‘Distant Replay’ is a weekly feature I’ll be writing here at ProFootballRosters where we’ll take a trip back in NFL History, diving deep into the historical archives to determine why history played out the way it did. Each week, I’ll dissect a different team and try to make sense of why things played out the way they did for teams, for better or for worse. Whether it’s a team that went first to last, or a team that went worst to first, we’ll take a ton of historical roller coaster rides together in ‘Distant Replay,’ that’s for sure. If you have a particular team that you feel would be great for ‘Distant Replay,’ post it in the comments below and I’ll consider it in the future.
By Bill Shannon
At press time, the Buffalo Bills have the longest current streak without a playoff appearance, at a dozen seasons. But although the team is currently mired in mediocrity, the team had regularly had trouble in the post-merger era. From 1970, the year that the NFL merged with the decade-old American Football League, through 1979, the Bills won 36.1% of their games. Through their first 18 seasons in the NFL, they won 37.9% of their games, with three total playoff appearances (and one Chuck Knox-era win) to show for it.
Out of the NFL’s 32 teams, the Bills have the 10th-worst winning percentage of any franchise since 1960 (0.467 through the 2011 season). The mediocrity of this number is further amplified in that includes the 1990s, the so-called “glory years” of the franchise, in which the Bills won four consecutive AFC Championships (1990-1993), and made the playoffs all but two seasons (1994 & 1997).
And those years were absolutely glorious for Bills fans. Buffalo was the dominant team in the AFC for the better part of the decade. The Super Bowl years contained four Hall of Famers (Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, James Lofton, Bruce Smith) and possibly more on the way. [Full disclosure: I have been a Buffalo Bills fan for approximately a quarter-century; the Bills went to the Super Bowl each year I was in high school. It was, without question, the best time in history to be a sports fan in Western New York.]
But though the 1990s were the halcyon days of Ralph Wilson’s franchise, the foundation for the team’s success carried over from the late 1980s. This fact is made all the more remarkable by the fact that throughout the majority of the ’80s, the Bills were a franchise without direction, and seemingly without hope. That was, until the 1988 season – a year in which the Bills came seemingly out of nowhere, stunning the league, and laying the groundwork for a decade of dominance.
The Bills started the Reagan ’80s with a bang, going to the playoffs in 1980 and ’81, and winning their first-ever NFL playoff game in the latter season. But from 1982 to 1987, the Bills went 27-61, a winning percentage of 30.7%, the third-worst in the league during that span. They had only one non-losing season in that span, in 1983. In 1984 and 1985, the Bills had back-to-back 2-14 debacles. It didn’t appear that the Bills were going to get better anytime soon. Until before the 1986 season.
The United States Football League had folded, and so before the ’86 season, an influx of former USFL players entered the NFL. Quarterback Jim Kelly, who had been drafted by Buffalo in 1983, but chose instead to sign with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers, showed up to Orchard Park, NY, and signed with the team, in what was the richest contract in NFL history at the time. Finally, the team had hope.
Although opening day at Rich Stadium in 1986 was a regional holiday, it would not pay off in a great deal of success. The Bills would end the season 4-12, failing to win consecutive games, and going 1-7 on the road. However, another major move occurred that would prove fortuitous for the moribund franchise. Buffalo’s coach at the start of the 1986 season, the bumbling Hank Bullough, was fired after a Week Nine loss to the lowly Tampa Bay Bucs, with the Bills at 2-7. In an unusual move, owner Ralph Wilson (at the suggestion of then-new general manager Bill Polian) ventured outside the organization for the replacement coach. He hired Marv Levy, late of the Kansas City Chiefs and USFL’s Chicago Blitz, to coach the team the rest of the season. Levy won the first game with his new team, and finished the season at 2-5.
The Bills in 1986 were not devoid of talent: in addition to Kelly, and wide receiver Andre Reed, the ’86 team had defensive end Bruce Smith – the first overall pick of the 1985 Draft – linebacker Darryl Talley, nose tackle Fred Smerlas, and a very solid offensive line, consisting of long-time tackles Ken Jones and Joe Devlin, veteran guard Jim Ritcher, and two talented rookies, center Kent Hull, and guard Will Wolford, both of whom would go to multiple Pro Bowls for the Bills in later years.
What the Bills did not have much of in ’86 was much else in the way of skill-players. Defensive end Sean McNanie and linebacker Eugene Marve were serviceable players, as was long-time Buffalo cornerback Steve Freeman. Their point-differential was negative-61, 23rd in the NFL.
Buffalo’s running game was a true committee, led by Bills veteran running backs Robb Riddick and Greg Bell. (Although Bell had a spectacular rookie season in 1984, he would later be known as being the “other guy” in a blockbuster trade in 1987, more on that later.) The Bills offense wasn’t dreadful, but it wasn’t scary either. Buffalo was 20th (out of 28 teams) in scoring, 15th in passing yards and 21st in rushing yards.
This offense was completely unable to make up for Buffalo’s lack of defense, which allowed 348 points, 20th in the league. The Bills allowed 5,523 total yards (24th) and 3,802 passing yards (second-to-last). Their 1,721 rushing yards allowed was respectable, but not enough to overcome their lack of pass defense. The team had only 10 interceptions (second-last), and 36 sacks (20th) in 1986, more than half of which were attributed to Bruce Smith (15.0) and McNanie (6.5); no other Bills defender had more than three sacks. Buffalo’s giveaway/takeaway ratio was a pathetic negative-21, the worst in football.
The following season appeared that it might hold some promise for the first time in years. The Bills started the season with two close home games: a loss to the Jets and a thrilling last-minute win over the Oilers. But just as momentum appeared to be going Buffalo’s way, the 1987 player’s strike happened, and the Bills went 1-2 in the next three games. 1987 was a season for optimism, as the Bills swept Miami for the first time ever – the first of which was an overtime thriller, the second of which was a 27-0 home blowout – and a home win against defending AFC Champion Denver. Unfortunately for Buffalo, they ran out of steam, losing their last two games of the season and finishing without a winning record for the sixth straight year.
During that 1987 season, the Bills made some major acquisitions. With their first two picks in the 1987 Draft, they selected Penn State linebacker Shane Conlan and Wisconsin defensive back Nate Odomes. Conlan would be the 1987 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and Odomes would go on to be one of the AFC’s best defensive backs over the next half-dozen seasons. The Bills also picked up a major talent in one of the biggest trades in NFL history, a three-team deal that sent Eric Dickerson from Los Angeles to the Colts, sent Greg Bell from the Bills to the Rams, and sent 1987’s second overall pick, Alabama linebacker Cornelius Bennett, from Indianapolis to Buffalo.
Bennett’s presence gave the Bills’ defense instant credibility in 1987, even though he only played in eight games. He sacked John Elway on his very first defensive play, and finished with 8.5 total sacks in only half a season.
By the time 1988 rolled around, there was palpable optimism in Buffalo, although not much was expected of the Bills outside of Western New York. Over the offseason, the Bills drafted three players who would have a great impact on the team: nose tackle Jeff Wright, linebacker Carlton Bailey – the hero of the 1991 AFC Championship game – and running back Thurman Thomas, a Heisman finalist from Oklahoma State who dropped into the second round of the draft due to a knee injury. The Bills also picked up long-time Chiefs defensive lineman Art Still, giving the Bills one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. They also traded for hard-hitting Cardinals safety Leonard Smith, who would be the vocal leader of the defense well into the Super Bowl years. The “Blizzard Defense” was born.
Buffalo’s offense in 1988 was still enigmatic: the passing game, despite the presence of Reed, was inconsistent. The Bills threw for fewer passing yards in 1988 than they did in 1986 (3,182 to 3,363), and their scoring in 1988 was just 14th in the league. But Buffalo benefited by huge improvements in two key areas of the game in the late-’80s: the running game, and defense.
Buffalo’s running game, though not quite elite, was very efficient. Thomas ran for 881 yards, splitting carries with Riddick – a college high-jumper whose 12 touchdowns came mostly from the goal line – fullback Jamie Mueller, and wingback Ronnie Harmon, who was more of a threat as a receiver in the flat than he was carrying from the backfield. The RB-by-committee system was enough for 7th in the NFL in team rushing, and though offensive coordinator Jim Ringo was seen as being too conservative, the team started with an 11-1 record, best in the league through the first three quarters of the season. Part of this was due to Kelly’s three comeback victories and five game-winning drives.
Buffalo’s real strength, however, was their defense, arguably the best in the AFC. Whereas the ’86 version was porous, the ’88 Blizzard Defense was stifling. The Bills allowed the third-fewest points in the NFL, the fourth-fewest total yards, and fourth-fewest passing yards. Their 46 quarterback sacks were tied for 4th in the league, and although they only had 15 interceptions, seven of those were made by safety Mark Kelso.
The Bills clinched their first-ever home playoff game with a 9-6 overtime win against the Jets in Week Twelve. The Bills storybook season would end up crumbling down the stretch. At 11-1, the Bills were in the catbird seat in the AFC, and poised to clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs – a huge advantage, as Buffalo was undefeated at home. But Buffalo would lose three of their final four games – a shellacking at Cincinnati, a crazy 10-5 upset at Tampa, and 17-14 nail-biter in the final game at Indianapolis. The Bills and Bengals both ended the season at 12-4, but Cincinnati held the head-to-head tiebreaker for home field advantage – Cincinnati was also undefeated at home.
Buffalo hung tight in the first playoff game in Rich Stadium history against the Oilers on New Year’s Day 1989, and then had to go to Cincinnati the following week, where they fell in a 21-10 rout to the Bengals.
The Bills were 5th in the league in point differential in 1988, at +92. They sent eight players to the Pro Bowl: Kelly, Reed, Hull, Smerlas, Bruce Smith, Bennett, Conlan and kicker Scott Norwood. Although they would limp into the playoffs with a 9-7 record in 1989, the 1988 season proved to be merely the opening salvo in what would be a decade of excellence in the AFC. Although the teams of the 1990s are more heralded due to their Super Bowl appearances, the 1988 Bills were a surprise team, made even more surprising by their longevity, perseverance and dominance.