The Soul Of the Game: Leonard Smith

leonard smithOne of the hardest hitting Buffalo Bills of all time was strong safety Leonard Smith. He was acquired in a trade early in the 1988 season as the missing piece to help a young team learn how to win. It wasn’t that Smith was from a winning tradition, but he was an old pro that brought an attitude and intimidating style of play.

Upon his arrival in 1988, Bruce Smith was entering his fourth year. Linebackers Shane Conlan, Cornelius Bennett, were entering their second seasons as was Nate Odomes. All four of these players went on to become Pro Bowl and All Pro performers but not until Smith’s work ethic and attitude had rubbed off on the young Bills.

The day that it was announced that Smith had been traded to the Bills, a young Chancellor of Football told his friends at practice that Buffalo will be in the playoffs. You can’t underscore the importance of a grizzled old pro that has been through the wars who still hunger for a championship. The same as it had with Fred “Hacksaw” Reynolds on the 1981 49ers or Charles Haley with the ’92 Dallas Cowboys.

Here was the thought at the time of his time in St. Louis before the move to Buffalo.

If you want to think of who Smith played most like, think of Rodney Harrsion formerly of the Chargers and Patriots. He was a Strong Safety that blitzed and stuffed the run. His strong suit wasn’t covering speedy receivers but he could put the wood to tight ends and running backs.

In 1986, even though the great Bears were in their heyday, it was St Louis that led the NFL against the pass and was 4th in 1987 which was Smith’s last full season. In 1988 once he moved to Buffalo, their defense ranked 4th against the pass while the Cardinals slipped to 12th. The Bills started 11-1 and won their division by Thanksgiving which was the earliest in league history.

For all the history of “The K-Gun Offense” its largely forgotten the Bills rose to prominence as a defensive group. Smith was the fiery old pro who had never played in a postseason game prior to his trip in ’88. He was an old dawg who led a pack of young pups (Bruce Smith/ Cornelius Bennett/ Nate Odoms/ Shane Conlan / Darryl Talley) to a 4th ranking defensively to the AFC Championship Game.

In ’88 they held 7 teams to 10 points or less and an 8th, the Houston Oilers in a 17-10 AFC Divisional playoff win. As for a glimpse into his time in Buffalo:


Smith played 10 seasons in the NFL with his last being in 1991. A knee injury suffered between the 1991 AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl XXVI abruptly ended his career. Yet the men he influenced went on to play in two more Super Bowls as the team was more offensive minded by then. Everyone forgets that 1988 team was a run oriented with the 4th best defense in football. They didn’t break out into the “K-Gun” until the 1989 NFL playoffs.

...and he had crazy haircuts.

…and he had crazy haircuts.

“Leonard Smith… was a head hunter” – Former Dallas Cowboy great and Cardinals secondary coach Mel Renfro.

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The Soul Of The Game: Pat Fischer

Pat Fisher played cornerback for 17 NFL seasons.

Pat Fisher played cornerback for 17 NFL seasons.

In the long history of the NFL there have been players who defined their positions because of their physicality. Men like Dick Butkus, Dick “Night Train” Lane, and Lawrence Taylor were freaks at their position. They were bigger than what other teams were geared to deal with normally. Yet there are those that stand out as hitters first although their size would suggest something different. Enter Pat Fischer.

Standing only 5’9, and 170 lbs (that can’t be right) Smith played in an era where the NFL was a running league. Unlike today’s game where he could play out in space chasing an X, Z, or slot receiver, Fischer had to come up and tackle in an era where everyone was emulating Green Bay’s power sweep. He had to take on pulling guards,  some fullbacks along with his coverage responsibilities. Yet he only missed 10 games in his first 16 years.

His physical play belied his diminutive size as he played as a pint sized intimidator. Lionel “Train” James loves to say “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” Never was this more true than of Pat Fisher. Even in the Super Bowl VII highlight, NFL Films had John Facenda narrate how much a nemesis he was against the run and the pass. Let’s face it, a cornerback his size now is primarily a special team guy who is platooned only against multiple receiver sets. They rarely tackle players other than small slot receivers. Take a look at how Fisher played…

In the NFL of the 1960’s there was a concentration of talent that stayed with the same teams and systems for many years. Fischer was caught in this vice where Hall of Fame cornerbacks Dick “Night Train” Lane, Herb Adderley, Jimmy Johnson, and Lem Barney were playing. He was an overlooked player for awhile and some of it could have been other players not leaving behind on-field animosity when voting for fellow players.

There has to be some truth to it or Fischer wouldn’t have had one of his 3 Pro Bowl seasons in 1969 when he had just 2 interceptions. Now his first, in 1964, where he picked off 10 returning them for 164 yards and 2 touchdowns couldn’t be ignored. That was 1 TD short of the all time record. Yet other years he was overshadowed by these other players.


Pat Fischer played well into the 70’s and here he is going against Mel Gray in the mid ’70s.

One could also make the argument Fischer’s 1969 Pro Bowl and All Pro season came because of the higher visibility Vince Lombardi brought to the team in his only year coaching there.

Whatever the reason, Fischer played from 1961-1977 and retired having played in more games at cornerback in NFL history. If you think about that time frame, he came in 9 years before the AFL / NFL merger and played through the 12th Super Bowl. This is before the modern athlete could have arthroscopic surgery between seasons to prolong their careers. Does he belong in the Hall of Fame??

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The Soul Of The Game: Larry Wilson

Larry Wilson – Just looks like a football player

In an era gone by the St Louis Cardinals were a football team that had little success in the 1960s and early 70s. For the most part the cupboard was bare when it came to talent on their roster. However amidst the mediocrity there were two standouts that played for them: Hall of Fame members TE Jackie Smith and FS Larry Wilson. Sometimes great champions don’t come from championship teams.

As a safety he played with reckless abandon although he was a ball hawk. When you think of hard-hitting defensive backs you rarely think of them making interceptions. Over his career he intercepted 52 passes which is still a Cardinal record and returned them for five touchdowns. He was a tough as nails player who in 1965, once played with two broken hands with each in a cast. Think about that for a second… His job is to come up and take on runners in the open field or defend the pass and he was playing with broken hands?? That is wanting to play football!!

Early on in his career, he was a pioneer when it came to the safety blitz. A tactic not seen before in the NFL. He registered many sacks although it wasn’t a recorded statistic until 1982. Wilson was everywhere…deep one play, shadowing a TE the next, blitzing the quarterback, or coming up to take on enemy runners. He did not shy away from contact and earned the ultimate respect of his peers. He was voted to (at the time) a record 8 Pro Bowls, made All Pro 8 times, and was the only player selected to the All Decade Team for the 1960s and 1970s. The Cardinals retired his #8 and he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As for his hitting we present to you exhibit A