HEY, BARTENDER, GENESEES and Buffalo wings all around. Tonight we
toast comebacks. Nah, not the St. Reich's Day Miracle kind of
comeback. No, the Advil comebacks. The heart and gut and
last-roll-of-athlet ic-tape comebacks.
Comebacks like the one by Buffalo's un-Bill-ievable defensive end
Bruce Smith, who lined up with a set of bruised, braised and
barbecued ribs and still spent more time in Miami Dolphin quarterback
Dan Marino's face than Marino's dentist.
Comebacks like the one by Buffalo running back Thurmanator Thomas,
a Nursing Today centerfold who played with throbbing hip pointers, a
pulled groin and a hairless head and still made Dolphin defenders
look like leftover sushi.
Comebacks like the one by Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly, who was
returning from an aching knee, a stomped-flat ego and one of the
worst weeks, emotionally, of his life. Going into Sunday's AFC
Championship Game in Miami, Kelly had watched upstate New York turn
into one giant I LIKE REICH button. He'd read the survey in two
Rochester newspapers that had polled Bill fans and found them
favoring backup quarterback Frank Reich as the starter by more than
five to one. It's hard enough coming back from a strained ligament.
Try it while your own fans wish you were standing on the sideline in
a nice Versace suit.
Kelly had heard the nasty speculation that he was worried about
blowing a reported $200,000 bonus he would receive if he
quarterbacked the Bills to the AFC title. He had read the columnists
calling for Reich to start. Made sense, of course. Against the
Houston Oilers in the wild-card round of the playoffs, Reich had
engineered (all together now) the greatest comeback in NFL history.
Then he had led Buffalo to a 24-3 thumping of the Steelers in
Pittsburgh. All Reich had done over that Give Thanks for Frank
fortnight was go 2-0, complete 65% of his passes for six TDs, with
only one interception, and earn himself a quarterback rating of
116.8, which was better than Joe Montana's alltime single-season
record of 112.4. You're going to bench this guy? What do you do
when Lassie saves Timmy's life, take her to the taxidermist?
It got worse. Kelly let NBC color man Bob Trumpy get on his
nerves. ''Jim Kelly will not be 100 percent in that football game,''
said Trumpy earlier in the week in a conference call with reporters.
''He'll try to let the adrenaline, the emotion, the experience take
over and tell him he's 100 percent. . . . He may, in fact, hurt his
team's chance if he's not honest with how well his knee feels.''
Kelly was so burned up that at the Bills' Saturday walk-through at
the Orange Bowl, he greeted Trumpy with a short salutation that
rhymes with yuck phoo.
Buffalo coach Marv Levy wasn't budging. He'd promised Kelly that
he could have the job again when he was healthy. Starters don't lose
their jobs to injuries, and that's that. ''This decision was made
weeks ago,'' said Levy.
When Kelly took the field on Sunday at Joe Robbie Stadium, he
looked nothing like a second-string quarterback. He looked like a
third-string quarterback. He missed receivers badly. Plays looked
ugly. Levy's collar looked itchy. Even when the supernatural wave
that the Bills have been riding crashed on Miami, they didn't take
much advantage of it. To wit:
-- Buffalo cornerback Nate Odomes burgled the Dolphins' Fred Banks
at the Miami 25. But Kelly threw a perfect interception on the next
-- Smith crushed Marino in the backfield, causing the poor man to
spit out the football like a cough drop. But the Bills couldn't get
inside the Miami 10, and they settled for a field goal.
-- Buffalo defensive end Phil Hansen nearly pulled a verterbra out
of place tipping and then catching a Marino pass at the Miami 17. But
the Bills sneezed at it, settling for another field goal.
-- Buffalo special teams kamikaze Steve Tasker flew through the
air to deflect a Reggie Roby punt, which traveled only 20 yards, to
the Miami 40. All the Bills got on the next series was an errant
field goal try.
Buffalo led only 13-3 at the half, and that was thanks to center
Kent Hull's blatant hold of Miami linebacker Bryan Cox, which enabled
Thomas to zip by and score from 17 yards out. ''I did not hold on
that play,'' said Hull. ''I clipped.''
Fortunately for the Bills, the Dolphins spent most of the game
doing their best imitation of a bad restaurant in a hurry to close.
Clang! Mark Clayton dropped a gorgeous touchdown pass from Marino.
Splat! Tony Martin dropped a splendid spiral inside the Buffalo 10.
Ka-doiiinnng! Kick returner Mike ! Williams started things off in the
second half by fumbling away the opening kickoff. Two plays later --
Braaaaaannng! -- defensive end Marco Coleman decided to pick up a
football that was dropped by Thomas and make like Mercury Morris with
it. As Coleman rose, the ball chose not to go with him, and the Bills
fell on it. Instead of Dolphin ball, end of Buffalo drive, it was
merely Bills' ball, first-and-goal at the eight. Shortly, Kenneth
Davis scored from about six feet out, and Buffalo led 20-3.
By then Kelly had settled down in a no-huddle, no-muddle offense.
He began using a run-and-shoot screen pass that the Bills had learned
from the Oilers. He would get the ball to Thomas, who would bust
downfield with it as though he were being chased by hired killers.
''They hurt us a lot with that screen,'' said Dolphin coach Don
No dummies, the Bills used the screen the rest of the day. By
garbage time, Buffalo led 26-3. Once again the Buffalo Bills would
just like to say those three little words: Thank you, Houston.
And there it was. The Bills had themselves a 29-10 Fish fry and
their third consecutive AFC crown. ''I can't think of a quarterback
who entered a game under more pressure,'' said Levy. ''Hemingway once
defined character as 'grace under pressure.' That was Jim Kelly
today. I'm just so proud of him. He was unfairly criticized. . . .
Here's a guy who's now taken this team to three Super Bowls. That
revolted me. It revolted me.''
Said Kelly, ''Everybody kept telling me not to worry about it, but
it was strange. I felt like I had to apologize for feeling good.
Without a doubt this is the sweetest victory I've ever been a part
Inside the Bills' locker room a very strange falsetto voice kept
screaming the same word: ''Awe-some! Aw-aw-aw-some!'' The voice
belonged to the unkillable, 273-pound Smith, who said his poor ribs
no longer hurt when he breathed, only when he laughed. If so, his
ribs were going to be hurting him the whole plane ride home. ''Bruce
Smith has been playing in pain for three, four, five weeks now,''
said Hansen. ''He knows how much we need him.''
Not only did Smith sack Marino 112 times, but he also was close
enough to read the washing instructions on Marino's jersey on a half
dozen other plays. Smith was so menacing that the Dolphins had to
double-team him with their center, Jeff Uhlenhake, which made it the
easier for other Buffalo bruisers like Hansen to turn Sunday into
just one more miserable day for a Miami-area Italian-American
quarterback. At one time Marino lay on the ground, cursed as he
pounded the grass and said, ''My receivers just don't want to get
But Thomas was open -- all day. When he wasn't open, he would get
to where he had elbow room. ''I know Thurman was playing in a lot of
pain,'' said Bill offensive coordinator Tom Bresnahan. ''That's why
Kenneth Davis became unbelievably valuable.''
Said Thomas, graciously, ''I want to thank Kenny. Without him, I
couldn't have played ((as much as I did)).'' Between the two of them,
one way or another, they ate up 279 monster yards.
Maybe that's it: One way or another, since New Year's, the Bills
have arrived alive. Pretty, ugly, scary, gritty. Doesn't matter. When
you think about it, perhaps the best comeback of all has been by the
team itself. For the first time in the 1990s, the Bills had to do it
the hard way. Levy kept reminding them. He held up a Buffalo News
headline that ran before the remarkable victory over Houston. It
read, BILLS BEGIN LONGEST ROAD TODAY. Have your worst season in five
years? Get behind the Oilers 35-3 and still win? Go to Pittsburgh and
beat a team coming off a week off? Go to Florida, land of the Legend,
and spoil Shula's dream to become the only man to coach in a Super
Bowl in the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s? No problem.
The Bills made Fin soup of it all: the fans, the plans, the man.
For two weeks they had been carried by their subs -- Reich for Kelly,
Davis for Thomas, squadrons for Smith -- but now their stars were
back. They had earned back their Mercedes keys.
So go ahead. Make all the fun you want. Call the AFC championship
the junior varsity game. Stand there in Dallas and ask who won the
consolation game. The AFC deserves the flak. It has lost eight Super
Bowls in a row. Hell, the Bills deserve it. They've lost the last
two. For some reason, though, this Buffalo team just seems different
from the previous two. It seems to have a sticky kind of resolve, a
discount destiny that just won't let these Bills give in.
Back inside the locker room, one Buffalo player remained -- Hull,
the center -- and he looked as if he'd just crawled out of a
jackknifed semi. He was in his third minute of trying to get his suit
coat on. He'd been playing football since August and had two weeks to
go and was so exhausted that merely getting dressed was a chore.
Still, as the last man in the locker room, he had to endure the last
Hey, Kent, do you guys plan on doing anything differently this
''Yeah,'' said Hull with one final wince. ''Win.''
HEY, BARTENDER, GENESEES and Buffalo wings all around. Tonight we