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1988-1993 Buffalo Bills: The Forgotten Dynasty


When speaking of Dynasty’s it’s often held for teams that won multiple championships but now and then a team that has nothing to show for their reign sneaks in and gets the “oh yeah I remember them” response. For me that team was the Buffalo Bills.

For six years they were the class of the AFC. I know they didn’t win a Super Bowl in that time but if you saw them in their prime the Bills had the players, attitude and chances but it was always an if they would’ve just” stigma attached to their teams. Maybe it was the fast paced spread offense they ran or the smothering defense they played, how can we forget the special teams, one player in specific, Don Beebe? They had it all.

But still…

It began in 1988 when the Bills led by Hall of Famer Jim Kelly took the AFC East title with a 12-4 record combined with an outstanding rushing attack which was also led by a Hall of Famer in Thurman Thomas as the team rushed for 2100+ yards and 15 TDs. Kelly was just getting into a groove with receivers Andre Reed (Hall of Fame) and TE Pete Metzelaars that would show benefits later but the Bills were all about the defense.

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The Defense was led by Hall of Famer Bruce Smith, Darryl Talley and Cornelius Bennett with a few young studs just getting their shot in the league but man were they a great unit. As the playoffs rolled around the Bills were primed for what looked to be a title run as they defeated a high-powered Houston Oilers team led by Warren Moon in the Divisional Round as Kelly threw for 244 yards and Thomas rushed for 75 yards and a TD. Next up, the Cincinnati Bengals led by Boomer Esiason and Ickey Woods. The Bills struggled as Thomas was held to six yards and Kelly managed to throw 3 INTs. The Bills lost 21-10 and went into the offseason with a plan.

In 1989 you began to see what the Bills were building towards as Kelly, Thomas and Reed started to peek. Kelly threw for 3100+ yards and 25 TDs, Thomas rushed for 1200+ yards, 669 receiving yards and 12 total TDs while Reed finished with 88 receptions for 1300+ and 9 TDs. The defense began to show improvements, especially the secondary led by Mark Kelso and Nate Odomes as they combined for 11 INTs but Smith was still the anchor with his 13 sacks.

The Bills finished 9-7, good enough to take the AFC East again but they were bounced from the Divisional Round by Bernie Kosar and the Cleveland Browns as Webster Slaughter slipped past the secondary for 133 yards and 2 TDs. That year the Bills big three managed a better outing in the postseason as Kelly threw for 405 yards and 4 TDs. Not to be outdone, Thomas rushed for 150 yards and 2 TDs while Reed finished with 115 yards and 1 TD. Despite the setback the Bills put the league on notice that they were playmakers, all that was missing was timing. And when they got it, boy did they take advantage of it.

1990 was the beginning of one of the best runs in sports history.

The timing came in ’90 with Kelly and his 2800+ passing yards and 24TDs but he managed to improve his turnovers with only 9 INTs. Thomas, now settled in as one of the best backs in the league continued to build on the prior season with 1200+ yards rushing, 500+ yards receiving and 13 total TDs. Reed didn’t equal ’89 totals, it wasn’t for lack of trying but he now placed himself in the crosshairs of some of the best defenders but Kelly decided to spread the ball around more this season and the production of James Lofton (35-712) and Keith McKeller (34-464) was the result of Reed’s numbers decline.

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As for the defense, they played follow the leader as Smith put up a career-defining season with 19 sacks. He was able to do so as the front-line was able to focus on the QB due to the play of their lockdown secondary. As big as the play of Smith was the Linebacker core of Talley, Bennett and Shane Conlan was just as important as they combined for 300+ tackles, 9 sacks and 3 forced fumbles while all earning Pro Bowl invites. The defense made its mark this year.

The Bills were heading into the playoffs focused and ready to redeem themselves for past failures, next on the menu was a Divisional Round matchup against AFC East rival, Miami Dolphins. The Bills raced out ahead but with Dan Marino under center no lead is ever safe. Marino led a 4th quarter comeback which pulled the Dolphins within three before Kelly, Thomas and Reed decided enough was enough and put the game away. Next week provided a matchup against the Los Angeles Raiders (12-4). This game should’ve been called at halftime as the Bills came out swinging while building a huge 41-3 lead. The Raiders never mounted a comeback as the Bills, even in cruise control were too much for Tim Brown and the Raiders.

” Wide right”

The Bills fought all year for this chance. It was the New York Super Bowl. New York Giants vs Buffalo Bills. Giants tough defense vs the high-powered Bills offense but it was a game of legs as the place-kickers took center stage.

“Wide right”

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Till this day that still lingers in my head. Damn you Scott Norwood. You had the chance to be the hero, the one that could erase the previous heart breaks and put this team into NFL history but…

In 1991 the Bills did a role reversal of sorts. The defense dealing with the injury to Smith was not their dominant self so the offense took over. Kelly had his best statistical year so far as players like Lofton (57-1072), Kenneth Davis (624 rushing yards) and Beebe (32-414) stepped up and offered a hand when it was desperately needed. The Bills won the AFC East again but their focus was on returning and redeeming themselves from last seasons Super Bowl defeat.

First up was the Kansas City Chiefs (10-6), another first round blowout as Kelly and the offense racked up 448 total yards while the defense held Barry Word and the Chiefs offense to 213. The Bills moved on to face the John Elway and the Denver Broncos in what could only be described as an epic defensive battle as neither team put up too much of an offensive fight. In the end it was Norwood’s leg that made the difference.

The Bills were in their 2nd straight Super Bowl, this time they were facing history and demons. The Washington Redskins came to play from the beginning jumping out to a 17-0 halftime lead that the Bills were never able to bounce back from. Mark Rypien, Gary Clark and Art Monk were too much for the Bills defense to handle as they easily took what was to be a redemption game from Buffalo.

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In 1992 the Bills hit the chalkboard again with hopes of getting back to the Super Bowl. This time Smith was healthy and the cast of offensive characters were back, locked and loaded. Thomas, Reed, Kelly and Lofton were still putting up numbers but Beebe and Davis roles were increased which made life miserable for any opposing defense. The defense still had a few holes but the additions of Henry Jones to the starting lineup and the emergence of Jeff Wright and Phil Hansen injected new life in a unit that was showing cracks. The Bills finished 11-5 and 2nd in the division breaking their streak of 4 straight titles but it didn’t deter them from their goal of a NFL title.

In the playoffs they were paired against the Houston Oilers led by Warren Moon and the run-n-shoot offense in what many calls the greatest NFL game ever. You know the scenario. Kelly was out, and in was backup Frank Reich, Oilers jumped out to a 28-3 halftime lead and the Bills faithful could feel the sting of another letdown.

But…

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After Houston increased their lead to 35-3 the Bills woke up. Not just one player but the TEAM woke up. The defense began to force turnovers and 3 and outs consistently and Reich and the offense moved the chains and began cutting into that lead. When it was all said and done the Bills fought their way back and won it on a Steve Christie 32-yard field goal in overtime.

The next round put the Bills against the Pittsburgh Steelers and after an emotional win the following week many were expecting a letdown but Reich, Davis and the Bills defensive frontline made sure that Neil O’Donnell and Barry Foster‘s season would end on this day as the Bills advanced with a 24-3 victory.

The Bills traveled to Miami for a AFC title showdown with the Dolphins. The Bills welcomed back Kelly to the starting lineup but this was a game about ground control as the Bills used Thomas and Davis for a combined 29 rushes for 157 yards and 1 TD. The defense did enough to keep Marino and the Dolphins at bay as they were now on their way to their 3rd straight Super Bowl.

Kelly started but did not finish the Super Bowl but fans were more than confident that Reich could lead the way against the Dallas Cowboys. The Bills struck frost when Thomas scored from close but after that is was all Cowboys and Emmitt Smith. The Bills had 9 turnovers in the game that ultimately sealed their fate. Three straight trips and three straight losses.

In 1993 it was more of the same for the Bills. They took the division again with a 12-4 record with great production from Thomas, Bill Brooks, Reed and Metzelaars and while the defense was still giving up points at a high rate Smith was steady leading the way with his 14 sacks. The playoffs bought the same goal– championship or bust.

No one knew this would be their last ride as a strong unit but the last it was. Up first was the Raiders and a familiar face for the Bills–Jeff Hostetler. Hostetler beat them as a starter for the Giants three Super Bowls ago and now the Bills were looking for a little revenge. Another close outcome but the Bills on the strength of their ground game were able to advance to the next round to face the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Chiefs were hoping that the experience of Joe Montana and Marcus Allen would help lead the charge and finally knock the Bills out of another Super Bowl but Thomas decided to put his best foot forward with 33 rushes for 186 yards and 3 TDs and lead the Bills to a 4th straight Super Bowl appearance where they would get a rematch with the same Cowboys team that demolished them the previous season.

Bills looked poised in the first half as they took the lead into the 3rd quarter but Smith took the game over and forced the Bills to head back home with their heads hung low again.

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Just because they didn’t win a ring during this run does not take away from them being a great team, a Dynasty at that. Throughout their historic run they face different teams almost every year in the playoffs and still managed to escape to the Super Bowl. With each new season came new challenges/challengers. They went against future Hall of Famers, All Pros, injuries, weather and a few bad breaks, plus some luck but in the end they still achieved levels of success that modern teams might not ever duplicate.

Instead of degrading what they weren’t able to achieve let’s take a moment to remember what they were able to do. This was a great team.

Hats off to the Buffalo Bills. Gone but not forgotten.


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Robert D. Cobb
Founder, Publisher and CEO of INSCMagazine. Works have appeared and featured in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post, ESPN and NBC Sports to name a few. Follow me on Twitter at @RobCobb_INSC, email me at [email protected]