the Bills had to settle for a 26-yard field goal by Carlos Huerta to tie the score at 10-10, 3:52 into the third quarter.
A 14-yard TD run by Lewis gave the Broncos a 17-10 lead with 2:56 left in the third quarter.
After Denver's score, Jim Ballard quarterbacked the Bills for the rest of the game. With about 7 minutes left in the fourth quarter, defensive back George Coghill sacked Ballard for an 18-yard loss, forced a fumble and recovered at the Buffalo 29.
Ballard completed 10 of 20 passes for 143 yards.
Quarterback Bubby Brister then led the Broncos to their third touchdown, which came on a 1-yard dive by Jamal Willis with 4:30 left in the fourth quarter.
Cornerback Vance Joseph closed the scoring for Denver by grabbing a would-be touchdown pass that bounced off the shoulder of free-agent running back Rene Ingoglia, and running 99 yards for a TD with 2:01 left on the clock.