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Rebirth Part 9: 1987 – The Year in Review

Another season down and the last losing campaign for the duration of this series. Despite a disappointing end to their season, 1987 proved to be an interesting ride. The strike and its drama along with the Bennett trade made it memorable without even considering on the field action.

Still, there were some noteworthy games to speak of as we take a look week to week:

Game 1 – Jets 31, Bills 28 (0-1)

– Shane Conlan had 9 tackles in his debut.

– New DE Sean McNanie registered 9 tackles & 2 sacks.

– Jim Kelly threw for 305 yards but his only interception led to deciding TD with Bills trailing 24-21 at the time.

– The Jets’ Ken O’Brien threw for 2 TD’s and 266 yards. RB Johnny Hector ran 2 in for scores.

– Jets outrushed Bills 133 to 67, but Robb Riddick had 2 rushing TD’s.

(The young Bills lose to Jets to open the season two years in a row. Team still was making critical errors at bad times and finding ways to lose. Sound familiar?)

Game 2 – Oilers 30, Bills 34 (1-1)

– First 4th quarter comeback of Kelly’s career. Bills were down 30-20 with 3:31 left in game.

– Bruce Smith & Darryl Talley were ejected in third quarter during skirmish. Houston’s Doug Williams was kicked out as well.

– Kelly threw an interception that led to Oilers ten point lead before orchestrating game-winning surge. He had 3 TD passes to Andre Reed, Ronnie Harmon, & Riddick.

– Mike Rozier ran for 150 yards for Oilers and Warren Moon threw 2 TD’s.

– Chris Burkett had 115 yards receiving.

(Big moment for Kelly and whole 90’s era team to finally overcome a late deficit. They proved to themselves and outsiders that they could withstand adversity and mount this comeback, against a talented team to boot. A big step taken.)

Games 3 – 5 were the replacement players games (2-3) 

(As Forrest Gump would say, I got nothing more to say about that.)

Game 6 – Bills 34, Dolphins 31 OT (3-3)

– Bills first ever game at Joe Robbie Stadium.

– Bills trailed 21-0 (21-3 at halftime) but rallied to outscore the Phins 31-10 from there on out.

– Only the Bills third victory ever in Miami (!).

– Dan Marino threw 303 yards & 4 touchdowns for Miami. Kelly also played well with 359 yards and 2 TD’s. Neither QB threw an interception. 

– Burkett had another solid outing with 9 catches for 130 yards and a TD.

– Steve Tasker forced Miami’s PR Scott Schwedes to fumble, which set up a Riddick TD run in 4th.

– Riddick scored another TD, this one a 17 yard reception to give the Bills the lead with 4 minutes left.

– Miami tied the game with 1:08 remaining on the clock on a Marino to Mark Clayton TD pass. But the Bills won the coin toss for OT and Scott Norwood won the game with a 27 yard field goal.

(If the Houston win was the first step in the rallying/comeback front, this gme was a bigger leap, vs the hated Dolphins. I continue to be surprised how many big games Chris Burkett had. Did I underrate the guy? Or was it just inconsistency?)

Game 7 – Redskins 27, Bills 7 (3-4)

– Pure domination in this game by the Redskins – they outrushed the Bills 299 to 21.

– LB Scott Radecic replaced Eugene Marve at ILB at recorded 8 tackles.

– For the Redskins, QB Jay Schroeder threw 2 TD’s and ran one in as well. Kelvin Bryant had 2 TD  receptions.

– At the end of the 1st half with the Bills down 17-0, safety Dwight Drane sacked Schroeder and McNanie picked up the fumbled ball and ran it in for an apparent TD. But after instant replay, officials upheld call on play which was no fumble.

– In the 4th quarter, Leon Seals forced Bryant to fumble which was recovered by Radecic, leading to only Bills’ TD, a Kelly 17 yard pass to Reed.

– Kelly threw 3 INT’s.

(As it often goes with an inexperienced team, momentum is hard to maintain. The Miami win and Cornelius Bennett trade buzz didn’t help Bills in this terrible effort. Redskins were simply a better, more talented team.)

Game 8 – Broncos 14, Bills 21 (4-4)

– On a windy day at the Rich, Bennett made his debut as Bills held off late Denver rally after taking 21-0 lead.

– Bennett did not start but played in passing situations, providing consistent pressure on John Elway and one sack.

– The Bills had 2 blocked punts on Denver, one by Riddick and one by Tasker. Both went through end zones for safeties. Riddick also scored a rushing TD.

– Denver scored a touchdown with just under six minutes left in game to draw within 7. Then Tasker fumbled the ensuing kickoff at the 11 yard line. But Smith forced RB Sammy Smith to fumble 2 plays later and Nate Odomes recovered.

– The Bills used up 4 minutes of clock. Denver got the ball back with less than 2 remaining, and Drane recovered a Clarence Kay fumble to win game.

(You just can’t lose in a new acquisition’s 1st game. It’s a rule.)

Game 9 – Bills 21, Browns 27 (4-5)

– Bills fell behind 27-7 before scoring 2 fourth quarter TD’s to make it close.

– In a precursor of what would come, Kelly operated out of the 2 minute offense for most of 4th quarter and it worked.

– Mark Kelso (who joined Bills in 1986) recovered a Kevin Mack fumble forced by Smith for a 56 yard TD in 1st quarter.

– Cleveland had a fumble recovery of their own in 2nd quarter when Pete Metzelaars coughed the ball up and Ray Ellis ran it in from 27 yards. Pete lost another in the third quarter to kill a drive.

– Norwood missed 2 short FG’s from 38 & 36 yards out.

– Bernie Kosar threw for 348 yards and 2 TD’s in game.

– The offensive rally included TD passes from Kelly to Burkett and Reed. The one to Reed came with 52 seconds let in game but Browns recovered onside kick.

(It’s cool to see not only the players added as this team was built but the philosophies and strategies that slowly developed. The no huddle offense would come synonymous with this team a couple years down the line.)

Game 10 – Bills 17, Jets 14 (5-5)

– Big game for Conlan, Bennett, and Smith, who combined for 23 tackles and 3 sacks.

– RB Ricky Porter, a former Bills replacement player, played well for the injured Riddick with 42 yards rushing and 30 receiving.

– With win, Bills pulled into tie for 1st place with all other 5 teams in AFC east at 5-5!

– Bills’ TD’s were Kelly to Walter Broughton (who?) 25 yard pass and Jamie Mueller 2 yard run.

– Freeman Mcneil had 103 yards rushing for Jets.

(The Bills started reaping benefits from their burgeoning defense, as Smith, Conlan & Bennett would be the cornerstone for many years to come.)

Game 11  – Dolphins 0, Bills 27 (6-5)

– Bills handed Miami their first shutout defeat in 5 years.

– Marino held without TD pass for 1st time in 30 games. Bills 1st sweep vs Miami since 1966.

– Mueller made 1st NFL start.

– With Bills up 14-0, Miami’s Reggie Roby booted a 77 yard punt, backing Bills up to 3 yard line.

– But on ensuing drive, Bills drove down to score on only 7 plays, culminating in Kelly to Burkett TD pass of 22 yards.

– Marino threw 3 interceptions – Radecic, Kelso & Derrick Burroughs making the plays.

– Other Bills TD’s came from Mueller 1 yard run and Kelly to Butch Rolle pass in 1st quarter.

– Ronnie Harmon had big day, rushing for for 119 yards. Andre Reed added 96 yards receiving on 4 catches. 

(While our team wasn’t quite ready for the big-time yet, shutting out the stupid Dolphins was a nice statement. It signified that the tide was turning in the rivalry and the Bills would soon be a force to be reckoned with in the AFC East. Rich Stadium must have been rocking that day!)

Game 12 – Bills 21, Raiders 34 (6-6)

Raiders’ QB Marc Wilson had a huge game passing for Raiders with 337 yards and 3 TD’s.

– Andre Reed had best day as Bill with 153 yards receiving.

– Future Bill James Lofton had his most productive game as a Raider, 132 yards and a TD.

– Bills held 14-13 lead at halftime but Raiders dominated in 2nd half, outscoring Buffalo 21-7 on Lofton TD, Marcus Allen run and Dokie Williams reception. 

– Down 27-21, Bills drove to Raiders’ 36 early in 4th but were stopped on 4th and 2.

– Kelly threw for 316 yards and 2 TD’s in defeat.

(Even with the Chris Burkett “love” in this post, it’s nice to see a preview of the production Lofton would bring as our #2 receiver down the road.)

Game 13 – Bills 27, Colts 3 (7-6)

– Defensive play highlighted this game. Smith had a monster game – 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and fumble recovery for his 1st NFL touchdown, putting Bills in the driver’s seat for division title.

– Bills had season high 4 interceptions.

– First Bills win in Hoosier Dome.

– Last 3 Indy possessions include 2 INT’s – Kelso and Ron Pitts – and Smith fumble recovery for TD.

– Kelly thew for 2 TD’s, 1 to Harmon and 1 to Trumaine Johnson.

(Dominant defensive performances like this weren’t possible one year prior. Bill Polian knew where his deficiencies were and went right to bolstering the D. Buddy Nix is doing the same thing – hopefully it works.)

Game 14 – Patriots 13, Bills 7 (7-7)

– In a game where the Bills could clinch AFC East title, loss actually knocked them out of playoffs.

– Kelly’s worst game as pro with less than 50% completion percentage, 31 yards, an INT and 5 sacks. 

– Bills’ only TD was McNanie 14 yard fumble return caused by Radecic.

– Early in 4th, trailing by 6, Bills drove to Pats 4, but Kelly’s 4th and 3 pass to Reed fell incomplete.

– 2 plays later, Kelso intercepted Steve Grogan pass at Pats’ 43 but 4 plays later, Kelly threw INT at goal line.

– Bills got ball for last time at their 20 but could not move the ball down the field.

– Cold day at Rich Stadium with 40 MPH winds.

(Big choke job by Bills. Their inexperience still showed through – they weren’t ready to take that next step yet. Necessary learning experience, though.)

Game 15 – Bills 7, Eagles 17 (7-8)

– Bennett had career game – 16 tackles, 4 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles.

– Bills lost season finale for 7th year in a row.

– Kelly had 2nd straight poor game – 20 for 39, 154 yards, 2 INT’s.

– Reggie White had 2 sacks for Philly.

– Late in half with Bills trailing 10-0, Bennett forced Randall Cunningham to fumble and Smith recovered. But Kelly was intercepted by Andre Waters at Eagles’ 14 yard line with 15 seconds left.

– Keith Byars ran for 102 yards and added 37 receiving for Eagles.

(Biscuit’s game was so off the charts that I almost don’t believe the stat line. That has to stand as one of the better individual defensive performances in team history.)

Key stat leaders for season:

Passing – Kelly 250-419, 2798 yards, 19 TD’s 11 INT, 59.7 Comp %, 83.8 Passer Rating

Rushing Attempts – Harmon 116

Rushing Yards – Harmon 485 (wow)

Rushing Avg (at least 50 carries) – Mueller 4.3

Rushing TD’s – Riddick 5

Receptions – Reed 57

Receiving Yards – Burkett 765

Receiving AVG (at least 25 catches) – Burkett 13.7

Receiving TD’s – Reed 5

Kicking – Norwood 10-15 FG’s, 31 for 31 XP, 61 PTS, long FG 45 yards

Punting – Kidd 64 attempts for 39.0 avg, 20 inside 20

Tackles – Conlan 114

Sacks – Smith 12

Fumble Recoveries – Kelso, Radecic, Smith, Scott Watters 2

Interceptions – Kelso 6 (for 25 yards)

Kickoff Returns – Porter 8-219, 27.4 avg, 40 long

Punt Returns – Pitts 23-149, 6.5 avg, 19 long


If the struggles of the 4-12 season allowed the Bills of 1987 to learn from their mistakes and progress to this 7 win season, it should be fun to look for any parallels as our current squad gets ready to open the 2011 season. Granted there wasn’t and probably won’t be a Bennett-level acquisition, but keep an eye on certain developments as the season moves along. Does the defense make a leap to actually win some games for the team instead of losing them? Does Chan Gailey’s philosophies/strategies start shaping this team more identity wise? Does Fitz consistently take command of the offense and rally the team when down? 

There’s differences in the eras for sure – our current offensive line has nowhere near the talent level of Wolford, Hull, Devlin, Ritcher, etc. But the youth factor is similar, the learning curve and ability to dust themselves off after failure a timeless thing. The comparisons should be fun.


A bit of a programming note. This will be the last part of Rebirth for awhile. I’d like to focus more on the current Bills and Sabres teams and leave the retrospective for the offseason. So once the Sabres win the cup in June, we’ll get back on this series and hopefully do all of 1988-1990 by the end of the summer.


Follow Mark on Twitter, @MarkBerm

Previous Rebirth Articles:

Part 1: 1986 – Jim Kelly Signs

Part 2: 1986 – Jim Kelly’s First Game

Part 3: 1986 – What Came Before

Part 4: 1986 – Tasker & Levy

Part 5: 1986 – Season in Review

Part 6: 1987 – The Offseason

Part 7: 1987 – The Strike

Part 8: 1987 – The Trade