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On this day the Bills' offense was near unstoppable, as the results of 10 of their first 12 possessions attested: touchdown, field goal, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, halftime, interception, field goal, touchdown, touchdown. "The footing was so bad we just couldn't make any plays," said Miami cornerback Tim McKyer. "You can't fault us. I don't think their defense stopped us, either."
That was true, sort of. But at least Buffalo's defense put up a good fight, holding Marino without points on five of 11 possessions. Miami's defense was pathetic, allowing 493 total yards, an alarming 7.5 yards a play. Has Louis Oliver shown up for the game yet, by the way? On the fifth play of the afternoon, Bills wideout Andre Reed ran an intermediate post pattern, with Oliver, a 226-pound free safety, covering and giving him plenty of cushion. Reed caught Kelly's pass and streaked past Oliver for a 40-yard touchdown. Early in the second quarter Oliver struck again; rather, he struck out again. Reed bumped Oliver just past the line of scrimmage at the Miami 48 and got two steps ahead of him, whereupon Kelly hit Reed for a 43-yard gain. Thurman Thomas ran the ball in from the five on the next play to give Buffalo a 20-3 lead. "If we'd played against them on a dry field, with the cushion they gave me today," Reed said, "I'd have had a 300-yard receiving day."
Olivadotti, who elevated the Dolphin defense from 24th in last year's NFL team rankings to seventh this year, decided going into the game to use much more man-to-man pass coverage rather than rely on zone coverage, as Miami had most of the season. The benefit of the man-to-man, Olivadotti thought, would be to free his front seven to blitz more. The result: Kelly and his receivers embarrassed the Dolphin secondary.
"I learned a hell of a lesson today," said a downcast Olivadotti. "We stay with what we did all year, and then, all of a sudden, today we started to try to get to Kelly, and freaking 20 points later...." He paused to compose himself and wipe his eyes. "I learned a hell of a lesson today."
But really, what's a coordinator with a weak pass rush supposed to do against the 1990 Bills offense? A year ago, it was easier to defend against Buffalo. The Bills would start most games with two tight ends and one wideout, Reed, plus Thomas and jumbo Larry Kinnebrew in the backfield. They were a northeastern team that would move the pile, use Reed for long strikes and send Thomas into the flat. But privately—and sometimes publicly—the offense chafed under the conservative plan of offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda.
"I didn't feel we were ready to open things up," Marchibroda says of the Bills' offense in 1989. "I didn't feel we had all the ingredients." But Buffalo picked up former All-Pro wideout James Lofton on waivers during the '89 season, and tight end Keith McKeller continued to develop as a pass catcher. Last season Marchibroda also liked what he saw in hurry-up, no-huddle successes against the Dolphins, Houston Oilers and the L.A. Rams, so he and coach Marv Levy decided in the off-season to open up their attack. Maybe even make it wide open.
Marchibroda experimented with different versions of the wide-open offense during the 1990 season, but he's settled on a winner now. Lofton and Reed, who combined for 11 catches, 271 yards and three touchdowns last Saturday, line up wide left, with McKeller at tight end and rookie Al Edwards wide right.
The X factor is Thomas, football's most versatile back. No offensive player in the game has more rushing-receiving yards over the past two years than Thomas. He touched the ball on the first play of nine of the Bills' 12 drives last Saturday. His average gain: seven yards. "I love this offense," Kelly said after the Bills had won for the 14th time in 17 games this season. "We can do so many things, so many different ways."
So the Dolphins, unless they wanted to play a shaky third cornerback on the Bills' third wideout, had to use Oliver in man-to-man coverage regularly, and he failed. Olivadotti benched Oliver at halftime, but sub Paul Lankford didn't do anything to stop Kelly's heroes, either.
Marino had resuscitated Miami with a brilliant two-yard TD run on a bootleg just before halftime, so the Dolphins trailed by only 27-17 at the half. After the teams exchanged field goals in the third quarter, Marino dumped a two-yard touchdown pass to tackle-eligible Roy Foster on third-and-goal at the start of the fourth quarter to put the game on a tightrope. Buffalo's lead was 30-27, with 13:54 left to play.