This story was originally published on Oct. 15, 2015.
Fifteen years later, minds are still blown. Anger still fumes. Demons return.
When the “Music City Miracle” replays on his TV set, first Donovan Greer gets goosebumps. Then, his eyes water. Eric Moulds thinks back to the visitors’ locker room at Adelphia Coliseum, the sight of grown men crying. The special teams coordinator made the scapegoat for the loss, Bruce DeHaven, is asked about the play and pauses for 10 full seconds before finding his words.
Rob Johnson? Like everyone, he ponders what could have been. The former Buffalo Bills quarterback plans on making the cross-country trip from California to bring his kids to a game this season.
“The fans might boo me,” he says, only half-joking.
Johnson absolutely knows his legacy, the team’s legacy, history as we know it is rewritten if not for the “Music City Miracle.”
Sunday, the Bills return to Nashville for only the third time since that numbing 22-16 wild-card loss to the Tennessee Titans. The scars cut deep. Not only did a legitimate Super Bowl contender lose in the most gut-punch, controversial manner imaginable.
This franchise still has not recovered. Buffalo hasn’t made the postseason since.
“It’s almost like a curse,” kicker Steve Christie said. “I don’t need to tell you. Look at the team’s record since that game. Look at all the coaches we’ve had. Look at the GMs. Look at the personnel upstairs, management, everything.”
Add it up: 15 seasons, 103 wins, 143 losses, eight head coaches, zero playoff games.
The exorcism of those demons continues Sunday in Nashville for the 2015 Bills. Fifteen years ago, the Bills lost on one of the most surreal plays in NFL history. This is the oral history of a play that changed a franchise.
Chapter 1: Shock
The Bills were led by Doug Flutie … until they weren’t.
In 1998, Flutiemania had captured the imagination of Buffalonians and beyond from a game-winning touchdown against Jacksonville, to “Flutie Flakes” to the Pro Bowl. And, in 1999, while his numbers were average (3,171 yards, 19 touchdowns, 16 interceptions with a 75.1 rating), the 5-foot-10 QB in a cape still led the Bills to a 10-5 record.
Coach Wade Phillips rested Flutie in Week 17 with a playoff spot secure and Rob Johnson – the one anointed the face of the franchise and given a five-year, $25 million contract – threw for 287 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-6 win over the AFC East-champion Indianapolis Colts. To the shock of players, fans, the Titans and Johnson himself, Buffalo then named Johnson the starter for the postseason.
Years later, Phillips said on NFL Network that owner Ralph Wilson ordered him to start Johnson.
Either way, Buffalo became the only team in NFL history to bench their healthy starting quarterback in the postseason. Attempts to reach Flutie were unsuccessful.
Rob Johnson, Bills quarterback: That Monday, Wade comes up to me and says, “You’re starting.” I said, “You’re joking. Really?” I looked at him and asked, “Is this your call or Ralph’s call?” I can’t believe I said that. I think I was just fed up with the whole year. And he said, “It’s my call.” I was so pumped. I called everyone. I had about 20 people at the game.
Steve Christie, Bills kicker: It was more of a political decision. In fairness to Ralph Wilson, you don’t make that decision going into the playoffs. You hired your head coach to make that decision. We were in the locker room going “What?!” We thought it was a joke at first. Then we weren’t smiling when we found out this was true.
John Holecek, Bills linebacker: Rob had that gun. He could throw that deep out better than Doug. And I think Doug’s arm was getting a little bit tired at the end of the season. Really, the coaches saw what each could do. You did see the benefits of Rob Johnson, of course.
Eric Moulds, Bills wide receiver: I kind of knew something was up when my position coach at the time said, “You may not like this decision that’s about to happen.” Then Wade made the announcement in a team meeting. There was complete silence. You could see players looking at each other in confusion.
Joe Cummings, Bills linebacker: I think Doug’s arm was getting a little bit tired at the end of the season. The thought from our coaches was that if we combined this laser-beamed Rob Johnson with our defense, then maybe we make the next leap in the playoffs because Doug didn’t have the same year he had in 1998. But there were some guys in the room saying, “Wait, we just won 10 games with this guy.”
Johnson: It was always fine when Doug was playing because he’s not a guy I’d hang out with but when I started to get the reps and attention, there was a lot of whispering behind my back. It was bad. I don’t like that.. I’m a team guy. I never complained outwardly to anyone about Doug playing and me having to sit. … There would be anonymous quotes that I take sacks so I don’t get incompletions for my quarterback rating. That was complete BS. He was not helpful like you think a vet would be to a 25-year-old kid.
I wish I had free run without the most popular guy ever sitting behind you. It would’ve been nice to see what could’ve been. Because every play, I thought I could be pulled. I’d shoot up for practice so I wouldn’t lose my job. It wasn’t a great situation to develop a young quarterback.
Donovan Greer, cornerback: Let’s be honest, Rob had all the tangibles to be a great quarterback but there was something magical about Doug. Whoever’s the best guy, put him in. Guys don’t like the politics in professional sports.
Christie: Rob played well against the Colts in the final game of the season, but both teams were already in the playoffs so the game meant nothing. Everybody felt, “Why?” When you sit back and think about it – Wow. What were they thinking? Doug earned it. He deserved it. He led this team. I still go back and say, “What a crazy decision.”
Moulds: I felt that with the chemistry myself and Doug Flutie had, it took away from that. When you’ve got chemistry with a quarterback and the offensive line has chemistry, you don’t want to mess with it. So I was shocked like everybody else was because I felt we were on our way to big things.
Johnson: That whole Flutie Mania that first year was crazy. That second year wasn’t the same. We won. But we were winning because of our run game and our defense.
Blaine Bishop, Titans safety: I was excited they decided to go with Rob Johnson. I never wanted to play, as a defensive back, against Doug Flutie. He had magic to him. Even though Rob Johnson had more arm talent, we knew exactly where he would be. He’d be right in the pocket. And as a blitzing defense, “X” marks the spot.
Johnson: I did take too many sacks but I don’t think it ever truly hurt the team.
Bishop: It was more shock. Both of those guys were pretty good but you go with the hot hand and Flutie was hot. I just thought they would stick with him.
Moulds: It was a tough situation because when you’re going into a playoff game you want to have a clear mind and just say ‘I’m going to concentrate on the game.’ Now, you have to deal with the questions of ‘How do you feel about Rob starting?’ It was draining.
Christie: What do you have to do to keep your starting position? He won 10 games. It really made no sense. No sense whatsoever. And ultimately the football gods made something happen that day.
Chapter 2: What-if’s
Buffalo still entered the playoffs with the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense – a vicious collection of junkyard dogs from Bruce Smith, Ted Washington and Phil Hansen up front to Holecek, Sam Cowart and Sam Rogers at linebacker. Before the game, Moulds spoke with Titans quarterback Steve McNair and both agreed the winner of this game would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
To both sidelines, this felt like the AFC Championship.
But for Buffalo, the “what-ifs” were constant. Maddening. The “miracle” could’ve been prevented countless times.
Pick your play.
One defensive offside on Smith negated a fumble recovery. On McNair’s 1-yard touchdown run, Rogers was held. Johnson overthrew Kevin Williams on a potential touchdown by an inch. A juggling Peerless Price catch was ruled incomplete and not reviewed by officials with less than two minutes to go in the first half.
Already down one starting tackle, the Bills’ other (left tackle John Fina) couldn’t plant. He was beat for a sack/fumble and benched – Johnson was sacked five times in the first half alone, once for a safety, as the Bills’ trailed 12-0 at halftime.
Defensively, injuries mounted to the point where Holecek says the Bills basically abandoned their nickel and dime defenses. Fatigue set in. He called a timeout out of mercy.
Buffalo woke up, took the lead in the fourth quarter on two Antowain Smith touchdowns but a two-point play bounced off Williams’ hands. And then – with six minutes left – a McNair pass ricocheted off Holecek’s arm to Frank Wycheck for a first down that helped set up the field goal that gave the Titans a 15-13 lead with 1:48 to go.
Even on what appeared to be the Bills’ game-winning drive, Johnson lost his shoe while scrambling for 3 yards. With one cleat on the next play, he scrambled to hit Price for 9 yards and then Christie trotted onto the field for a 41-yard attempt.
With 20 seconds to go – out of timeouts – Phillips elected to kick.
Get all that?
Holecek: I was talking to (defensive coordinator) Ted Cottrell a couple years ago because he was doing a clinic. He said, “John, remember when you called that timeout?” I said, “Not really.” Wade yelled, “Why the (expletive) is he calling that timeout?” As I walk over to the sideline, he asked, “Why did you call the timeout?” Because we couldn’t … breathe!
I’m guarding Wycheck and, our coach would always say, if it gets into a scramble drill, you can basketball defend him. Just turn your back and shield him. McNair threw the ball, it hit me in the elbow, it bounced up and he caught it for a key first-down conversion. It’s one of those games of inches. That’s what we always talked about in the “Plaster drill.” Plaster your receiver.
Kevin Dyson, Titans wide receiver: You talk about a game of inches, there’s a play right there that could’ve changed the outcome of the game. We wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to have the miracle.
Johnson: The biggest thing is, we didn’t stop fighting. … I remember they knocked my shoe off. Ripped my shoe off. And the ref is yelling at me, “You’ve got to get out of the game!” I said, “Well, you’ve got to give me a timeout.” He said, “No.” And I just snapped the ball for one more play. I didn’t have my shoe on and I think Wade wanted to run another play to take time off the clock, which was smart. He wanted to but with my shoe off and we didn’t have timeouts, so what are the chances?
Bruce DeHaven, Bills special teams coach: I wished we took more time off the clock when he kicked it. That wasn’t my decision. That was something I was trying to encourage.
Christie: You don’t want to mess with the clock too much. Sometimes you kick on third down in case there’s a bad snap and you just bury the ball, back up and do it again. … The kick went in and obviously we knew there was time on the clock. So all we have to do is cover the kick – that’s it – cover the kickoff.
Bishop: The first thing I thought after that kick is, “Where am I going for vacation? The season’s over.” The Bahamas was coming to my mind real quick. I just wanted to get out of there.
Johnson: After the game, on my voicemail I had about 20 voicemails saying, “Awesome! We’re going to Indy next week!” And then there’s 20 more like ‘Oh man, I’m sorry,” just in shock.
Chapter 3: The Throwback
For 18 years, the “Home Run Throwback” went unused in Alan Lowry’s playbook. Long ago, while on the Dallas Cowboys’ staff, the Titans special teams coordinator saw Southern Methodist use the play against Texas Tech, talked to SMU’s staff and stashed it away for a rainy day.
Every Saturday, the Titans practiced the play at half-speed. Just in case.
Then, when Lowry needed it this game, he was undermanned. The No. 1 option on the play (Derrick Mason) had a concussion and the No. 2 (Anthony Dorsett) was out with cramps. So the No. 3 option, receiver Isaac Byrd, was told he’d catch the horizontal pass from Frank Wycheck. And Dyson, who was getting intravenous fluids himself in the third quarter, was suddenly thrown into the mix as a trailer.
All year, the Titans prepared for a squib kick on the play. Never a pooch.
Buffalo’s DeHaven decided to pooch kick it.
With 16 seconds left, Christie’s kick landed into the hands of fullback Lorenzo Neal at the 25-yard line. At which point, Wycheck says Eddie George actually walked to the bench to grab his helmet. He couldn’t watch. After all, they all called Neal “Spoons” because he couldn’t catch. Neal hung on and then came the debilitating double-shift of action. Neal blindly handed the ball back to Wycheck like a baton as the action swayed. The Bills coverage unit – see: Cummings, Daryl Porter, everyone but the safeties Christie and Greer – broke their lanes and pursued Wycheck left.
Then, the action swayed right. Wycheck hurled the ball, um, laterally.
His man, Byrd, had slipped to the turf but Dyson stepped up, caught the ball and the impossible happened.
Alan Lowry, Titans ST coordinator: You have everything started one way and then you’re able to throw it back across the field the other way. If you did it right, you’re able to get everybody chasing it. I took 10 guys and talked to them – most of them had done it and knew what they were going to do. Jeff Fisher took Kevin Dyson and gave him all the what-if’s for the play and he was able to adjust.
Dyson: I had seen the play with one foot in practice and one foot out of the door to get to our cars and out of Dodge. So I had an idea how to do it.
DeHaven: The thing I was worried about was if they got the ball out to the 50-yard line – if there was enough time for one pass – and they kicked the field goal to win the ball game. We had a situation that year where we squibbed a kick and the team ran it back to the 50-yard line because they pushed everybody up. We had a situation where we kicked it deep and they ran it back because everybody sat down a little bit shorter.
Cummings: When you pooch it, you have time. You’re trying to beat them to the punch. You’re mashing ’em up instead of letting it roll around and letting them figure it out. They only needed a field goal to win. In today’s game, the play never happens, right? The lines are moved up and it’s not even a possibility.
Wycheck: I was a catcher from when I was 8 years old, all the way through high school. So I always could throw it. Bruce Matthews is on the team, so we’d have “reindeer games,” we called them. We’d have this throwing game where we have to hit each other in the numbers and we’re like 15 yards away from each other and keep points just to kill time. And (assistant coach) Les Steckel saw me throwing. We were playing Atlanta and they were a Cover 4 team and Eugene Robinson was really aggressive. As soon as he saw the ball on a quick pass, he was buzzing up. So we had a play called “Falcon” that we put in as a bubble screen behind and a double-pass. And I end up throwing a 61-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Byrd. So that’s how Les discovered me and what led to that play.
Holecek: We had so many injuries, they were basically asking people “Who wants to be on kickoff?” I wasn’t one of those guys who wanted to volunteer. I don’t run as well as the others. So I remember Sam Rogers – who’s still a great friend – the starting “Sam” linebacker goes out there to cover a kickoff.
Wycheck: I wasn’t a 4.3 40 guy. So for people to think I was going to take it to the house, I mean, that’s pretty funny. Rogers was the guy. He almost was like puzzled at what was going on because he stopped. He didn’t full-speed unload into me like he would normally. He hesitated when I pulled up to throw it. And it was a blur from there because I didn’t see who I was throwing it to.
Dyson: I saw Byrd kind of fall or stumble, I saw Frank’s arm wheeling back and here comes the football. Instincts kicked in.
Christie: It started to the right but then it ended up on the left, then next thing you know it’s back on the right. Uh-oh. Everybody’s caught. And the blocks are all keyed to keep them there. Once you see the ball switch fields like that, then all of a sudden it’s natural instincts. You’re in pursuit mode. But the thing is, when you throw it to the other part of the field, we didn’t have the numbers on the other side. Guys were already blocked away from that. So they’re probably thinking, “Hey man, I’ve got a free lane!” And then you realize the ball’s thrown and all of a sudden you’re blocked. We’re supposed to pin them in – and they pinned us in.
DeHaven: Even with what happened I still think it was a pretty good call. Alan Lowry told me a couple weeks later at the scouting combine, “That was the one kick we hadn’t practiced, so we had to kind of make it up.”
Cummings: His call was exceptional. I don’t think you can say it was a bad call. I think it was a bold call. And we didn’t get it done as players. With Bruce DeHaven, there was nothing in his eyes that said, “I’m scared.” There was nothing in his eyes that said, “What should I do?” He had a plan. We didn’t execute.
Dyson: There was a brief moment in there when I thought, “Get out of bounds. Kick the field goal to win.” But when Steve Christie fell down, it was smooth sailing from there.
Wycheck: Surreal. It was a blur. You’re on Cloud Nine with the euphoria – I couldn’t believe it. I hit the ground like, “I can’t believe this.” Guys are hugging each other. I gestured to my family in the stands. And then everything else afterward, when you look back on it, you see the sidelines, the fans, that all gives you the chills.
Holecek: I was standing next to Doug Flutie and our mouths just dropped open like, “That just did not happen.” There is no way. It’s shock. Your breath is taken away.
Cummings: I remember John Holecek coming into the locker room and just shaking his head in shock because they just beat the hell out of Eddie George. He just kept shaking his head like, “We just beat that man.” He put a whuppin’ on him that day.
Chapter 4: Controversy
Of course, it took a long review by head official Phil Luckett to confirm the touchdown. Luckett ruled Wycheck’s cross-field pass was not forward. The Titans rejoiced, Phillips erupted, players cried.
Some for joy, some in agony.
Moulds: It definitely was a forward pass. You can see the line where Frank threw it – he was on the line – and then when he throws the pass it goes across the line.
Wycheck: If you look at my arm release point and the way I whipped it back I kind of took one step and jumped and threw it so I had to throw backwards. Was it close? Yes. But where Dyson was, he was in front of me so I threw it back. That’s where it’s tough for Bills fans to take because they can’t get past the illusion. But I knew by the way I threw it, my arm couldn’t go forward.
Greer: The call could’ve gone either way but I think it was a forward lateral. If you look at the trajectory of the football itself, typically when you lateral, the football is going to go behind the original line of scrimmage from where the ball is released. To me, the ball did not travel backward. It was a matter of inches of going forward.
Lowry: It was exactly straight. If anything, it was slightly back. I have a – I don’t know where they got the picture from – but it almost looks like a satellite picture or something and it shows the ball going straight or maybe slightly backward. I can understand where they’re coming from, too, in saying it was a forward lateral because it was so close.
Wycheck: I’ve always kidded about having a food tester whenever I went back to Buffalo.
Greer: Hey, that’s why you have homefield advantage. At home – with such a close call like that – the refs just gave it to Tennessee. Had he not, he would’ve been escorted out of that stadium.
Moulds: You felt like we put our blood, sweat and tears into winning that football game and we felt like the officials took it away from us. It was very difficult from the locker room – usually the coach comes in and says a few things but there was complete silence. The coaches. The players. No one said anything. Guys just sat at their lockers. But at the same time, we knew the media was going to come in so we had to gather ourselves and keep our composure and Wade said to not say anything in the media that’s going to affect this organization. So we gathered ourselves and guys were crying. Some guys felt that was their last chance to really get an opportunity.
Christie: A day or so later, I call Bruce DeHaven just to check in with him and he said, “Well, Wade just fired me.” And then next year was awful. Awful. That was the beginning of the end.
Chapter 5: The Aftermath
Instead of competing for the Super Bowl and building another dynasty, the Bills self-destructed.
Phillips replaced DeHaven with his friend Ronnie Jones (who never held the position before) and Buffalo’s special teams units deteriorated. Christie and punter Chris Mohr actually held their own special teams meetings on Fridays to help the rookies. The Flutie/Johnson charade dragged along through an 8-8 season. Defensive starters aged and/or departed. Phillips was fired and the Bills spiraled into an abyss they still have not escaped.
One game, one play, changed the franchise for years.
Christie: It was a disaster. It led to the darkest time in the Bills’ history. We had a head coach who was a bounty hunter for goodness sakes! It couldn’t get any worse – and it all stemmed from the Music City Miracle.
In the NFL, you can’t just put your pal in there and expect it to work. Bruce has always had a job, which tells you he’s one of the best and they let him go over a kick. It just got dirty after that. The team got dirty.
Moulds: It’s like there was a force shield against us. We went 2-0 and then things started to unravel. It was a curse was going against Buffalo. I can remember being in Miami – we were up, 21-0, and they can’t move the ball and their defense can’t stop us. Then, all of a sudden, they come back to beat us, 24-23. It’s like anything that could go wrong is going wrong. People don’t understand how torn that team was after that.
Christie: I worked out for the Titans and it just felt so bizarre. I thought, “You know what? I’d rather waste my time around Nashville than work out for these guys because Lord knows I don’t want to be here.”
Dyson: The year I became a free agent, I took a visit there and I didn’t think I was going to get out of Buffalo. There was people who were sending emails to the franchise saying you can’t sign me and do that to the franchise. The equipment manager was adamant it was a forward lateral. I told him and I told the media that if they sign me to a major contract, I’ll call it a forward lateral until I retire.
DeHaven: I said after the game I take full responsibility for it. It was on my watch. I stand by that.
Greer: I don’t start crying but my eyes will water a little bit. That team should have – at least – represented the AFC in the Super Bowl. We had that game won. To lose it in that fashion, you have no idea how that hurts.
Johnson: If we could’ve won that, you never know, things could’ve been different.
Christie: Every team runs in a cycle, I just don’t understand how the Bills’ cycle is now 15 years. It does not make sense.
Story topics: Tyler Dunne