ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- His criticism of quarterback Jim Kelly last season made Thurman Thomas the keynote speaker for the bickering Bills.

"I knew Kelly was king stud here," Thomas explained later to the Buffalo News. "But I wasn't going to let that bother me."

Thomas, a second-year running back at the time, was asked on a Rochester cable TV show in what area the Bills might improve.

"Quarterback," he replied.

The response still draws a chuckle from an awe-struck Elijah Pitts, who coaches the Bills' running backs.

"In my day, you didn't take on anybody," said Pitts, who played 10 years for Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers. "And a second-year player? Geez, I still thought they were doing me a favor just by keeping me. If I had said what Thurman said, I wouldn't have had the career I had."

O. J. Simpson had the kind of career here by which every other Buffalo running back will be measured. But when the Bills' public relations department sought to set up an interview for NBC's Simpson and Thomas last week, Thomas declined.

"I told him, 'Thurman, I don't think you understand. O.J. S-i-m-p-s-o-n,'" said Scott Berchtold, manager of media relations for the Bills. "But he said he wasn't talking to anybody."

Pitts was moved to laughter once more.

"That's Thurman," he said. "There are days when he will come in and he won't say anything to anybody. So everybody leaves him alone. But you put him on the football field, and you get nothing but his best. Every day.

"We had a saying when he first came here that he had been here before. He's that special; his play shows that. His development came so fast. Generally, your first two or three years you struggle a little bit, but he just popped out as a perennial Pro Bowl player."

Someone had to wake him up, though, to let him know he would be doing his professional running in Buffalo. Followed by an ESPN camera crew on draft day in 1988, Thomas, from Oklahoma State, was projected to go high in the first round.

There was concern throughout the NFL, however, about the condition of his knee.

"It was supposed to be the type of injury where, if he gets hurt again, his career could be finished," Pitts said. "No one wanted to take that chance on him."

As each team passed, Thomas had to wait. And after the excitement had given way to anguish and then embarrassment, he was shown napping on national television.

Thomas has a videotape of that trying day, which ended with his being the 40th player selected in the draft, and every so often when he needs a motivational jolt, he views it.

"You can see how he wants to be respected," Buffalo Coach Marv Levy said. "He works hard. He's smart enough to say, 'Just because I have a lot of ability, that isn't enough.' "

Thomas has played in 47 regular-season games during his brief NFL career and 12 times he has rushed for more than 100 yards. He gained 214 yards against the Jets in the second game of this season after missing training camp in a contract dispute.

When Kelly went down with a knee injury toward the end of the season, the Bills strapped their playoff hopes on Thomas. They ran him 30 times in an AFC East showdown with Miami, and he gained 154 yards and scored a touchdown.

"I saw Thurman run as hard as I've ever seen him run," center Kent Hull said after the Bills had defeated the Dolphins, 24-14. "When that happens, I think the offensive line plays a little harder. There's a guy out there who weighs 190 pounds taking on the big guys. We feel we've got to go get after somebody."

Kelly returned last week for a rematch with Miami in a divisional playoff game, but the Bills continued to rely on Thomas. He set a team playoff record with 32 carries, and rushed for 117 yards and two touchdowns.

"I'm a running back, I'm 24 years old, and hell, I could carry the ball 50 times if they wanted me to," Thomas said. "If I carry the ball five times I still feel the same as if I carry it 25 times.

"I'm not a runner who is going to try to run over Riki Ellison or Greg Townsend. I've got good sense. If I got a one-on-one shot with Greg Townsend, I'm going to the ground."

In the Bills' 38-24 victory over the Los Angeles Raiders earlier this season, Thomas gained 67 yards in 15 rushes and caught four passes for 47 yards.

"The first time we played them, they didn't have Howie Long," Thomas said. "He's been a real good factor for their defense ever since he came back. He's a veteran and in these kind of situations he plays at his best because he knows what's at stake."

Besides Long, the Raiders also have a pair of the most respected running backs in the league in Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson, although Jackson (hip pointer) is not expected to play against the Bills. Allen and Jackson, combined, ran 304 times for 1,380 yards. Thomas went for 1,297 yards in 271 rushes.

"It's a pleasure to watch Marcus and Bo run," Pitts said, "But I'm very pleased with the guy I have.

"Thurman has great quickness, and an uncanny ability to slip and glide and then squirt, as we call it, to accelerate out of a hole. Walter {Payton} probably was a little bit bigger than Thurman, but that's the guy I think about when you talk about comparisons."

Walter Payton. But remember, this was the guy who kept Barry Sanders on the bench at Oklahoma State. Before Sanders could put himself in contention for the Heisman Trophy, he had to wait for Thomas's eligibility to run its course.

"We tease him about that," Pitts said. "Obviously, somebody made a mistake at Oklahoma State. Thurman gets a kick out of that, and he'll say, 'Boy, am I glad I didn't let him in there for a play, because that would have been it.' "

Thomas sat out most of the Bills' final season game against the Redskins and still led the AFC in rushing this season. But Sanders gained seven more yards than his former teammate and took the league rushing title. Thomas's goal, however, is set much higher.

"The Super Bowl," Thomas said.

Two years ago the Bills were a game away from advancing to the Super Bowl. But they played at Cincinnati and lost. Last season, after Thomas had criticized Kelly, they went into the playoffs and lost at Cleveland.

"Even though we didn't win, it brought us closer together," Thomas said. "You say things and you realize you shouldn't have said them, but we hung together, and it's like we're a family now."

The blissful Bills.

"We've got something still to do; to get to the Super Bowl, we have one more team to get by," Thomas said. "And the No. 1 thing we're going to have to do is control Howie Long and Greg Townsend. If we control those two guys . . . I think we'll have a good chance of winning."