Bills' Conlan Uses His Head on the Field
Hard-hitting linebacker leaving his mark on opponents
By Vic Carucci
September 17, 1989
It is Monday morning, and Shane Conlan is jabbed out of a deep sleep by a sharp pain in the back of his neck. His first instinct is to wince. His second is to try and rub it away.
But then he stops, as if suddenly realizing he's about to erase some important data.
For Conlan, the pain says far more about what he did the previous day than any statistics sheet. When his neck is sore, that means his helmet (or, to be more precise, his facemask) made enough contact with opposing ball carriers for him to have racked up a healthy number of tackles.
Conlan smiles because, just as on a number of other Monday mornings, it hurts so good.
"Yeah," the Buffalo Bills linebacker said this week, "my neck was really killing me."
Translation: He made five tackles in Sunday's season-opening victory over Miami.
Conlan discovered long ago, back when he played at Frewsburg High School, the most effective means of halting a rusher is to lead with his facemask. Along the way, there have been plenty of sore necks, concussions and lost teeth. But his approach never changed - not through his collegiate career at Penn State, not through his first two seasons in the National Football League.
"It feels better when I hit with my face. It feels more solid," Conlan explained. "And I think the running backs feel it more. I think it hurts more when you get hit with a helmet rather than a shoulder. You've got backs who are very fast, and if you keep hitting them, they're going to have to slow down."
"Those guys are big. There's no way you're going to hit a guy with your forearm and stop him. I can't do it. I'm not strong enough to do it. So I lower my back and come in with my forehead and facemask. And if you can get your helmet lower than theirs, you're going to win."
It should be noted the six-foot-three, 235-pound Conlan has an extra-large head, thus making it a lethal weapon on the football field. It should also be noted, from the waist down, he is built more like a cornerback than an inside linebacker, thus accentuating the size of his head and the rest of his upper-body.
The small legs make him faster than most at his position. The speed makes his helmet hit with that much more authority.
"When he get a clean shot at somebody, you almost wonder sometimes whether or not Shane's going to get up, too," Bills defensive coordinator Walt Corey said. "But you know the guy's going to intimidate some people when he hits them, because they'll always remember the hit."
"He reminds me tremendously of Jack Lambert," says Bills coach Marv Levy. "right down to the number (58) and those skinny legs."
Bills nose tackle Fred Smerlas call Conlan "The Helmet" and "Hammerhead." Smerlas can afford to make light of Conlan; he doesn't have to collide with him in practice.
Center Kent Hull does and, for him, it is no laughing matter.
"A lot of guys will throw forearms and elbows at you," Hull said. "Shane throws that head at you, and he's got one of the hardest heads I've ever had hit me. It's like a rock."
Legs Carry Conlan Far
"I love the way I'm built," Conlan said. "I'd rather have my legs than some big legs that don't move well. I get teased about it, but they got me this far."
As a rookie in 1987, they got him a number of all-rookie honors.
Last year they got him into the Pro Bowl.
One of the great thrills of Conlan's football life came during a conversation he had at the Pro Bowl in Honolulu with Cincinnati offensive tackle Anthony Munoz, his teammate on the AFC squad.
"He said, 'Man, you've got a hard head. You whomped on me a few times this season,'" Conlan recalled. "Coming from a guy who's probably one of the best who's ever played, that really means a lot."
That his peers even voted him to the Pro Bowl was a bit of a surprise for Conlan, because he missed three of the last four regular-season games with a nagging injury to his right foot. It occurred in the Bills' AFC Eastern Division-clinching victory over the New York Jets. He missed the next two games, played less than a half against the Los Angeles Raiders before aggravating it, then sat out the season finale against Indianapolis and the January 1 playoff victory over Houston.
Lesson Learned on Injuries
Still, Conlan managed to rank third on the Bills with 84 tackles. He picked up the brunt of his Pro Bowl votes with an impressive 12-tackle day against Pittsburgh and an impressive Monday night showing against Miami when he leapt high for a one-handed interception of a Dan Marino pass.
"Playing in that Raider game was dumb," Conlan said. "I remember (Bills trainer) Eddie Abramoski said, 'Don't do it.' And I said, "I want to try.' And it was stupid. It had been healing well, and I screwed it up again.
"But we had lost some games before that one, and I was thinking, 'I've gotta play, I've gotta play.' It was just inexperience on my part. I'll never do that again.
"I think I learned from the whole experience. I learned that you're not Superman out there; you can get hurt like anybody else. That's why, this year, I'm in better shape than I was last year. My play is the same. It's just my physical preparation is a little different."
So is his mental preparation.
After joining the Bills as a first-round draft pick, Conlan had moments when he was downright lost on the field. He relied heavily on the knowledge of former Penn State teammate Scott Radecic, who started next to him at inside linebacker. Last year, Conlan received a great deal of on-field help from his new inside partner, Ray Bentley.
But things are different this season.
"My knowledge of the game has gotten a lot better, and that's going to help me play better," Conlan said. "Every once in a while last year, I'd have a bad read. But, then, toward the end of the season I was reading really well. And this year, in preseason and last Sunday, I think I'm right on with my reads. Haven't had a bad one yet."
"He sees things a lot quicker," Bentley observed. "His reads are better, he understands what we're doing. Last year, I made a lot of the calls, and he relied on that. This year, I'm getting a lot more help from him."
Conlan's Speed Fits Scheme
Conlan's speed makes him a perfect fit for the Bills' defensive scheme.
"He's a guy who should be in almost all the plays," Corey said. "He has the freedom to fly around. The inside linebackers in our defense are the fly-around guys. If they can't get to the ball, then we're not playing the defense properly."
As a "fly-around" guy," Conlan expects to have quite a few chances to make tackles when the Bills face Denver Monday night.
"They're a sweep team, a toss team," he said. "and, God, do I love that, because you can just tee off. They're pitching the ball, the guards are pulling out, and you can just tear after the back. And, even if the back's down, I can hit that pulling guard.
"I love to run. That's my whole game."
That, and his facemask.
What They Say About Shane
Marv Levy, Bills head coach: "He's all football player. If you're going to do a fictional movie on linebackers, you'd go to central casting for him."
Jack Ham, former standout linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Penn State: "There's not a weakness in his game. That's a big statement for me to make, that the guy can play the complete game. He could well rank as one of the best linebackers of all time."
Walt Corey, Bill's defensive coordinator: "Shane's presence just assures everybody around him that, 'You'd better keep moving. Because if you don't, he just might nail you to the cross."
Kent Hull, Bills center: "He has a knack for knowing when to explode into a guy at just the right time with all his might. His legs might be thinner than a cheerleader's, but they are awfully strong."
Fred Smerlas, Bills nose tackle: "He'll get down and he'll get dirty. I remember one day during his rookie year. He gets knocked out, blood running out of his nose, and he's still in there."