ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Buffalo Bills fans have waited 25 years for a season like this.
That’s how long it had been since the Bills won the AFC East, before doing so in emphatic fashion this season, going 13-3. That 1995 season was one of the final rides of the franchise’s greatest era, when it went to four straight Super Bowls (1990-93) and last won a playoff game.
As this year’s version prepares to host the Indianapolis Colts in the wild-card round on Saturday (1:05 p.m. ET, CBS), the Bills will write their own chapter in the team’s history book.
“The history of the Buffalo Bills is great, but the team that we have now — we don’t [have] anything to do with what happened [in the past],” cornerback Tre’Davious White said. “Let’s make our destiny — let’s make our own history. Let’s make our own stories. Let’s be the next team to go to four straight Super Bowls — let’s win one.”
Surpassing the peak of the early-’90s Bills would be an impressive feat, considering the talent those teams had on the field, on the sideline and in the front office.
Buffalo featured eight future Pro Football Hall of Famers during coach Marv Levy’s tenure, including Levy himself, quarterback Jim Kelly, wide receivers Andre Reed and James Lofton, running back Thurman Thomas, defensive end Bruce Smith, general manager Bill Polian and owner Ralph Wilson.
Former Bills linebacker Cornelius Bennett (1987-95), a 2021 Hall of Fame semifinalist, said Buffalo fans approached the team’s division title run this season with cautious optimism after such a long drought.
He’s pleased to see the AFC East look like it did during his playing days — with Buffalo on top.
“I feel as though it’s our time,” he said. “Hopefully this time, if we get to the big dance, we’ll pull it off and us old-timers have a chance to really do the hustle or celebrate some type of way — do some kind of old-school dance to celebrate with this new school.”
Similar to the present-day team, Bennett’s Bills were a bottom feeder before new leadership arrived.
Listening to Levy, former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and others describe what winning a division championship means in Western New York offers unique perspective on what coach Sean McDermott and general manager Billy Beane accomplished this season.
‘He treated them like men’
The greatest stretch in Bills history began with a Levy speech in the midst of a losing season — in Ted Cottrell’s mind, at least.
The Bills’ defensive line coach in 1986, Cotrell remembers when Levy took over for Hank Bullough midway through what would be a 4-12 season — which itself came following a pair of 2-14 seasons in 1985 and 1984. In the decade prior to Levy’s arrival, Buffalo had fewer winning seasons (two) than it did seasons with double-digit losses (five).
But Cottrell said something clicked the first time Levy addressed the team.
“His first speech in front of the team — after the speech, they all gave him a big ovation,” Cottrell said. “So from that point, it was like a welcome relief with the air that he brought with him and his personality. It started affecting the team that very first meeting. They were so pleased that they had this guy now standing up there talking to [them] … they became a lot more cohesive.
“I believe that was the start of the movement right then, that very first meeting that 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 players he expected them to be professional and work hard.
His simple message resonated. Buffalo upset Pittsburgh in his first game and went 7-8 in Levy’s first full season in 1987 before winning six division titles over the following eight seasons. It took a co-sign from Polian and some assurance from Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt to convince Wilson to hire Levy in the first place.
Polian knew Levy from their time together with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes and the Chiefs and lobbied Wilson to bring Levy aboard when he became the Bills’ GM after the 1985 season.
“Polian was the one who implored Ralph Wilson to hire me,” Levy said. “Ralph was a little reticent — I’d 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 made his speech to a roster that included Kelly, Reed and linebacker Darryl Talley. It also included the NFL’s future all-time sack leader Smith, who was rounding into one of the league’s best defensive linemen in his second season in 1986.
The year after Levy’s arrival, Polian traded for Bennett and drafted Thomas in 1988. The Bills went to those four straight Super Bowls starting in 1990 before missing the playoffs altogether in 1994, 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 enduring their team’s first losing season of the decade in ’94, Bills fans quickly reminded Cottrell why it was an easy decision to return.
“A lot of cities and teams don’t have what Buffalo and the area has,” he said. “In Buffalo, the people there embrace the team, the city embraces the team, the area embraces the team. … That’s one thing I was longing for. When coach [Levy] hired me back, I jumped at the opportunity.”
Bills fans hadn’t changed since Cottrell left; neither had their expectations.
Four straight AFC championships set a high standard for football in Western New York.
“The fans expected a lot, but I think that helps 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 up to it.”
Phillips’ defense lived up to those expectations, particularly when it came to rushing the passer. Buffalo led the league with 49 sacks in 1995 behind a Herculean effort from Smith, Phil Hansen and NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bryce Paup.
“Phil Hansen had 10 sacks, Bruce had 10.5 and Bryce Paup had 17.5,” said Cottrell, who grew more impressed by the running total as he went along. “You’ve got 38 sacks among three players — how about that? That ’95 team — that’s quite a team there.”
The Bills finished 10-6, winning the division by one game over the Colts and Miami Dolphins, and beating the latter in the wild-card round of the 1995 playoffs.
Phillips remembers that game well, from the 26-degree weather in Buffalo to the feeling as he watched Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino attempt 64 passes in response to the Bills opening up a 27-0 lead.
“If you’re a defensive coach, that’s just crazy,” Phillips said. “Trying to stop him from throwing the ball every down was crazy — people didn’t throw it that much then, for sure, and 64 times in one game was unbelievable.”
The Bills beat Miami 37-22 but lost the following week in Pittsburgh.
They didn’t know at the time, after that loss, it would take a 25-year climb to finish in first place in the AFC East again.
‘It’s tough to be mediocre’
Buffalo went 10-6 again in 1996, finishing second in the division, but dropped to 6-10 in 1997. Kelly had retired in the offseason, as did All-Pro center Kent Hull, and the team was a shell of its former self.
“The team changed dramatically,” said Steve Tasker, a 2021 Hall of Fame semifinalist and special-teams ace throughout the Bills’ four Super Bowl runs. “It was a hard sell to think that the team was going to be good once the Hall of Fame quarterback retired.”
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Tasker said the 1997 season was tough to stomach. Players such as Tasker, Thomas, Reed and Smith were still around, but the magic of the early ’90s had vanished.
“The environment inside the locker room, for the guys who had been a part of the success of that team, the wins in that season never made up for the pain that we felt from the losses,” he said. “That ultimately is what helped me decide to stop playing after the 1997 season, I just could [not] stand the lack of success.
“It was a crusher, emotionally. … I remember sitting in front of my locker just sick, thinking that I wasn’t going to be able to play well enough for us to win.
“It’s tough to be mediocre.”
Levy also retired after the ’97 season. Thomas, Reed and Smith were jettisoned after the 1999 season and the Bills recorded two winning seasons after the turn of the century until hiring Coach McDermott in 2017. Tasker has lived in Buffalo ever since, witnessing all facets of this franchise’s history over the past 35 years.
Even as the on-field product faltered, Tasker said fan support remained strong.
“Fans were always supportive — they love this team and were always hoping for a win,” he said. “At that point, they were starting to learn that they were cheering as much for people as they were for the team … Fans have never wavered — this is their team.”
Some things never change.