By Tim Graham
Bruce Smith delivered his signature, staccato cackle when he heard the question.
How much money do you think you would've commanded had you hit free agency in your prime like Mario Williams did?
"I'd probably be the highest-paid defensive player in the league," the Buffalo Bills sackmaster said by phone from Virginia.
Williams became the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history and the richest athlete Buffalo has seen when the Buffalo Bills signed him to a $100 million contract in March.
Based on that standard, Smith would be able to buy Booker T. Washington High in Norfolk, Va., a new gymnasium today instead of Allstate Insurance and the Pro Football Hall of Fame installing a "Hometown Heroes" plaque at the school.
Smith is being honored as part of a program that celebrates where legends were cultivated and hopes to inspire those who pass that way after.
"This is about a body of work that was accomplished during a Hall of Famer's career," Smith said. "The fact that I'm being recognized as a Hometown Hero, that speaks volumes. It takes that player back to where it all started, to his parents, his high school his coaches, his teachers and those who played intricate and important roles in the success and maturation of that particular athlete.
"But it's also being encouragement to those same teenagers that are going to be sitting in that auditorium and lets them know, 'There are people who see more in you than you see in yourself right now. Listen to them. Apply the messages to your life on a daily basis.' "
Smith recalled how his parents, coaches and teachers stayed on him about schoolwork because they wanted to prepare him for life -- not just sports.
The NFL's all-time sacks leader and 11-time Pro Bowler also shared his thoughts on the current Bills defense.
"We just have to get it together," Smith said. "If we don't, it's going to be a long and cold season in Buffalo."
Smith didn't deliver any sharp criticisms of the Bills' defensive line, which was supposed to catalyze the team into the playoffs. They signed Williams and Mark Anderson as edge rushers. They welcomed back Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kyle Williams from an injury. Last year's third overall draft choice, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, was another year older.
All of that sounded great. But Smith noted something fans likely don't want to hear: The unit simply needs more time, that one offseason isn't enough.
"I see these guys are not on the same page just yet," Smith said, "whether it's the trust factor, their trusting in the scheme, doing more than they should be doing when the play is called.
"There's a tremendous amount of talent. We're going to have to give them some time to be able to jell together and trust one another. The good thing is they're young, so they have some time. Unfortunately, we may have a half-season of some growing pains.
"With the talent and the size of the guys we have there now, they're able to play against the pass and against the run and do it very effectively. But with their talent you have to be very disciplined. You have to know your teammates and their responsibilities and your responsibilities and take care of your job first and then try to help someone else out."
Smith declined to address a question about defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt.
Smith said it wouldn't be fair to scrutinize a game plan from afar but did say, "I know a game plan doesn't allow a team to go out and score 45 points in the second half."
(Photo: Buffalo News file)