Bills - Greatest Comeback
By Vic Carucci
Down by 32 points with 28 minutes remaining in the game, the Buffalo Bills staged the biggest comeback in the history of the NFL. Here is an inside look at the events that transpired on January 3, 1993, a game that will not be forgotten by the Bills or the defeated Oilers.
In the wildest of wild-card games, the Buffalo Bills, their toes hanging over the brink of playoff elimination, came back-and back, and back-to defeat the Houston Oilers 41-38 in overtime. The issue was settled by Steve Christie's 32-yard field goal 3:06 into the extra period, but that kick was among the least notable of the Bills' accomplishments on January 3, 1993. The odds they overcame just to reach that point were so mammoth, so impossible, they boggle the mind.
Consider that, besides falling behind 35-3 early in the third quarter, the Bills were without starting quarterback Jim Kelly and big-play linebacker Cornelius Bennett for the whole game, and without star running back Thurman Thomas for most of the second half. Consider, too, that the Oilers-and especially their quarterback, Warren Moon-had been almost flawless through the first 32 minutes.
"How many people broadcast forever to get a signature game?" asks Todd Christensen, color analyst for NBC, whose coverage wasn't seen in the Buffalo area because the game didn't sell out. "[Play-by-play man] Charlie Jones was saying later that he wished we'd made a defining statement at the end, something like Al Michaels's 'Do you believe in miracles?' But to me, the action said it all."
"Naturally, when you're down by as much as we were, you just hope that you score a couple of times and make it respectable," Bills owner Ralph Wilson says. "You never expect a team to come back like ours did. Anybody who does is dreaming."
This time, the dream came true, thanks to a long list of Buffalo heroes.
Making the first playoff start of his eight-year NFL career, backup quarterback Frank Reich had an incredible game. The same man who had led the University of Maryland to the greatest comeback in NCAA Division I-A history (over the University of Miami in 1984) completed 21 of 34 passes for 289 yards and 4 touchdowns.
After seeing his role diminished through the final 10 games of the regular season, wide receiver Andre Reed came to life with 8 receptions for 136 yards and 3 touchdowns, equaling his regular-season total for scoring catches.
Taking over at running back after Thomas left for the day with a sore hip, Kenneth Davis carried 13 times for 68 yards and a touchdown.
After a half of playing as it if never had seen a football, Buffalo's defense held the Oilers to 3 points through the final 30 minutes. Cornerback Nate Odomes made the defensive play of the day, intercepting Moon in overtime to set up the winning points.
"I just took it one play at a time," says Reich, who got the start after Kelly suffered a knee injury against the Oilers seven days earlier. "When you're down by thirty-two points, you don't really feel a lot of pressure. And as a football player, you gear your mind to not thinking how far you are behind. We're geared to the game not being over until the final whistle blows."
This is another look at a football miracle, through the eyes of those who made it happen.
THE FIRST 32 MINUTES
Picking up where they left off in a 27-3 victory over Buffalo the week before at the Astrodome, the Oilers raced to a 28-3 halftime lead. Moon was phenomenal, completing 19 of his first 22 attempts for 218 yards and 4 touchdowns. He was 6 for 7 on each of the Oilers' first two drives.
"I've never seen us be so effective, so efficient," Houston wide receiver Ernest Givins says.
"Everything Moon threw up was caught," Bills nose tackle Jeff Wright says.
"From the opening kickoff, we were backpedaling the whole time. They were hitting screens on us, they were doing draws on us. They were just moving on us, and there was nothing we could do. You sit there and think to yourself, 'How can we turn this thing around and not be totally embarrassed?'"
"Warren came out throwing darts," Buffalo linebacker Darryl Talley says. "He was a surgeon. He could have been a plastic surgeon that day and given nine million facelifts."
Walt Corey, the Bills' defensive coordinator, did some carving of his own when he addressed the members of his unit during intermission. He made his point in a colorfully phrased, two-minute tirade.
"I was hollering the same things the fans were hollering at me when we left the field," Corey says. "I can't repeat the words, but the more I talked, the louder I got. The thing that bothered me was their approach. To me, they looked timid. They looked like they were going to get in the right spots, but they weren't going to make anything happen afterward. This is an attitude game. Sometimes you start playing and you're afraid to make things happen or afraid to make a mistake."
"With every word that came out of Walt's mouth, he reached a new temperature level, until he finally just exploded," Wright says. "He had every right to say the things that he said. We were embarrassing him, we were embarrassing ourselves, we were embarrassing Buffalo Bills fans."
After Corey spoke, it was head coach Marv Levy's turn.
"I said, 'You've got thirty more minutes. Maybe it's the last thirty minutes of your season. When your season's over you're going to have to live with yourselves and look yourselves in the eyes. You'd damn well better have reason to feel good about yourselves, regardless of how this game turns out.'"
Meanwhile, in the Oilers' dressing room, Moon was stressing caution to his teammates.
"There was definitely an air of confidence in there," Moon says. "I didn't think anyone was getting overconfident, but there were a few guys smiling. Not laughing, but they had a look of comfort on their faces. And that's when I started saying, 'Remember Denver last year [when the Oilers wasted a 21-6 lead on the way to playoff elimination]? We didn't play the full sixty minutes. Don't let it happen again. We can't relax, we can't relax.' It wasn't that I was scared, but I just wasn't totally comfortable that the game was out of reach. I knew the explosiveness of Buffalo, and I knew what happened to us before."
Back in the Bills' dressing room, Reich received an insightful message from Gale Gilbert, the Bills' third-string passer.
"Gale came up to me and told me what I needed to hear," Reich recalls. "He said, 'Hey, you did it in college [guiding the Terrapins from a 31-0 deficit to a 42-40 victory]. There's no reason why you can't do it here."
Five plays into the second half, there suddenly was a good reason why Reich wasn't likely to do it that day. He threw a pass that bounced off the hands of tight end Keith McKeller and into the arms of strong safety Bubba McDowell. Fifty-eight yards later, McDowell was high-stepping into the end zone with the Oilers' fifth touchdown.
Some fans headed for the exits. They were convinced the season was over.
"If I had been a fan, I would have gone home, too," Bills wide receiver Don Beebe says. "Obviously, you're thinking that this just isn't meant to be."
"Did I think we still had a chance?" Levy says. "Well, there was a lot of time left, so there was a glimmer of hope. But it was about the same chance as you have of winning the New York Lottery."
Despite Moon's warning, the Oilers turned their thoughts to the next round of the playoffs.
"I thought Bubba's interception was icing on the cake," cornerback Cris Dishman says. "I knew they would come back on us, but I never thought they'd overcome us."
35, Bills 3.
The Oilers had decided to give up the wind to start the third quarter because they wanted to have it at their backs in the fourth. With gusts at 17 miles per hour, Al Del Greco tried to squib the kickoff down the middle. But the ball hit the leg of Mark Maddox, who was on the front line of the Bills' return team, and the young linebacker recovered at the 50.
Ten plays later, Davis ran 1 yard around left end for a touchdown.
35, Bills 10.
At halftime, Levy had instructed his special-teams coach, Bruce DeHaven, to try an onside kick down the middle of the field the first chance he got. The Bills had practiced the play for the first time just two days before. Christie had been practicing the squib kick by himself for the previous three weeks.
"It's a kick that works when they've only got five guys up front and they're not in an onside return mode yet," DeHaven says.
Just as Christie's bouncing kick reached the Oilers' Rick Graf, Buffalo's Mark Pike crushed him with a tackle. The ball squirted free and Christie recovered-just as the play is designed-at the Buffalo 48.
Four plays later, Reich found Beebe wide open down the left sideline for a 38-yard touchdown pass. Beebe had been pushed toward the sideline by Oilers cornerback Jerry Gray, and both of Beebe's feet had been out of bounds before he came back in play to catch the pass. Expecting deep help from McDowell that never came, as well as an official to negate the play because Beebe had stepped out of bounds, Gray let up. Beebe kept going. No call was made.
"At that point, I said, 'If we score here, we're back in this ball game,'" Buffalo center Kent Hull says. "The crowd really got into it, and momentum shifted our way at that point. You could just feel it. I mean, we felt if we got the ball, we were going to move it. And we did."
35, Bills 17.
With 7:50 remaining in the third quarter, Houston's offense finally got on the field, at its own 31. And it was here that the Bills made their first defensive stand of the day.
At halftime, Corey had decided to scrap the Dime defense that Moon had shredded in the first half, and go with a basic 3-4 alignment the rest of the way. He sat down the two extra defensive backs and replaced them with linebackers Carlton Bailey and Marvcus Patton.
"I figured, if we were going to get beat, we were going to get beat with bigger and stronger people on the field," Corey says.
On first down, Patton nailed Webster Slaughter after a 3-yard catch. Then defensive end Phil Hansen stuffed running back Lorenzo White, followed by free safety Mark Kelso's brilliant play to break up a deep out pass for Curtis Duncan. That set up a punt by Greg Montgomery, which, in the face of a stiff wind, traveled only 25 yards.
The Bills took over at their 41. Five plays later, Reich hit Reed on a 26-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline.
"I noticed before that play that [wide receiver] James [Lofton] had run a post pattern and they jumped on him pretty hard," Reich says. "So I called a play where we put James on a post and Andre on an out-and-up, and sure enough, they jumped on James hard again and Andre was wide open. That's when I thought it was within reach. If the defense kept playing the way it was playing, and we kept executing on offense, there was plenty of time to come back and win this football game."
Now, the crowd was in a frenzy-that is, the fans who had stayed past McDowell's interception-turned-touchdown.
Many of those who had left and were listening to the game on the radio turned around and headed back to the stadium. Because their tickets didn't permit re-entry, they began climbing over the fences to get back in. Security guards tried to stop them at first, but they eventually relented.
35, Bills 24.
With 3:35 remaining in the third quarter, Moon threw his first bad pass of the game, over the middle and far above the head of Slaughter. Henry Jones, the Bills' young and opportunistic strong safety, intercepted and returned the ball 15 yards to the Houston 23.
Three plays later, the Bills faced fourth and 5 from the 18. Reich called time out to talk to Levy about whether to attempt a field goal or go for the end zone. Levy opted to try for the touchdown, which the Bills scored on another Reich-to-Reed pass.
"I told the other coaches if we hit a fourth [down], we're going to go for it if it's anywhere near a reasonable distance for the first down," Levy says. "I didn't know that we'd get a touchdown on the play, but the reasoning was that if we made the field goal, we were still down by eight. That quarter was nearly over, and we'd be going into the wind and you'd have to get very close to try a field goal in the fourth quarter."
"Actually, Kenny Davis was going to be the primary receiver, just to pick up the first down," Reich says. "But the coverage they were playing dictated that I could hit Andre over the middle. They were in man coverage underneath but a two-deep zone behind, and the safeties were kind of wide. Andre was able to split the middle."
35, Bills 31.
The teams exchanged punts into the fourth quarter before Moon guided the Oilers on a 13-play, 76-yard drive to the Buffalo 14. As Houston lined up for a field goal, there was a sudden cloud burst, to go along with the gusting wind. The snap sailed right through the hands of Montgomery, Del Greco's holder.
"The wind blew the ball and I tried to grab it, but I couldn't," Montgomery says. "I'd never seen a wind blow like that. The ball was wet, but you've got to get the job done in that situation."
The Bills took over at their 26 with 6:53 left. On third-and-4 from the Buffalo 32, Reich again called time out.
"I wanted to know whether we were going to go for it on fourth down if we didn't make it," Reich says. "Marv said we probably would. So I said, 'If we're going for it, why not try to run? They won't be expecting it.'"
Davis took a handoff on the counter play, and guard Jim Ritcher and tackle Will Wolford led the way for his 35-yard gain.
Four plays later, Reich hit Reed over the middle for 17 yards and a touchdown. Reich looked left for tight end Pete Metzelaars on the play, freezing Oilers safety Marcus Robertson and allowing Reed to get open.
"I had a real good feel that whole series for what they were going to do on first downs," Reich says. "I knew right away I wanted to go to that play. It was just a question of looking the free safety off. As I dropped back my first two or three steps, I looked at Pete. All I needed was to hold him there a second to keep the seam open."
38, Oilers 35.
Moon managed to pull out one more drive. With 3:00 left, he used 11 plays to move the Oilers from their own 28 to the Buffalo 9. With 12 seconds left, Del Greco kicked a 26-yard field goal, sending the game into overtime.
"I was real worried at that point," Bills guard Ritcher says. "I was standing on the sidelines thinking, 'Well, Lord, you let us come this far. Surely you're not going to let us lose it now, are you?'"
38, Oilers 38.
It looked as if Buffalo had run out of miracles when Houston got the ball at the start of overtime. However, on third-and-3 from the Oilers' 27, Moon's pass for Givins was intercepted by Nate Odomes. Givins had been legally chucked by Talley and couldn't get to the ball.
"I wanted to go to Ernest on a whip route, but it was such a close coverage," Moon says. "I had to put something extra on it, and it floated, it sailed. We had control of the ball game like no team ever had control of a ball game. Then, for me to throw the pick in overtime that caused us to lose I felt doubly rotten."
"That interception was a classic combination of pass rush and coverage," Odomes says. "We just played a soft zone trying to bait Moon into throwing a pass like that, and it was very successful. Anytime a cornerback has the opportunity to look at the football like that, it's a dream come true."
Odomes's 2-yard return, plus a 15-yard penalty on wide receiver Haywood Jeffires for tackling by the facemask, put the ball at the Oilers' 20. Three plays later, Christie, in the first playoff game in his three NFL seasons, booted the winning points.
41, Oilers 38.
"It just goes to show you that if you fight for sixty minutes, anything can happen you've just got to believe," Talley says. "My old man told me that if you quit once, you'll quit again. That word, quit, is not in my vocabulary."
As Moon made the long walk off the field and up the tunnel, he thought about the impact the game would have on his family-especially on his four children who, ranging in age from 5 to 11, are increasingly sensitive to the high-profile nature of their father's occupation.
"I carry a portable phone with me, and the first thing I did when I got on the bus [carrying the Oilers to their chartered flight back to Houston] was call home to make sure that my wife was okay-she gets very emotional and she had been crying that day-and to make sure that my kids were all right.
"All the way back on the plane, I thought about whether we should send them to school the next day because kids can really be cruel with their teasing. At first I thought maybe we should go ahead and let them face the music, which is just a part of being a celebrity's kid. It's going to be good when we win and bad when we lose. But this was so different, so out of the ordinary, we decided to just keep them home for a day and let some of it blow over."
Twenty-four hours after the game, two Houston assistant coaches-defensive coordinator Jim Eddy and secondary coach Pat Thomas-were fired. While the Bills will be remembered for staging the greatest comeback in NFL history, the Oilers will be remembered for suffering the mother of all collapses.
And the pain lingers in Houston, which, in the aftermath of the loss, was subjected to ridicule on a national scale. "Late Night With David Letterman" even composed a Top 10 list of Oilers' excuses for the defeat, with number one being: "Didn't want to go to Disney World."
"The fans had their feet pulled out from under them and they lost a major chunk of themselves," says Dr. Larry Abrams, a Houston psychologist. "This feeling will pass because people tend to repress painful memories. But you'll be hearing about this for twenty years, I'm sure."
"When something like that happens, you fall back on your family to help you out of it," the Oilers' Jeffires says. "But I'll tell you something: That sure isn't anything I want to tell my grandkids about."
Reich, on the other hand, will be re-telling the story for years to come.
"Without question, it's the game of my life," he says. "I was pretty emotional when I got to the locker room. I just couldn't hold the tears back."
It was Reich's tremendous composure on the field that made the biggest difference for the Bills.
"Frank is a person of high character," Levy says. "He's a well-rounded family man who is deeply religious. Sometimes, the guy who has other things in his life doesn't clutch up. It makes him able to retain an equilibrium."
"I've always felt as though my whole stint in Buffalo has been a divine appointment," Reich says. "I have two little kids, and when I see my children playing a game together I don't care who wins that game. I'm their father. What's important to me is that there's character being built and they're learning the lessons that come along with that activity. I think God looks at us the same way. I think the football game is insignificant to Him. But what is significant is that we learn what He wants us to learn out of that game, win or lose."
of what took place at Rich Stadium on January 3, 1993, is simple: Never
give up, no matter how dark the gathering clouds, because something un-BILL-ievable
just might happen.
on the January 3, 1993 AFC Wild Card Game between the Buffalo Bills and
Houston Oilers is reprinted from the 1993 season preview issue of Team