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BILLS SHOULD SWEETEN THEIR 'FINAL OFFER' FOR BRUCE

It's easy enough to bash Bruce Smith. I've done it myself from time to time. He is a self-centered boor, a man who rarely speaks out unless he stands to benefit personally. Smith is one of the most reviled personalities in Buffalo sports history, and he has earned the distinction.

Smith doesn't have a lot of credibility in this town. He hasn't given back much to the community, so it's understandable if he hasn't generated much sympathy during his holdout from Bills training camp.

But maybe it's time to put his situation into perspective. Just because Smith doesn't have the public's support doesn't mean he doesn't have a point. There are two sides in this contract dispute, and room for compromise on both sides.

OK, so Smith is a whiner and an opportunist. How does that make him different from the owner, Ralph Wilson? Wilson has been whining so much he makes Smith seem like a statesman by comparison. Every time he opens his mouth, he insults Western New York and leaves you wondering if he gives a hoot about this community.

The latest comment, which appeared in Sunday's editions, was his most outrageous yet. After making his usual comments about the economy and the disappointing ticket sales, Wilson was asked if moving the team to Cleveland was an option.

"Maybe it is, maybe it isn't," he said.

Wow. That can't be reassuring to local fans, who are supposed to believe Wilson wouldn't consider moving the team. It sounds like a threat. Buy more tickets, and give him a sweet new lease, or Cleveland becomes an option.

So before you dismiss Smith's demands as out of hand, don't lose sight of the big picture. Remember, these are uncommon times in Bills land. Wilson is playing hardball with Smith while arguing that he can no longer compete at a high level -- and that he lacks the financial resources to keep up with owners in more lucrative NFL markets.

It's no coincidence that, while poor-mouthing himself in public, Wilson is taking an unusually hard stand with his best player. Maybe he wants Smith to sit out the season. Then he can cite it as further evidence that he can't compete in Buffalo.

If it seems outlandish, well, to quote Wilson, "Maybe it is, maybe it isn't."

It's not that the Bills haven't offered Smith a decent contract. It's $23 million over five years, with a $5 million signing bonus. It's hard for the average worker to see that as an insult. But athletes make big money nowadays, and Smith has never earned a salary equivalent to his stature as one of the best defensive players in history.

Lesser defensive players, like Chad Brown and Derrick Thomas, have gotten bigger signing bonuses. In recent days, Barry Sanders and Brett Favre have broken new ground for offensive stars. Sanders signed for an average of $5.7 million a season. Favre got a $12 million signing bonus.

True, Smith is 34. But he was the league's defensive player of the year last season. He has been the defensive anchor of the Bills during the most glorious run in their history, and he's still on top of his game. This will be the last big payoff of his career. He should get all he can.

If he's smart, though, he'll report to camp. By doing so, he could send a message to the fans and to his teammates. The team needs him. By making an unselfish gesture, Smith could soften any ill will toward him and put pressure on management.

Then he should send in his agent, Leigh Steinberg, to negotiate. The team insists it has made its final offer, but it has to come off that position. There's a compromise to be made, and the Bills' unusually hard stance makes you wonder if money man Jeff Littman is calling the shots in Detroit.

The Bills can do better than the $5 million signing bonus. They'll tell you they can't increase it, that it will tie their hands in future negotiations with top free agents. But if they added half a million to Smith's bonus, it would cost them only $100,000 a year over the length of the deal. Surely they can manage it, especially next year, when a new television deal is expected to significantly expand the salary cap.

They could also guarantee at least another year of the deal. It would lock the money into next year's cap, but they'll pay it anyway if he plays. Maybe he won't see the full five years of the deal, but there's little doubt Smith will be playing in 1998.

Guaranteed contracts are rare in the NFL, but Steinberg has been getting guaranteed money for some of his rookies. Guaranteeing some of Smith's contract would be a creative way for the Bills to sweeten it, while making a show of support to a Hall of Fame player.

The Bills will look silly if they refuse to bargain further with Steinberg. He might be the most respected agent in the NFL, the man on whom "Jerry Maguire" was modeled. He represents some 80 players, 20 Pro Bowlers. He doesn't have players under contract hold out as a rule.

"Look, I've represented athletes for 23 years," Steinberg said Sunday by phone from Los Angeles. "It's really important for me to have players honor their contracts. I certainly haven't felt comfortable during this period. Anytime a player is out of camp, missing his contract, there's been a mutual failure in terms of contract resolution."

At least he's honest enough to admit the problems are mutual. Smith has a lot of shortcomings as a person, but he believes the Bills can do better. If he reports to camp -- and Steinberg seemed intent on getting him there soon -- the Bills should resume dealing with his agent.

Hate him if you will. But don't kid yourself. The Bills need Smith. If he doesn't play, they could be looking at a losing season. With the clock ticking on a new lease, and with the team's future in Buffalo so tenuous, a losing season could nudge the team closer to leaving town.

Holdouts are distasteful. But keep one thing in mind when you're trashing Smith. Remember what Wilson said about Cleveland. Maybe it's an option, maybe it isn't.

When you get right down to it, he's holding out on you, too.

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