The Best Teams Never to Win the Super Bowl, Part 3: The 1990 Buffalo Bills

This is the one in a series of posts about the best teams that never won a championship in the NFL.

This entry is on a team that is probably the most balanced and best team on the list so far. The Bills in 1990 were unbelievable. After 12-4 and 9-7 seasons in 1988 and 1989, Ted Marchibroda and Marv Levy came up with the K-Gun: a no-huddle offense perfectly suited to quarterback Jim Kelly and his offensive masterminds.

Jim Kelly 2

Jim Kelly had a great season in 1990, piloting an incredibly complex offense, mastering it and utilizing the numerous Hall of Fame players around him.

A handful of people in Buffalo still hadn’t stopped whining about Kelly turning his back on the Bills in 1983, and his occasionally shaky play only made that whining louder. In 1990, he finally shook off the remaining doubters with a Grade-A season, both passing and managing the offense. Kelly finished the season with 24 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 2,829 yards, a completion rate of 63.3% and a rating of 101.2.

In 1988, the Bills had made Thurman Thomas their number one pick (even though it was in the second round), and it’s hard to conceive that 28 teams passed over him, some even doing it twice.

Thurman Thomas

Thurman Thomas was an elusive, versatile back with great speed and cutback ability. He was always a threat no matter what, and sometimes out-gained Jim Kelly in terms of yardage accounted for.

Thomas was basically Buffalo’s entire rushing attack in 1990, but that’s not an entirely bad thing. Kenneth Davis ran for the second most yards on the team, and barely topped 300. Thomas, meanwhile, piled up 1,297 yards on 271 carries (nearly a 5 yards-per-carry average) for 11 touchdowns, while catching 49 balls out of the backfield for 532 yards (10.9 yards-per-catch!) and 2 touchdowns.

The receiving core was excellent, with receivers such as Andre Reed, the ageless James Lofton, “The White Flash” Don Beebe, tight ends Pete Metzelaars and Keith McKeller, and then Butch Rolle, who caught 3 balls…for 3 touchdowns.

Buffalo Bills' wide receiver Andre Reed (83) tries

Andre Reed might have been the best run-after-catch receiver there was, but he was certainly the best of his era. Reed had good speed, just enough to break away, had great hands, and unbelievable toughness, often getting crushed over the middle on crossing routes.

Reed finished the year with 71 catches for 945 yards (13.3 yards per reception) and 8 touchdowns.

James Lofton

“The Venerable One”, James Lofton, in his 13th season in the league with his third team, had another great year.

Lofton finished 1990 with 35 catches for 712 yards (his 20.3 yards-per-catch average was the best on the team for a player with at least 10 catches, second on the team only to Steve Tasker, who only had 2 catches for 22 yards a pop) and 4 touchdowns.

Don Beebe and the duo of tight ends (Metzelaars and McKeller) were cogs in the machine.

  • Beebe – 11 catches for 221 yards and 1 touchdown
  • Metzelaars – 10 catches for 60 yards and 1 touchdown (three years later, he finished the year as Buffalo’s leading receiver)
  • McKeller – 34 catches for 464 yards and 5 touchdowns.

All of the receiving bliss, combined with the sheer talent of Thurman Thomas and the precision of Kelly served up a 428 point season, leading the NFL.

The defense was a good, tough defense, but not a spectacular one. It was led by All-Pro Bruce Smith, who recorded a career-high 19 sacks on the year.

Bruce Smith

Bruce Smith was an absolute force on the defensive line, and often crippled teams with poor offensive lines, like Indianapolis.

Also on the defense were Darryl Talley, Cornelius Bennet and Shane Conlan, who anchored a rock-solid linebacking corp. The secondary was tough as well, with 5 players recording two or more interceptions.

In all, the defense gave up 263 points (around 16 per game), but it was well enough for the high-scoring Bills, who operated at a blistering pace and took no prisoners.

They finished with an AFC best 13-3 record, and received a bye for the opening round of the playoffs. Once there, they played division rival Miami, whom they took down in an epic shootout in snowy Buffalo, 44-34, and advanced to the AFC Championship game to face the Los Angeles Raiders.

What followed was the biggest rout in AFC Championship game history.

1990 afc championship

The Bills racked up over 500 yards, got every bounce of the ball, scored 7 touchdowns, and beat the Raiders 51-3, slapping L.A. with the second worst defeat in their history.

On January 27th, 1991, the two most evenly matched teams in NFL history met in Tampa, Florida to play in Super Bowl XXV. The New York Giants were 13-3, and relied on a mistake-free, low risk offense and a brutal, smothering defense. The Bills recorded two touchdowns and a safety, but it was not enough to overcome Bill Parcells’ masterfully crafted gameplan to keep Kelly and the offense off the field. To “slow the game”, he said.

With the Giants holding a 20-19 lead with 2:16 remaining, and Buffalo with the ball at their own 10-yard line. The Bills quickly drove down, and with 0:08 to play, Kelly spiked the ball at the 30 yard line of the Giants.

In my opinion, it was a chowderhead decision.

You’re telling me that Jim Kelly can’t run another quick sideline out and stop the clock, then kick a shorter field goal?

They did a poor job on the drive, but anyways…

Reliable kicker Scott Norwood lined up to kick a 47 yard field goal, and then came the most back-breaking play in Buffalo sports history.

Scott Norwood

Wide right.

The kick missed wide to the right, and New York was handed the Lombardi trophy, leaving everyone to wonder what could have been.

The Aftermath

Wide Right changed the course of football in so many ways.

Firstly, Scott Norwood was never the same kicker. In 1991, Norwood’s final year, he went 18 for 29 on field goal attempts, and was released, making way for the Canadian, Steve Christie.

Consolation for Scott though; if he doesn’t miss the field goal, Bill Parcells isn’t in the Hall of Fame, and we have no idea whether or not Buffalo would make it to four straight Super Bowls, meaning that the miss triggered the run of greatness. Maybe the Oilers would still be in Houston, but that’s a story for another time.

Personally, I believe the Bills finally reached their climax in 1991, and they were a better team than the 1990 squad.

In 1990, the Bills weren’t as fast-paced, they didn’t have that *feel* of such a dominant team, and at times looked rusty. They would roar to big leads and then coast, and played a lot of close games. They didn’t start fully using the no-huddle offense until over halfway through the season, either.

In 1991, the Bills scored more points, but also gave up a lot more. The players had big, gaudy numbers, and they blew out people with their lethal K-Gun offense. In the first two games, they racked up over 1,100 yards of offense. They again finished 13-3, and cruised through the AFC playoffs, but faced the historically well-balanced 1991 Washington Redskins, who happened to be 14-2. The Bills had tons of opportunities to win that game, but they fell 37-24.

The 1992 and 1993 teams went to the Super Bowl, but they really lost the luster that was there in ’90 and ’91. They didn’t look or feel like a Super Bowl team, and it really showed in the playoffs. The Bills had to overcome a 35-3 deficit to Houston in 1992 before getting blown out by the Cowboys in the Super Bowl 52-17, and then had to come back from a 17-6 hole in 1993 against Los Angeles before again getting pasted by Dallas 30-13.

In 1994, the run finally ended, with the Bills falling to a mediocre 7-9.


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