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One-on-One Coverage

James Lofton on Bills being set up for 'good push,' memories from Super Bowl run

James Lofton likes what the Buffalo Bills have going with their 4-1 record.

Now, he wants to see how his former team handles the tremendous opportunity it has earned.

"Baseball's Reggie Jackson was Mr. October," Lofton said by phone. "In the NFL, you can make a good push in October that sets you up well in November and December, and gives you a great chance to make the playoffs."

He'll get a closer view on Sunday as the analyst for CBS Sports' coverage of the Bills' game against the 0-5 Miami Dolphins at New Era Field.

But the Hall of Fame wide receiver has seen enough from the Bills, for whom he played from 1989 to 1992, to conclude they have the most important ingredient for sustainable success: a solid organization.

"I think it starts at the top, with Sean McDermott," Lofton said. "He fits Buffalo. Everybody talks about blue-collar towns. There's really no more blue-collar anymore in America, but Buffalo is pretty close to being blue-collar. And he's like that. But he's also able to relate to his players.

"When they were signing guys, he was looking for a certain type of player that he wanted, somebody that would put the team first. And I think they've been able to accomplish that and they've really been able to accomplish it with their young quarterback, Josh Allen, a guy who puts the team first."

Lofton, 63, spent 16 seasons as an NFL player after the Green Bay Packers made him a first-round draft pick from Stanford in 1978. He remained with the Packers through 1986, then spent two seasons with the Los Angeles Raiders before signing with the Bills.

"When I got to Buffalo, it was day by day," Lofton said. "If I didn't have a good day of practice or I dropped two or three passes in practice, I wasn't going to get on the field. So I had to go out there and work and show the guys that I was ready to contribute and ready to play."

He did that, catching 151 regular-season passes for 2,736 yards and 21 touchdowns. In 11 postseason games, including three consecutive Super Bowl appearances, Lofton had 33 catches for 598 yards and six TDs.

For his career, which ended in 1993 with stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams, he had 764 receptions for 14,004 yards – becoming the first player in league history to surpass 14,000 yards – and 75 touchdowns. He was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, a three-time Associated Press first-team All-Pro, a member of the NFL's 1980s All-Decade Team and a member of the Packers Hall of Fame.

Besides his TV work with CBS, Lofton also is an NFL analyst for Westwood One Radio Network and a co-host on SiriusXM NFL Radio.

In the latest edition of One-on-One Coverage, the San Diego-based Lofton talked with The Buffalo News about the current Bills, memories from his playing days – including a "Buffalo Surprise" – and his seven seasons as a receivers coach in the NFL.

Buffalo News: How concerned should the Bills be that Josh Allen has thrown seven interceptions to five touchdown passes?

James Lofton: Interceptions are credited to the quarterback, but the other 10 guys out there – the offensive line, the receivers, the backs picking up blitzes – it's a combination of everything. Sometimes those interceptions happen on third-and-17 and you've got to force the ball down the field because of the situation. So I wouldn't worry about it too much, because when the quarterback's aware that he's doing it, you want him to be careful with the ball, but you also don't want to take away kind of what makes him special – his ability to make plays with his arm, in addition to making plays with his legs.

BN: It turned out to be a real coup for the Bills to recognize you still had something left after being released by the Raiders during the 1989 season.

JL: Nick Nicolau, who was the Bills' receivers coach, had been my position coach with the Raiders. But when you really go back, there was a Monday night game the Bills were playing and Chris Burkett and Jim Kelly got in an argument on the sideline. I'm sitting at home in Los Angeles watching, and I'm going, "That's not good to argue with your quarterback on national television. That's just not a good look." They waived Chris Burkett, who was then picked up by the Jets. And then they brought me and two other young players in for a tryout. Gale Gilbert threw us the ball at about 100 mph. I caught half of them.

BN: What stands out to you about playing for the Bills?

JL: For 11 years I had worn No. 80. And I get there and somebody else has it. I don't go into the equipment room and say, "Oh, I want to buy that jersey." Or, "How much do you want for the number?" They gave me No. 86 and I was glad to have it. I had been out of work for three weeks, the season was going on, so you're playing catch up when you join a team during the season. I got a little bit of playing time that first year and then the second year, I became a starter and I got a little more involved in the offense. And the third year, (my role) was really big.

At the end of my first year, that January, I found out that my wife, Beverly, was pregnant with our third child. We kind of always joke about the fact that our daughter, Rachel – we also have two older sons – was our "Buffalo Surprise." That was the best memory. On the field, obviously, beating the Raiders in the AFC Championship game and going to Super Bowl XXV.

Teddy Roosevelt said, "You walk softly and carry a big stick." I played against the Raiders four times, if you count the playoff game, and I had seven touchdowns. I played against the Green Bay Packers when I was with the Buffalo Bills and with the Raiders and I got game balls in each game. So you don't talk about it a whole lot beforehand – I didn't, at least – but you're finely tuned that week.

BN: How quickly did you realize you were part of something that was about to become really special with the Super Bowl run beginning in your second season with the Bills?

JL: By nature, I think guys who play in the NFL, we're all competitive. If it's running gassers at the end of practice, you want to be first. If it's lifting weights in the weight room, you want to be first. When I came there, you go to the weight room, and Andre Reed was the strongest guy at our position. Then you had Don Beebe to race in the gassers, and he's fast as heck. So it just made for a nice, friendly, competitive environment where I enjoyed pushing myself and I looked at these two guys in particular, who loved to push themselves and were really hard workers.

The entire team was like that. You'd go in the weight room and Bruce Smith would be on the StairMaster and there'd be this pool of water at the bottom. And you'd go, "Is there a shower here?" The guy was working up a tremendous sweat after practice every day. Rusty Jones, our strength and conditioning coach, was phenomenal. He just had a connection with the players that really made the stuff that we did on the field and the stuff that we did off the field merge together.

All of the elements came together right at the right time. And [then-General Manager] Bill Polian and [then-assistant GM] John Butler put together a fantastic roster. We lost a couple of guys, but they would just replenish and there were just some phenomenal players.

BN: What were your impressions of Jim Kelly?

JL: I remember one of the first practices that we had in what was Rich Stadium at the time, and it was really windy. And I'm thinking, "Man, we're going have to go in the practice bubble." We didn't go in the bubble. When you watch great passers, they can throw the ball through the wind. Jim threw it like we were in an indoor facility, and we've got 25 mph winds up there. He was competitive. He wanted you to catch everything he threw.

BN: You're a California guy who ended up playing in two of the coldest-weather cities in the NFL, Green Bay and Buffalo. What was that like?

JL: At practice, when it was cold in Green Bay, we called it "Packer weather." We'd be stretching and the guy who was leading the stretching would say, "What kind of weather is this?" Everybody would say, "Packer weather!" Marv Levy would say, "When it's too cold for them, it's just right for us." I think about that so often as I'm calling games and I'm watching guys who are shivering or who are overdressed. That was our mantra. People would come into our stadium, the winds would be swirling, the AstroTurf would be a little bit slick going in certain directions. It was like we knew every nook and cranny of that field once it got below 30 degrees. And it changed games, it changed how teams played us and what we were able to do against them.

BN: What made Marv Levy the success he was as the Bills' coach?

JL: I think the fact that he was willing to adapt. He told me early on in his coaching career that he was very similar to a lot of other coaches in that he would say, "Let's do it my way." And he told me later on, when I was coaching, "What you want to do is not necessarily do it your way. You want to do it the best way." And that's what he was all about. When he looked at offense and the best thing to do was to run the no-huddle offense, that wasn't his way. That was something he and [offensive coordinator] Ted (Marchibroda) and Nick Nicolau sat down in the offseason and said, "What do you think about trying to do this?" And Marv said, "Let's give it a shot and let's see if that's the best way to do it."

BN: Did the no-huddle immediately feel natural and the right fit for you and the rest of the offense?

JL: Well, we didn't know what it was going to end up looking like. We were running it during training camp going into the 1990 season, so we didn't expose it in any of the preseason games. And we open up against Indianapolis at home. We probably started out on the 20-yard line, and we ran about four plays and, right away, we're on the other 20. We had to call timeout. You know why we had to call timeout? Because it was too loud. The crowd was going crazy. They hadn't seen anything like that before.

We were trying to run a play every 18 seconds. That's essentially kind of like what the Golden State Warriors have done to basketball. You come past half court, it's time to shoot. We would complete a pass and as we're running up to the line of scrimmage, Jim is calling a play. And as soon as we get there, "Set hut!" We snap it and we go.

It was the most revolutionary thing that I've ever witnessed in football. I grew up at a time when, in college, the wishbone was big. Running out of the I-formation was big. But nobody threw the ball. When I went to Green Bay, it was a big deal if we lined up in left formation. We lined up in right formation, I-right or split-right all the time, whether on the right hash or left hash. And so to run a no-huddle offense and guys shifting around and moving in different positions, it was revolutionary. It was as revolutionary as this RPO stuff is right now.

BN: You have credited Ed Abramoski, former longtime athletic trainer for the Bills, with finding a solution to problems you were having with both of your big toes going back to when you were with that Packers. What exactly did he do to help?

JL: I didn't know that I had turf toe. All I knew was that when I played a game, my toes would swell up and they'd stiffen up and they hurt by the time I was midway in the third quarter. And so it just made it tougher for me to run, a little more painful and I couldn't cut a certain way. I told Abe this and he said, "Well, I know how to tape it." And he took some 1-inch tape strips and ran them from the bottom of my arch and up to the top of my toe. And then he did that from the bottom my foot, all the way around to the middle of the foot, covering that big toe joint. Then he'd take some strips and go horizontally around the foot, so it's stabilized and it helped to strengthen that joint and it kept it from swelling.

If I had had that earlier, I would have come to Buffalo with already about 15,000 yards. It just really changed my ability to run and to be able to run effectively for an entire game. Before, I could play the first half and I'd be OK, and my toe joints would just start to stiffen up. I had tried different things, I put them in ice. People tried to treat them, but nobody did what Abe was able to do with it. It was like he was a miracle worker.

BN: You spent seven seasons as a receivers coach in the NFL, with the San Diego Chargers (2002-07) and the Raiders (2008). Any disappointment that you're not still coaching in the league and did you have visions of becoming a coordinator or a head coach?

JL: No disappointment that I'm not still doing it. When I first retired and Ted Marchibroda and Nick Nicolau were in Indianapolis, they invited me up there and offered me a coaching job for the 1994 season. Our family had just moved from Los Angeles to Dallas and we were unpacking boxes when they called me. I was leaning in that direction, but then I'm sitting there thinking, "I'll be up there and my wife and kids will be in Dallas." And that year I had played with the Eagles, so I had been away from my family and I wasn't ready to do that again. I got into broadcasting, doing NFL and college football.

When I did finally get a chance to coach in 2002 in San Diego, Marty Schottenheimer was the coach and John Butler was the general manager, and we were able to turn that franchise around and ended up becoming a winner. Getting to coach, getting to kind of feed into the lives of my position players and other guys who were on the roster was really important to me because I realized at that point, how big my position coaches were and my head coaches were and what type of mentors they were for me. So I enjoyed it from that standpoint, I enjoyed the Xs and Os. I had a couple of head coaching interviews, didn't get them. After I finished coaching in San Diego, I went to Oakland for a year and there were a lot of people who thought I might have been named the head coach when Lane Kiffin was relieved of his duties, but I wasn't. Then, I worked in personnel for the Raiders for the offseason through the draft, and I got a call to go back to broadcasting.

At that point, I just realized that I wasn't sure if I wanted to just hopscotch around the country. So I went back to broadcasting and for the next two years, I probably had about two or three job offers in coaching. I didn't take them and I haven't really looked back on it. It would have been fun to have tried my hand at being a head coach and see how I would have related to the players and how I would have motivated them. That wasn't meant to be, and I'm loving what I'm doing.

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