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Team History: Bills’ past includes both success and heartbreak

Team History: Bills’ past includes both success and heartbreak


With Super Bowl LIII completed, it is time for the long offseason. In order to fill the gap before the NFL starts playing again, here is the first in a look at each franchise’s history. Over the next 32 weeks, there will be two stories: one will be an overview of how each team came into existence and their growth through 2018, and the second will be an attempt to pick an all-time roster for each franchise. Leading off will be the AFC East and the Buffalo Bills.

The Buffalo Bills have passionate fans which have not been rewarded with a championship in the Super Bowl era. The team has become known for two unfortunate terms: “wide right” and “Music City Miracle,” but those are only a small part of the franchise’s history.

The Bills are not the only team to call Buffalo home. Professional football in the city can be traced back to 1915, and the Buffalo All-Americans were one of the original teams in the American Professional Football Association in 1920 (which was renamed the National Football League two years later). The franchise had a second-place finish in its second season, but a steady decline in play caused the renamed Bisons to fold in 1929.

Professional returned to Buffalo when the All-American Football Conference began to play in 1946. After one season as the Bisons, the team has renamed the Bills as a tribute to both the Wild West showman (and, ironically, bison hunter) “Buffalo Bill” Cody and a famous barbershop quartet in the city. The AAFC merged with the NFL in 1950, with the Bills getting absorbed into the Cleveland Browns, one of three teams (along with the Colts and 49ers) who joined the NFL.

The modern Bills came into existence as part of the American Football League (AFL), which began play in 1960. The main catalyst for the franchise was Ralph C. Wilson, Jr., an insurance business owner, who also holds a minority share in the Detroit Lions.

The team floundered for its first three seasons before making its first playoff appearance. Coach Lou Saban, a four-time AAFC champion as a player with the Browns, led the Bills to AFL championships in 1964 and ’65, beating the San Diego Chargers both times.

Stars like cornerbacks Booker Edgerson and George (Butch) Beard, safety George Saimes, linebacker Mike Stratton and defensive tackle Tom Sestak helped Buffalo lead the AFL in defense both seasons. The offense had its share of stars, including running backs Carlton (Cookie) Gilchrist and Wray Carlton, wide receiver Elbert Dubenion, future Hall of Fame guard Billy Shaw and quarterback Jack Kemp, who later became a New York State Representative and the running mate for Republican Presidential nominee Bob Dole in 1996.

Saban left in 1966, and the Bills fell to the bottom of the standings once again, only rising after Saban returned in 1971. Buffalo’s roster in the early ’70s featured one of the most dynamic playmakers in the league in future Hall of Fame running back O. J. Simpson. Under Saban’s tutelage, Simpson ran for 2,003 yards in just 14 games in 1973, a league record at the time. Despite the success of Simpson and future Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure, the Bills made the playoffs only once in the decade.

Buffalo returned to the playoffs in 1980 and ’81, led by head coach Chuck Knox, who came to the Bills after winning five straight division titles with the Los Angeles Rams. However, stellar play from quarterback Joe Ferguson and running back Joe Cribbs was not enough to keep the team from losing in the division round both seasons.

Six non-playoff seasons followed, but soon the Bills would enjoy their greatest run of success. Head coach Marv Levy implemented a no-huddle offense which, with the help of a talented offensive line, the trio of quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas and wide receiver Andre Reed utilized to perfection. The defense was loaded with stars as well, the greatest of which was Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith, whose 200 sacks is the most in NFL history.

Buffalo played in four straight Super Bowls (a feat still unequaled, but the Patriots will try to match it in the upcoming season), with the first being Super Bowl XXV against the Giants. The game pitted the Bills’ fast-paced offense against New York’s clock-churning ground attack. Trailing 20-19 in the closing seconds, Buffalo kicker Scott Norwood’s 47-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right.

Norwood redeemed himself the following year, kicking the go-ahead field goal in Buffalo’s 10-7 win over the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game, but the Bills lost again in the Super Bowl, this time by a 37-24 score to the Washington Redskins.

The Bills found themselves in quite a hole in the 1992 Wild Card game. Kelly was injured and the Houston Oilers were ahead 35-3 early in the third quarter. What happened next was the greatest comeback in NFL history. Backup quarterback Frank Reich led Buffalo on five straight touchdown drives to take a 38-35 lead. Houston eventually tied the score, but new kicker Steve Christie won the game with a field goal in overtime.

Buffalo suffocated the Steelers and Dolphins to get back to a third straight Super Bowl, but the game was a blowout in favor of the Dallas Cowboys. The lone bright spot of the 52-17 defeat was wide receiver, Don Beebe, chasing down and knocking the ball out of Leon Lett’s hands before he could score on a fumble return.

The Bills and Cowboys met for the championship again the following year, and Buffalo held a 13-6 halftime lead. However, a Dallas fumble return for a touchdown tied the score and Emmitt Smith scored twice as the Bills lost again 30-13.

Under Levy, and later Wade Phillips, the Bills went to the playoffs four more times over the next six seasons (and 10 of 12 overall), but never made it past the second round. The last of those appearances in 1999 featured the former Oilers franchise getting its revenge.

Now playing in Tennessee, the Titans were trailing 16-15 in the closing seconds after a Christie field goal. The ensuing short kickoff was taken by tight end Frank Wycheck, who threw a cross-field pass to Kevin Dyson (which Bills fans still argue was a forward pass, but officials ruled a lateral). Amidst the chaos, Dyson ended up in the end zone, his 75-yard “Music City Miracle” return leading to a 22-16 win.

The loss sent the Bills into a spiral, as the team endured 17 straight non-playoff seasons, with the likes of Rob Johnson, Alex Van Pelt, Kelly Holcomb, J. P. Losman, Trent Edwards, E. J. Manuel and Kyle Orton under center.

Buffalo finally broke through in 2017. With Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy leading the offense and Micah Hyde and Preston Brown as top defensive stars, the Bills went 9-7 before losing to the Jaguars in a defensive struggle in the Wild Card game.

Despite just three winning seasons since 2000 (all of them with 9-7 records), things are looking promising at New Era Stadium. The Bills have a young, mobile quarterback in Josh Allen, plus McCoy in the backfield and talented receivers Zay Jones and Robert Foster. On defense, Buffalo is solid at linebacker with starters Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, and Lorenzo Alexander, along with Hyde and Jordan Poyer at safety.

Terry and Kim Pegula bought the team after Ralph Wilson died in 2014, and former Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is entering his third season as head coach. Bills fans can only hope that combination will assemble a team capable of ending a 53-year championship drought.

-By: Kevin Rakas

Jerome Jones
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