It was supposed to be one of those rare in-season, days off from the Buffalo Bills beat, and I was really looking forward to taking my daughter to a pumpkin patch for some family fun and relaxation. But a phone call from the team’s media relations department abruptly changed those plans. I was told the team would be making a huge announcement that day, one that I would want to write about for the next day’s sports section. I was not a happy camper. Three decades later, I can still see those tears streaming down my daughter’s cheeks as I drove off to Orchard Park instead of a pumpkin orchard.
The news the Bills treated us to that Halloween night in 1987 would elicit more tears. Not from my daughter, but from the team’s fans. These, however, would be tears of joy, because the Bills had tricked the rest of the NFL with a blockbuster, three-team, 10-player trade that brought Cornelius Bennett to Buffalo and changed the course of franchise history.
While playing for Alabama, Bennett was hailed as the second coming of Lawrence Taylor, the transcendent New York Giants linebacker who, a few years earlier, had revolutionized the game with his pass-rushing prowess. Although he didn’t have the career L.T. did, Bennett became the final piece of the defensive puzzle for a Bills team that would go to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s. Bennett made the Pro Bowl five times and finished his career as the third-leading sacker in Bills history. His impact on his teammates was profound. Bennett’s presence reduced the number of double- and triple-teams defensive end Bruce Smith faced. And it enabled the Bills to move Shane Conlan to inside linebacker, his natural position.
“It allowed us to get people where they were supposed to be,’’ said ESPN analyst Bill Polian, the former Bills general manager who made the trade that helped burnish his reputation as the Frank Lloyd Wright of football architects. “The three of them complemented one another beautifully. With Cornelius and Bruce out there, it was like pick your poison. You couldn’t block both of them, and it also freed up Shane and others to make plays.”
The Bills took a long look at Bennett before the 1987 draft, and had tried to move up in order to pick him, but the Indianapolis Colts weren’t budging. After Tampa Bay selected University of Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde with the first pick, Indianapolis chose Bennett.
The Colts had a reputation for being parsimonious, and they didn’t want to give Bennett the quarterback-like contract he was seeking. He threatened to sit out the entire season, but Colts General Manager Jim Irsay thought he was bluffing, that he would eventually cave in. After Bennett stayed away from training camp and the first seven games of the regular season, Irsay realized the linebacker meant business.
Irsay entertained offers from about a dozen teams, but things didn’t get serious until Halloween, just three days before the trade deadline. Ultimately, the Colts settled on a three-way deal, brokered by Polian. The Bills sent their first-round picks in the 1988 and ’89 drafts, plus a second-rounder in ’89 and two-time, 1,000-yard rusher Greg Bell to Indianapolis in exchange for Bennett. The Colts then shipped what they received from Buffalo, along with running back Owen Gill and a first-round pick in the 1988 draft and second-round picks in ’88 and ’89 to the Los Angeles Rams for running back Eric Dickerson.
Although many were thrilled with Polian’s roll of the dice, some criticized him for taking too big of a gamble. They worried that he was mortgaging the team’s future. After all, Bennett had yet to play a single down in the NFL, and the pages of sports history books are filled with stories of over-hyped rookies who never lived up to their potential.
It didn’t take long for Bennett to pay dividends. On his very first play as a pro—just a week after he arrived in Buffalo—the player known as “Biscuit” flushed Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway out of the pocket and batted down his pass. “We were like, ‘Wow! Did you see that?’ ‘’ recalled Steve Tasker, the seven-time Bills Pro Bowler who works as a CBS NFL analyst. “It was an incredibly athletic play, because Elway was the most mobile quarterback in the league at the time.” Bennett finished that game with a sack, two quarterback pressures and three tackles in limited action. It wound up being a sneak preview.
Of all his great performances, and there were many, perhaps none was more impressive than the one he turned in against the Philadelphia Eagles in that season’s regular-season finale. In what still may be the greatest game by a Bills defensive player, Bennett made 16 tackles, had four sacks for a total of minus 34 yards and forced three fumbles.
Polian’s critics were silenced, not only by Bennett’s stellar play, but also by the general manager’s shrewd drafting in the ensuing years. Despite not have a first-round pick in 1988, the Bills were able to land Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas with the 40th overall selection. And a year later, sans a first- or second-round pick, they drafted speedy receiver Don Beebe, who became the perfect complement to Andre Reed and James Lofton.
You don’t see many huge trades any more in the NFL. Decades later, it’s clear the Bills got the better of this one. Dickerson was on the downside of his Hall of Fame career by the time he arrived in Indy. And none of the draft picks Buffalo parted with wound up doing much with the Rams.
“Bill clearly made a number of shrewd deals in his career,’’ Tasker said. “But the trade for Biscuit was his most brilliant.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.