Angelo Crowell has been the dutiful understudy waiting for the star to exit the stage so he could have some time in the spotlight.
Well, Crowell's time has arrived.
The third-year linebacker moves into the Buffalo Bills' starting lineup this week. He replaces two-time Pro Bowler Takeo Spikes, who is out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon.
It's not the way Crowell wanted to get the job, but he is looking forward to being a starter for the first time in his career.
"It's a hard bullet to swallow with Spikes going down like that," Crowell said. "It is mixed emotions. But I believe that he would definitely want me to step up and replace him and get the job done."
Crowell, a third-round pick from Virginia in 2003, has gotten extensive playing time the past two weeks. He stepped in at middle linebacker when London Fletcher sat out the second half at Tampa Bay with a strained hamstring. When Spikes went down with 36 seconds left in the first half Sunday against Atlanta, Crowell played the rest of the game at Spikes' weak-side spot.
Now Crowell will be a full-time player, one who may be asked to play every down like Spikes did.
The Bills have always boasted about their depth at linebacker. Now it gets put to the test.
"He's a good player that's really been behind a great player," coach Mike Mularkey said. "He has a chance to be a very good one, but he just really hasn't had the opportunity. Here's a chance to step up, practice with the first team all week and get comfortable with them."
The confidence in Crowell extends to his teammates.
"Crowell is extremely talented," Fletcher said. "He's as gifted an athlete as we have in the linebacking corps. He can run, he's physical, he's strong and he has what we call natural running lane instincts. He has natural abilities, things that you can't coach."
Crowell will surely get his share of advice from coaches and players. The best advice he's gotten so far: Be yourself.
"I can't be Takeo," said Crowell, who has 12 tackles the last two games. "He's a Pro Bowl caliber player and he's shown the kind of plays he can make. We're totally two different people and we bring two different things to the game. But I'm definitely going to go out there, play my game within the scheme of the defense, do my job and most importantly let the game come to me."
Crowell said he has benefited from playing under linebackers coach Don Blackmon, who stresses to his backups to prepare like they are starters because they're always a play away from becoming one.
Teams that have backups ready to replace injured starters are usually the ones competing for playoff berths. Strong safety Lawyer Milloy cited his former employer, New England.
"It's guys like a Tom Brady and numerous other guys that when they come to work every day before an injury happens they prepare like they're the next in line," Milloy said. "Those are the guys that are successful when they go in, and we expect that out of (Crowell). He has to take every advantage of this opportunity."
Fletcher doesn't expect Crowell to be perfect in his assignments early on.
"Sometimes it's just a matter of going through the mistakes," Fletcher said. "It's a learning process where you get out on the field and in some things you have to make the mistakes and then they never happen again. . . . Crowell is a smart guy, so he'll pick things up quickly."
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Mularkey said he may cut back on Crowell's special teams duties so he'll be fresher on defense. Crowell has been one of the Bills' leading tacklers in kickoff and punt coverage. He forced a fumble near midfield late in the loss to Atlanta, giving the Bills a glimmer of hope for a comeback.
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Wide receiver Eric Moulds (602) joined Andre Reed (941) as the only Bills with 600 career catches. Only three other NFL teams have had two players reach that milestone: Denver's Rod Smith (734) and Shannon Sharpe (675); Indianapolis' Marvin Harrison (860) and Raymond Berry (631); and Washington's Art Monk (888) and Charley Taylor (649).
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Despite ranking last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed, the Bills are still No. 7 in total defense because they have given up the fewest passing yards in the league (106.3 per game). Offensively, the Bills are next to last in the league in passing (100 yards per game) and total yards (223.7) and 28th in scoring (13.7 ppg.).