The Buffalo Bills remain the only team in NFL history to have gone to four straight Super Bowls. But do you recall how close the Bills came to appearing in five straight?
First, some backstory: the Bills’ 1988 season had produced an 11-1 start, a 12-4 record, and a division championship that had been clinched after Week 12 (the AFC East was sort of a joke back in those days). The division title was the team’s first in eight years, and the AFC Championship berth was the first in franchise history. Only the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings allowed fewer points than the 237 given up by the 1988 Bills defense. So despite a frustrating 21-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1988 AFC Championship game – one that left such a bitter taste in the Bills’ mouths it led to Buffalo cornerback Derrick Burroughs trying to rearrange Bengals receiver Tim McGee’s face with his forearm – the Bills were actually quite well-positioned heading into 1989.
However, the Bills took a step back the following season. Way back. 1989 was the season of the Bickering Bills, which featured two contract squabbles (Bruce Smith and wide receiver Chris Burkett, who was released after the season began), two drug suspensions (Smith and Robb Riddick), a fistfight involving two coaches (amongst others) during film review, and countless potshots taken at each other through the media. (If you’re interested in further Bickering Bills details, Billszone has an excellent recap of the events of 1989.) What started as a 6-2 season devolved into a 3-5 finish, including losses to New Orleans, Seattle, a 5-11 New England team, and an embarrassing collapse against a Falcons team that finished 3-13. Thankfully, the AFC East was complete garbage that year and the Bills punched a ticket to the playoffs with a 37-0 victory over the Jets in the season finale. That dominating win not only clinched the division, but also gave some the sense that the Bills had put their issues behind them.
This brings us to the 1989 AFC Divisional playoff game against the Cleveland Browns… and what a game it was: four lead changes, 83 combined passing attempts, nearly 660 combined passing yards, and most of all, five scoring plays of 30 yards or more. I can recall watching the game “over the phone” with my best buddy John, a die-hard Browns fan; after every touchdown, the fan of the team who just gave up a score could expect his landline phone to ring immediately thereafter, followed by the dulcet sounds of 14-year-old trash talk emanating from the other end of the line. (1989, people. No simple text messages of “Your team sux lol” back then; talking smack required a bit more effort. Clearly, we are much more advanced as a society now.) If I created a top ten “Most Exciting Bills Games Ever” list, this chaotic, back and forth, defense-is-completely-optional masterpiece would be in my top three easily.
But, as happens all too often for a Buffalo sports fan, the game ended in heartbreak after Ronnie Harmon alligator-armed what would have been the winning touchdown:
In his 12-year career, Ronnie Harmon topped 100 carries in a season just once – he was the quintessential third-down back before the term “third-down back” became popular. Because he was known as a pass-catching back more than a between-the-tackles runner, it was surprising and disheartening to see him drop that pass. But while that dropped pass ultimately represented the difference between winning and losing, there’s a lot of blame to pass around – fitting in so many ways, considering how the 1989 Bills loved to point fingers at each other.
Why You Can’t Blame Ronnie Harmon for Losing the 1989 AFC Divisional Game
1) Bernie Kosar picked the Bills secondary apart. The Bills spent much of the second half playing from 10 points behind, which is largely responsible for Jim Kelly’s stat line (28 for 54, 405 yards, 4 TDs) appearing to be more impressive. Indeed, Kosar’s final stats for the afternoon – 20 for 29, 251 yards, 3 touchdowns – don’t jump off the page, and were somewhat artificially inflated themselves by long touchdown passes of 52 and 44 yards. But here’s another stat that might be the most important: zero interceptions. The Bills never seemed to be able to get a stop, either via turnover or by forcing a punt, when it was needed the most. Kosar managed the game efficiently and kept the chains moving (18 first downs), and for the afternoon, Cleveland controlled the ball for nearly 35 minutes.
2) Webster Slaughter had the game of his life. Slaughter was the recipient of both long Kosar touchdown passes, finishing with three catches for 114 yards and shattering his personal best in the process. Both came at crucial times as well: the 52-yarder effectively got the Browns into the game and gave them a 10-7 lead, while the 44-yarder that capped off Cleveland’s opening drive of the second half gave the Browns their first 10-point lead of the game, a deficit from which Buffalo never recovered.
3) Adventures in special teams, part 1: Eric Metcalf’s 90-yard kickoff return for a TD. Slaughter’s 44-yard touchdown and the resulting two-score deficit threatened to force the Bills to completely abandon the run in the second half. Metcalf’s scamper made that threat a reality. It was very out of character for a Bruce DeHaven-coached unit to give up a kickoff return touchdown at such a crucial time in the game, but I suppose that’s a bit of a metaphor for the chaos of this game as a whole.
4) Adventures in special teams, part 2: Scott Norwood’s missed extra point. Thurman Thomas’ fourth-quarter touchdown should have cut the deficit to 34-31…. but Scott Norwood inexplicably and unbelievably honked the extra point. In Norwood’s defense – as I am known to do from time to time – the field at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium was notoriously horrible, with loose sod and patches of dirt spray-painted green all over the place. Earlier in the fourth quarter, Norwood had converted a 30-yard field goal that barely cleared the crossbar because he had to be so careful with his footing. Still – it was an extra point. It’s a play so routine that Bill Belichick doesn’t believe it should be in the game anymore. The Bills could have had a relatively easy field goal on the final drive to tie the game and send it into overtime, but the resulting four-point deficit forced the Bills to go for a touchdown.
5) One play remained, and it sort of didn’t go that well. After Harmon’s drop, it was third-and-10 with nine seconds remaining. Time for at least one more down, perhaps two if a modest gain resulted in a ball carrier getting out of bounds. But Jim Kelly decided that now would be a perfect time to deliver a football directly to Cleveland linebacker Clay Matthews’ gut. Matthews made the easy interception and fell to the ground clutching the ball like a toddler with a teddy bear. Harmon’s drop did not seal the Bills’ fate; for all his heroism that day, Jim Kelly and his ill-timed bad read sealed it.
That dropped pass would represent the last time Ronnie Harmon touched the ball as a Buffalo Bill, as the San Diego Chargers signed Harmon away as a Plan B free agent in the 1989 offseason. Much like the 1986 Rose Bowl – in which Harmon fumbled four times and dropped a crucial pass as his favored Iowa Hawkeyes got crushed by UCLA – allegations surfaced that he had been paid to throw the game against the Browns. Neither situation resulted in anything beyond rumor and speculation, though, and Harmon went on to have a decent career over eight more seasons with the Chargers, Houston/Tennessee Oilers and Chicago Bears.
There’s no guarantee that the Bills would have defeated the Denver Broncos the following week had they knocked off the Browns, although the AFC’s general awfulness that year suggests there was as reasonable chance. (Cleveland lost to those same Broncos by a 37-21 count.) Even if they had, the Bills almost certainly would have been massacred by the eventual champion 49ers, who embarrassed Denver 55-10 and set a Super Bowl record for points scored that still stands. (Disclaimer: I’ve been a 49ers fan since the age of five. I may be a wee bit biased with the previous assertion. Just a tad.) But it’s often said that a team has to lose in order to learn how to win, and in that respect I think the loss to the Browns was instrumental. The third time became the charm a year later, as the Bills exorcised the demons of two years of bitter playoff losses by outlasting Miami 44-34 and curbstomping the Raiders 51-3 to advance to the first Super Bowl in franchise history. In that light, and considering the three other Super Bowl berths that followed, the evidence for lessons learned is apparent.
There are still pockets of people in Buffalo who haven’t let Harmon’s drop go, but even though I admit it would have been cool to have a shot at five straight Super Bowls, I’m inclined to give Ronnie a pass. (No pun intended. Or is there?)