When the Buffalo Bills selected Notre Dame running back Greg Bell with the 26th pick of the first round of last May's National Football League draft, it promised to be the most controversial choice in the team's stormy history.
No wonder Buffalo fans were skeptical. These same Bills had selected Walt Patulski, Reuben Gant, Tom Ruud, Phil Dokes, Terry Miller and Perry Tuttle as first picks since 1972 and failed to sign two other first-rounders, Tom Cousineau and Jim Kelly.
Critics claimed he would have been available in later rounds, that he was picked early because he would come cheap.
Bell didn't come cheap (a four-year contract worth nearly $1.8 million), and the Bills insist other teams (including the Washington Redskins) were considering him as a late first-round choice, too.
The Bills' choice was based mostly on athletic ability and potential rather than production.
A broken ankle his junior season and ankle problems the next year limited Bell to 158 carries for 850 yards in four seasons at Notre Dame. He had 292 yards combined his last two seasons. "But when he played, he played well," insisted Norm Pollom, Bills' chief scout and player personnel director.
Last Sunday, the previously winless Bills shocked the Dallas Cowboys, 14-3, and Bell made Buffalo's scouts look like geniuses. He ran for 206 yards, the best game a running back has had against Dallas in 21 years, since the Cleveland Browns' Jim Brown gained 233 in 1963.
Blocks by left guard Tim Vogler and center Will Grant sprung Bell on an 85-yard touchdown run on the game's first play, the longest run ever against Dallas.
In the fourth quarter, Bell scored on a three-yard pass from Joe Ferguson, after setting up the score with a 27-yard run off left tackle. Later, the Bills caught Dallas in an inside blitz on second and 13, and Bell took a quick pitch and went 38 yards. Those three runs were the longest of the Bills' season.
"It's a basic play we've run many times," Coach Kay Stephenson said of Bell's 85-yarder. "Greg Bell just made a big play. He's been so close many times, I felt he was due. He was almost there on many occasions. This time he popped it."
The Cowboys were in a 6-1 defense with the outside linebackers up on the line. "All week, Coach Stephenson told me that if I could be by the one linebacker, 'You can run.' Once I cleared the line of scrimmage and Will flipped up on the linebacker, it was a footrace. Once I hit the 50, I don't think too many people are going to catch me."
Bell may have left Notre Dame with a damaged ankle, but his ego was well intact. First, he held out until the second week of training camp, then was late for his first practice because he wanted to be positive his signing-bonus check cleared the bank.
His rookie season began modestly. In catch-up situations each of their first four games, the Bills had to pull Bell from the lineup because he was missing pass blocks and did not know the pass offense. He still comes out when Buffalo goes into passing sets.
"I'll tell you, I've taken a lot of heat over the last few years and I wanted to show the people . . . that I can still run the ball with the authority I've always had," he said.
Through 12 games, he's third in the AFC in rushing with 852 yards in 185 carries. He has 27 catches, one for a touchdown. He's handled the ball 212 times with just four fumbles. Most importantly, Bell hasn't missed a play.
"We knew the Dallas game could build us a little respect and show that, without the errors and without the penalties, we can win ball games," Bell said. "Now we want to try and continue through this year and on into next year."
Bell has a more personal resason to smile about his showing against Dallas. It means he won't have to defer to Cowboys Ron Springs, Everson Walls and Tony Dorsett, "all good friends of mine."
"I can call them up on the phone now and say: 'Maybe next year,' " Bell said.