A Special Return for Smith

Younger teammates, and every one of them fits in this category, still talk about what happened. And they all say the same thing. ...Wow.

Maybe the Bills were turned into a national punchline for losing the Super Bowl four straight years from 1990-93. But the Redskin players realize the magnitude of this feat. And they realize they have one of the key players from that team in their midst. So they can't help but talk to Bruce Smith about those days.

Smith is too cloaked in the present to harp on the past. Yet he realizes why those four years still resonate with others.

``Some teams go a year and then wait maybe another 10 years,'' the Redskins' end said. ``They're one-hit wonders. We were able to make that stretch for four years. It was incredible. No question about it.''

And it's bonded those players for life. Smith still counts a handful of those guys among his closest friends, especially former linebacker Darryl Talley. They talk often, but they don't need to relive those days. When they do, however, the talks come with goosebumps.

That's why it'll be special for Smith to return to his former home Sunday when Washington visits Buffalo.

Smith played 15 seasons for the Bills before getting cut in a salary-cap move following the 1999 season. He signed with Washington two days later and, at 40 years old, remains a starter. But only his final days will be marked as a Redskin. His glory days came in Buffalo. He also talks fondly of playing next to nose tackle Phil Hansen for so many years, developing a rhythm in the pass rush.

``We knew it was special,'' Smith said of those four years. ``But I don't think we quite knew it was as special as people talk about it nowadays. So many teams are going to the Super Bowl for one time and then disappear. Then players look around and see how hard it was to get there. Others have been in the league for five or 10 years and have never been close.''

And some have lasted for nearly 20 years and yearn to get back there. Which is one reason Smith said he returned this season, which he has said is almost assuredly his last, after nearly retiring in the offseason. He claims he was serious and was tired of the losing -- Washington is 23-25 the past three years. Regardless, it took a couple chats with Redskins owner Dan Snyder, coach Steve Spurrier and even the owner's father, Gerald Snyder, who has since died.

Smith also was encouraged by the Redskins' offseason. Then there was the matter of the sack record. He said that wasn't a driving force behind his return, but it is important to him. Besides, after last season, he was only 3 1/2 sacks shy of breaking the record held by Reggie White.

He enters this game needing two sacks to earn the record. There would be no better place for him to break the mark. Nor is there a better quarterback: he's sacked Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe 12 1/2 times, most of any active quarterback and second most in his career.

``It'll be a special moment for any and everybody that I've ever played with,'' Smith said. ``Any coach I've ever had, any fan, the Bills fans, Redskins fans or fans of the NFL in general. Sometimes once-in-a-lifetime events take place. If it should happen to take place, that day will be a blessed day.

``This would put an exclamation point on my career and it'll be one that I'll always remember. It's a record that will stand for years and years to come, mainly because no one will be crazy and stupid enough to play this long.''

But Smith has continued to play because the Redskins haven't found a better alternative. Though he's not the dominant force he was in Buffalo, Smith has still helped. He averaged eight sacks a season his first three years in Washington, getting nine a year ago, including six in the last five games. And he's become more of a vocal leader, speaking to the players in meetings before the first two games and addressing the team in the locker room after the Week Five loss at Philadelphia. He sees this team as being capable of reaching the playoffs. He wants to be one of the reasons it can.

``It's unexplainable, man,'' Redskins end Renaldo Wynn said. ``It's mind-boggling. For him to be where he is now shows you how great a player he was. Nothing can explain a guy playing at this high a level for as long as he's been playing.''

But the Redskins signed Regan Upshaw with the intention of starting him at right end, bumping Smith to a limited role. After Smith talked a few times with the coaching staff, they amended their statement and declared it would go to whoever won the job.

Which turned out to be Smith. He hasn't relinquished the starting job, though he does come out more often than in the past. Call it a concession to his age. And Smith is happy with getting about 60 percent of the snaps.

``He's still making good offensive linemen uncomfortable,'' Redskins defensive line coach Robert Nunn said. ``He still plays with great leverage. He's very strong and it's hard for linemen to adjust to him. He'll threaten the guy up the field and the next thing you know he's underneath them. It's amazing to still see the things that made him a great player for all those years.''

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