Blockbuster trades. Fans love them. No matter how good or bad your team is, there’s nothing like a shakeup on the roster to get your blood racing a bit. That’s why we all have a blast with trade scenarios on video games, and websites like Hockey Buzz have a lot of traffic despite some of he misinformation.
As Buffalo fans, how many huge player exchanges can you remember over the last 15 years or so? The Sabres’ Darcy Regier has been vilified for his inaction or lack of wow factor at trade deadline day. The Bills’ swaps have been even less impressive, usually dumping a player for a mid-round draft pick (see Takeo Spikes, Willis McGahee, Lee Evans). In actuality, player for player trades just don’t occur in the modern NFL all that much.
But on Halloween 1987, Bills fans were treated to arguably the biggest and greatest trade in Buffalo sports history. The Bills traded RB Greg Bell, a first round draft choice in 1988, and first and second round picks in 1989 to Indianapolis for the rights to LB Cornelius Bennett, who couldn’t come to a contract agreement with the Colts after they took him at #2 overall in the 87 draft out of Alabama.
To make this trade even a bigger deal, the Colts then took this whole package from the Bills, included their own first and second round picks in 88, a second rounder in 89, and another RB Owen Gill and traded it to the Rams for superstar RB Eric Dickerson. Without over-analyzing this trade in totality for all the teams, the bottom line is this for the Bills: it was well worth the risk of lost draft choices & and injury plagued running back for the superstar player they received.
The stats alone make this a hugely successful move. Bennett played nine seasons in Buffalo and made 5 Pro Bowls, winning AFC Defensive Player of the Year award twice (1988 & 1991). For his whole career spanning fourteen years (he played 5 years for Atlanta and Indy to end his career), Bennett had 1,190 tackles, 71.5 sacks, 7 interceptions, 27 fumble recoveries, and 3 TD’s.
But his impact was not just about the numbers. I think back to what Steve Tasker said at the jersey unveiling, “When Cornelius Bennett walked through that door, Bruce (Smith) went into the Hall of Fame.” Once “Biscuit” got here, other teams’ offenses could no longer just focus on Bruce. It was a scary proposition – Smith on one side at RDE and Bennett on the other at the LOLB position. Cornelius had to be one of the best pure pass rushing linebackers ever.
On his Wikipedia page, there’s a comment from Jets’ fullback Roger Vick that put Bennett as the third best pass rusher at LB in the league, in just his second season! His presence automatically elevated the strength of our defense. When you consider that the Bills added Shane Conlan along with Bennett, giving them 2 of the top LB’s in the draft, it suddenly took the Bills defensive talent level to a much higher echelon. Jim Kelly must have been a happy man – he couldn’t keep winning games 45-41 and Bill Polian knew it.
On a personal level, I definitely remember when the Bills pulled this trade off. As a newbie football fan, I can’t say I followed the NFL draft real closely yet or knew who Biscuit was, but the news reports made it clear what a big deal this was. When Bennett made his debut versus Denver, the game was not sold out, believe it or not. If that trade happens today, no way does the NFL blackout not get lifted. But maybe the replacement player games and a terrible effort the previous week vs Washington (a 27-7 loss) had soured some of the fans. So on that Sunday I was parked in front of my radio for the debut while watching other games on a muted TV. Van Miller sounded more excited than even usual as Bennett chased John Elway around the field. Bennett didn’t play in all situations but the pass-rushing acumen he brought had Bills fans salivating at the possibilities. When I saw the highlights later, I marvelled at his speed and pure power as he flew around the field. He was a play-maker.
Another lasting memory of Bennett (and Bruce) in the early years was the sack celebrations. Bruce used to do his Redd Foxx heart attack impression from Sanford and Son while Cornelius would stand perfectly still and cross his arms on his chest with a dead serious expression on his face. You could just see the joy these two guys had playing together. They both had a competitive fire, wanting to outdo each other with reaching the QB. Eventually the NFL put their foot down on these choreographed/planned celebrations but it didn’t take away the enthusiasm Bruce & Biscuit showed going forward as they terrorized QB’s.
Football was becoming fun again in Buffalo and we hadn’t seen nothing yet.
From 1997 to 2000, I lived just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, Bennett’s hometown. It was a challenge for me to be away from Buffalo and everything I knew, as you really can’t get much further in geography and mentality than these two places. Towards the end of my stay there, right before I convinced my new bride to let me move back to WNY, we had a pre-wedding party thrown by a lady at her church. Just as the shindig was ending, her son, who went by the nickname, “Shack”, got to talking with me about football. I’m sure he probably brought up the college game, which is king down there and something I’ve never gotten into, but eventually my Bills fandom came up.
A big smile crossed Shack’s face as he burst out in Cornelius Bennett worship. Bennett’s greatness actually caused this southern boy to become a Bills fan during the great 90’s run. Shack proceeded to run up his stairs, dig through his closet, and unveil his old Bills’ starter jacket. Being a displaced Bills fan without the the funds for the NFL Sunday Ticket and limited exposure to my team, my heart was deeply warmed. Not just that, but it actually transported me back to the high point of my Buffalo sports love, and I’m surprised as I write this that I didn’t burst out in tears at the time.
I learned a great truth that day. I may have left Buffalo for a while, but through our beloved sports teams, it still had its hold on me. And always will.
Hmm, I wonder what Shack thinks about Marcell Dareus?
Follow Mark on Twitter, @MarkBerm
Previous Rebirth Articles:
Part 1: 1986 – Jim Kelly Signs
Part 2: 1986 – Jim Kelly’s First Game
Part 3: 1986 – What Came Before
Part 4: 1986 – Tasker & Levy
Part 5: 1986 – Season in Review
Part 6: 1987 – The Offseason
Part 7: 1987 – The Strike