I know what you’re thinking. This is supposed to be a baseball site! Well yes, it is, but for those who don’t know – I am a lifelong fan of the Buffalo Bills.
For those of you who have followed me on Twitter, you may associate me with my obsession for baseball. But I have to tell you, these Buffalo Bills have reawakened my love for football. Long before Twitter, even a few years before the internet itself became a thing, the Bills were a powerhouse of a football team. The late 1980s/early to mid 1990s teams were regulars in the postseason.
Of course, the Bills are widely known for losing four consecutive Super Bowls.
During the Super Bowl years and most of the 1990s, the Bills OWNED Western New York State. Fans wore player jerseys, Zubaz pants, Starter jackets, caps and winter hats. It was an exciting time! Going to Bills games was an all-day event. This was when tailgating really became a big thing for us fans what would eventually become “Bills Mafia”. Many family outings on weekends included Sunday football at different houses to watch the games.
Late in the 90’s, things began to change in terms of team quality. Legendary quarterback Jim Kelly retired after the 1996 season, and young Todd Collins took over as the team’s starting QB. To say things didn’t go well for the 26 year old heir apparent to Jim Kelly would be an understatement. Collins started thirteen games for Buffalo in ’97, the team lost eight of them. Collins was in a no-win situation replacing Kelly and the collective roster was aging at this point. He did eventually carve out a nice career as a backup QB years later in Kansas City, Washington and Chicago.
Realizing Collins wasn’t the answer at QB, then-General Manager John Butler traded for young hotshot quarterback Rob Johnson in exchange for 1st round and 4th round picks in the 1998 NFL Draft. Butler also brought in Doug Flutie. He had been discarded by the NFL because of his small stature (listed at 5’10”, but a couple inches shorter in reality), but thrived in the Canadian Football League) for a number of years.
After Johnson was injured in his very first start with the Bills (injuries were a theme with him in Buffalo), Flutie pretty much took over for most of the ’98 season and was the team’s starter for the first 15 games of 1999. A confident veteran, Flutie’s presence lifted the team and gave opponents fits with his mobility and improvising. He was the polar opposite of Johnson, who was a prototypical pocket QB at 6’4″.
Wade Phillips, who succeeded Marv Levy as head coach after 1997, rested Flutie and a number of other regulars for the season finale. The Bills couldn’t advance in playoff seed, so the team wanted to give the 37 year old QB a breather before the playoffs. Johnson started the final game of the year and went 24-32 for 287 yards, throwing a pair of touchdown passes in 31-6 blowout win vs. young Peyton Manning and the Colts.
At this point, fate intervened. After watching Johnson pick apart the Colts in an all around meaningless game (Indianapolis won the AFC East and had a first round bye), Phillips (in later years, he told NFL Network he was ordered by owner Ralph Wilson) benched Flutie and started Johnson for the Wild Card game against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville. Then the “Music City Miracle” happened.
I still vividly remember the dumbfounded feeling of disbelief more than 20 years later. Nothing was the same after this bitter playoff loss.
The fortune’s of this franchise were flipped upside down roughly a month later on “Black Thursday”. On February 10, 2000, the Bills parted ways with Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Andre Reed. That was one of the darkest days I can recall, including the loss to the Titans just weeks before. These were all fan favorites, and the news didn’t go well with fans. Tim Graham wrote about this day in The Athletic. After these cuts, all that remained of the Super Bowl teams were defensive end Phil Hansen, punter Chris Mohr and kicker Steve Christie.
The year 2000 began the period of time I refer to as “The Abyss”. Wilson fired Phillips after an 8-8 season. Ever frugal, Wilson paraded a cast of characters including Gregg Williams, Mike Mularkey, Dick “7-9” Jauron and Chan Gailey. Naturally, all were unsuccessful. Collectively, the Bills went 82-126 under these coaches. As losses mounted, these were painful times and there wasn’t anything to celebrate. The Bills had gone from a perennial playoff powerhouse to a laughingstock under Ralph Wilson’s ownership. The few proud moments were the three occasions when we beat the Patriots and Tom Brady (yes, I can remember where I was each time).
The franchise fared a little better under Doug Marrone, who wiggled out of his contract when Bills ownership transferred from Wilson’s estate to Terry and Kim Pegula.
The Pegulas brought in Rex Ryan to coach the Bills. The results were less than desired, but the team made it known years of a losing culture are to end. Clearly, things were going to be different. A pair of events in 2017 have reversed Buffalo’s fortunes.
First thing, hiring Sean McDermott as head coach.
Source: Sean McDermott agrees to contract to be head coach of the Bills.— Dan Graziano (@DanGrazianoESPN) January 11, 2017
Secondly, hiring Brandon Beane as the team’s general manager.
Experience. Vision. Leadership.— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) May 9, 2017
Welcome to Buffalo, GM Brandon Beane! pic.twitter.com/16bwfXbAdM
Lastly, in April 2018, the Bills selected Josh Allen in the 1st round of the NFL Draft to as the franchise quarterback.
Over three seasons, Allen’s had some bumps, bruises and growing pains, but his growth is apparent. Allen’s play, McDermott’s coaching and leadership, and Beane putting the team all together has restored the Buffalo Bills back into a powerhouse. The long ago feeling I experienced in the 1990s is back and reinvigorated me. We have a team that can go deep into the playoffs! I watched the last few seconds tick off the clock in Monday night’s win against the Patriots in Foxborough, I noted these feelings and reminded myself – enjoy this.