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Pain Rankings: No. 3, the Buffalo Bills


On Jan. 20, 1991, the Buffalo Bills dropped a 51-3 bomb on the Los Angeles Raiders to become AFC champions. The Bills would go on to successfully defend that conference title in the three seasons that followed. It remains a remarkable achievement -- one that might never be duplicated.

Which makes it all the more cruel that this feat is not remembered for its success, but rather for its failure. That's what happens when you follow each of those wins with a painful Super Bowl loss.

20-19. 37-24. 52-17. 30-13. No God-fearing citizen of Western New York will ever play that set of numbers in the lotto.

The Bills' inability to close turned them into a strange and unique paradox: The powerhouse that moonlighted as a laughingstock. A team that should have been celebrated for its consistent greatness was instead fodder for stale Jay Leno bits.

Nobody deserves a fate like that.

Compounding matters for Bills fans is the dearth of success before and after their bittersweet early-'90s run. The Bills had just two playoff victories in the space between the 1970 AFL-NFL merger and their first Super Bowl run in 1990. They have one playoff win in the 21 years since their last Super Bowl appearance. They are the only team in the NFL that hasn't qualified for the postseason in this millenium.

Not all the news is bad, thankfully. St. Pegula stepped up and ensured this story wouldn't end with the Bills loading up their wagons and heading to Los Angeles. As painful as giving your heart to this team can be, it could have been much worse ... ask a Browns fan.

Perhaps the Bills are ready to make their next run. Perhaps next time they'll get over the hump. For now, they'll have to settle for the No. 3 spot in the Pain Rankings.

! Pain Résumé

Note: The Bills won back-to-back AFL titles in 1964 and '65. The 1998 Vincent Gallo indie hit "Buffalo '66" is a reference to the last Bills championship. It's been all "Brown Bunny" for Gallo and the Bills since.

Patron Saint Of Pain: Scott Norwood

In which we choose the figure who best represents the suffering ...

Scott Norwood stepped back from his holder on Jan. 27, 1991, in position to do something truly life-changing: Kick a game-winning field goal in the Super Bowl.

The Bills had been heavy favorites in Super Bowl XXV, but the Bill Parcells-led Giants artfully executed a ball-control game plan that kept the Bills' powerful offense off the field for more than 40 minutes of clock time. Despite that, Jim Kelly successfully drove Buffalo inside the Giants' 30-yard line with eight seconds to play. Norwood came on to attempt a 47-yard field goal with the Bills facing a 20-19 deficit.

Norwood's kick never had a chance, quickly pushing to the right. Giants players swarmed the field in celebration. New York linebacker Steve DeOssie took out his Handycam, inadvertently recording the aftermath of the worst moment of Scott Norwood's life.

(One quick bit of history before we go on: Kickers in today's game get fired if they can't hit the large majority of field-goal attempts from 45 to 50 yards. But in 1991? Kickers were kind of terrible. To wit: Norwood, who was a gainfully employed NFL player for seven years, had never made a 47-yard field goal on grass entering Super Bowl XXV. In other words, the kick was far from a gimme. And did we mention the SUPER BOWL WAS ON THE LINE? I'm surprised he didn't Charlie Brown it.)

"If I had a second chance, maybe I'd concentrate more on form and follow-through, maybe not try to hit it so strongly," Norwood said to the assembled media after the game.

"I'll never get that second chance," he added after a pause. "I might never get to the point where I'll totally forget about this."

Norwood became a household name overnight. He also became a subject of inspiration for screenwriters. The breakthrough Jim Carrey vehicle Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (the one where he talks to Tone Loc with his butt) centers around a kicker who goes mad after dooming his team to a one-point Super Bowl loss. In the aforementioned Buffalo '66, a man plots lethal revenge against a Bills player named Scott Wood whose missed kick cost Buffalo a championship.

Norwood's career was over after the 1991 season. He led a quiet existence as an insurance salesman in Virginia before eventually returning to Buffalo as a real estate agent. In 2011, the Bills honored him for his work in the community. He was greeted by what the Associated Press described as a "warm" ovation. He's lucky he didn't play in Philadelphia.

Apex Of Pain

In which we study the lowest point in franchise history ...

Each Super Bowl loss delivered a special brew of disappointment, but no loss packed the stomach-punch wallop of the Music City Miracle. On Jan. 8, 2000, the 11-5 Bills traveled to Nashville for a wild-card matchup against the Tennessee Titans. The game was a defensive battle, one the Bills appeared to survive when Steve Christie booted a 41-yard field goal to give Buffalo a 16-15 lead with 16 seconds to play.

All the Bills had to do to move on was cover the kick, then withstand a Hail Mary or hook-and-ladder shenanigans. What happened next was ... grisly.

"No flags on the play -- it is a touchdown!" exclaimed ABC announcer Mike Patrick. "But we need to look at that replay!"

Give credit to Joe Theismann, who was the only person in ABC's three-man booth to initially realize the play might stand. After the first replay, Paul Maguire and Patrick stated that Frank Wycheck's pass to Kevin Dyson was an illegal forward lateral.

In the end, the call stood and the Bills were stunned. My lasting memory of the sequence will always be Wade Phillips' agonized reaction to Phil Luckett's announcement that the touchdown would count. Check it out at the 4:10 mark in the video above. Heartbreak city.

"What a devastating way for Buffalo to lose the lead after they had driven for a winning field goal," Patrick said after the review. This time he wasn't wrong.

The Hurt Files

In which we study some other deeply punishing low moments ...

Super Bowl XXV (20-19) This remains the only Super Bowl decided by one point. Thurman Thomas had a strong case for the game's MVP award, piling up 190 total yards and a touchdown on just 20 touches.

Super Bowl XXVI (37-24): This is best remembered as the Thurman Can't Find His Helmet Game. Thomas missed Buffalo's initial snaps on offense after his helmet was misplaced on the Bills sideline. Talk about your foreboding developments. Sure enough, the Bills' defense turned Mark Rypien into an evolutionary Johnny Unitas, and Jim Kelly imploded with four interceptions.

Super Bowl XXVII (52-17): The Bills set a Super Bowl record with nine turnovers. The only positive of the game came via Don Beebe running down Leon Lett and stripping him of the football moments before Dallas could score another humiliating touchdown. Beebe's play earned him instant induction into the Gritty White Guy Hall of Fame.

Super Bowl XXVIII (30-13): The Bills were actually leading the Cowboys at halftime in this one. They were outscored 24-0 in the second half, however. "In the immediate future we'll be thought of as losers," Bills center Kent Hull said to the assembled media afterwards. "But one day down the road, when I'm no longer playing, they'll say, 'Wow, they won four straight AFC championships. They must have been good.' "

From someone who should know

Luke Russert is a political correspondent for NBC News and certified Bills diehard. He learned about the game from his late father, Tim Russert, a Buffalo native, Bills superfan and longtime "Meet the Press" moderator.

What do you remember from the Bills' Super Bowl period in the early 1990s? You were young at the time (Russert was born in 1985).

It was something that was very much ingrained in me from a young age. And I was sort of spoiled because I had four straight years of Super Bowls where the team really overcame incredible odds. Obviously, they were very talented that first year with the K-Gun (offense), they were just rolling over people. But those other years, they really had to fight for.

In their second Super Bowl year, they beat Denver 10-7 (in the AFC Championship Game) and my father actually opened up the door to our house and blew into one of those horns they used at the World Cup last year. He was yelling "Go Bills!" and "Let's go Buffalo!" You had people coming out on their porches.

Take us through your emotional head space before, during and immediately after the Music City Miracle in January 2000.

First off, I know that game as the Tragedy in Tennessee. I was with my father and he was on the couch -- I was sort of off to the side in a chair -- and he's screaming at the TV and saying, "No, no, no, no, no, no!" He's saying, "Forward lateral! Forward lateral! They're calling it back! They're calling it back!" My late Uncle Bill calls and he says, "Timmy, don't worry, replay will get it back. It's all good, it's all good." And then ... they upheld the call. I couldn't believe it.

I think if you see it with your naked eye, it's a lateral. The University of Rochester actually did a study where they scientifically proved it was a forward lateral. And Frank Wycheck, from everything I've heard, if you start joking with him, he'll never admit, but he smiles and nods and winks. It's very close, but it's a forward lateral. And how fitting it is that it's the last little playoff memory for the 15 years. Dire straits.

What kind of fan was your dad? Was he a yeller? Quiet and intense? He was probably the most famous Bills supporter in America.

In the '90s, my father was definitely a yeller and he would freak out. There were real high highs and real low lows, but it was loud and it was banging -- it was very emotional. And we had that for the first few years of the 2000s, but once Drew Bledsoe left (after the 2004 season), they kind of went into the quarterback wilderness with Trent Edwards and J.P. Losman and all that mess. He sort of quieted down and had more realistic expectations.

Does the arrival of Rex Ryan make you more optimistic about the team's future?

Belichick is the master; however, the Jets beat Belichick before in the playoffs. If he could pull that off one time, he'll be God. In all honesty, if he gets to the playoffs, they will erect a statue at this point. It doesn't even matter if he never goes for the rest of his coaching career in Buffalo. If he gets to the playoffs this year, they will erect a statue. They already hit their season-ticket record -- it's not even August and they did that. It's going to be mayhem, at least in those first few games.

The No. 2 team on the Pain Rankings will be unveiled Wednesday. You can check out the entire list here.

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