SUPER BOWL XXVI RUNNER UP 1991 BUFFALO BILLS

Man was I nervous going into Super Bowl XXVI…I remembered the last game of 1990 (the year before) when Buffalo rested many starters yet were manhandled on the line of scrimmage in a loss to the Redskins 29-14 in old RFK Stadium. It was surrrreal with the Super Bowl in freezing Minneapolis the following season.

 

xxviThe Buffalo Bills were the scourge of the AFC, with NFL MVP and Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas. 1991 was an excercise in getting back to the SuperBowl.  Fellow Hall of Famer Jim Kelly and the “K-Gun” was operating at full speed with Hall of Famer James Lofton, and soon to be H.O.F. Andre Reed this was the “Greatest Show on Turf” before the “Greatest Show on Turf”.  Kelly threw for nearly 4,000 yds and 33 TDs, while Thomas led the NFL with 1407 yds rushing and led the NFL with total yards from scrimmage on his way to leading in that category 4 yrs in a row to break Jim Brown’s record of 3 straight.  Add to that 2 different 1,000 yd receivers and this team was scoring like Madden football on rookie.

super-bowl-logo-1991The Bills were second to only Washington in scoring which was perfect since Bruce Smith was injured most of the year with a bad knee (missing 11 games). Without the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year the defense dropped to no. 19 in total defense yet still posted a  13-3 record.  Cornelius Bennett and Darryl Talley picked up much of the slack with each having All Pro seasons. The 1991 season saw the AFC take steps to catch the fast paced Bills but couldnt’ do it as the Chiefs and Broncos fell during the playoffs.  The Bills lost SS Leonard Smith with a knee injury before SuperBowl XXVI just as Bruce Smith was returning from his.

Alas the defense couldn’t hold up against the Hogs and the Redskins top scoring offense and fell 37-24 in Minneapolis. Coming up short in back to back Super Bowls normally sees a team descend quickly from the elite. Buffalo would be different. This championship ring was the jewel earned for that stellar, almost super season.

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SUPER BOWL XXV RUNNER UP 1990 BUFFALO BILLS

As the 90’s dawned we had a few teams that had been playoff staples during the 80’s and a few new teams coming of age. In the Buffalo Bills you had a team come of age as blue chip talent had been stockpiled in recent years. In the pre-free agent era you had to build a team through the draft. Just like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys of the 1970’s, the Bills sought to construct a champion brick by brick.

sb xxv2Defensive End Bruce Smith and WR Andre Reed came aboard in 1985. Jim Kelly agreed to terms after the USFL dissolved in 1986. Linebackers Shane Conlan and Cornelius Bennett were added along with CB Nate Odomes joined ranks in ’87. Aggressive veteran SS  Leonard Smith came in with 2nd round RB Thurman Thomas in ’88 as the Bills made the playoffs for the 1st time in 7 years.

The ’88 season saw a 12-4 Bills team with the NFL’s #4 defense make it to the AFC Championship Game. Although they lost 21-10 to Cincinnati, they were definitely a team on the rise. Yet injuries and infighting nearly brought the team down in ’89 as they became known as the “Bickering Bills”. They only finished with a 9-7 record and lost 34-30 to Cleveland in an amazing divisional playoff game.

sb25gnts2However a light went on for the ultra conservative Bills offensively. In week 3 they fell behind big in Houston. Kelly brought the Bills back with a 5 TD performance, a 47-41 win. In his USFL days, Kelly ran a Run & Shoot with the Houston Gamblers and looked most comfortable playing this style with a No Huddle offense. They unveiled it late in the season and won the AFC East before falling to Cleveland.

Kelly threw for 405 yards and 4 TDs. Thomas had come of age in the playoff loss with a record 13 receptions for 150 yards and 2 TDs. It capped a breakout year that saw Thomas run for 1,244 yards and 6 TDs. In 1990, several vets were let go and Darryl Talley, Kelly, Smith, Reed, Thomas, Lofton, and Bennett would have to take on leadership roles for the departed DE Art Stills, NT Fred Smerlas, OT Joe Devlin, then RBs Robb Riddick and Larry Kinnebrew. Would their new “No Huddle” K-Gun keep scoring at will?? After a 13-3 record secured home field advantage:

Alas Scott Norwood’s field goal sailed wide right and the best team the AFC had in years fell 20-19. The only team to lose the NFL championship by 1 point. However the Bills were a young team in their prime and they would be back. They would go on to be one of the league’s most galvanized teams. The infighting of ’89 was in the distant past.

Head Coach Marv Levy, GM Bill Polian, QB Jim Kelly, RB Thurman Thomas, WR Andre Reed, WR James Lofton, and DE Bruce Smith all made the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Epilogue: When a long sought after quarterback finally joined the Bills in 1986, starved fans chanted for Jim Kelly to take the lowly Bills to the Super Bowl.

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1990’s Buffalo Bills – The Rasputins of The NFL

When you think back to the Buffalo Bills team that made it to 4 straight Super Bowls, there are two schools of thought. You have one from the ignorant callous fan that says “Well they lost 4 straight Super Bowls.”  Then you have a more respectful set of players and fans that marvel at the feat of making it to four straight.

Andre Reed embracing Jim Kelly after hiss induction speech.

Andre Reed embracing Jim Kelly after his induction speech.

There was a point right before Super Bowl XXVIII when the media started to change their attitude toward the Buffalo Bills. After the win over Joe Montana’s Kansas City Chiefs in the ’93 AFC Championship, the country lamented over the Bills going to a fourth straight Super Bowl. When all of a sudden one of the networks had Stephen Hawking on and asked him a question: With the current landscape of 28 teams how long would it be before we would see another team make it to 4 straight Super Bowls?? Hawking sat quietly for a second and then pronounced “With the current landscape of teams it would take another 46 years.” Or if you’re counting at home it would happen in the year 2039.

The Buffalo Bills clowning around on Super Bowl picture day before XXV.

The Buffalo Bills clowning around on Super Bowl picture day before XXV.

Well the NFL now has 32 so it may not happen again in our lifetimes thanks to new mathematical algorithms. On Saturday WR Andre Reed became the 6th member of the early 90’s Bills to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it’s time to take a look back at one of the unique teams in NFL history and The Chancellor of Football’s favorite football team.

When did the thought of Buffalo making it to the Super Bowl have genesis?? Try week 1 of 1986 when Jim Kelly debuted after coming over from the USFL:

Reed joins fellow WR James Lofton, RB Thurman Thomas, the late Ralph Wilson former owner and founder, Head Coach Marv Levy, and QB Jim Kelly in Canton. It was this team’s closeness that was on full display as Reed was inducted. Kelly, who has been battling cancer, was determined to attend the ceremony and threw Reed one final pass that brought on the loudest cheer of the evening.

Kelly and Reed before taking the field in 1990.

Kelly and Reed before taking the field for the 1990 AFC Championship Game.

The amazing thing is how far this group had grown as men. Most people don’t realize or remember this team was known as the “Bickering Bills” during the 1989 campaign. Infighting almost derailed a season as they went 9-7 after a 12-4 campaign the year before marked them as a team on the rise. They would go on to become the NFL’s most galvanized team as the new decade took shape.

The 1990 Buffalo Bills were the first team to lose the NFL Championship or Super Bowl by a single point…20-19. Talk about being tantalizingly close. Most experts and pundits believed they would be dominant in 1991 as they went 13-3 with homefield advantage again. Thurman Thomas was league MVP and Bruce Smith was coming back from injury as the 1991 playoffs beckoned.

Back to back Super Bowl losses had many fans and pundits writing off the Bills. How would they recover?? Yet all these players were in their prime and led by unsung leaders like LB Darryl Talley, they dusted themselves off and came right back in 1992. During this season they were 4-0 against the NFC west including a 38-35 win in San Francisco vs. the 49ers who went 13-3. Good enough for homefield advantage in the NFC. Going into the final week of the season the Bills were ready to clinch homefield in the AFC when:

Once the most dominant team in the AFC, several teams had caught up to the Bills and the K-Gun offense. The 1993season brought on the first season of free agency as the Bills roster started to be plucked over. Gone were LBs Shane Conlan and Carlton Bailey. LT Will Wolford signed with the Indianpolis Colts. How much longer could they jeep their core players intact??

Other AFC teams bolstered their offensive units as QB Joe Montana and Marcus Allen joined the Kansas City Chiefs. The Dolphins started to acquire talent around Dan Marino as they brought in free agents Keith Byars and Mark Ingram. The Raiders pulled a coup and brought in Jeff Hostetler to quarterback the Raiders back to the playoffs.

The Houston Oilers resurrected Buddy Ryan and his 46 defense to conquer the AFC. They signed LB Wilber Marshall to help fortify an already talented defense. After all it was the defensive collapse in the 41-38 loss to the Bills in the ’92 playoffs that propelled Ryan’s hire in the first place. All of these teams wanted a shot at the aging Bills.

The 1993 team fought it’s way to another 12-4 record although the games were much closer. Was this still the AFC’s best team?? They seemed to be just a step ahead of the competition within the conference instead of leaps and bounds as they had been in 1990 or 1991.

The offense evolved into Kelly engineering more of a controlled passing game as TE Pete Metzellars led the team in receiving. Where in previous years the team really stretched the field with James Lofton and Andre Reed. Lofton retired after ’92 and the Bills brought in possession receiver Bill Brooks. Thurman Thomas was still in his prime but defenses ganged up on the run now that the Bills couldn’t stretch the field. The result?? Thurman did rush for 1,315 yards but a career low 3.7 yard average.

With the wear and tear of 10 additional postseason games over the previous 3 seasons, would they have enough in the tank to make it to that 4th Super Bowl?? That became the prevailing question. After a 29-23 come from behind win against the LA Raiders in sub zero weather in the divisional playoffs, here came Joe Montana, Marcus Allen and the Kansas City Chiefs. The AFC Championship at stake.

As we’re winding down the football life of these Buffalo Bill teams of the early 90’s, we get to really appreciate it several decades later. The outside world caught a glimpse into the closeness of this team. It was on full display as you watched last weeks induction ceremony. It was felt with conviction when Reed declared “The Bills will stay in Buffalo!”

There is nothing like being a Buffalo Bills fan. The excitement leading up to each of those Super Bowls were tempered as you came down after each loss. Then six month later we had to endure the fall of OJ Simpson, the greatest player in the history of the franchise. Bills players and fans had to endure that purgatory together and it could be the genesis of all this closeness. No one else could share in the pure elation after the greatest comeback in NFL history either. That entire January in 1993 was special.

The entire AFC had been caught in a vice as they had to deal with the 1st prolific passing offense to hail from a cold climate. The Bills were undefeated in Rich Stadium in the playoffs until 1996. They were 7-0 during these four years.

We watched as they endured the advent of true free agency and kept on winning. Public scorn or ridicule as the Super Bowl losses began to mount. Teams even tried to resurrect dead legends in Joe Montana, Buddy Ryan, Keith Jackson, and Marcus Allen to knock us off…yet the Bills kept marching.

Bruce Smith, Andre Reed, and Thurman Thomas as they visited Jim Kelly at the start of his battle with cancer.

Bruce Smith, Andre Reed, and Thurman Thomas as they visited Jim Kelly at the start of his battle with cancer.

To be a Bills fan and rally around the exploits of these players was easy. The ability to dust themselves off and march right back to the Super Bowl year after year taught a lesson in perseverance. Twenty five years ago they were known as “The Bickering Bills” and now they have matured into a close group rallying around Jim Kelly with his cancer battle. Its even easier to rally around them as men. Now each have taken their place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame which comes with a big ring.

me-thurman-hof

Met Thurman Thomas at the post enshrinement party for Kevin Greene at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Prayers from The Chancellor of Football are with you Jim Kelly. As a Miami Hurricane and Buffalo Bill fan…big time prayers. Get well!

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chancellor.richstadium

The Chancellor at Rich Stadium for Bills v Cowboys in Sept. 1996.

The Soul Of the Game: Leonard Smith

leonard smithOne of the hardest hitting Buffalo Bills of all time was strong safety Leonard Smith. He was acquired in a trade early in the 1988 season as the missing piece to help a young team learn how to win. It wasn’t that Smith was from a winning tradition, but he was an old pro that brought an attitude and intimidating style of play.

Upon his arrival in 1988, Bruce Smith was entering his fourth year. Linebackers Shane Conlan, Cornelius Bennett, were entering their second seasons as was Nate Odomes. All four of these players went on to become Pro Bowl and All Pro performers but not until Smith’s work ethic and attitude had rubbed off on the young Bills.

The day that it was announced that Smith had been traded to the Bills, a young Chancellor of Football told his friends at practice that Buffalo will be in the playoffs. You can’t underscore the importance of a grizzled old pro that has been through the wars who still hunger for a championship. The same as it had with Fred “Hacksaw” Reynolds on the 1981 49ers or Charles Haley with the ’92 Dallas Cowboys.

Here was the thought at the time of his time in St. Louis before the move to Buffalo.

If you want to think of who Smith played most like, think of Rodney Harrsion formerly of the Chargers and Patriots. He was a Strong Safety that blitzed and stuffed the run. His strong suit wasn’t covering speedy receivers but he could put the wood to tight ends and running backs. In 1986, even though the great Bears were in their heyday, it was St Louis that led the NFL against the pass and was 4th in 1987 which was Smith’s last full season. In 1988 once he moved to Buffalo, their defense ranked fourth against the pass while the Cardinals slipped to 12th. The Bills started 11-1 and won their division by Thanksgiving which was the earliest in history.

...and he had crazy haircuts.

…and he had crazy haircuts.

Smith played 10 seasons in the NFL with his last being in 1991. A knee injury suffered between the 1991 AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl XXVI abruptly ended his career. Yet the men he influenced went on to play in two more Super Bowls as the team was more offensive minded by then. Everyone forgets that 1988 team was a run oriented with the 4th best defense in football. They didn’t break out into the “K-Gun” until the 1989 NFL playoffs.

“Leonard Smith… was a head hunter” – Former Dallas Cowboy great and Cardinals secondary coach Mel Renfro.

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