Most football fans have experienced memorable moments, championships, games, and even bitter losses in the postseason over the last 87 years. But, many people only remember the champion or the runner-up in the last game of the NFL season, the NFL championship or Super Bowl. The December 18, 1932 playoff game featuring the Portsmouth Spartans (now known as the Detroit Lions) and the Chicago Bears was a memorable event as the NFL’s first postseason game with the Bears winning 9-0. In this special 32 part series, I will analyze each NFL team’s best championship season and the one season where they finished just short of claiming the NFL’s ultimate prize. The first team to be analyzed is… the BUFFALO BILLS!
The 1990 Bills: The Birth of the K-Gun Offense
In November 1986, the Buffalo Bills were on their way to a third straight 10+ loss season when they fired head coach Hank Bullough and replaced him with former Chiefs head coach Marv Levy. Despite going 4-12 in 1986, Levy inherited a young, talented team with three future Hall of Famers (QB Jim Kelly, WR Andre Reed, DE Bruce Smith) ready to have breakout seasons. Over the next three years, the Bills acquired several key Pro Bowl players including linebackers Shane Conlan (1st round pick in 1987) and Cornelius Bennett (trade with the Colts in 1987), cornerback Nate Odomes (2nd round pick in 1987), and future Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas (2nd round pick in 1988) as well as future Hall of Fame wide receiver James Lofton (1989 free agent signing).
With these new additions, the Bills quickly became one of the best teams in the AFC with back-to-back division titles in 1988 and 1989, but fell short of a conference title both years. However, as the 1990 season began, head coach Marv Levy and offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda implemented a new offensive scheme, the K-Gun (named after tight end Keith McKeller), to wear down defenses in a no-huddle offense led by quarterback Jim Kelly. While using their new offensive attack, the 1990 Bills had the No.1 offense in the NFL and led the league with 428 points scored with Pro Bowlers Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, and Andre Reed leading the charge.
The 1990 Bills also had the league’s 6th ranked defense led by AP Defensive Player of the Year Bruce Smith as well as a Pro Bowl linebacker group with Cornelius Bennett, Shane Conlan, and Darryl Talley receiving a spot on the AFC roster. But, despite sweeping three of their division rivals (Patriots, Jets, Colts), the Bills and Dolphins remained close in the standings for most of the season before meeting in a crucial Week 16 game after Jim Kelly was injured in Week 15 against the Giants. In this game, backup quarterback Frank Reich led the Bills to a division title with a 24-14 victory and gave Kelly time to recover from his injury by clinching a playoff bye week.
In the playoffs, the Bills ran the K-Gun offense to perfection by scoring 44 points against Miami in the divisional round and 51 points against the Raiders in the conference championship to clinch their first AFC Championship title in franchise history. But, in Super Bowl XXV, the Bills K-Gun offense was disrupted by the defensive schemes of Bill Belichick and the New York Giants offensive attack. Despite leading 12-3 late in the 2nd quarter with a rushing touchdown from running back Don Smith as well as a safety from Bruce Smith, the Giants scored two straight touchdowns while controlling the clock for over 13 minutes to gain a 17-12 lead with 5:31 left in the 3rd quarter. However, at the start of the 4th quarter, the Bills retook the lead with another rushing touchdown from Thurman Thomas to make the score 19-17.
After Matt Bahr gave the Giants the lead back halfway through the 4th, the Bills had one last chance to score with 2:16 remaining and drove down the field with Thurman Thomas along with Jim Kelly to the Giants’ 29 yard line to set up Scott Norwood for a potential game-winning field goal. With his teammates and coaches holding hands on the sideline, Norwood’s 47 yard attempt drifted to the right and the Bills fell just short of claiming their first Super Bowl title by the score of 20-19.
Strengths: Balanced attack and lack of turnovers. The 1990 Bills did not have a 1,000 yard receiver or a 3,500 yard quarterback, but the K-Gun offense provided other advantages for the Bills. By forcing defenses to not make substitutions between plays, the Bills averaged 5.7 yards/play (2nd in the NFL) and scored 28 passing touchdowns (3rd in the NFL) along with 20 rushing touchdowns (2nd in the NFL) during the regular season.
Despite throwing under 3,000 yards, Jim Kelly took advantage of the K-Gun by leading the NFL in completion percentage (63.3 percent) as well as passer rating (101.2) while Thurman Thomas led the league in scrimmage yards (1,829 yards; 1,297 rushing) behind a veteran offensive line led by Pro Bowl left tackle Will Wolford and All-Pro center Kent Hull. The 1990 Bills also used their fast-paced offense to have the 3rd fewest turnovers in the league (21; 10 fumbles, 11 interceptions) and allowed the 6th fewest sacks in the league (27).
Weaknesses: Receiving depth. While the K-Gun offense wore down opposing defenses, the 1990 Bills did not have a great receiving corps. With two Hall of Fame wide receivers on their roster in Andre Reed and James Lofton, Reed was a highlighted Pro Bowl selection with 71 receptions for 945 yards and eight touchdowns, but Lofton was limited to only 35 receptions for 712 yards and four touchdowns. Bills tight end Keith McKeller was another solid role player with 34 receptions and five touchdowns, but offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda did not have a prolific receiving unit, which was a big key in Super Bowl XXV.
In Super Bowl XXV, Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick exposed this weakness by limiting the vision of Jim Kelly. Kelly only completed 9 of his 18 passes to a wide receiver and Andre Reed caught eight of them for 62 yards (Lofton had the other reception for 61 yards while McKeller also had two receptions for 11 yards). If Bill Belichick had not discovered this weakness or if the Bills ran the ball more, the 1990 Bills could have won their first championship since the 1965 AFL Championship Game.
BILLS DEFENSE/SPECIAL TEAMS
Pro Bowl Selections: DE Bruce Smith (All-Pro, AP Defensive Player of the Year), LOLB Cornelius Bennett, LILB Shane Conlan, ROLB Darryl Talley, WR Steve Tasker (special teams)
Strengths: Passing defense and takeaways. After working as a defensive assistant coach under Marv Levy in Kansas City, Bills defensive coordinator Walt Corey had the league’s 7th best pass defense in 1990 and allowed only 17 passing touchdowns during the regular season. Corey’s 3-4 defensive scheme also allowed linebackers Cornelius Bennett, Shane Conlan as well as Darryl Talley to have over 300 combined tackles (including nine sacks) and helped defensive end Bruce Smith to have the best season of his Hall of Fame career with 19 sacks. The 1990 Bills also had the 5th most takeaways in the NFL (35; 18 interceptions, 17 fumble recoveries) and 11 different players on Buffalo’s defense at least had one interception. In their first two games in the playoffs, the Bills added seven more interceptions (including two off of Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino) and five different players on their defense at least had one interception before Jeff Hostetler and the Giants offense committed no turnovers in Super Bowl XXV.
Weaknesses: Rushing defense and overall special teams. Despite having the NFL’s 8th ranked defense in yards allowed, the 1990 Bills had the league’s 15th ranked rushing defense, but only allowed three running backs to rush over 100 yards during the regular season. The Bills defense also allowed an average of 3.7 yards per carry (6th in the NFL), but this weakness was also exposed in Super Bowl XXV as Ottis Anderson and Dave Meggett combined for 30 carries for 150 yards as the Giants controlled the clock for most of the game.
The Bills special teams unit also had a disappointing season, but kicker Scott Norwood was the AFC’s 2nd leading scorer with 110 points despite having a low field goal percentage (69 percent; 20 of 29 field goals) and wide receiver Steve Tasker was a Pro Bowl selection as a gunner on Buffalo’s special teams unit (tackling specialist). However, punter Rick Tuten only had a yards/punt average of 39.8 yards on 53 punts (20th in the league) and the Bills also struggled to find a solid kick/punt returner for most of the season despite running back Don Smith handling most of the kick returns while wide receiver Al Edwards (the Bills 11th round draft pick in 1990) and defensive back Chris Hale split punt return duties.
COMING UP NEXT… THE MIAMI DOLPHINS!