The players from the Bills' Super Bowl teams look back with fondness and a great sense of pride. They do not think of themselves as losers. They like to define themselves as a rare group of athletes who refused to yield to repeat failure, and who reflected the tough, resilient character of the city in which they played.
"Losing Super Bowls is a downer," said Andre Reed. "But it isn't life. Spend 15 minutes with anyone from those teams and you'll understand. The big thing is the relationships."
But like most of his former teammates, Reed has never watched a telecast of Super Bowl XXV. Living it was sufficient. You let things go. You grow up and move on. But deep in your competitive soul, the hurt remains. So many little moments that could have made a difference.
"Does it sting?" asked Darryl Talley, the leader and outside linebacker. "Every year when somebody raises that Vince Lombardi trophy, don't you think that goes through our heads? I watch a lot of games during the year, and you see how one or two plays can turn a team's future. I say to myself, 'That play will stick with them for awhile.' "
Try 20 years. That's how long it's been for the Bills and their fans. If you lived through it, there's a lot that sticks with you. Recalling the first Super Bowl is like tearing at an old scab. People argue to this day. What if this had happened? What if they'd done that? No doubt, we'll be asking the questions for decades to come.
Super Bowl XXV was a chronicle of "what-ifs," a garden of regret. You think of all the simple twists of fate that might have gone the other way, making it unnecessary for a 30-year-old kicker from Virginia to attempt a die-or-die kick:
What if Hostetler had fumbled in the end zone?
Midway through the second quarter, the Giants had second-and-10 from their 7-yard line. The Bills called a blitz and Bruce Smith sacked Jeff Hostetler for a safety. Smith grabbed Hostetler around the right wrist, but somehow the ball didn't come out.
"My most vivid memory is when Bruce tackled Hostetler in the end zone," linebacker Ray Bentley said. "I'll never forget watching Bruce's right hand slide down his arm. Instead of continuing to slide and knocking the ball out, he locked on his forearm. I was ready to pounce. I was going to score a touchdown in the Super Bowl and be immortalized.
"The blitz we ran was called 51 Bruce Double Darby, after me," Bentley said.
"Yeah, I thought that ball would come out," Smith said from his real estate offices in Virginia. "I couldn't get anything but his wrist. I wanted to make sure I secured the tackle first. But he had a strong grip on the ball."
"Instead of 17-3, it was 12-3," Bentley said.
If the ball squirts out and Bentley scores, the Bill are up 14 points. Maybe the Giants become more desperate to score quickly, rather than grind it out. It would have been 24-17 when Thurman Thomas broke his 31-yard TD run. The Giants would have needed a TD to tie, instead of a field goal to take a one-point lead.
What if they had tackled Mark Ingram on third down?
The key play of the game might have been Hostetler's 14-yard pass to Mark Ingram on third-and-13 early in the third quarter. It sustained a 14-play, 75-yard drive that put the Giants ahead, 17-12. Not counting a Jim Kelly kneel-down, the Giants held the ball for 12:53 straddling the two halves. Throw in the halftime festivities and the Bills' offense didn't touch the ball for well over an hour.
"We didn't play well as a whole team," said safety Mark Kelso. "I don't know what their conversion rate was on third down [it was 9 for 16]. On the play to Ingram, we dropped guys in the wrong zone, first of all. That enabled the pass to be completed. I missed the initial tackle. There were other missed tackles. It came down to inches."
"Yeah, I know what play it was," Talley said. "We tackled Ingram a half-yard past the first-down marker. If I make that one, they don't go down and make that touchdown. A lot of little things."
"I think we missed six tackles on Ingram," said Chuck Dickerson, the defensive line coach at the time. "That was one of the game-winners."
If the Bills make a play, the best the Giants get is a field goal and a 13-12 lead. Again, the Thomas TD run later puts the Bills ahead by more than a field goal.
What if they had run the ball more early in the game?
Thomas carried 15 times for 135 yards, a stunning 9 yards a pop. The Giants used a "little nickel" in the early going, employing just two down linemen and daring the Bills to run the ball. Bill Belichick, their defensive coordinator, used five and six defensive backs to defend Kelly's no-huddle attack and punish Reed after the catch.
"Oh, I was totally confused," center Kent Hull said of the Giants' exotic defenses. "I'm usually prepared for everything."
As Hull pointed out, the Bills did score 19 points in 19 minutes. Still, the Giants might not have dominated time of possession if the Bills had run more and took greater advantage of Thomas. They might have used a more conventional offense, with a fullback to answer the Giants' physical defense. Jamie Mueller, a vital part of the offense earlier in the season, played little.
"I went up to Jim at one point," said Steve Tasker, "and said, 'You've got to start handing the ball off.' He said, 'Yeah, I know.' "
"There's one down that sticks with me," left guard Jim Ritcher said. "It was third and a real short yard. It wasn't more than a foot and a half. From the sideline, they didn't get the information right and thought it was over a yard. So we ended up doing a play action pass that was incomplete. I was mad we didn't run. Gosh, we could have picked that up easily.
"I was so disappointed," Ritcher recalled. "I went to the sideline and said, 'Why didn't we run the ball? They said 'We thought it was longer than it was.' "
"Andre Reed came across the middle on third down and dropped it on that play," said Kenneth Davis, the backup running back. "It seemed we just couldn't stop them after that."
What if they hadn't partied so much?
Cornelius Bennett played for Atlanta in Super Bowl XXXIII and created a stir when he called the Bills the "party team of the '90s" and said they "cheated" themselves and "wasted opportunities" during their four consecutive losses.
Bennett, who represents the NFL's veteran players in labor negotiations, now says his comments were exaggerated, maybe because Kelly and Thomas rip him for the comment whenever they see him.
"We were a young team, and what do young boys do? They have a good time," Bennett said last week. "I don't think that had any effect on us losing a football game. We partied and we got to the Super Bowl four times. So I don't blame that. That's who we were."
Most of the Bills feel the same way. They partied together. It was part of their identity. They gathered at Kelly's house and bonded as a team. They never had time to celebrate their win over the Raiders in the AFC title game with people in Buffalo. There was only one week before the Super Bowl (another "what if?"). They were on a plane to Tampa the next day.
Marv Levy, their Hall of Fame coach, wonders. "I heard that after the game," he said. "It was mortifying to hear. If that was the case, I would look at myself and say, 'What did I not do to guide those guys?' I addressed that, but in retrospect not effectively enough."
"We partied," Hull said. "I mean, we knew when to cut it off. But still, if we had shut it down a little it might have helped, especially on the conditioning side. I think our defense got worn down, with Ottis [Anderson] pounding on them."
The Bills' imbibing was an issue in future Super Bowls. They made a conscious effort the next year to stay in their rooms and be good boys. They got blown out by the Redskins.
What if they had won that game?
Feelings are all over the map. Some believe they would have won multiple Super Bowls. Others wonder if they would have had the same hunger. Of course, walking off the field that night exhausted and devastated, some of them wondered how in the world they could ever summon the will to make even one more Super Bowl run.
Not Talley, their emotional conscience.
"We missed some plays we could have made," he said. "But hindsight is 20-20. If I could go back, I'd make a hell of a lot more money. It's a great feeling to have done what we did, to play with the type of characters who knew what it took to win. We were one big happy family. We went skipping on down the road and said, 'OK, we didn't get this one, let's go back and do it again.' "