This is the fourth of five excerpts from Marv Levy's book, "Marv Levy: Where Else Would You Rather Be?" Today's installment focuses on the Bills making the greatest comeback in NFL history.
We entered our final week of the (1992) season with an 11-4 record, and we needed to win that last game on the road in Houston in order to repeat as the AFC East Division champions for the fifth year in a row. Win or lose, we would be in the playoffs, but gaining the home-field advantage during that elimination process was always a prime objective.
There were additional obstacles that added to our discomfiture. The Oilers needed to win the game if they were to make the playoffs as a wild-card entry, and so their motivation was at a high level. In recent weeks they had been playing superbly, and quarterback Warren Moon was running their Run and Shoot offense just the way their coaching staff had envisioned it. And worst of all, our physical readiness to compete had never been more suspect. In addition to a long list of others on the shelf, we learned that both Cornelius Bennett and Jim Kelly had joined that group of wounded. Neither one would be able to take the field for that crucial game down in Houston. Things had gotten so bad that I asked team owner Ralph Wilson if he'd like to suit up for the game, but he wanted too big a contract.
It was no contest. The Oilers cruised to a 27-3 victory, and we limped home. There'd be no first-round bye this year. Beaten up, and with a perilous road that we'd need to traverse in order to get there, we would have to win three consecutive games on three consecutive weekends beginning the next Sunday if we were to make it back to the Super Bowl. The last two of those games would come in the home stadiums of division-winning teams.
The first game, at least, would be at Rich Stadium, since our wild-card record had been one win better than the wild-card opponent we would be facing. Trouble was that that team was on a tear, and they were healthy, while we were gasping for air and would still be without the services of Jim, Cornelius, and many others. The first team we had to play on the first Sunday of the new year was the one that had just taken us apart -- the red-hot Oilers.
We knew all week long that Jim Kelly and Cornelius Bennett would not be active for the game, but midway through the first quarter, which was closely contested, we were dealt another staggering blow. Thurman Thomas had to leave the field, and our team doctors told me that he would not be able to return for the rest of the game.
At the end of the first quarter we trailed 7-3. And then Moon really went to work. By the time that excruciating half had ended, Warren had completed 19 of his 22 pass attempts for 218 yards and four touchdowns. We headed off the field at halftime trailing 28-3, and our fans were exiting the stadium faster than our Super Bowl hopes were vanishing from our locker room.
There weren't a lot of disconcerting adjustments that we needed to make. We just had to play better, but with a load of backup players in the lineup that was one of those "easier said than done" solutions. My comments directed to our full squad before sending them back out for the second half were brief. "You are two-time defending AFC champions," I said. "When you walk off that field after 30 more minutes of football, don't let anyone ever be able to say that you laid down, that you quit. Be able to walk off with your heads held high, knowing that you fought until the final tick has gone off the game clock."
Then I walked over to Frank Reich's locker, where he was sitting with quarterbacks coach Jim Shofner while they discussed plans for the second half. Frank looked up at me almost apologetically, and I felt the need to say something encouraging to him. "Frank," I said, "they tell me that you were the quarterback at the University of Maryland and that you led your team to the greatest comeback victory in collegiate football history. Well, today you are going to lead us to the greatest comeback win in the history of professional football."
Quietly, with tightened lips, Frank nodded his head.
As we were marching back up the tunnel on our way out to begin the second half, Jim Shofner fell in beside me and said, "Marv, the greatest comeback ever recorded in NFL play was from a 28-point deficit. I know; I played in that game. We're down by only 25."
"Aw, Frank doesn't know that," I countered. What difference did it make, I thought. No one would ever remember a throwaway remark like that.
At least we got to receive the kickoff to begin the second half. Maybe we could put together some kind of drive, one that might even result in a score. That is exactly what happened. We picked up a first down, and on the next play we connected on a pass that went for a touchdown. The problem was that the "connection" was with Houston's strong safety, Bubba McDowell, who returned that interception 58 yards for yet another Oilers touchdown. The score was now 35-3. Another 10,000 Bills fans headed for the parking lot.
On the next kickoff it appeared as if matters were about to become even worse. Houston's kickoff man, Al Del Greco, tried to line drive his kick so that it would bounce around deep in our territory, but the ball flew straight at Steve Tasker, who was lined up as a member of our front five at the restraining line just 10 yards away. The ball hit Steve and then ricocheted directly back at the horde of Houston coverage men. They all dove for the loose pigskin, and so did Steve. There were 12 men seeking eagerly to gain possession, 11 Oilers and Steve. Steve is the guy who came up with it. He will never cease to amaze me.
Guess what? We finally put together a glimmer of offense. It took us 10 plays and six minutes to go 50 yards, but we capped it off with our first touchdown of the day when Kenneth Davis banged it into the end zone from the 1-yard line. The score was now 35-10. Big deal! So what? Now it was our turn to kick off and put the ball back into the hands of Moon and his scoring machine.
The heck with that. I was deep into my "what have we got to lose?" mental state, and so I ordered a surprise onside kick. Steve Christie nursed the ball forward 10 yards, and then both he and our "eat you alive" coverage man, Mark Pike, streaked in pursuit after it. Mark laid a block on the nearest Houston player that gave even me a toothache, and in the scramble that ensued Steve came up with the ball. Three plays later, Frank hit a speeding Don Beebe on a pass-plus-run-after-the-catch gem that went 38 yards for another Bills touchdown. Make that 35-17.
Our defense was now rested and inspired. It was one, two, three, and out for Houston on their next offensive series, and we actually forced them to punt for the first time in the game. We took over at our own 40-yard line. Bang! Bang! Bang! In three plays we moved it down to their 26, and from there Frank zipped a dart into the Oilers' end zone, where Andre pulled it for the score. (It was) 35-24! This was getting to be fun. I noticed the flow of patrons in the stands had now reversed directions. People were pouring back in!
We still had a long way to go, but almost immediately after our next kickoff Henry Jones snatched the first of two game-changing interceptions that would occur on that never-to-be-forgotten day. He picked it off at their 38-yard line and brought it back to the 23. We moved it to the 18, and there we were faced with a fourth-and-5. Do we attempt a field goal or do we take our chances and try to pick up a first down? These are decisions to be made only by the head coach. You only have about 10 seconds in which to make up your mind because more than half of the 40-second allotment that you have between plays must be used to get proper personnel onto the field, to get the play called, to break the huddle, to get lined up, and to get the ball into play.
Frank had been pointing at himself, a signal that meant he had in mind a play that he felt had an excellent chance of succeeding. At the same time, I heard several of our coaches screaming into my earphones that we ought to kick the field goal. If we made that three-pointer, we would move to within eight points of tying the game, but something inside of me desired more than that. . . . I decided to go for it, and so I pointed back at Frank, a gesture that served as his instruction to go ahead and call his play from scrimmage.
Benjamin Franklin, writing in Poor Richard's Almanac, had once observed, "People make their most important decisions with their hearts, not their heads." I determined that if we picked up that first down, I'd write him a thank-you note.
Frank called his play, took the snap, and dropped back to pass. He hit Andre cutting across the middle of the field, and Andre, after gathering it in at the 8-yard line, sprinted on into the end zone for the second time in the last two and a half minutes. "Four scores and seven minutes ago" we had been losing 35-3. It was now 35-31, but we were still behind as the third quarter came to a close.
The defenses on both teams stiffened, and time was running inexorably off the clock. We were down to six minutes left to play, when we forced the Oilers to punt for just the second time during that long afternoon. We had possession once again, but we were backed up on our 26-yard line. We moved quickly down the field running our no-huddle offense, and we reached their 40-yard line, where we had a third-and-10 situation. Speaking into my headset to Jim Shofner, who was signaling plays out to Frank, I told Jim that we would use all four downs. There would be no fourth-down punt, I said, even if we came up short on third down.
Knowing this, and anticipating that Houston would be expecting a pass on our third-and-long situation, Jim called for a passing formation, but instead of throwing the ball, he called a running play. Kenny, subbing for the injured Thurman, bolted through the line for a 12-yard gain. The drive stayed alive. Two plays later, it was -- let's hear it again -- Frank to Andre. This one was a 17-yard touchdown strike. The Bills had taken a 38-35 lead. There were three minutes left to play. Believe me, the game wasn't over!
The Oilers came roaring back. They crammed 12 plays into the next two minutes and 45 seconds. They kept moving the chains, and they kept drawing closer and closer to our goal line. There were under 20 seconds left to play, and they were at our 25-yard line. Moon faded back for another pass attempt. Barreling in from our defensive left end position came second-year man Phil Hansen, who had played at an intensity level rarely seen even in the NFL.
As he leapt into the air in his attempt to block Moon's throw, a Houston blocker attacked his legs and sent him on a twisting somersault that culminated with Phil landing on the ground in jarring fashion flat on his back. Houston had been setting up a screen pass to our left, which they now threw out to their star running back, Lorenzo White.
White caught the perfectly thrown ball and with three big offensive linemen arrayed in front of him, he headed upfield for what appeared to be an unimpeded path to the touchdown that would break our hearts. He was speeding toward the goal line when a human missile hurled itself from behind at White's ankles, tripped him up, and sent him sprawling to the turf 8 yards short of the end zone. It was Phil, who, the instant he had hit the ground, had bounced up and gave frantic (and seemingly hopeless) chase.
Many moments in that historic game have been recounted in the years that followed, but I will always remember that if we had not had a man at that position with the fiber and character qualities of Phil Hansen, we wouldn't have won that game.
We still hadn't won it at that exact moment, either. With just a few seconds remaining, Houston kicked a field goal. The score was tied 38-38. The game went into overtime. Houston won the toss, and, of course, they elected to receive. All they really had to do then was advance the ball into position to kick a game-winning field goal, and, given the way they had been moving the ball, I am sure that any impartial fan (that's an oxymoron) would have felt that the odds favored the Oilers.
At least we covered the kickoff like a rootin' tootin' Bills team ought to cover it, and they had to start their drive from deep in their territory. On their third play from scrimmage, it was now our right defensive end, Bruce Smith, who applied heated pressure on Moon. Moon had to unload quickly, and when the ball was airborne, cornerback Nate Odomes sent the now repacked stadium crowd into a frenzy by picking it off and returning it to Houston's 20-yard line.
We ran the ball twice, getting 6 yards closer to their goal posts while maneuvering so that it came to rest in the middle of the field. A hush fell over the stadium as we sent our field goal team onto the field, and then Steve Christie, "the best damn kicker in the whole damn league," split the uprights. We had done it. We had come back from a 32-point deficit to win in overtime, 41-38. We had just registered the greatest comeback victory in NFL history, and we had done it with a battered group of men as courageous as any who had ever played the game.
Can you believe that winning that game was the easy part of our task? We still had to win two more, in a row, on the road, against teams that had won their division championships. But that could wait. Let our team and the people in Buffalo celebrate for just one day at least.
In our raucous locker room after the game, the excitement finally abated, and when it did, Frank sauntered toward me.
"Hey, Coach," he said, "when you spoke to me at halftime and told me that I was going to lead the greatest comeback in pro football history, I knew that we were behind by only 25 points. That's why I threw the interception that they returned for a touchdown on our first series in the second half. I was just trying to follow your instructions about all that comeback stuff."
"Frank," I countered, "I'm going to tell you an even bigger lie. I believe you."
Next: The toughest opponent of all: cancer.
This excerpt is taken from the new book, "Marv Levy: Where Else Would You Rather Be?" ($24.95; Sports Publishing L.L.C.), written by former Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy. It is available in bookstores, by calling the toll-free number, (877) 424-2665, and online at www.sportspublishingllc.com.
Bills 41, Oilers 38 /At Rich Stadium, Jan. 3, 1993
Oilers 7 21 7 3 0 --38
Bills 3 0 28 7 3 --41
Houston: Jeffires 3-yard pass from Moon (Del Greco kick) at 9:03, Oilers lead, 7-0.
Buffalo: Christie 36-yard field goal at 13:36, Oilers lead, 7-3.
Houston: Slaughter 7-yard pass from Moon (Del Greco kick) at 6:01, Oilers lead, 14-3.
Houston: Duncan 26-yard pass from Moon (Del Greco kick) at 11:51, Oilers lead, 21-3.
Houston: Jeffires 27-yard pass from Moon (Del Greco kick) at 14:46, Oilers lead, 28-3.
Houston: McDowell 58-yard interception return (Del Greco kick) at 1:41, Oilers lead, 35-3.
Buffalo: Davis 1-yard run by Davis (Christie kick) at 6:08, Oilers lead, 35-10.
Buffalo: Beebe 38-yard pass from Reich (Christie kick) at 7:04, Oilers lead, 35-17.
Buffalo: Reed 26-yard pass from Reich (Christie kick) at 10:39, Oilers lead, 35-24.
Buffalo: Reed 18-yard pass from Reich (Christie kick) at 13:00, Oilers lead, 35-31.
Buffalo: Reed 17-yard pass from Reich (Christie kick) at 11:52, Bills lead, 38-35.
Houston: 4th 14:48 Del Greco 26-yard field goal at 14:48, tied, 38-38.
Buffalo: Christie 32-yard field goal at 3:06, Bills win, 41-38.