December 15, 2015

On January 3rd, 1993, the Buffalo Bills trailed the Houston Oilers 28 – 3 at halftime. I was 11 years old, and had gone to the Wild Card playoff game at Rich Stadium outside of Buffalo, NY with my father, uncle and grandfather. They were ready to pack it in and go home, to beat the traffic and avoid the humiliation of watching the end of a blowout defeat. There was no hope, what with franchise quarterback Jim Kelly on the bench with strained knee ligaments while his replacement Frank Reich scuffled. The opposing QB Warren Moon was calmly throwing lasers appropriate for his space age name, with his second TD pass going to one Webster Slaughter, and it certainly was. Better luck next year, we must have told ourselves, when Kelly would be healed and the team that went to back-to-back Super Bowls in ’91 and ’92 returned to full speed (their offense was based around the no-huddle, up-tempo offense). But I wanted to stay to the bitter end. I savored sitting on those aluminum benches, with my Bills Starter Jacket pulled over orange overalls, pinioned in between my beer-bellied family. It was 34 degrees but I was warm, there was still time to cheer and yell and let oneself go.

So we stayed, and a miracle happened. The Oilers went up 35-3 early in the 3rd Quarter, and then the Bills preposterously kept scoring, over and over again, until they pulled off the greatest comeback in NFL history, winning 41-38. It was a dream but I was there in my seat, it was impossible but there it was, right in front of me. The Bills would lose the ensuing championship, of course, as they would the following year as well, an unprecedented four-year feat of Super Bowl failure.These years are captured in all their depressing grandeur in the latest documentary in ESPN’s 30 For 30 series, Four Falls of Buffalo. 

The story of the Bills is a story of loss, and it could not be told without the cooperation of Scott Norwood, the most infamous loser in NFL history. He was the kicker who missed a 47-yard field goal wide right as time was winding down in Super Bowl XXV against the New York Giants. Many players made mistakes that game, as Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith notes, including the coaching staff for failing to adapt to defensive coordinator Bill Belichick’s defensive scheme (two down lineman and a slew of coverage LBs and DBs), but it was Norwood who had the bad fortune of making his mistake at the end. Despite having a productive follow-up season, Norwood could never live down that miss, and was caricatured in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective as a lunatic and in Buffalo ’66 as a decadent perv. He is the heart of Four Falls of Buffalo, a calm, sensitive, deeply sympathetic figure who tears well up at that long-ago defeat, wishing he could have done more for the fans of Buffalo. After the Super Bowl XXV loss, the team gathered in Niagara Square to a crowd of more than 30,000. Norwood did not intend to speak, but the crowd started chanting “We Want Scott!” as a kind of group catharsis, so he took the podium and said, “I’ve never felt more loved than right now.”

The team was adored in Buffalo, and despised everywhere else. A narrative emerged that the Bills were ruining the Super Bowl by continuing to appear in it, and proto hot take artists like Mike Lupica took constant shots at the team. There were jokes on Beverly Hills 90210 and The X-Files, and even a self-lacerating commercial for Snickers. The real reason media types were disappointed at the Bills’ success was that they were a small market, and wouldn’t deliver the same ratings as any other franchise. But the media and the Bills were stuck together for four years, and the animosity between the team and the press is captured in gruesomely uncomfortable press conferences in which the players’ faces ash and crumble.

The most beloved figure in Buffalo was and remains Jim Kelly, a living totem to perseverance. He was a cocky QB in the vaunted draft class of 1983 (along with John Elway and Dan Marino), who had no intention of playing for small town Buffalo, not after enjoying the sunny climes of the University of Miami. So he skipped out on the NFL and suited up for the upstart USFL’s Houston Gamblers until that league folded two seasons later. It was only then that Kelly agreed to play for Buffalo, since they retained his rights and were the only league in town. It turned out Kelly’s go-go-go demeanor was ideal for the developing no huddle offense, later dubbed the “K-Gun”, that would drive the team’s success. Much of that story is detailed in the 30 for 30 doc Elway to Marino, directed by Ken Rodgers of NFL Films. It was during that production that Kelly suggested to Rodgers that he make a film about the Bills. Despite his original rebuke of the city, Kelly has now become one of its biggest proselytizers, and has lived in the area since the end of his playing days. The city has supported Kelly through a brutal series of tragedies, from the death of his son Hunter from Krabbe’s disease, to the cancer that spread through his jaw. Interviewed atop Niagara Falls, now cancer free, Kelly embodies the town’s battered, indomitable spirit.

My favorite player on those teams though, was probably Bruce Smith, one of the greatest sack artists of all time. He was a soft spoken type who had a gift for hoodwinking offensive lineman, slipping past with astonishing quickness. Director Ken Rodgers had Smith and Hall-of-Fame running back Thurman Thomas (who also still lives in Buffalo) sit on a comfy leather couch and watch all four Super Bowl games, and record their increasingly queasy reactions. Thurman Thomas famously lost his helmet on the bench during Super Bowl XXVI against Washington, forcing him to miss a critical series. It is revealed that a member of Harry Connick Jr’s band, who were performing at halftime, moved it while setting up (Connick is now dead to me). Rodgers does a cringe-inducing job of twisting the knife by showing a gaping hole that Thomas could have run through for a touchdown if only that fugitive helmet could have been found.

The Bills’ four-year run of Super Bowl futility generates endless what-if scenarios, but the reality we are left with is one of defeat. It is brutally sad, and remains so this many years later. The perennially insecure city could have used just one of those wins. Sometimes I wonder how a Super Bowl victory would have affected my personality – maybe I would be a swaggering hedge fund manager instead of a DVD producer and film blogger if Scott Norwood could have pushed that kick a few inches to the left. But he couldn’t, and I’m not. The city no longer seems to care about those Super Bowl losses. These teams are ingrained in the town’s psyche. When a Buffalo News article by Tim Graham revealed that Bills LB Darryl Talley was suffering from symptoms related to CTE and was struggling financially, Buffalonians set up a crowdfunding campaign and raised over $150,000 to give to his family.

There is an intimacy for Buffalo’s love of the Bills that runs deep. Mine was cemented in that Wild Card game against the Oilers, when I witnessed a miracle. So I, like so many other displaced Buffalonians, will watch and suffer as the team stumbles towards their sixteenth straight season without making the playoffs, the longest current streak in the NFL. It is a long, painful drought. This is what cheers up a Bills fan: clips of Jim Kelly zipping in a crossing route to Andre Reed,  Thurman Thomas crashing through a hole, or Bruce Smith spinning his way into a sack of Dan Marino (who will scream at his O-line after picking himself off the turf). This was a team of transcendent losers, and I can only hope to fail as beautifully as them.