Updated: Sep 18
Never-before-seen football images from the Buffalo Bills glory years
Hope runs high as the Buffalo Bills enter the 2020 season.
After losing a playoff game last January, the team added star wide receiver Stefon Diggs and several draft picks to their talented roster. Pieces appear to be in place: General Manager Brandon Beane has aggressively added quality players; Sean McDermott is a respected coach who has guided the Bills to the postseason two of the past three years; third-year pro Josh Allen is a promising quarterback; the team has a strong defense, featuring stars Tre’Davious White and Tremaine Edmunds; and Devin Singletary and Zack Moss are a pair of young running backs to compliment a deep receiving corps featuring Diggs, John Brown, and Cole Beasley.
It doesn’t hurt that quarterback Tom Brady has left the New England Patriots, recent Super Bowl champs who have been the Bills perennial nemesis for nearly 20 years.
Many believe the AFC East is the Bills division to win. This season could be something special.
On January 4, 2020, the Buffalo Bills lost to the Houston Texans in the AFC Wild Card Game after holding a 16-point lead. Fans lamented how the game turned on just a few plays. What if Duke Williams had hauled in Allen’s end zone pass? What if the referees hadn’t overturned the Bills special teams touchdown that opened the second half? What if Cody Ford hadn’t drawn a questionable penalty for an illegal block in overtime?
While the loss was painful, fans of a certain age likened it to another Buffalo AFC Divisional Playoff game thirty years before, almost to the day. On January 6, 1990, the Bills fell to the Cleveland Browns, 34-30, in a close contest marked by running back Ronnie Harmon’s infamous end zone drop with only seconds remaining in the game. Had he caught it, the Bills would have won.
There are other parallels to the past. While each loss ended a season of hope, both games had a similar feel: a young team on the cusp of breaking through. Better days lay ahead.
After the 1990 loss, the Bills tinkered with their roster, regrouped, and opened the following season with the “No Huddle” offense that became a staple of their identity. With a core group of players, the Bills formed a dominant team that played in four consecutive Super Bowls.
Could a similar ascent happen this year?
From the archives
While excited about the future, we pause this month to look back at photos from the Buffalo Bills glory years. Thirty years ago, two home playoff games set a tone for success. On January 1, 1989, the Bills defeated the Houston Oilers, before losing to the Cincinnati Bengals the following week. Two years later, on January 12, 1991, the Bills defeated the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, which began the march to their first Super Bowl.
Back then, Steve Desmond was a twentysomething photographer who roamed the Rich Stadium sidelines during those playoff games. He captured the images below, which have remained in his archives for three decades.
In the ensuing years, technology has changed the parameters of sports photography. It’s worth noting the differences. Today’s autofocus digital cameras are able to shoot 12 frames per second. Results can be downloaded instantly.
“In those days, we used cameras with film and had manual focus lenses,” Desmond recalled. “Your pictures were either on or off. Timing and focus were important. When I look at these photos, some of them aren’t perfect, but it’s been fun to appreciate their nostalgic value.”
Desmond used a Nikon F3 with a 300mm lens and F-stop of 2.8, to allow for shallow depth of field. (He took out a bank loan to afford the $3500 lens). The fast camera speed, Desmond said, allowed for light-gathering under darker conditions. His cutting edge equipment was able to capture seven frames per second. At each game, he shot seven rolls of film, giving him approximately 250 frames. After an afternoon on the sidelines, he returned to his darkroom, examined the negatives, and culled the best two or three for use.
Most of the photos here are being published for the first time.
Enjoy, and Go Bills!
Houston Oilers at Buffalo Bills
January 1, 1989
It had been exactly 22 years — New Year’s Day, 1967 — since the Bills hosted a home playoff game. On a cool, 28-degree day, a crowd of 79,532 saw the AFC East champs defeat the Houston Oilers, 17-10, for the right to advance to the AFC Championship Game. This was the first post-season game played at Rich Stadium.
Two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Jim Kelly and Warren Moon, battled on the field. Kelly, playing in his first post-season game, set a club playoff record by completing 19 of his 33 passing attempts, accounting for 244 yards through the air. Moon — the first African American quarterback to be inducted into the Hall of Fame — had nearly identical stats, completing 17 of 33 passing attempts for 240 yards. Each threw an interception, and neither passed for a touchdown.
(Note that this print was later signed by Warren Moon)
Rookie running back Thurman Thomas led all rushers, gaining 75 yards on seven carries. His 11-yard touchdown in the third quarter extended the Bills’ lead to 14-3. It was vindication for Thomas, who had been passed over by every other team during the first round of that season’s college draft. Here he eludes a tackle from defensive back Richard Johnson.
Linebacker Daryl Talley tackles running back Alonzo Highsmith. In the background are Bills Art Still (72) and Fred Smerlas. Houston offensive lineman Bruce Matthews (74) is a member of the Hall of Fame.
Wide receiver Steve Tasker had entered the league as a ninth-round draft selection of the Houston Oilers in 1985. They were probably sorry they let him get away (on waivers, no less) as the Pro Bowl special teamer played a key role in this game. Tasker’s forced fumble of Curtis Duncan with 1:45 remaining in the fourth quarter sealed the Bills victory.
Linebackers Cornelius Bennett (55) and Talley (56) scramble for a loose ball. On the ground is Houston receiver Ernest Givins.
Moments later, strong safety Leonard Smith joins the linebackers to celebrate the play. Already, offensive linemen Joe Devlin (70) and Will Wolford (73) have taken the field.
Leonard Smith, a hard-hitting safety, played a key role in the Bills’ win. After being acquired earlier that season via a trade with the Phoenix Cardinals, Smith blocked a Greg Montgomery kick early in the second quarter, which led to the Bills' first touchdown, shown below.
Offensive lineman Jim Ritcher blocks Houston linebacker Robert Lyles, who is wrapping up Buffalo running back Robb Riddick near the goal line.
Riddick, a veteran backup, scored the game’s first touchdown, diving from one yard out to give the Bills a 7-0 lead in the second quarter. It had been a long wait for Riddick, who had not tasted the postseason since being drafted by the Bills in 1981. This marked his last home game, and second last game in the NFL.
Linebacker Cornelius Bennett continued his All-Pro season by blocking a 38-yard field goal attempt by Tony Zendejas with 19 seconds remaining in the second quarter, allowing the Bills to retire to the locker room with a 7-3 halftime lead.
Defensive stars Talley (56), Hall of Famer Bruce Smith (78), and Bennett (55) strike a celebratory pose on the sidelines.
Bennett exits the field through the Rich Stadium tunnel. Completing his first full season with the Bills, Bennett was selected All-Pro by the Associated Press after finishing second on the Bills in both tackles (103) and sacks (9 1/2).
Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills
January 12, 1991
This Divisional Playoff Game lived up to its advance billing. Led by two gun-slinging quarterbacks, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino, the rivals engaged in a shootout that resulted in a 44-34 Bills victory, the highest-scoring non-overtime playoff game in NFL history. With the win, the top-seeded Bills earned the right to host the Los Angeles Raiders the following week for the AFC Championship.
Loyal Bills fans tailgated with a custom-painted car. A hearty crowd of 77,087 turned out on a 31-degree afternoon. As the game progressed, light snow fell, coating the field in a blanket of white. Grounds crews periodically cleared the 10- and 5-yard lines.
By the 1990 season, third-year running back Thurman Thomas had established himself as one of the league’s best players. Here he takes a breather on the sidelines.
Since taking over as head coach midway through the 1986 season, Marv Levy had guided the team from perennial laughing stock to AFC East Division champions, and the top seed in the AFC playoffs. This victory was only the second post-season win in Levy’s ten-year career, but it vaulted the Bills into their first AFC championship game since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.
Quarterback Jim Kelly was a pocket passer, not known as a runner — but in this game he scrambled five times for 37 yards, including a 16 yard run.
Pro-Bowl wide receiver Andre Reed caught only four passes in the game, but he made them count. Those four catches totaled 122 yards (a 30.5-yard average) and two touchdowns.
Buffalo kicker Scott Norwood (11) continued his brilliant season, making all three of his field goal attempts from 24, 22 and 28 yards. He also added five extra points. Backup quarterback Frank Reich (14) served as Norwood’s reliable holder.
During the 1990 season, Thomas led the league in yards from scrimmage with 1,829 — 1,297 rushing and 532 receiving. As playoffs began, he picked up right where he left off. Here he is knocked sideways after a 14-yard run during the game’s first quarter.
Miami quarterback Dan Marino (13) was under constant harassment by Bills defenders, led by Cornelius Bennett (who previously changed his number from 55 to 97). Although Marino only completed 47 percent of his passes (23 of 49), he connected with nine different receivers, accumulating 323 yards and three touchdowns through the air.
Bills special teams blocked a Pete Stoyanovich field goal (note the kicker’s two different colored shoes). Buffalo players Kenneth Davis (23) and Al Edwards (85) pursue the loose ball, while Dolphins linebacker Mike Reichenbach (52) and tight end Ferrell Edmunds (80) are also in the middle of the action.
Despite missing 10 games from injury during 1990, free safety Mark Kelso (38) finished second on the team in interceptions. In this game, he was credited with an interception during the third quarter. Here he tackles running back Sammie Smith (33).
During this incomplete Miami pass, several Bills defensive stars are dialed in to action, including Nate Odomes (37), Leon Seals (96), Kelso (38), Leonard Smith (46), and Bruce Smith (78). Odomes made a big play in the first quarter, intercepting a Marino pass that led to Scott Norwood’s second field goal, which extended the Bills’ lead to 13-3.
Thomas, accepting a handoff from Kelly, ran through the Miami defense 32 times for 117 yards on the ground and caught three passes for another 38 yards. He scored two rushing touchdowns.
Defensive linemen Bruce Smith (78) and Mike Lodish (73) pressure Marino. 1990 was a banner year for Smith, who recorded career highs in sacks (19), tackles (101) and forced fumbles (4) during the regular season. Smith was named the Associated Press’ NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The National Sports Daily selected Smith as its NFL Most valuable Player. Lodish, meanwhile, holds an interesting spot in NFL history: he has appeared in more Super Bowls than anyone except Tom Brady. Lodish played in all four Bills Super Bowls, and two more with the Denver Broncos.
Because of the snowy conditions, officials (and sideline photographers!) struggled to see edge lines and sometimes even what was happening on the field.
Considered by many to be the most underrated performer on the Bills — if not the league — linebacker Darryl Talley (56) proved his value by leading the team with six solo tackles. After winning AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors on December 23, the West Virginia alumnus was credited with tipping the first-quarter Marino pass that was intercepted by Odomes.
Thomas rushes again, this time behind a block from tight end Pete Metzelaars (88). Metzelaars was a key member of the Bills from 1985-94, and spent 16 seasons playing in the NFL.
Bennett (97) and defensive end Leon Seals (96), pressure Marino. Nicknamed “Dr. Sack” for terrorizing opposing quarterbacks at Jackson State University, Seals became a starting defensive end in 1990, finishing third on the team in sacks.
By 1990, in his sixth NFL season, Hall of Fame receiver Reed (83) was already the most prolific pass catcher in Bills history, with 388 regular-season receptions. In this game, Reed also contributed on special teams, ending any hopes of a Miami comeback by recovering an onside kick in the game’s dying moments.
All photos © by Steven D. Desmond
Special thanks to football historian Jeff Miller of Springville, who wrote many of the captions, clarified information, and provided statistics about these two games. Miller, author of five books about football, is chairman of Western New York’s chapter of the Professional Football Researchers Association. He was featured in our April 2019 Buffalo Tales story. Miller can be found on Facebook at the link here.
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