(Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bills)
By Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
Things tend to disappear in the Bermuda Triangle, but nobody in Buffalo ever thought Fred Smerlas would vanish there, too.
When Smerlas first arrived, along with rookie inside linebacker Jim Haslett, to join veteran inside linebacker Shane Nelson in 1979, coach Chuck Knox was one year into the rebuilding of the beleaguered Bills. Knox wanted to forge a vice-like 3-4 defense that would dominate the middle. In that trio he had what became known as “the Bermuda Triangle’’ because running backs went in there and disappeared.
After years of failure in Buffalo, that defense would become a unit ranked first in 1980, seventh in 1981 and second in 1982. Then Knox departed for Seattle after going 4-5 in the strike-shortened 1982 season. Anchored by their defense, Knox’s Bills had reached the post-season the previous two seasons, ending a playoff drought that dated back to their final years in the American Football League.
The defensive anchor was Smerlas, a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro at the nose who revolutionized the position with his unusual combination of size (300 pounds) and athleticism. Smerlas was a master of leverage, a trait learned as a collegiate heavyweight wrestler at Boston College, and he used that knowledge and strength to overpower centers and control the heart of the Bills’ defense.
Rival coaches used game film of Smerlas’ technique to train their own nose tackles. At the height of his dominance, Smerlas was named one of the 200 Greatest Football Players of all-time by Pro Football Weekly, at the time considered the Bible of the sport.
As a rookie, Smerlas made 57 tackles and recovered three fumbles. That was high production for a nose tackle in a defense designed for him to do the dirty work while the inside linebackers, Haslett and Nelson, got the glory…and the tackles. Smerlas became a full-time starter the following season and would go on to make the most consecutive starts by a nose tackle in NFL history (110, including three playoff games).
If part of ability is availability, Smerlas was without peer, starting every game for the Bills for 10 seasons before a feud with coach Marv Levy resulted in Levy leaving him unprotected on the Plan B free-agent list. So Smerlas signed with the San Francisco 49ers in 1990, landing the biggest contract of his career. But by then he had played 11 years at one of the game’s most demanding positions, and it had taken a toll.
A spate of knee injuries limited his playing time in San Francisco and later New England, where he finished his career. Who knows what might have happened had Smerlas remained to anchor the Bills’ defense that began its four-year run of frustrating Super Bowl defeats the year after he left. But few of his peers would debate who was the dominate nose tackle of his time.
Nose tackle is a position with few statistics to delineate such dominance, which is one reason only two pure nose tackles, Bill Willis and Curley Culp, are enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Smerlas was the next great player at that position, dominating for a decade at a thankless locale but one that is critical to the success of any 3-4 defense.
Of those who have played the position, few were more dominant or more resilient than Fred Smerlas, a player whose Hall-of-Fame candidacy deserves to be debated but never has — and now seems lost, 23 years after his retirement, in the Bermuda Triangle that is playing the game’s historically most unnoticed and underrated position.