This Wednesday marks the 25th anniversary of the Bills’ 51-3 victory over the Raiders in the 1991 AFC Championship Game. Yes, it has been a quarter of a century since they qualified for their first Super Bowl at a frigid, emotional Rich Stadium during the height of the first Gulf War.
That game, combined with a 44-34 win over Miami in the snow the previous week, was the high point in the coaching career of Ted Marchibroda, who died on Saturday at 84. It represented the full expression of a coordinator’s pioneering offensive vision.
Of course, Marchibroda’s toughest loss would come just one week later in Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, when a Giants defense masterminded by Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick neutralized Buffalo’s celebrated no-huddle, K-Gun attack in a 20-19 upset.
That was no small irony. It was Marchibroda, as a first-year head coach in Baltimore, who gave Belichick his first NFL job in 1975 at age 22. The kid they called “Billy” was willing and eager to work those interminable coaching hours for $25 a week. Based on the mythic 100-hour coaching week, that was 25 cents an hour.
Belichick is forever grateful to Marchibroda for giving him his coaching start in the league. Early Saturday evening, after New England beat the Chiefs, 27-20, to reach a 10th conference title game, the Pats’ head coach was uncommonly emotional.
“I wouldn’t be here if not for Ted Marchibroda,” Belichick said in his postgame remarks.
Belichick surely would have found his way to the NFL in time. But it was Marchibroda who gave him his start in the profession and showed him the tireless work ethic required to succeed. He became part of the Colts’ pre-dawn coaching meetings. At times, they held staff meetings in Belichick’s car.
Early in his career, Marchibroda was criticized for being too conservative. I remember talking with him late in the 1989 season, when the Bills were in a rough offensive patch and Jim Kelly was lobbying openly for a more aggressive attack. It was shortly before the “Bickering Bills” saga unfolded in Buffalo.
“I’ve learned that once you get the reputation as an early riser, then you can sleep ’til noon,” Marchibroda said back then.
That was one of Ted’s favorite expressions. He and Marv Levy both battled the fact that once you were labeled as a conservative coach, it was difficult to shake the reputation. But Marchibroda was a bright, humble man, open to radical new ideas and unafraid to stretch the perceived limits of offensive football.
Kelly was given credit for pushing the Bills to use the no-huddle and allow him to call his own plays. It’s true. He was calling for a more aggressive offense from the moment he got here. But Marchibroda was flexible enough to see the possibilities in an offense that forced the action and maximized the gifts of an immensely talented group of offensive skill players.
Buffalo sports history is richer for it, and to this day, NFL offenses reflect some of Marchibroda’s innovative concepts. Belichick, who has gone from defensive guru to offensive trend setter during his 16 years in New England, was certainly influenced by it.
Marchibroda didn’t invent the no-huddle, and he’s not the only coach to use a fast tempo.
Offensive football has changed in a myriad of ways over the past quarter century. It has become a much faster, pass-oriented sport. Spreading defenses with a quick-strike passing game has become standard practice in college.
When Marchibroda got his first head coaching job in 1975, NFL teams ran 58 percent of the time. This season, teams passed on 58 percent of their offensive plays. Over a 40-year span, the pass-run ratio has been flipped on its head. Passing yardage in the league increased this season for the eighth year in a row.
So Marchibroda’s vision still shines in today’s NFL – and through the concepts of his former protege in New England. Belichick believes in playing fast and dictating to opponents.
In the week before the K.C. game, the theme within the Pats’ offense was attacking the Chiefs, who had been jumping on teams early during their 11-game winning streak.
Marchibroda, who was a star quarterback at St. Bonaventure, would have loved the way the Pats came out Saturday on the game’s opening drive. Brady passed on all 11 plays in New England’s opening, 80-yard touchdown drive. He threw 14 times before the Pats finally ran the ball with 38 seconds left in the first quarter.
I imagine Ted also would have been gratified to see Cam Newton and the Panthers running some no-huddle against a befuddled Seahawks defense on Sunday. And no doubt, a lot of Bills fans were flashing back to that ’91 title game rout of the Raiders – which was 41-3 at halftime – when Carolina was up 31-0 in the second quarter.
There was nothing fancy in Carolina’s approach, or in Marchibroda’s offenses. Above all, Marchibroda believed in simplicity. The K-Gun was a simple, lethal offense. Thurman Thomas, the engine of the attack, liked to say they had only a few basic running plays because no one could stop them. Why complicate it?
Those Bills believed in letting the talent dictate the system, rather than forcing a system on the players. It’s an approach that would have come in handy for Rex Ryan this season, rather than shoving his own defensive schemes down his players’ throats.
Marchibroda said he didn’t feel the pressure of running the Bills’ offense from 1989-91. He was smart enough to know it was about players. He said the only real pressure came when you were on the spot and didn’t have the talent.
Coaching matters, of course. It must be a little tough for Bills fans to know that Marchibroda, the architect of the K-Gun offense, was also the man who gave Belichick, their most reviled nemesis, his start as a coach in the NFL.
But as a former quarterback, Marchibroda would tell you it comes back to Brady. He was terrific against the Chiefs, throwing for 302 yards against a defense that hadn’t allowed a 300-yard passer during an 11-game winning streak. The Pats didn’t turn the ball over against a D that was plus-20 in turnover differential.
Brady is 22-8 in his career in the playoffs. The Bills have 14 playoff wins in their history. Next Sunday, Brady will play in his fifth AFC title game, tying Kenny Stabler’s NFL record for consecutive conference title appearances.
In the year after Deflategate, that might be tough to swallow. But on the silver anniversary of the 51-3 game, Bills fans can take renewed pride in knowing that their team got to four in a row – and won them all.