ORCHARD PARK, NY – Buffalo Bills fans have waited 25 years for a season like this to happen.
That was how long it had been since the Bills had won the AFC East before they emphatically did so 13-3 this season. That 1995 season was one of the last rides in the franchise’s greatest era, when it went to four Super Bowls (1990-93) and last won a playoff game.
As this year’s version prepares to host the Indianapolis Colts in the wildcard round on Saturday (1:05 p.m. ET, CBS), the Bills will write a separate chapter in the team’s history book.
“The Buffalo Bills story is great, but the team we have now – we don’t [have] everything that has to do with it [in the past]”Said cornerback Tre’Davious White.” Let’s make our fate – let’s make our own story. Let’s make our own stories. Let’s be the next team to go to four Super Bowls in a row – let’s win one. “
Given the talent these teams had on the field, on the sidelines and in the front office, it would be an impressive feat to top the high of the bills of the early 1990s.
Buffalo revealed eight future Pro Football Hall of Famers during the tenure of coach Marv Levy, including Levy himself, quarterback Jim Kelly, wide receivers Andre Reed and James Lofton, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, general manager Bill Polian and owner Ralph Wilson.
Former Bills linebacker Cornelius Bennett (1987-95), a 2021 Hall of Fame semi-finalist, said Buffalo fans approached the team’s title shot this season with cautious optimism after such a long drought.
He’s happy that AFC East looks like it did when he was playing – with Buffalo at the helm.
“I have a feeling it’s our time,” he said. Hopefully we can make it this time we get to the big dance and we old timers have a chance to really get the rush or party in some way – do some kind of old school dance to celebrate this new school. “
Much like today’s team, Bennett’s bills were a bottom feeder before a new lead arrived.
Hearing from Levy, former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and others, describes what it means to win a division championship in West New York, and offers a unique perspective on what coach Sean McDermott and general manager Billy Beane have accomplished this season.
“He treated them like men”
The greatest stretch in Bills history began with a Levy speech in the middle of a lost season – at least in Ted Cottrell’s head.
Cotrell, the Bills’ defensive coach in 1986, recalls Levy taking over for Hank Bullough in the middle of a 4-12 season – which came after two 2-14 seasons in 1985 and 1984. In the decade leading up to Levy’s arrival, Buffalo had fewer winning seasons (two) than double-digit losing seasons (five).
But Cottrell said when Levy first approached the team, something clicked.
“His first speech to the team – after the speech everyone gave him a big ovation,” said Cottrell. “From that point on it was like a welcome relief with the air he was bringing and his personality. It affected the team the first time they met. They were so pleased that this guy was now standing up there talking to him [them] … they became much more cohesive.
“I think that was the beginning of the movement at that point, the very first meeting coach Levy had with the team.”
Cottrell said Levy “treated them like men” and “didn’t have 5,000 rules” when he took over. Instead, he told the players that he expected them to be professional and work hard.
His simple message resonated. Buffalo upset Pittsburgh in his first game, going 7-8 in Levy’s first full season in 1987 before winning six league titles in the following eight seasons. It took a co-sign from Polian and some assurance from Lamar Hunt, the owner of the Kansas City Chief, to convince Wilson to hire Levy in the first place.
Polian knew Levy from her time with the Montreal Alouettes and CFL Chiefs, and worked to get Levy on board when he became GM of the Bills after the 1985 season.
“Polian was the one who begged Ralph Wilson to hire me,” Levy said. “Ralph was a little reluctant – I had been fired by the Kansas City Chiefs. He called Lamar Hunt and Ralph told me this many years later, Lamar told him, ‘I made a big mistake when I fired him.’ “
Levy gave his speech to a squad that included Kelly, Reed and linebacker Darryl Talley. This included future NFL bag handler Smith, who became one of the league’s top defenders in his sophomore season in 1986.
A year after Levy’s arrival, Polian traded for Bennett and designed Thomas in 1988. The Bills went to these four Super Bowls from 1990 before missing the playoffs in 1994 and setting the stage for a bounce-back season in 1995.
“That’s quite a team”
Cottrell was fired after the 1989 season and spent the next five seasons with the Arizona Cardinals before returning to Buffalo in 1995.
Even after their team’s first loss of the season in 1994, Bills fans were quick to remind Cottrell why it was an easy decision to return.
“A lot of cities and teams don’t have what Buffalo and the region have,” he said. “In Buffalo, the people there hug the team, the city hugs the team, the area hugs the team. … It’s one thing I’ve longed for. As a coach [Levy] put me back, I took the opportunity. “
The Bills fans hadn’t changed since Cottrell left; Neither had their expectations.
Four direct AFC championships set a high standard for football in West New York.
“The fans were expecting a lot, but I think it helps the teams,” said Wade Phillips, who was the Bills’ defensive coordinator from 1995 to 1997. “If your fans expect a lot, [the players] try to live it. “
Phillips’ defense lived up to these expectations, especially when it came to rushing the passerby. Buffalo led the league with 49 sacks in 1995 after Smith, Phil Hansen and NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bryce Paup made a Herculean attempt.
“Phil Hansen had 10 sacks, Bruce 10.5 and Bryce Paup 17.5,” said Cottrell, who was more impressed with the running total over time. “You have 38 bags under three players – how about that? The ’95 team – they are quite a team there.”
The Bills ended 10-6, winning the division by a game over the Colts and Miami Dolphins, beating the latter in the wildcard round of the 1995 playoffs.
Phillips remembers that game well, from the 26-degree Buffalo weather to the feeling of watching Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino attempt 64 passes in response to the Bills, which opened a 27-0 lead.
“If you’re a defensive coach it’s just crazy,” said Phillips. “Trying to stop him from throwing the ball down was crazy – people probably didn’t throw it that often back then and 64 times in a game was incredible.”
The Bills defeated Miami 37-22 but lost in Pittsburgh the following week.
Little did they know then that after this defeat it would be 25 years before they would again take first place in the AFC East.
“It’s hard to be mediocre”
Buffalo again took the lead 10-6 in 1996 and finished second in the division, but dropped back to 6-10 in 1997. Kelly had retired during the off-season, as had the Kent Hull all-pro center, and the team was a shell of who he was.
“The team has changed dramatically,” said Steve Tasker, a 2021 Hall of Fame semi-finalist and ace of special teams during the Bills’ four Super Bowl runs. “It was hard to believe that the team would be good when the Hall of Fame quarterback retired.”
Ryan Clark breaks down why he thinks if one team will beat Kansas City it will be Buffalo.
Tasker said the 1997 season was tough to take. Players like Tasker, Thomas, Reed, and Smith were still there, but the magic of the early 90s was gone.
“The environment in the dressing room for the guys who were part of the success of this team, this season’s victories never made up for the pain we felt from the losses,” he said. “That ultimately helped me decide not to play after the 1997 season. I just could.” [not] face the lack of success.
“It was a breaker emotionally. … I remember sitting in front of my locker sick thinking I couldn’t play well enough to win.
“It’s hard to be mediocre.”
Levy also retired after the 1997 season. Thomas, Reed and Smith were dumped after the 1999 season, and the Bills had two successful seasons after the turn of the century until they hired Coach McDermott in 2017. Tasker has lived in Buffalo since then and has seen every facet of this franchise’s history for the past 35 years.
Even when the product stalled in the field, Tasker said fan support remained strong.
“The fans have always supported us – they love this team and always hoped for a win,” he said. “That’s when they started to learn that they cheered people as much as they did the team … The fans never wavered – this is their team.”
Some things never change.