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CAN'T BUFFALO THESE BILLS
William Nack
November 28, 1988
In an amazing turnaround, the patsies of the mid-'80s have become this season's heroes, soaring to a grand 11-1 record
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November 28, 1988

Can't Buffalo These Bills

In an amazing turnaround, the patsies of the mid-'80s have become this season's heroes, soaring to a grand 11-1 record

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NEW STACK OF BILLS

Thanks to shrewd moves by Polian (below), more than 70% of the Bills' starters have been acquired since '85.

POSITION

PLAYER

HOW ACQUIRED

WHEN ACQUIRED

OFFENSE

WR

Chris Burkett

2nd Round

'85

LT

Will Wolford

1st Round

'86

LG

Jim Ritcher

1st Round

'80

C

Kent Hull

Free Agent

'86

RG

Tim Vogler

Free Agent

'79

RT

Joe Devlin

2nd Round

'76

TE

Pete Metzelaars

Trade

'85

WR

Andre Reed

4th Round

'85

QB

Jim Kelly

1st Round

'83

RB

Thurman Thomas

2nd Round

'88

Ronnie Harmon

1st Round

'86

Robb Riddick

9th Round

'81

FB

Jamie Mueller

3rd Round

'87

K

Scott Norwood

Free Agent

'85

DEFENSE

LE

Art Still

Trade

'88

NT

Fred Smerlas

2nd Round

'79

RE

Bruce Smith

1st Round

'85

OLB

Cornelius Bennett

Trade

'87

ILB

Shane Conlan

1st Round

'87

ILB

Ray Bentley

Free Agent

'86

Scott Radecic

Waiver

'87

OLB

Darryl Talley

2nd Round

'83

CB

Derrick Burroughs

1st Round

'85

Wayne Davis

Trade

'87

CB

Nate Odomes

2nd Round

'87

FS

Mark Kelso

Free Agent

'86

SS

Leonard Smith

Trade

'88

P

John Kidd

5th Round

'84

Leon Seals, the 6'4", 265-pound defensive end of the Buffalo Bills, came bolting toward the tunnel in the rain, heading for the locker rooms under Rich Stadium. He glanced up and saw the Bills' right outside linebacker, Darryl Talley, standing on a TV-camera platform at the tunnel's mouth. Talley yelled at Seals above the din.

"Come on up!" Talley said. Seals scrambled onto the platform, joining not only Talley but also the two men who are known by some people in Buffalo as The Bruise Brothers—6'4", 285-pound defensive end Bruce Smith and 235-pound outside linebacker Cornelius Bennett.

Just a few minutes earlier, the 78,389 fans who packed the stadium in Orchard Park had experienced the moment they had long awaited. Going into Sunday's game against the New York Jets, Buffalo had a 10-1 record, the best in either conference. A win over New York would give the Bills the AFC East title and enable them to enter their next game, against the Bengals in Cincinnati, with a chance to gain the home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The ending was swift and dramatic.

Tied 6-6 at the end of regulation play—Buffalo's 280-plus-pound nose-tackle, Fred Smerlas, blocked Pat Leahy's 40-yard field goal attempt with 25 seconds left—the game went into overtime. Fullback Roger Vick fumbled on the Jets' first possession, and Bennett recovered on the New York 32-yard line. Five plays later, with the ball on the Jets' 12, Bills placekicker Scott Norwood trotted onto the field. By now, Buffalo fans were out of their seats and in the aisles. The Bills had not won their division since 1980, and in the intervening years they had fielded some of the worst teams in the history of the franchise. Suddenly, they were racing to clinch first place with four games still to play.

Norwood nailed his 30-yarder to win the game 9-6, and thousands of spectators surged onto both ends of the field, sending players scampering for the tunnel. They mobbed the ones who remained on the field and pounded on their helmets. "It was kind of scary out there," said the Bills' 255-pound defensive end, Art Still. "I was getting hit harder coming off the field than I was in the game."

They shinned up the goalposts. They grabbed the net behind the posts near the tunnel and tore it down. And there, helmets off, the four defensive players crowded aboard the TV platform. The NFL had outlawed the sack dance, but the crowds called for one now. "Do the dance!" they hollered over and over.

It was a bizarre and memorable twilight scene played out in the chilling mist and rain. To the beat of Shout, which blared over the stadium's loudspeakers, the four led the thousands in dance and song. The celebration was marred a bit by some of the frantic fans, who pulled at the goalposts, which swayed and then fell.

"It was weird," Seals said of the atmosphere. "It was the first time I ever experienced anything like that. It was the highlight of my life."

Weird may have been an understatement. That such an achievement should come in the 1988 season was almost unimaginable two years ago. At that time the Bills were mired in a string of losing seasons that had begun with the Great Collapse of 1984, when they had a record of 2-14 under coach Kay Stephenson. They went 2-14 again in '85 and seemed, curiously, to mirror the fortunes of Buffalo itself. The city was reeling from the recent closing of two steel plants and struggling to make the transition from a blue-collar, manufacturing economy to one that would be increasingly white-collar and service-oriented. Buffalo's identity was so bound up with the Bills—its most vital, visible tie to big-time sports—that a psychic pall settled over Erie County whenever the team took a beating.

Former county executive Ed Rutkowski, who played for the Bills in the '60s, once said, "A lot of business executives tell me that worker productivity on a Monday is directly related to whether the Bills lost the day before."

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