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BRUCE SENDS SACKFUL OF ENCOURAGEMENT TO TEAM

It wasn't the breakthrough play of the game. The Bills' 26-0 victory over Philadelphia had no breakthrough play, unless it was the opening kickoff.

Yet when Bruce Smith sacked Eagles quarterback Doug Pederson late in the second quarter, causing a fumble that Phil Hansen recovered and returned 19 yards, leading to Buffalo's first touchdown of the game, there was rejoicing on the home team's sideline.

It was Smith's first sack of the season, but it had more impact than that. It was evidence that, even after 15 years as a pro, Bruce can still make big plays. It also prompted hope that there may be some big games remaining in him also, especially when the Bills need something like that the most.

No one in the Buffalo organization is kidding himself that Smith is still the dominating force he was just a few years ago, when he reigned, along with Reggie White, as the NFL's premier pass rusher. Back then he had the ability to take over a game with his quickness and superb athletic ability.

Warren Sapp of Tampa Bay occupies that role now. It is Sapp who ends up on magazine covers and the feature interviews on network sports shows. Smith is unlikely to finish out his current contract, which runs through 2002. He is unlikely to break White's official record for most sacks in the NFL career. He would need two big years to do it, and he's unlikely to have that much left in him. For the national media, whom Bruce courted for so long, he's yesterday's news.

"We have an awfully good defensive line," coach Wade Phillips said. "More than one line. We have seven players who range from good to great."

Members of the Bills' hierarchy are past the point where they have to lavish praise on Smith to feed his considerable ego. Asked to comment on his play against Philadelphia, Phillips said "Phil Hansen had a great game. Bruce had a big sack. He also had two offsides penalties in a row. We only had four penalties and he had half of them."

There should be no major surprise in those words. Smith is 36 years old. Near the end of last season and in the first two games of this one, he played as if he were every minute of 36. Early in the Philly game he had just his second quarterback pressure of the season.

That doesn't mean he's washed up, just that he isn't the monster who once swallowed enemy quarterbacks and splattered running games. The 1999 Bills have major ambitions, however, and they need Bruce at his late-career best to realize them.

The victory over Philadelphia was evidence that Smith intends to give the team what it needs. You could almost read his thoughts from the aggressive way he started against the Eagles, moving inside before the snap of the ball and slicing through the left guard to ruin a running play; then moving laterally with his old quickness to help pile up an outside run on the opposite side of the line. He was credited with just two tackles but seemed to be trying to make a statement: "I'm still a lot better player than the one you saw against Indianapolis and the Jets."

The two offsides, one of which wiped out Manny Martin's interception? From here they appeared to be a result of over-anxiousness to prove himself once again.

Smith comes out of the game a lot more than he ever did in past seasons, which is by design. The Bills talked for years about using waves of defensive linemen, but until late last season they seldom implemented the plan fully. One of the benefits they hoped for was that Bruce could be kept fresher, especially late in the year when the wear and tear of a tough season could diminish his skills.

"So far," Phillips said, "it seems to be working."

Keeping Smith's interest at a high personal level is important to the Bills. They know that last winter he spoke of "retiring if we win the Super Bowl."

It's probable he was just thinking out loud, but the Buffalo management remembers that it was former head coach Marv Levy who used to say, "anyone who is thinking about retirement is already retired."

Since Bruce's annual compensation is more than $4 million and he is unlikely to walk away from it voluntarily, there is little possibility that there would be a gold watch ceremony soon if his employer still thinks he has something left.

Considering that Bruce had important personal things on his mind -- he rushed out of the stadium after the game in order to fly to his Norfolk home where his father, George, is seriously ill again -- he kept his focus on business, even late in the game when the issue was no longer in doubt.

Midway through the fourth quarter, with rookie quarterback Donovan McNabb at quarterback for the Eagles, Smith thundered into the Philly backfield and batted away a pass that was caught on the rebound for a 10-yard loss. It didn't mean much on the statistic sheet but it spoke volumes for Smith's determination.

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