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From Dynastic to The Dungeon: Life With the Buffalo Bills

About 22 years ago, my Pops, my two older cousins and I kneeled on our basement floor, holding hands.

About 22 years ago, my Pops, my two older cousins and I kneeled on our basement floor, holding hands. It was a frigid evening on the east side of Buffalo, NY and we were waiting for Scott Norwood to kick a field goal. If it were good, I wouldn’t have to go to school the next day, because Mayor Griffin said he’d give the day off if the Buffalo Bills won Supper Bowl XXV. It was obviously bigger than that, though. Buffalo doesn’t win championships. In fact, Buffalo, as a city and an idea, really, wasn’t doing a lot of winning period, at the time. We were a sports obsessed town to begin with, but this win, on the grandest of stages, against the downstate bullies? No words…really.

But, yeah. Wide right.

No tears from me. I was crestfallen, for sure – but no tears. As fanatic and emotionally invested in my Bills as I was, tears were too melodramatic. Yet, looking back, this was probably less the product of some precocious emotional steel and more due to the fact that I knew I was rocking with a juggernaut and my Bills would be back in that Dance. We had just annihilated the Oakland Raiders 51-3 the week before the Super Bowl. The Giants, I thought, were just some big Neanderthals that got a little lucky.

Well, you know how this story goes. For the next three Super Bowls, my Bills repped the AFC and, each time, we headed into the offseason losers just like everyone else. I was definitely a sports romantic back then, but I didn’t delude myself into thinking Super Bowls were a right of passage. We were not the Yankees or Lakers and, if that realization weren’t enough, those last couple of trips to the Bowl were precarious and, in some cases (like The Comeback), miraculous.


But, I’ll be honest: even though, over the course of four seasons, my Bills went from juggernaut to joke, there’s no way you could have told me that the Buffalo Bills would experience an almost decade-plus stretch of inept, pathetic losing.


To remain anywhere from putrid to mediocre, for as long as the Bills have, almost seems like the result of an active pursuit of dookieness. I feel like it’s not even possible to miss the playoffs 13 straight seasons unless you put in the time and effort to be terrible.

Enjoy this Sunday Ravens and 49ers fans. Life down here in the NFL drecks is cold-corny and you never know when or for how long you’ll take up residency. It might be difficult for Ravens fans to conjure prolonged life in the NFL drecks when, in the past 13 seasons, Baltimore has seen nine postseasons with two trips to the Super Bowl and one title. The 49ers have spent most of the 21st century drecking with the Bills, but when you win five Super Bowls in 13 years and spend two decades as NFL aristocrats, this new renaissance – with a hot shot coach, a thugged out and young defense and a shiny, new dynamo QB – can take on a “back to reality” type of air.

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But it can get ugly and stay ugly. Us Bills fans can attest to this.


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Right now would probably be a good time to remind those that forgot just how dope we were.


The early ‘90s Buffalo Bills are the best team to never win a championship. That’s a fact (my opinion). We’re talking Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, James Lofton, and head coach Marv Levy; and should-be/soon-to-be Hall of Famer Andre Reed. Pro Bowlers like Cornelius “Biscuit” Bennett, Darryl Talley, Steve Tasker, Kent Hull, Mark Kelso, Nate Odomes. We made it to the Super Bowl razing competition with a no-huddle offense (back then it was a novel, fast-paced barrage of offense that was the prototype for future high-octane squads like Kurt Warner’s Rams and Brady’s Patriots) and then, later, grinding it out with two tight end sets (remember Pete Metzelaars and Keith McKeller, Bills fans?). We went 13-3, 13-3, 11-5 and then 12-4, with the first, second, third and seventh ranked offense in those respective years. We went to a few Bowls on rolls, others after gritting out tough victories (like the 10-7 win we pulled out over John Elway’s Broncos in 1992).

We were a team built via drafting smart (Bruce at No. 1 in ’85 was a touchdown) and prescient (nabbing Thurman and his shaky knee in the second round of ’88), strategic personnel moves (we got Biscuit from the Colts in the “Eric Dickerson” trade that sent him from L.A. to Indy) and a little serendipity (thank goodness the USFL folded, forcing Kelly, who we drafted in ’83, to come back to Buff). Bill Polian, later the architect of the Manning-era Colts, built the Bills the right way and we won. We even overcame alpha-male squabbling (Thurman and Kelly beefing over who got the most props) and a quarterback controversy after Frank Reich led the Bills to that improbable comeback over the Oilers, but was benched for Kelly for the remainder of the postseason. The Bills were legit.

Check this excerpt from a Sports Illustrated piece from December, 1994:

The calls from various players on other teams started pouring in early last week, each of them bearing a request that stemmed less from self-interest than from a sort of football humanitarianism. 'Yo, man, do me a favor,' a caller would exhort cornerback Ricky Reynolds or running back Leroy Thompson or whichever New England Patriot happened to be on the other end of the line. 'Do us all a favor. Beat the Bills. Knock 'em out. Give the rest of us a chance.' It's a truly exceptional circumstance when NFL players call their counterparts in the name of a common cause, but four straight Super Bowls' worth of shared frustration was at stake in the AFC. Rather than merely concentrating on their own coming of age, the Patriots were being asked to make January safe for America by ending the Buffalo Bills' reign of error once and for all.

We had the AFC on such lock that sucka-emcees from other teams (a lynch mob of haters) were begging our opponents to stop the reign. We were a team of championship construct and fiber…we just never won the big one. Missed field goals. Thurm’ fumbling (and misplacing his helmet). Kelly getting outplayed. Our “bend, but don’t break” defense getting broke like a retired athlete. After that Giants tragedy, we met a Redskins buzzsaw and got pummeled by a Cowboys avalanche twice.



Heading into our third Super Bowl, Levy said, “To me it's a matter of earning respect. That's what I've been stressing to our players. I told them, ‘You're a team that's been a bit of a punching bag in the past. Now you've earned people's respect.’”


We did not, shall we say, earn that respect. After our fourth Super Bowl loss in a row, we were a full-fledged laughingstock. David Letterman – clowning us for going into halftime of Super Bowl XXVIII up 13-6, then giving up 24 unanswered points to the Cowboys – had a Top Ten list of the things Levy said to the Bills at halftime. Among them were, “Now get out there and rest on your laurels” and “OK, boys, get out there and start sucking.”

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Kent Hull, right after that fourth Super Bowl loss, was a rational man and correctly reflected on the Bills run: “In the immediate future we'll be thought of as losers,” he said. "But one day down the road, when I'm no longer playing, they'll say, ‘Wow, they won four straight AFC championships. They must have been good.’”

True dat.

 

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It’s nice to reminisce about how good we once were, especially when confronting the present. I won’t bore you non-Bills fans with how we got here. It’s the same story of poor management and bad drafting, just strung out over year after consistent year. But I can tell you that being a fan of the Buffalo Bills has now become something that toggles between a chore and heartache.

Let me let a few friends tell it (and pay attention Ravens and Niners fans – like I said, this could be you).

From Darryl: It's like your kid's in a wheelchair and he's racing regular kids with two working legs. You're going to cheer like hell for him, but ultimately you know there's no way in hell he's getting to that finish line first. Breaks your heart every time, but what are you gonna tell him? Give up? No, keep on churning, son. But then there’s also the more maddening aspect of the way our organization is run. Football organizations that are successful have at least three of these four main things across the board: 1) an owner who's willing to spend money for top talent; 2) a GM with a clear plan for fielding a talented squad; 3) a head coach that is a "leader of men"; and 4) a quality QB. It’s not rocket science. Think about it… each of the last 10 Super Bowl champs, all of them have at least three of those four things and typically all four. When in the last 20 years have the Bills had those four things at once? Three out of four? Two out of four?…The last time we were good – that's when. We are a house built on weak foundations.

And from Dustin : Dissecting these last 20 years where the Bills have not made the playoffs once this millennium, it’s clear that, like everything in behavioral life, you reap what you have sown. There’s a cause and effect explanation as to why a 21-year-old NFL fan looks at the Bills like the Washington Generals. After GM Bill Polian was fired in 1993, eventually destined to spearhead that Indianapolis resurgence, we found it hard to latch on to an identity as a roster. Other than an unexpected Doug Flutie led playoff berth in 1999, we haven’t had any success to rally around. These last 20 years, the Bills organization didn’t just court disappointment; it had five illegitimate children with her.


After the early-‘90s run, we fielded unremarkable squads that made the playoffs four out of the next six years. The last time we were in the postseason, this happened:


So cherish this Sunday Ravens and Niners fans. Patriots and Steelers fans, take some time to reflect on the past ten years. Colts fans, I envy you. You too, Seahawks fans. I’m envious of all the fans of teams with bright futures and successful presents, because, this time of year, the anticipation for some good football is always muted a little by how far my Bills have fallen and how long it’s taken us to get back up. Dark days, man.

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I did find solace, however, in a Buffalo News column written by Jerry Sullivan (who’s been my favorite columnist back home since I was a kid). He was writing a 20-year retrospect on The Comeback and had this to say:

When it seems the Bills will never be relevant again, it helps to remember that blessed things once occurred inside [Rich Stadium]. I'm not a fan, but I can understand the desperation among Bills lovers for the good times to return. The anniversary of the comeback is a chance to honor the memory, to reconnect with the essential, foolish belief that lies in any true fan's heart. Twenty years ago today, the Bills proved that even when things seem bleakest, you never know what might be coming next. Who can say they won't come back again?”

I hope you’re right, man. Because, I can’t front, I’ve been giving serious consideration to moving to Seattle, getting a process and turning into a Russ/Seahawks devotee. But, nah, not even a decade-plus in the NFL drecks could make me give up on my Bills. Shout out to Preacher Ray, Kaep’ and all…but, GO BILLS!