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THOMAS AT EASE WITH HIMSELF AND HIS ROLE

There was a time when Thurman Thomas used to almost spit out Barry Sanders' name.

It was back in the early 1990s, when Sanders was the most electrifying runner in the National Football League and Thomas just happened to be the most productive.

"I guess I'll just have to settle for being the second-best back in football," Thomas would say to anyone within range of one of his saliva grenades. "Or maybe just the best all-around back."

For the record, Thomas didn't out-rush Sanders on Sunday at Rich Stadium. Sanders had 107 yards to Thomas' 73, but in limited action Thomas outplayed him. He had a better yards-per-carry average (5.6 to Sanders' 4.3). He gained more yards catching the ball (21 vs. minus-1). He made bigger plays at opportune times (see tape of the Bills' opening series and later Thomas running the ball out of trouble and setting up Chris Mohr's punt that pinned the Lions on their own 1-yard line).

As well as the Bills' defense executed on the game's pivotal play, Sanders bears some blame for getting nailed for a safety with just over two minutes left. He hesitated, looking to make a big play, and was lost.

There were times when Thomas used to do things like that. At points in his career there were fumbles that came from trying to do too much. There were cutbacks to holes that were no longer there. And there were off-field incidents that hurt him and his team.

Thomas doesn't make those kinds of mistakes anymore. On the field he plays sparingly but smart. Off the field he's gracious, operates with a touch of humor, wit and a great deal of forethought.

Sunday, after contributing to one of Buffalo's more satisfying wins of the still-young season, he talked graciously about Sanders, going so far as to say he no longer competes against his former Oklahoma State teammate. He even said Sanders is "the best running back to ever play the game."

He talked glowingly of Antowain Smith, the player who will one day start in his place. He even likened himself to a player coach, one who performs to the best of his ability when called upon, yet also makes the extra effort to teach his replacement.

That's Thomas' role now. He knows the torch is being passed. He knows the days when he becomes less of a factor in the Buffalo offense are at hand. He also knows that as he inches closer and closer to the end of his career, it will be Sanders, not him, who will be remembered as the most elusive and electrifying running back of his time.

Thomas seems comfortable with that, more comfortable than many of us who perhaps have dwelt too long on the decline of his magnificent skills.

It's a comfort that comes from knowing where he stands in the game and the things he can still bring to it.

"I don't see why everybody is trying to make a big deal out of it. It's not a big deal to me," he said. "I know I'm getting up there in age and whatever. I don't have the steps that I used to have or the speed. I'm just out there playing and helping Antowain do the best that he can."

Thomas did those things Sunday. He helped Smith. He helped his team. That's his role with the Bills and he's happy with it.

Oh, and one other thing. Including stats from Sunday's game, Thomas is sixth all-time in total yards from scrimmage.

Sanders ranks eighth.

A man can get pretty comfortable with that.

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