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Top 50 All-Time Bills, No. 27: LB Shane Conlan

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LB Shane Conlan was a key member of the Bills' Super Bowl defenses. <a href="">(Photo Source)</a>
LB Shane Conlan was a key member of the Bills' Super Bowl defenses. (Photo Source)

LB Shane Conlan (1987-1992) | 6'3", 235 pounds

Notable Achievements: Three-time Pro Bowl Selection (1988-1990), AP Second-Team All-Pro (1987, 1988, 1990), 1987 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year

Shane Patrick Conlan was born on April 3, 1964 in Olean, New York. Conlan was a three sport star at Frewsburg (NY) High, excelling at basketball, baseball, and of course, football. He was a three-year all-league selection in basketball and a four-time all-league selection as a catcher in baseball. In fact, Conlan was offered a contract on the spot by the Pittsburgh Pirates after a tryout. He decided to stick with football, where he was an all-league performer at running back (rushing for a school record 1,029 yard during his senior year) and linebacker, which helped him earn a scholarship to Linebacker U, Penn State.

As a Nittany Lion, Conlan became a superstar. He had to redshirt his first season due to an injury, but was a major factor for Penn State's defense for the next four years. After a freshman season in which he was a part-time player at outside linebacker, Conlan really started to make some noise as a sophomore. He led the team with 77 tackles and 15 tackles for loss. During his junior season, Conlan began to make a name for himself nationally, as he was named an All-American following a 91-tackle, four sack season. He capped the year by being named the defensive Most Valuable Player in Penn State's Orange Bowl loss to Oklahoma. His senior season would prove to be a magical one individually and for the Nittany Lions. Named an All-American for a second consecutive season, Conlan finished the year with 79 tackles, including 63 solo stops to lead the defense. Penn State would go on to finish the season undefeated and win the national championship, led largely by the play of Conlan during the 1987 Fiesta Bowl against previously unbeaten Miami. He had eight tackles and picked off two passes, returning the second one 38 yards to the 5-yard line to set up the game winning touchdown as Penn State would win 14-10.

The Buffalo Bills traded down from third overall with the Houston Oilers to select the Western New York native with the eighth pick of the 1987 NFL Draft. His impact was immediate, and a huge boost to a vastly improving Buffalo defense.

Career Highlights

After leaving Happy Valley as one of Penn State's all-time greats and being selected in the Top 10 of the NFL Draft, Conlan was ready to make a major impact for his hometown team. That impact proved to be immediate, and of great help for a defense that was in need of some toughness. Conlan was a starter in Week 1 against the Jets, playing outside linebacker for five games in the Bills' 3-4 scheme. He would move inside once the Bills traded for Cornelius Bennett later in the season. After a strike hiccup early in the season that required the use of replacement players for three games, Conlan excelled as the season progressed. In 12 games that season, Conlan led the Bills with 114 tackles (33 more than his nearest teammate), and accumulated a half sack and a forced fumble. The addition of him and Bennett helped a Bills defense that had finished 20th in points allowed and 24th in yards allowed the previous year improve to a respectable 12th in both categories that year. His play earned him the Old Spice/NFL Rookie of the Year Award. The award gave Conlan a $25,000 stipend, which he donated along with $1,000 as the Buffalo winner to the Retired New York State Troopers' Helping Hands. Marv Levy also sent some strong praise Conlan's way at the time, even if it sounds a bit silly in retrospect:

On a third-and-one late in the first Miami game, Conlan threw off a tight end, ducked under a fullback and tripped the ball-bearing tailback. Buffalo tied the game on the next series. "We'd have taken Conlan before (Brian) Bosworth," says Levy. "People told me, 'Bosworth can make the Pro Bowl someday.' And I'd say, 'Yeah, but I want a guy who can make the Super Bowl.' "

The 1988 season saw Conlan continue to improve his game while cementing his place as one of the best young linebackers in the NFL, as well as one of the Bills' best players. Despite missing three games due to leg injuries, including the wild card playoff victory over the Houston Oilers because of a foot issue, Conlan would finish the season with his first Pro Bowl selection and first-team All-Pro accolades from various publications. The AP named him a second-team All-Pro. Conlan finished the season with 84 tackles, 1.5 sacks and his first career interception. The Bills defense finished third in points allowed and fourth in yards allowed for the season. The following year, Conlan was hurt in a Week 2 loss to Denver, and would miss the next six games with a knee injury. Buffalo's defense slipped a bit that season, while Conlan would still earn Pro Bowl honors after finishing the season with 80 tackles, 1 sack and an interception in 10 games. He also was named second-team All-Pro by the AP once again.

Finally healthy for a full 16 games, Conlan once again had a strong season in 1990. He earned his third consecutive Pro Bowl selection as the Bills made their first of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances. Conlan played inspired football during the postseason that year, finishing with a team high 34 tackles, including 13 in Super Bowl XXV against the Giants. For the season, Conlan finished with 93 tackles, 1 sack and his first career blocked field goal, helping preserve a shutout in a 42-0 rout of the Cleveland Browns. Once again, Conlan was named second-team All-Pro by the AP. His finest year, perhaps, came during the 1991 season, when he would lead the Bills in tackles with 122. However, despite his strong play, Conlan was not named to the Pro Bowl or All-Pro teams that season, probably due to the overall poor play of Buffalo's defense, as it would finish in the bottom half of most of the major defensive categories. That season would also be Conlan's final injury-free season. He would miss three games during the 1992 season, as the Bills once again fought their way to another Super Bowl appearance. He finished with 82 tackles, 2 sacks and an interception in 13 games. 

Following the season, Conlan, like teammate Will Wolford, found himself as part of the NFL's first free agent class. He was lucky that he was a free agent that season, as the salary cap went into place after the next season. As a player seemingly in his prime, the Los Angeles Rams offered Conlan a blockbuster deal, a 3-year, $5.4 million contract. It was enough to pry Conlan from his Western New York roots and ended his tenure in Buffalo, where he was one of the best players during the Bills' rise to prominence and AFC glory. He reflected back on that move after his first season with the Rams:

No regrets, he said. Conlan profited from NFL free agency, but in Year 1 of the new collective bargaining agreement between NFL players and management, there was no salary cap.

"Perfect timing," Conlan said. "Obviously, it was great last year--especially for me. I was talking to my wife the other day about how lucky I was."

"Take a look, there are a lot of good players out there still unsigned," Conlan said. "I'm sure I would have signed someplace but probably would not have gotten near the money I got from the Rams."

Conlan was hurt on the first day of training camp with the Rams, injuring his knee, but was ready for the season. He battled injuries all year and finished the year in obscurity with the 5-11 Rams, racking up 75 tackles and an interception in 12 games, while the Bills played in their fourth consecutive Super Bowl. He played 15 games in 1994, finishing with 84 tackles and a sack. He would retire after another injury-plagued 1995 season with the Rams, playing in 13 games and racking up just 47 tackles. 

Conlan was named to the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame in 1992, and the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. He was named to the Bills 50th Season All-Time Team this past year.

Best Moment

Conlan's play during the Bills' first Super Bowl run may have been his finest stretch of games. He was a tackling machine for much of his career, but his 13-tackle performance against the Giants in Super Bowl XXV was one of his more memorable performances. 

Lovingly dubbed Buckethead, Jarhead, and Hammerhead by his teammates, for his large dome, it was his hard-hitting, reckless abandonment on the field that endeared him to those same teammates. He is remembered as a throwback, your prototypical rough-and-tumble, old school run-stuffer:

Linebacker Shane Conlan may have boasted one of the most disproportionate bodies I've ever seen on a football player. He had a huge head, a huge torso, and legs skinnier than a pelican's. Guys in the locker room would joke that the Buffalo Jills cheerleaders had more meat on their gams than Shane did.

But those toothpick legs didn't prevent Conlan from delivering some of the most hellacious hits you'd ever want to see. He was your classic run-stuffing linebacker. He had kind of an old-school style. He would have fit in nicely with guys like Butkus and Nitschke.

There was one time against the Jets that he pancaked Roger Vick so hard that we thought he was dead. Kent Hull said after the game, "I was looking for a priest to give the guy his last rites." ~Steve Tasker's Tales From the Buffalo Bills by Steve Tasker and Scott Pitoniak, p. 35

Parting Shot

Shane Conlan will always be remembered for his on-field excellence during the Bills' Super Bowl years. He was a key member and leader of the hard-hitting, opportunistic, nasty unit that produced a number of Bills greats. Conlan was born to tackle ball carriers in the Western New York falls and winters. Despite a number of nagging injuries that possibly derailed a potentially great career, Conlan is one of the best linebackers to put on the Buffalo red, white and blue.

Career Stats

80 games
545 tackles, unofficially (No. 5 in franchise history)
6.0 sacks (No. 32)
3 interceptions (No. 73)
4 forced fumbles, unofficial
3 fumble recoveries, unofficial
1 safety (No. 2)