Forever on The Brink
The Buffalo Bills are a National Football League franchise that is known for producing the best team never to win a Super Bowl.
Through all of the lake-effect chill, tough losses and hopeful wins, the hardy folks of upstate New York have formed a fan base of unmatched loyalty. Even in the bleakest of times, fans have been willing to purchase tickets to Buffalo Bills games.
Based in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls metropolitan area, the Bills were one of the original American Football League teams, and they have carried the American Football Conference flag ever since.
Through 2019, the Bills made 18 postseason appearances, won 11 division titles, four conference titles and two league championships, both before the Super Bowl age.
They have the dubious distinction of being the only team to win four consecutive conference championships and lose four consecutive Super Bowl games.
The Bills got their start with Ralph Wilson, a businessman who already had ownership interests in the Detroit Lions. AFL founder Lamar Hunt gave Wilson a choice of cities for a new franchise. After learning from local people about the past and potential support for pro football in the city, Wilson responded to Hunt with a hearty, "Count me in with Buffalo."
They played their games in Civic Stadium, later known as War Memorial Stadium. It would be their home until 1973, when they moved into Rich Stadium, now called New Era Field.
The team struggled through so-so seasons until after they acquired quarterback Jack Kemp, running back Cookie Gilchrist and some key pass catchers to build an offense.
In 1963 that offense began to show its worth. With rookie Daryle Lamonica and Kemp splitting time at QB, receivers Elbert Dubenion (53 catches for 959 yards) and Bill Miller (69 for 860) profited from a scheme that took them to a 7-6 season.
The next year they led the league in almost every offensive and defensive category on the way to a sterling 12-2 record. Then they went on to crush the San Diego Chargers and win their first AFL Championship.
Having lost Gilchrist to injury, the 1965 Bills were less effective offensively. But a defense featuring safety George Saimes, cornerback Butch Byrd, linebacker Mike Stratton and defensive tackle Tom Sestak ruled the season. The Bills gave up 16.1 points a game, best in league.
The most rewarding defensive performance, however, was when they traveled to San Diego and shut out the Chargers, 23-0, to win their second straight AFL crown.
Lou Saban was Coach of The Year both seasons, but he suddenly left to coach in college in early 1966.
Joe Collier coached the Bills in 1966 and guided them to a 9-4-1 season and a third straight division title. But with a chance to carry the AFL banner into the first AFL-NFL championship game, the Bills fell short, 31-7, to the Kansas City Chiefs.
In 1969 the Bills drafted O.J. Simpson from Southern Cal, and the explosive runner would become one of the most prolific running backs in the history of the game.
But Simpson was about the only punch the team had. Despite his record-breaking performances, the Bills made the postseason just once in his eight seasons with them. That was in 1974 when they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round.
In 1980, three years after Simpson left, the Bills made the playoffs again, this time under Coach Chuck Knox. With a strong defense led by linebacker Jim Haslett and nose tackle Fred Smerlas, the Bills only allowed 260 points on the way to an 11-5 record and the AFC East title. But they lost in the first playoff game in San Diego.
Knox and company returned to postseason the next year on a 10-6 record, but fell to Cincinnati in the second round.
Levy and Kelly
It wasn't until later in the decade, when key personnel were added, that the Bills were able to make a bigger dent in postseason.
In mid-1986 Marv Levy took over as head coach, and he and the front office began piecing together the makings of a powerhouse.
They already had Andre Reed, a steady wide receiver on offense, and fearsome defensive end Bruce Smith on the other side of the ball. Steve Tasker would join Reed as a wideout, and the Bills would finally get the services of quarterback Jim Kelly, who had been drafted in 1983 but first chose to play in the USFL.
Then in 1988, the Bills used their first-round draft pick on running back Thurman Thomas of Oklahoma State. Thomas would become a Hall of Fame runner who would break O.J. Simpson's records during a decade of winning.
Super Bowl Teams
From 1988 through 1995, the Bills won six division titles and four AFC Crowns. But they would be frustrated in the Super Bowl for four straight seasons.
The first Super Bowl team, after the 1990 season, offered possibly their best chance at the championship. They came in to the game off of a 51-3 trouncing of the Oakland Raiders in the AFC title game and were heavy favorites to beat a New York Giants team that was missing their star QB, Phil Simms.
But Scott Norwood's 47-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right in the final seconds of a 20-19 upset.
Buffalo didn't even win the AFC East in 1992, but they went 11-5 and had to make the Super Bowl with playoff wins over the Houston Oilers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins. That long road may have contributed to nine Bills turnovers in the big game. The Dallas Cowboys rolled, 52-17.
The Bills got a shot at a rematch the following year as they conquered the AFC East with a 12-4 record and whipped the Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs on the way to the Super Bowl. But after having a halftime lead, the Bills were dominated in the second half. Dallas 30, Buffalo 13.
The winters were a little more cold in Buffalo after those years. The Bills were competitive, alright. They won the AFC East in 1995 before they got stopped by the Steelers in the second round of the playoffs.
And they had three more double-digit win seasons, one under Levy before he retired, and two more under Wade Phillips. But the Bills had little to show for it.
Throughout the 2000s, the Bills would have just three winning seasons until 2019. Six head coaches would come and go during that time.
But during all of those chilly, snowy days, people continued to show up and buy tickets to Buffalo Bills games with hopes that one day the Lombardi Trophy would reside in their town.
Location: Orchard Park, NY
The facility was named Ralph Wilson Stadium from 1998 to 2015, until the naming rights agreement was made with the headwear company.
The nickname Bills originated with the All American Football Conference team of the late 1940s. That team drew the name from a barbershop quartet popular at the time.
The Bills drew some support from the influence of the Canadian Football League. In 1961 they played the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats in an August exhibition game. Hamilton won, 38-21.
O.J. Simpson was the NFL's only 2,000-yard rusher before the 16-game season was implemented.
Bills Career Offense Leaders*
Jim Kelly 35,467
Joe Feguson 27,590
Jack Kemp 15,134
Thurman Thomas 11,938
O.J. Simpson 10,183
Fred Jackson 5,646
Andre Reed 13,095
Eric Moulds 9,096
Lee Evans 5,936
Steve Christie 1,011
Rian Lindell 980
Scott Norwood 670