He wasn’t a perennial Pro Bowl player, but even the best NFL teams have only a handful of them. Successful playoff teams need solid, dependable, productive players that deliver each and every week. That’s who Phil Hansen was for 11 seasons as a defensive end for the Buffalo Bills, and he’ll be honored as such Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium at halftime of the Bills home opener against Oakland.
“Marv (Levy) and I always said that no one played left end in the 3-4 during his time better than Phil Hansen,” said Colts President and Bills former GM Bill Polian. “That’s a relatively narrow category and Phil would probably be the first to tell you that compared to the (Jets) ‘Sack Exchange’ and people that played different defenses he wasn’t as flashy as most, nor as statistically productive, but when you watched the tape week in and week out for all those years that he played, nobody played better 3-4 left defensive end than Phil Hansen.”
Hansen came to the Bills in the 1991 draft as a second-round pick. A small school product from North Dakota State, Hansen kept his mouth shut and did his job on a Super Bowl caliber team of superstars.
“I got drafted by the Bills and I was at my first minicamp in May,” Hansen said. “At first I was overwhelmed. I remember being in an elevator with Thurman Thomas and I don’t think I took a breath that whole time. He turned around and looked at me when I got out of the elevator and he said, ‘North Dakota??’ And he just walked away. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Yes at least he knows where I’m from.’”
But Hansen’s work ethic came to be respected by the Bills veterans after he appeared in 14 games as a rookie including 10 starts, even if Hansen doesn’t quite remember it that way.
“I really got thrown to the wolves the first year,” he said. “Bruce Smith was hurt and I was thrown right in the fire and started 10 games. I had to learn as I went. Those guys were great to me. Obviously I was the weak link. I didn’t know if I was coming or going, but they really stood by me. Darryl Talley and guys like that always encouraged me.
“Phil when he first came in was an undersized defensive end,” said Bills Wall of Famer Darryl Talley. “He grew into a great defensive end in my opinion and you couldn’t ask for anything more. As a young guy he was learning to play the game and playing it at a high level. It was all there.”
Though Hansen enjoyed the journey of being on the roster for three straight AFC titles and Super Bowl appearances, he never felt like he was a true building block of the most successful era in team history. He called himself the “icing on the cake.”
“He was an integral part of what we did and our defense really did not become great until Cornelius (Bennett) and Shane (Conland) and Phil became part of it,” said Polian. “So they weren’t the icing on the cake, they were the last pieces of the puzzle along with all of the great ones.”
“That’s some damn good icing because I enjoyed it,” said Talley. “To have somebody like that around you to play with you it’s truly, truly a pleasure.”
Much like Talley lined up behind Hall of Famer Bruce Smith for the better part of nine years, Bennett lined up behind and at times alongside Hansen for five seasons.
“It was so cool to play with him in the time we had together,” said Bennett. “He did a great job. When he came in sometimes you have braggadocios guys and he was never one of those types of people. Everything he did was a thousand percent. When he first came in I could tell he would be something special. Long, tall, lanky guy. He wasn’t a fast guy, but his work ethic is the thing that set him apart from anybody else.”
Part of the league’s number one defense in 1999 teaming with Pro Bowl players up front like Ted Washington and Bruce Smith made the tail end of Hansen’s career memorable as well.
“Looking back on it I think you never realize how good and how special those days were until they’re not there anymore,” he said. “That was a pretty special time. Ted Washington in the middle, I would go to battle with him every day of the week and Bruce Smith as well. The three of us up front for several years we really felt good about what we had there. Before you know it it’s gone and then all you do is go back on reflection and think, ‘Wow we really had it good there.’”
Hansen will have a lot of his former teammates with him on Sunday when his name is unveiled on the Bills Wall of Fame as it is also alumni weekend. But the respect that Hansen got from his teammates makes one think that they all would have been on hand no matter when his special day took place.
“Phil is a great human being. I’m so proud of him,” said Bennett. “He was one of our unsung heroes during our run and that’s a great honor for him.”
“It couldn’t have happened to a better guy,” Talley said. “He’s a guy that’s well deserving of it. He worked his a** off and Phil was one of those guys that didn’t take anything for granted. In my opinion… a damn good defensive end.”