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High-flying squads of '80s left indelible memories

Buffalo News sports reporter Milt Northrop covered the Bills from 1981 to 1990.

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Some Bills games are better remembered than others, perhaps because the outcome was arrived at in an unexpected way or because bit players stepped out of the wings and played major roles to make them memorable.

Here are a few personal highlights from 10 seasons and 152 games as the lead reporter on the Bills beat.

*Nov. 22, 1981: Bills 20, Patriots 17 -- The press box at the stadium had emptied as Buffalo appeared headed for its third loss in a row and was in danger of missing the playoffs when it trailed New England, 17-13. There were only 35 seconds left, and the Bills were on their own 27-yard line with no timeouts. With 12 seconds left the Bills lined up in their Big Ben formation from the New England 36. Joe Ferguson heaved the ball toward the end zone and it ricocheted off New England linebacker Mike Hawkins into the hands of Roland Hooks for the winning touchdown with 5 seconds left.

*Dec. 6, 1981: Bills 28, Chargers 27 -- Playing against Air Coryell teams of the early 1980s, you always waited for the explosion. The Bills had managed to frustrate the Chargers with special teams plays, a bend-but-don't break defense and by taking care of the ball and the clock. This time, the Chargers, badly needing a victory, looked like they would not be denied. They kept threatening after the Bills had taken their first lead of the game. San Diego seemed headed for the winning score in the last two minutes, but on second-and-9 in field goal range Chargers running back Chuck Muncie was stripped by Ben Williams and Steve Freeman of the Bills and Rufus Bess (remember him?) recovered for Buffalo. The Bills ran out the remaining 1:52, secured when backup tight end Buster Barnett (remember him?) caught a 16-yard pass to pick up a vital first down.

After the game I happened to end up in the same restaurant as a few Chargers players -- Ed White, Don Macek and Willie Buchanon. They were crying in their beer, bemoaning the fact that the loss might have cost them a playoff berth with a road game at Tampa Bay and a home game against the defending Super Bowl champion Raiders left. As it turned out, San Diego won both games and ended up advancing to the AFC Championship Game at Cincinnati in arctic conditions in January.

*Dec. 19, 1981: Dolphins 16, Bills 6 -- On a Saturday afternoon, Miami had a shot at winning the AFC East with a victory. The game's only touchdown came in the first quarter when Miami quarterback David Woodley hit rookie back Tommy Vigorito for a 7-yard score. The Bills wasted scoring chances. Frank Lewis carelessly stepped out of bounds with his second step to rub out a completion inside the Miami 5. Another drive inside the 5 died after two holding penalties against guard Conrad Dobler. After the game, Dobler made his infamous remarks about "hoping something bad would happen" to the family of the referee who made the calls. Dobler was furious when I reported his remarks in The News, but they already were on the Associated Press wire by the time I filed my story.

*1982: The infamous strike season. Vic Carucci had joined our staff as the second man on the beat, and the Bills were off to a 2-0 start after a Thursday night win over Minnesota. That happened to be the last game covered by the Buffalo Courier-Express before it folded. The frustrating nine-week NFL players strike followed. It was even more frustrating because it seemed Western New York was blessed with gorgeous fall weather every Sunday in October and November, but there was no football. When the season resumed, the Bills lost to Miami and Green Bay, and beat Baltimore and Pittsburgh. With a 4-2 record, they still had playoff hopes as they headed for a two-game Florida swing, first to Tampa Bay and then for a Monday night game in Miami with a week of practice in Vero Beach, Fla., in between.

At Tampa Stadium on Dec. 19, the Bills were positioning themselves for the winning field goal in the final minute when Bucs All-Pro defensive end Lee Roy Selmon knocked the ball from fullback Roosevelt Leaks. Tampa Bay recovered to preserve the victory. Now it was on to Vero Beach for Christmas.

The year before the Bills had trained at Vero for the late-season game against Miami. At Dodgertown, Chuck Knox and his staff had cooked up some new formations to surprise the Dolphins -- a shift out of the usual pro set. But, when Joe Ferguson called out the signal for the shift on the Bills' first play, Miami automatically adjusted. The Dolphins were ready for it. They apparently had been tipped off by a spy at Vero.

This time at Vero, Knox tightened the security measures at the sprawling complex. However, in the middle of practice one day, an Orchard Park friend of Knox's and his entourage paraded through the orange groves right to the practice field. So much for tight security.

Once in Miami the Bills jumped in front early for a change when Joe Cribbs ran 62 yards for a touchdown on the game's first play, and they boosted the lead to 10-0 on an Efren Herrera field goal. The Bills, though, gave Miami 17 second-half points. In practice during the week, I noticed that Bills punt returner "Radar" Holt was having difficulty fielding the punts from Greg Cater during the special teams period. Sure enough, Holt muffed a punt at his 2-yard line against Miami, leading to the go-ahead touchdown.

*Oct. 9, 1983: Bills 38, Dolphins 35 (OT) -- Buffalo had gone 17 years without a victory in Miami but the streak ended on this steamy afternoon at the Orange Bowl when Ferguson passed for what were then Bills records -- 419 yards and 38 completions -- and Joe Danelo kicked a 36-yard field goal in overtime. The winning field goal was set up by a 35-yard Ferguson pass to Mike Mosley (remember him?).

The game also was historic because it was the first start for Miami rookie quarterback Dan Marino. One of the Miami TDs was a pass from receiver Mark Clayton to Mark Duper for 48 yards. It was also the birth of Miami's famed Marks Brothers receiving tandem.

Despite the win, the feeling was that Marino would prove to be a huge and perhaps insurmountable presence for the Bills the rest of his career. That prediction proved wrong in the end. Although a much feared and respected opponent, Marino hardly dominated the Bills.

*Dec. 22, 1985: Dolphins 28, Bills 0 -- The Bills ended the season with a miserable loss. Buffalo racked up a team record 19 penalties and managed only 11 first downs. Hank Bullough was the coach and Bruce Mathison the starting quarterback. In addition to having to sit through the embarrassing loss, Bills General Manager Terry Bledsoe also had to deal with the knowledge that he was about to be fired. Bill Polian was his replacement.

*Nov. 2, 1986: Buccaneers 34, Bills 28 -- Bullough's last game was one in which the Bills nearly erased a 20-0 deficit. Buffalo was pushing for the winning touchdown when, on fourth down at the Bucs' goal line, Jim Kelly handcuffed Robb Riddick with a pass from point blank range. Riddick, playing with a cast on his hand, couldn't handle the fastball and the threat died. So did Bullough's stint as head coach. Marv Levy was brought in the next day and the rest is history. Kelly completed 20 of his first 22 passes in the game, the best showing of his first Bills season.

*Nov. 29, 1987: Bills 27, Dolphins 0 -- Few people seem to remember this game, but it was significant and satisfying. On a cloudy Sunday after Thanksgiving in Orchard Park, the Bills pounded the Dolphins for 446 yards, 229 on 47 running plays. Ronnie Harmon had 119 yards on 23 carries. Ricky Porter (remember him?) ran for 67 and Jamie Mueller had 32. The Bills shut out Marino and Co. and intercepted Dan three times, limiting him to 165 yards passing. It was a hint of the future success that was to come against Don Shula, Marino and the Dolphins.

*1988: The Bills started 4-0 on their way to the division championship and a 12-4 regular season. Five of the wins were by three or fewer points, with Scott Norwood kicking late game or overtime winners in four of them.

*1989: The year of the Bickering Bills. The season ended with the 34-30 playoff loss at Cleveland, the game that led to extensive use of the K-Gun formation in the 1990 march to the Super Bowl. There were two back-breaking plays. First was Eric Metcalf's 90-yard kickoff return against the usually reliable Bills coverage unit. That made it 31-21. The other, of course, was Harmon's dropped pass in the end zone on the potentially winning play.

*1990: The season was a triumphant blur with a bitter ending. . . . Three TDs in 1:17 to shock the Broncos, 29-28, on Sunday night TV in Orchard Park. The next week, 24 points in the fourth quarter overcame a 24-14 Raiders lead. . . . The 42-0 rout of the Browns in Cleveland as Bills fans took over a stadium deserted by Browns fans and chanted "Super Bowl . . . Super Bowl," as the clock ticked down. It was Bud Carson's last game as Browns head coach. . . . The 24-0 first quarter blitzing of Buddy Ryan's Eagles on the way to a 30-23 victory. . . . Jim Kelly's knee injury in the win over the Giants on a wintry Saturday afternoon in the New Jersey Meadowlands. The Giants also lost quarterback Phil Simms to injury and Jeff Hostetler took over as quarterback the rest of the way, including the 20-19 Super Bowl win over the Bills. . . . Frank Reich taking over for Kelly and directing the 24-14 win over Miami to clinch the division championship. . . . Finally, the 51-3 rout of the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game. Just a few hours after the game we were on a media charter headed to Tampa for Super Bowl XXV, a journey few of us ever thought was possible.

e-mail: mnorthrop@buffnews.com

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