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THE BICKERING BILLS LEARN TO CIRCLE THE WAGONS

This is the third of five excerpts from Marv Levy's book, "Marv Levy: Where Else Would You Rather Be?" Today's installment deals with the Bickering Bills.

We had accomplished much during (the) 1988 season. Just two years before, the Bills had finished in the AFC East Division cellar (for the third straight time) with a 4-12 record. Now we were East Division champs sporting a 12-4 mark. Our player personnel situation was extremely encouraging. We had inherited some budding young prospects who were now maturing into the type of star performers that exceeded all expectations. . . .

It wasn't just the talent these players possessed that was so noteworthy. These were men of unique character. These were team-oriented guys who were a joy to coach. These were fellows who responded to teaching and who you knew were going to improve. And, with men such as Bill Polian and John Butler on board, you knew that the process -- and the on-field product -- would become increasingly better.

Our defense had gone in four years from being the Bills' all-time worst to becoming close to its all-time best. In 1984 the team had allowed 454 points, the most ever given up by a Bills team. Now, in 1988, by holding opponents to 237 points for the year, we had come within eight points of bettering the team's best NFL season, when they had given up 230 points back in 1973. At this time our defense was a bit farther along than our offense although there was also noticeable improvement on that side of the ball. The 329 points we had put on the scoreboard was the best in that department since 1975, when the Bills had led the NFL in scoring.

We were solid at quarterback with Jim Kelly and Frank Reich providing what I felt was the best one/two combination in the league. Our offensive line, with players such as Will Wolford, Jim Ritcher, Kent Hull, Joe Devlin, and Howard Ballard, was really beginning to shape up. Tight ends Pete Metzelaars, Keith McKeller, and Butch Rolle combined to give us superb depth at that underrated but important position. True, there were still questions at running back (it would take until the following year before Thurman Thomas would emerge as an almost unstoppable talent).

It was at wide receiver where we believed we would need to focus our main attention, however. Andre Reed, that 1985 fourth-round draft choice out of Kutztown State, was beginning to show some real promise, but other than that we felt we needed to improve at that position if we wanted to capitalize fully on Jim's quarterbacking abilities.

We were excited. And so were our fans. How excited were they? In 1988 we set a Bills all-time attendance record. It was a figure our team would exceed two years later, and then the year following that we shattered that newly established mark. During the six-year period from 1988 through 1993 the Bills -- in that "small market" city -- led the NFL in home game attendance every one of those six seasons. That's how excited they were.

We had momentum. We had great young -- and some experienced -- players. We had the best owner, the best front office, and the best personnel department in the NFL. I had a super coaching staff working with me. We had the best fan support in the league. Everything was smooth and harmonious as we looked forward to the 1989 season. We were really ready to hum now. Let's hear it one more time -- not so quick, mister!

As 1989's finale drew near, I struggled to recall back in late October when, for the first time in the history of the franchise, more than 80,000 fans overflowed into the stadium where they watched us defeat the Dolphins, 31-17. And then, one month after that, a raucous throng of Bills fans, again topping 80,000, had seen us play the Bengals, the team that had kept us from going to the Super Bowl the year before. Our players and our partisans exacted sweet retribution as we coasted to a 24-7 victory over the humbled Bengals.

But there were some darker recollections in that memory bin, also. Early in the year we had gone into Indianapolis as solid favorites and had gotten wiped out, 37-14. We bounced back and won three straight right after that before striding confidently into Atlanta, where the underdog Falcons deflated us on the last play by kicking a 50-yard field goal that gave them a 30-28 upset win. Matters became worse than that as we began to show disturbing signs of a late-season collapse.

After "Revenge Sunday" against Cincinnati, bad things really began to happen. For starters, we lost the next three games in a row. The scene we had all envisioned back in midseason depicting us wrapping up another division title was on the brink of fading away. The worst of our problems, however, were taking place off of the playing field.

The sporadic flow of successes and failures during the season was beginning to frustrate us all -- players, coaches, fans, ownership, and even the media. No one wants to look bad or, worse yet, foolish. Not only were we appearing to be overconfident and too self-satisfied after our good outings, but we were confounding the writers and announcers by bouncing back with resounding victories immediately following their assertions that we had tanked. To justify these contentions some members of the media sought to highlight examples attesting to the existence of dissension in our ranks. We accommodated them.

Postgame press conferences can be dangerous, especially after a loss. It is difficult to be responsive and courteous when anger and humiliation are still fresh on one's mind, when one is tired and bruised from several hours of extreme exertion, and when a question directed at the interviewee implies that perhaps he must explain his personal responsibility in having contributed to the team's failure.

Remarks such as, "I wish our defense had not stayed on the field so long that we cooled off while waiting to get back in there," by a member of the offensive unit, or a "We've got to stop turning the ball over so damn deep in our own territory, if they want us to keep those guys from scoring," by one of his defensive counterparts were honest expressions of how a player might be feeling. What you feel and how (and when) you express those feelings have considerably different consequences. Normally such statements are dismissed as innocent venting of postgame angst. Not, however, when other indications of unrest become manifest.

After one game, in which Jim had been the victim of five quarterback sacks, he responded to a reporter's question after the game regarding what needed to be done in order to rectify the situation, by pointing out that "House" Ballard, who was in his first year as a starting right tackle, had struggled with some of the line calls made by our center, Kent Hull. Jim expressed confidence that "House" would benefit from some of the mistakes he had committed and felt that his remarks had been honest and innocent.

That same writer moved on to Thurman's locker, and the manner in which he conveyed Jim's comments to Thurman left our star running back with the impression that Jim's words were more like, "It was all Howard Ballard's fault." Thurman, never one to watch his own words carefully anyway, leapt to the defense of his offensive line teammate by shooting back with a "Maybe Jim ought to get rid of the ball more quickly himself."

By the time Jim and Thurman left the locker room that day, they had talked with each other, had come to a full understanding of what each of them had intended by his remarks, and were once again the closest of teammates and friends. They remained close friends throughout their long careers with the Bills and even beyond. Immediately, on that day, they had put the issue behind them, but by the next morning the newspapers, wire services, and broadcast media were serving up juicy tidbits regarding the newly anointed "Bickering Bills."

From that point on, every utterance from every player was examined by the media and by the public to see if there might be any innuendo indicating internal strife. Of course there was; players carp at each other all the time, and then they go out and have dinner together. My telephone conversations with Ralph began to be punctuated by his asking, "What's going on there?" I'd tried to explain patiently, but to be honest, I was losing patience with this distracting situation.

There were a couple of other incidents also that served only to sharpen the unsettling image we had created. In the event you don't know it already, I am compelled to point out that coaches, too, experience emotions, sometimes so volatile that they erupt. One day during the staff conference we held every day prior to our team meeting, I stepped out of the room briefly for a call of nature. As I was returning down the hallway, our kicking teams coach, Bruce DeHaven, called out breathlessly, "Coach, you better get back in here right away."

When I had left the room a few minutes earlier, our offensive line coach, Tom Bresnahan, and our wide receivers coach, Nick Nicolau, had been in heated debate about some aspect of the planned practice schedule for that afternoon. When I hurried back into the meeting area, I found that Tom and Nick were no longer exchanging words. They were tussling -- not verbally, but physically. Headlocks, kicks, a few swings of the fists, and some attempts at tackling that would have embarrassed our linebacker corps greeted my eyes as I re-entered the room. Along with a couple of the other coaches, I succeeded in breaking it up. We declared the match a draw.

After Tom and Nick simmered down, they looked at each other, laughed through swollen lips, and then, sheepishly, apologized and shook hands. It was time for our team meeting to begin, but the two gladiators needed a little time for repair. I sent them down to the training room to see Richard Weiss, our team physician, while, along with the rest of the staff, I headed for the team meeting room.

The team meeting had been under way for about 20 minutes when Tom and Nick tried to slip in through the back door. They knocked over a chair, and, as all heads turned to see what the commotion was all about, there were Tom and Nick with ice packs on their cheekbones, Band-Aids on their foreheads, salve on their lips, and scrapes on their elbows seeking to appear nonchalant. Word had already filtered down to the players, courtesy of some still unidentified "Deep Throat," that an altercation had taken place, and, now as our players had verification of those early reports, they were delighted. Some spontaneous applause, accompanied by a few enthusiastic cries of "Yo-yo!" greeted the two warriors returned from combat. They were welcomed with open arms into the hallowed ranks of "The Bickering Bills."

Later that day, the ever-vigilant media, after thorough investigation of the rumors that circulated through our practice facility, substantiated that, indeed, members of our coaching staff had joined the players in the activities of this scandalous society of troublemakers. That's all I needed. That night I received another telephone call from Ralph. Guess what it was about? It wasn't the so-called bickering that was the cause of all our problems, however; it was the losing.

From being a 12-4 team just one year before, we now brought an 8-7 record into the final weekend of the regular season. Lose this one and we'd be out of the playoffs completely. We had lost three in a row entering that game, and now we had to travel to the hostile Meadowlands to face the Jets. What to do? We came up with a brilliant solution. We went out there and mangled the Jets, 37-0. We had our winning season. We had our second straight AFC East Division title. We had a bye in the first round of the playoffs. We had pulled together at the most crucial time of that otherwise dispiriting season. We had begun to show the fiber that would hold together that unique group of Bills players as they marched forth into the next decade where they would be confronted with new and exhilarating challenges.

Footnote

For those few of you who might possibly be younger than I am and who are not familiar with the details of the Watergate scandal that captivated the nation's attention in the 1970s, it should be noted that "Deep Throat" was the code name assigned to the anonymous person within the Nixon administration who leaked information to Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein so that they could break the story.
Next: Greatest comeback of all.
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.

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