What the Bills Mean to Me
As I promised last week, win or lose the playoff game, I was going to discuss today the history of my love affair with the Buffalo Bills. The fact the Bills lost last week 10-3 to the Jacksonville Jaguars was not unexpected nor discouraging. This team was not supposed to be the edition that killed the drought, so making the playoffs was a thrilling bonus. During the game itself, the defense played valiantly to keep the Bills in the contest right til the very end, but the lack of takeaways, the inability to limit Blake Bortles' QB scrambles, and the ineptness of the offense ultimately did in the Bills. But I think the game itself was invaluable because it provided young players with a taste of playoff atmosphere, while leaving no illusions about how far this franchise is from being a true Super Bowl contender. There are many holes to fill, and of course, the biggest question is who will be the QB going forward. But at least, the first shoe has dropped with the announcement of offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, who never seemed to fit the personnel or culture of this team as envisioned by head coach Sean McDermott, was fired yesterday. I am excited about the possibilities of the franchise in future years and have trust in Brandon Beane (for now) to make moves via free agency and the draft to build a championship caliber club.
But enough of the present/future. My love of the Buffalo Bills began on September 7th, 1980. I was nine-years-old (I was much too young to remember the O.J. Simpson-era) and just beginning to get interested in sports, as the Buffalo Sabres that spring had made a thrilling playoff run, ending in the Wales Conference finals when they lost to the New York Islanders, which went on to win their 1st of 4 consecutive Stanley Cups. The Bills had been lousy in the late 1970s, but the hiring of ex-LA Rams head coach, Chuck Knox, spurred a new sense of optimism among Bills fans. The Bills entered the 1980 season-opener with an NFL-record 20 consecutive losses to the Miami Dolphins. But on this day, the Bills led by rookie running back Joe Cribbs, the wide receiver duo of Jerry Butler and Frank Lewis, and a ferocious defense featuring the "Bermuda Triangle" of nose tackle Fred Smerlas and inside linebackers Jim Haslett and Shane Nelson, smothered the damn Dolphins 17-7. Bills fans responded with such euphoria over the end of the decade-long losing streak to the hated "Fish" that they tore down the goal posts (probably the only time that has ever occurred on the opening day of an NFL season). Up until that day, I had been rather indifferent about the Bills and NFL, but witnessing the joyous outburst on the Rich Stadium turf, I was instantly smitten with the team.
That season the Bills started 5-0 and finished 11-5, clinching their first ever AFC East division title with a win at San Francisco in the final regular season game. The Bills had the #1 ranked defense in the league and Joe Cribbs ran for over 1,100 yards, which set a team record for most rushing yards by a rookie. Despite beating the Chargers in the regular season, the Bills had to travel to San Diego for their playoff game as the latter finished with a better record. The Bills were clinging to a 14-13 lead with less than three minutes to go, when Chargers Hall of Fame QB Dan Fouts completed a 50-yard bomb to Ron Smith for the game-winning score. The Bills lost 20-14 and I was so upset that this magical season had come to such an abrupt end that I did indeed cry.
The Bills 1981 season began with huge expectations that they would build upon the previous year and go deeper into the playoffs, perhaps a true Super Bowl contender. However, this edition of the Bills did not take anyone by surprise. In a very closely contended AFC East, the Bills wound up third with the hated Dolphins winning the division and the NY Jets sneaking past the Bills for 2nd. Thus, the Bills had to play a wildcard game against the Jets in New York. The Bills jumped out to a seemingly insurmountable 31-13 lead, but the Jets refused to die quietly. They came back to cut Buffalo's lead to 31-27 and were marching for the potential game-winning TD, but on a last-gasp desperation throw into the endzone, Bills safety Bill Simpson picked off Jets QB Richard Todd, sealing the Bills first playoff victory since the 1965 AFL Championship Game. I can remember watching the game at my great-grandmother's house on Fargo Avenue on the West Side, and then going outside into the backyard where my cousins and I threw a football around and took great delight in reenacting Bill Simpson's game-clinching INT. Alas, the Bills' drive to the Super Bowl ended the next week when they lost to the Cincinnati Bengals 28-21 in the divisional round. Little did we know then that would be the last Bills playoff game for seven years.
The next season was marred by a players' strike that wiped out almost half the games. The Bills missed the playoffs after finishing 4-5 and the real kick to the gut came when Chuck Knox, who had quickly turned the franchise around, became so disillusioned that he left the team. So began the dreadful era of Kay Stephenson and Chuck Bullough. The Bills did manage a respectable 8-8 season in 1983, but it was all downhill after that. Back- to-back 2-14 seasons represented the nadir of post-merger Bills history. Every week, my family gathered at my great-grandmother's house to watch the Bills. My maternal grand-father, my great-uncle Paul and my great-uncle Sam always sat in the same designated seats, while everyone else scrambled for the remaining space on the couch or floor. Each Sunday we rooted for a Bills win, but when it became obvious that the Bills were going to lose, my cousins and I went outside to play catch or take a walk around the neighbor-hood, sometimes even going so far as Lasalle Park along the Niagara River, as we grew bored with the accumulating and embarrassing losses.
Everything changed in 1986. That spring the United States Football League folded, and all the players that had spurned the NFL to play in the rival league had no choice but to return to the NFL. The Bills had selected QB Jim Kelly in the 1st round of the 1983 draft, but Kelly notoriously did not want to play in Buffalo, choosing the warmer weather and bigger city of Houston to join the USFL's Gamblers to start his pro career. But by 1986, the Bills still held his NFL rights and Kelly had no choice but to sign with Buffalo. On the summer day that Kelly arrived in town to be officially announced as the Bills QB, and his limo was famously cheered on area expressways, a new era had commenced. The team had already begun to lay the foundation of a championship contender the previous year with the drafting of future Hall of Famers, defensive end Bruce Smith and wide receiver Andre Reed. However, that 1986 team was still short on talent and coaching. The first big move came when owner Ralph Wilson decided to fire Hank Bullough, and based on the recommendation of new GM Bill Polian, hired former Kansas City Chiefs head coach Marv Levy in mid-season. That team struggled to a 4-12 finish, but at least Kelly got his feet wet in the NFL and Levy was now on board.
The 1987 edition made great strides on and off the field. They added linebacker Shane Conlan and cornerback Nate Odomes during the draft, but the biggest move was The Trade with Denver. The Bills shipped out running back Greg Bell and some draft picks for the Broncos' disgruntled and unsigned rookie linebacker Cornelius Bennett. It was a bold move by Polian and a clear signal that he was serious about building a Super Bowl contender. The Bills were much improved in talent and in experience, but that season was disrupted yet again by a players strike. Unlike in 1982, when half the season was canceled, this time the league and the owners decided to play hardball by bringing in replacement players. This embarrassment occurred during my junior year of high school and we had a game against Timon at Rich Stadium just as this mockery was transpiring. I will never forget being in the Bills locker room before our game and seeing the names of all the "scrub" players written on tape over the lockers, including Bills scrub QB Willie Totten. The strike ended after just four weeks, but the interruption seemed to affect the Bills young team more than others, and they fell just short of the playoffs at 7-8.
The Bills broke through in 1988. The selection of running back Thurman Thomas in the 2nd round of that year's draft seemingly was the final piece of the puzzle. The team took off that year, finishing 12-4 and easily winning the AFC East. My father and I attended the game when they clinched the division title. In a defensive struggle with the NY Jets, the Bills were clinging to a 9-6 lead late in the 4th quarter when the Jets lined up for a game-tying field goal. Fred Smerlas, the Bills veteran Pro-Bowl nose tackle, who had experienced all the grief and disappointment of the Bills 2-14 seasons, and was one of the last ties to the playoff teams of the early '80s, blocked the FG attempt to preserve the Bills victory. After the last second ticked off the clock, the stadium erupted into bedlam. My father and I attended that game, and as thousands of fans stormed the field and tore down the goalposts, we got swept up in the emotion and began to head down to the surface. Just before reaching the field, one of the goalposts had been carried over to the sidelines. The horde of uproarious fans lifted the posts up into the stands, and my father and I actually touched the post as it entered the stands. We then ran around on the field like children, much as thousands of other Bills backers were, enthralled with joy and nearly intoxicated with the possibility of a Super Bowl run. In the mayhem, the net behind one of the goalposts had been ripped to shreds, and I was able to pick up a piece as a keepsake- a beloved souvenir of that tremendous day I still possess. Caught up in the euphoric whirlwind of celebration, my father and I returned to the parking lot well over 30 minutes after the game. We were too late- we had taken a bar-sponsored bus to the game and by the time we got back to the rendezvous spot, the bus had left. We got lucky as a woman driving by herself offered us a ride home. She agreed to drop us off at my great-grandmother's house, and on our arrival, we told all my family about the game, the celebration, the ride home, and then we proceeded to have one of the best spaghetti and meatball dinners ever!
The Bills proceeded to beat the Houston Oilers 17-10 in the divisional round of the play-offs and advance to their first AFC Championship Game. However, the Bills Super Bowl dreams were snuffed out by the Cincinnati Bengals, whose defense smothered the Bills offense, holding Thurman Thomas to just 6 yards rushing while Jim Kelly threw for a mere 161 yards and 3 interceptions. But while the 1988 edition came up short, there was no doubt among Bills fans that this was only the beginning of a fantastic era.
Up next came the season of the "Bickering Bills"- a campaign of frustration that boiled over into public criticism as players took turns taking jabs at their teammates. The Bills underachieved that 1989 season, finishing 9-7 and losing in the divisional round of the playoffs 34-30 to the Cleveland Browns in the infamous "Ronnie Harmon Drop Game" where the Bills nearly pulled off a great comeback, but running back Harmon let the potential game-winning TD catch slip off his fingers in the end zone. The entire season was a huge disappointment due to the massive expectations set the previous year by reaching the AFC Championship Game. The fans and players expected to take the next step and reach the Super Bowl. But while it did not happen, the 1989 Bills matured as a football team and during that playoff game in Cleveland, despite the painful outcome, the players rallied together and finally learned what was needed to become a champ-ionship team. What followed was a string of success unprecedented in NFL history: 4 straight AFC Championships and 4 consecutive trips to the Super Bowl.
I won't get into every detail about each of the four Super Bowl seasons, rather just the highlights. During those four glorious seasons, I went to two or three home games each year. The best were the night games. Those four seasons directly corresponded with my college years. I never had fake ID, but I had friends who did. Whether it was a Sunday game or a Monday Night Game, we always had plenty of beer and food for the tailgate. On Sunday games, we typically arrived around 9 am. For night games, we would go to classes during the day, then get to the stadium by late afternoon. Invariably, we would feast on grilled meat and drink multiple Molson Canadians while throwing a football around in the parking lot and blasting classic rock music. We had the fucking times of our lives back then. And the security at the stadium in those days was not nearly as tight. We were always able to sneak in cans of beer. Every game, I would shove two cans into my socks and one between my underwear and a pair of shorts under my jeans. The security did not check your socks or crotch, and there were no metal detectors, so I never got caught. Of course, you can't do that any more- the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001 changed stadium security forever. I won't mention the particulars of any specific game- all I'll say is that the Bills usually won and we always had a blast. For four glorious years, the Bills were so good and the environment at Rich Stadium was so intimidating due to the rabid, extremely loud fans, that the team was almost invincible at home. Those were the days!
There is nothing like the first time, so I must describe the Bills inaugural Super Bowl berth in 1990. The Bills had won the AFC East and a first-round bye, then beat Miami in a snow-filled, Jim Kelly-Dan Marino shootout divisional round game at Rich Stadium. That set the stage for the AFC Championship Game. The Bills' no-huddle offense was at the peak of its powers and combined with the cold weather and the howling fans, the Raiders proved absolutely powerless to provide any resistance. Kelly, Thomas and the boys ran roughshod over the Raiders in an incredible first-half display of dominance. Perhaps the defining moment of the game was L.A. calling timeout because the Raiders defense, including Hall of Fame defensive tackle Howie Long, were out of breath from the blistering pace set by the Bills offense. It was just BAM! BAM! BAM! The Raiders did not know what hit them. By halftime it was 41-3 and I was probably crying tears of joy. The entire 2nd half was surreal- the outcome was decided, the Bills were going to their first Super Bowl, and through much of the 4th quarter, the Bills starters rested on the sidelines, celebrating the achievement- I'll certainly never forget Bruce Smith, Leon Seals and Cornelius Bennett repeatedly mugging for the TV cameras. Final score: Bills 51-3 in the biggest blowout in NFL conference championship history.
For the next week, the city and entire region were electrified: Bills paraphernalia- shirts, sweatshirts, baseball caps, jackets, posters- were EVERYWHERE. The build-up to the Big Game was huge, as every local TV station sent crews to Tampa, site of SB XXV, to cover the Bills in depth, including preview shows. It was almost non-stop (and this was well before the era of smartphones and social media). Plus the setting of the game was quite unique. The Persian Gulf War had just begun as the U.S. led a multi-national coalition to drive Iraq out of Kuwait after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had decided to invade its smaller neighbor the previous August. Now for some historical perspective. It was a much different time back in the early 1990s. Ever since 9/11, the U.S. has been on a perpetual war footing- the conflict in Afghanistan has now lasted over 16 years, so for today's youth, the war on terror has been ongoing for much of their lives. But for my generation, childhood had proceeded with a prolonged period of peace. From the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 until the Persian Gulf War, the international scene had been marked with not only a paucity of military conflicts, but the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, and the end of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union dismantling and the former Iron Curtain fading away, replaced by eastern European states escaping Soviet influence and joining NATO. Thus, the Persian Gulf War was a jarring break from the relative peace of the previous decade-and-a-half, and my first personal experience with war. It was against this backdrop that SB XXV was played.
From Whitney Houston's stirring rendition of the national anthem to the military fly-over and snipers along the top of the stadium providing extra security, it was a scene unlike any other Super Bowl. Plus the Bills came in as strong favorites- they had beaten the NY Giants in a tight, low-scoring regular-season game in November, and after clobbering the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game, most fans and pundits thought the Bills would ride their humming-on-all-cylinders no-huddle offense to the franchise's first championship since the AFL days. I'm not going to get into details because every-one who watched the game vividly remembers how it played out (and if not, you can read all about it now on Wikipedia). The Giants, led by head coach Bill Parcells and defensive coordinator Bill Belichick, executed a perfect game plan designed to slow down the Bills offense as well as keep it off the field. The result was that the Giants led late in the 4th quarter, but the Bills had one last shot to win it. Kelly and Co. moved the ball into scoring position setting up a last-second 47-yard FG try by Scott Norwood.
To set the scene: my parents and my Aunt Mary Jane and Uncle Vinnie had alternately hosted Super Bowl parties every year since 1981. That year happened to be my parents turn so me, my sister, my parents and several cousins, aunts and uncles all gathered at my childhood home to watch the game. As Norwood lined up to kick the field goal, and all the Bills players and coaches stood hand-in-hand on the sidelines, we all stood in my parents living room staring at the TV and waiting with baited breath, hoping to burst into celebration. My cousin Brian and I were planning on going out to a blues bar called the Blue Note, which we had frequented often the past year because it had a reputation for not checking IDs at the entrance and we then fell in love with the music, to imbibe and celebrate intensely, then perhaps take a cab downtown to just whoop and holler with thousands of Bills fans that were sure to congregate. But everyone knows what happened- Norwood's kick sailed wide right and the Bills championship hopes were destroyed. I was so angry and upset that I head-butted the wooden arch that separated our home's living room and dining room, causing a loud thud and giving me a grade-A headache (and perhaps concussion). I was downtrodden- the Bills were oh-so-close to winning it all and then to lose in such a fashion was devastating. Obviously, there was no celebration that night. Although I was one of the 20,000 or so Bills fans who showed up the next day to attend a communal thank-you rally for the team on the steps of City Hall and Niagara Square. The city embraced Scott Norwood and forgave him for the missed game-winning FG. The team responded by pledging to win the Super Bowl next year. And though they were talented and resilient enough to make it back to three more Super Bowls, they never got as close as that FG attempt at the end of SB XXV.
I did happen to go to a few playoff games during the Super Bowl-era, including the 1991 and 1993 AFC Championship Games. In the former, the Bills battled the Denver Broncos in a fierce defensive struggle, with the Bills prevailing 10-7, the winning score provided by an interception-return-for-TD by linebacker Carlton Bailey. In the latter, Thurman Thomas ran all over the Kansas City Chiefs and the Bills defense smothered the Chiefs' offense, culminating with a ferocious sack by Bruce Smith that knocked Hall of Fame QB Joe Montana out of the game and right into retirement.
One game I did not attend was the contest against the Houston Oilers after the 1992 season, which was destined to be the Greatest Comeback in NFL History. The game did not sell out in time, so it was blacked out in the Buffalo market. This was an era when area bars would make a killing by thwarting the NFL blackout rule and show games (illegally) via satellite, drawing huge throngs of Bills fans. For that game I, along with my cousin Brian and some friends went to a massive bar called The Buffalo Sports Garden (which has now long since been closed). The place was packed with several hundred Bills fans. As is well-known, the Bills were dominated in the 1st half as Jim Kelly missed the game with an injury, leaving back-up Frank Reich to play, and then Thurman Thomas got knocked out. By halftime the Oilers were up 28-3. We decided to stick around out of loyalty to the Bills, but when Reich threw an interception that was returned for a TD on the opening series of the 2nd half, that was it. We gave up hope and left the bar. We were so upset that we returned to Brian's apartment and put the TV on some documentary about Jackie Chan movies and his incredible stunts. Then all of a sudden, one of Brian's roommates came home and excitedly yelled that the Bills had scored two TDs to cut Houston's lead to 35-17 and had just intercepted a Warren Moon pass. We turned on the radio and heard Van Miller go crazy as Andre Reed caught a TD pass to now make it 35-24. Brian and I hurriedly rushed back to his car, and not having time to make it back to the Buffalo Sports Garden, went to MT Pockets on Hertel Ave., which was a shorter drive. We got there just in time to see Andre Reed catch another TD pass that put Buffalo amazingly ahead 38-35. The Oilers did gather themselves enough to drive for a game-tying FG and send the contest to overtime. I remember the Oilers won the coin toss and elected to receive the kickoff. But the Bills intercepted Moon again, setting up Steve Christie for the game-winning FG. Unlike two years prior at SB XXV, this time the kick was true and the Bills players on the field, as well as the fans at the bar, exploded in celebration. The Bills completed the unlikely comeback, without their Hall of Fame QB and running back, 41-38 and were on their way to their 3rd straight trip to the Big Game.
The Bills missed the playoffs in 1994- after four consecutive trips to the Super Bowl, the Bills had essentially played five seasons worth of games in four years, and so by that point were physically and mentally exhausted. But the team was recharged in 1995, and with the huge additions of linebacker Bryce Paup, who would be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and massive defensive tackle Ted Washington, the Bills were back with a vengeance. They won the AFC East and pummeled the Dolphins in a wild card game 37-21, sending Miami's Hall of Fame coach Don Shula into retirement. It looked like the Bills were primed for another Super Bowl run, but their hopes were dashed once again- this time by a loss to the Steelers in the divisional round. Prior to the game, Bruce Smith came down with the flu and a severe fever. Without the leader of their defense, the Bills seemed to have a letdown, and went on to lose 40-21. The Bills again made the play-offs in 1996, hosting the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars in only their 2nd year of existence. I attended that game and was in the corner of the end zone, on the tunnel side of the field, as Jim Kelly was knocked out of the game with a concussion. I was in a perfect spot to see Kelly, woozy with a concussion, carted off the field and into the locker room. That was how Jim Kelly's great career ended, and with it came the end of the Bills golden era.
The Bills did make the playoffs in 1998 and 1999, but those two seasons were dominated not by any Super Bowl runs, but by the heated QB controversy between Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson. The Bills 1998 season ended with a loss in Miami, despite WR Eric Moulds setting a franchise record for receiving yards in a postseason game, then came the 1999 playoff loss in Nashville- known far and wide as The Music City Miracle and Home Run Throwback, for the last-second lateral-and-kickoff-return for the game-winning TD that spurred endless controversy over whether the lateral was legal or should have been a penalty. Immediately after the game and that stunning result, my mother turned to me and said she was so sorry the Bills lost. I was almost surprisingly calm about it. I replied that the Bills will be back next year. Based on the Bills amazing run of 10 playoff berths in 12 seasons from 1988 to 1999, I, like many Bills fans of that era, simply took it for granted that the Bills would be back in the playoffs the following season. No way any Bills fans could have foreseen that that heart-breaking loss in Nashville would kick off a 17-year playoff drought.
I will end this lengthy blog post with one final memory. The 17 seasons of the drought all just kind of blurred together after awhile and there is no need to recap this sorry era. However, there was one game that stood out for personal reasons. My mother's favorite player throughout the Super Bowl era was Steve Tasker. She thought he was so cute and such a nice family man. So when the Bills announced in 2007 that Tasker was going to be inducted into the team's Wall of Fame, my father decided to buy tickets so we could attend the ceremony. The designated game was the season opener against the Denver Broncos, just six months after my mom passed away from lung cancer. My mom would have loved to attend "Stevie's" induction. So in honor of our beloved mother, my dad, sister and I went to the game in a bittersweet mood. At halftime, Tasker was feted by the team and he gave a wonderful speech thanking the organization, all his former coaches and teammates, and especially the fans, and then his name was revealed on the wall alongside other Bills greats. It was a wonderful moment- a paean to the memory of the Super Bowl era. We were happy to have been there to share in the festive celebration. And then came the 2nd half kickoff. The Broncos received and after the return man was tackled, a large gathering of players encircled a Bill who had obviously been injured. The stadium went silent as the Bills trainers came on the field and minutes passed by without any sign of movement by the Bills player. With so many people congregated around the injured player, it was impossible to see who it was from the stands. I happened to bring my transistor radio to the game to hear the play-by-play. Several people around us kept asking who was down. Finally I heard on the radio that it was tight end Kevin Everett and I loudly announced to the spectators around me. It seemed like an interminable time before the stretcher was brought out and the injured player was lifted into an ambulance. As it turned out, Kevin Everett suffered a severe cervical spine injury, was temporarily paralyzed, and though he eventually learned to walk again, his football career came to a sudden end on that terrible day. And to think that I was there to witness it because of Steve Tasker's induction ceremony- to go from the high of a halftime tribute to one of the franchise's all-time great players, to the low of another player suffering a career-ending and life-threatening injury within minutes of each other was truly unforgettable. In that context the outcome of the game really didn't matter, but almost appropriately, the Bills blew a late lead and lost on a last minute FG 15-14- just one of many frustrating and eventually soul-sapping losses in the 17-year drought of mediocrity.
That is why ending the drought was so momentous. OK the Bills lost to Jacksonville last week, but this was a very flawed team that overachieved big time just to make the play-offs. What this team, and especially coach Sean McDermott, has accomplished is not just slay the longest playoff drought in all of North American professional sports, but it has restored hope to the Bills fan base- a first taste of postseason football for those too young to remember the Bills Super Bowl era, and for those of my generation, finally an end to the tortured existence of the past two decades. Bills fans can finally look forward to the future, with some major reworking of the roster by GM Brandon Beane, and continued culture-building by McDermott, that this long woebegone franchise may return once again to perennial championship contenders.
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