“This could be a prelude to a possible Super Bowl matchup in January.”
That’s how NBC’s Dick Enberg set the stage for the matchup between the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers in Week Two of the 1992 season.
Even with that as the buildup, Enberg had no idea what he was about to witness. The Bills and 49ers would put on dazzling offensive performances that September day at Candlestick Park, combining for 1,086 yards. Buffalo prevailed, 34-31, and along the way, history was made.
Neither team punted throughout the entire game – the first time that ever happened in the NFL. Today, just three such games have occurred in the regular season, but the others don’t carry the legacy of what has simply become known as the “No Punt Game.”
Bills quarterback Jim Kelly and his 49ers counterpart, Steve Young, both threw for more than 400 yards in a performance reminiscent of their USFL duels. While 400 yards has become more commonplace in today’s pass-happy NFL, it was a rarity in 1992. In fact, there wasn’t a single other 400-yard passing performance that entire season, by any quarterback.
“Back then, man, I mean both of those offenses were almost unstoppable,” Bills coach Rex Ryan said. “That’s kind of the way it played out.”
Young and Kelly won’t be on the field Sunday when the 49ers visit New Era Field. Quite the opposite, in fact. The 49ers enter the game 31st in the NFL in passing, averaging just 170 yards per game. They’ll start a new quarterback in Colin Kaepernick after benching Blaine Gabbert.
The only team the 49ers are ahead of in passing offense is the Bills, who rank dead last with 169.4 yards per game through the air.
Under first-year coach Chip Kelly, San Francisco has dropped four straight after winning its season opener. The Bills, meanwhile, have erased a miserable 0-2 start by winning three straight, but don’t expect Fox play-by-play man Dick Stockton to start Sunday’s broadcast talking up how two Super Bowl contenders are about to take the field – as Enberg did a little more than 24 years ago in the Bay.
Back in June, the NFL held a vote through Facebook asking fans to pick 96 of the most memorable games in history – three from each team. Those games were then released in their entirety on YouTube in August.
Bills fans chose the Greatest Comeback game against the Houston Oilers, the 1990 AFC Championship Game against the Raiders … and the No Punt Game as their selections.
This is the oral history of that game.
An early season test
The 49ers were coming off a 10-6 season in 1991, the first in which Young replaced Joe Montana as quarterback. They got off to a 4-6 start that year, but ended the season with six straight wins, including a 52-14 thrashing of an 11-win Chicago Bears team in the season finale.
Former 49ers kicker Mike Cofer: “We were a really good team at the end of that ’91 season. We farted around early in the year, and that kept us out of the playoffs, but we absolutely ripped the Bears in the last game of the season. We knew we were going to be a team to beat the next year. We expected to win every time we stepped on the field.”
Even coming off back-to-back Super Bowl appearances and a 40-7 steamrolling of the Los Angeles Rams in the ’92 season opener, the Bills entered the game as 3.5-point underdogs.
Bills receiver and special teams ace Steve Tasker: “That didn’t surprise me. I mean, they were really, really good with Steve Young and Jerry Rice and that whole gang out there.”
Bills running back Thurman Thomas: “We knew that they were potentially a team who could go to the Super Bowl. … We had a bunch of veteran players on our team. We didn’t care about the point spread. We didn’t worry about leaving a day early. We had been in situations like that before and knew how to handle it. Those teams throughout the Super Bowl years, we were never, ever lacking in confidence. That was the last thing on our minds. We felt very confident in every single game that we played.”
For as loaded as those Bills teams were, with Kelly throwing to Andre Reed and James Lofton and Thomas running the ball, the 49ers were every bit their talent equal. Young was throwing to Jerry Rice and John Taylor, with Ricky Watters in the backfield, not to mention each team having tight ends and an offensive line it could count on.
Reed: “It was me and Jim against Steve and Jerry. It was Thurman against Ricky Watters. There was a bunch of Hall of Famers on that field. It just felt like it was going to come down to who had the ball last. We all had incentive to play well, because we were going on the road to play a really good football team. I remember thinking that it was going to be a high-scoring game.”
There was also a novelty aspect at work. The Bills and 49ers had met only four previous times.
Bills defensive end Phil Hansen: “We were excited to go out there, but it’s always hard for an East Coast team to go out to the West Coast. We knew we were going to have our hands full against that team.”
Bills free safety Kurt Schultz: “That was the first start of my career. I’m like, ‘You couldn’t give me something a little easier than this, playing against Jerry Rice?’ Growing up in Washington, I was a Seahawks fan, but you would see some 49ers games. They just had this star-studded cast. My family was coming down to watch the game, so I was a little bit of a mess emotionally. It’s crazy how some things are still so fresh in my mind. That’s one of those games I’ll never forget, for sure.”
Light, scattered clouds and a temperature of 75 degrees greeted teams for the 1 p.m. PST kickoff. The 49ers received it, and on the first play of the game, Young completed a 13-yard pass to Rice. At the end of the play, Schultz delivered a massive hit to the greatest receiver in history. Rice would stay in the game, but not for long.
San Francisco drove to the Bills’ 15-yard line. On a third-and-19 play, Young completed another pass to Rice, but the receiver took a hard hit from Henry Jones and Hansen and would not return.
Candlestick was also home to MLB’s San Francisco Giants, so part of the playing surface was the dirt infield. That’s exactly where Rice went down.
Reed: “I think I still have some rocks in my elbows from that. That part of the field was really tough to get your footing. We tried to stay out of that as much as we could. They wanted us to be in that dirt, that’s for sure.”
Hansen: “I remember Jerry getting hurt because of that hard infield. Damn baseball season. As the game went on, I was thinking, ‘Let’s just give them 10 yards so we can get back on the grass.’ ”
After Rice was hurt, the 49ers had to settle for a 33-yard field-goal attempt, which Cofer missed wide right.
Cofer: “I maintain that it was kind of blustery that day.”
The Bills took over and after three straight runs from Thomas gained 11 yards, Kelly completed his first pass of the game to Reed for a gain of 14 on a third-and-9 play, the first of what would be several close calls for Bills punter Chris Mohr.
Mohr: “People say I never punted in that game, but that’s not true. I must have punted about 70 times, it’s just they were all in the net on the sideline. It just seemed like everything that both teams did, it worked out good.”
Reed had 10 catches and 144 yards. The Bills went 6 of 12 on third down, while the 49ers were even better, converting 8 of 13.
A 23-yard touchdown catch by Odessa Turner – his first with the 49ers – and a 2-yard touchdown run helped the 49ers out to a quick 14-3 lead.
The Bills cut their deficit to 14-10 on the next possession when Kelly found Thomas for a 20-yard touchdown pass. Earlier in the drive, the pair connected for a 24-yard gain on a third-and-10 screen pass, with Thomas juking poor safety Thane Gash out of his cleats. On the touchdown, he got the matchup the Bills were looking for.
Thomas: “Jim was able to get Bill Romanowski lined up one-on-one to cover me. Before the snap, they had some confusion. I could remember Romanowski yelling, ‘I got Thurman, I got Thurman.’ I didn’t look at Jim, but I’m sure he had a smile on his face hearing that. I knew as soon as I heard that, I was going to score a touchdown.”
The two teams traded field goals on the next two possessions, with San Francisco picking up 59 yards on just two plays thanks to a 39-yard reception by Mike Sherrard, who replaced Rice in the 49ers’ lineup, and a 20-yard run by Watters. Cofer’s 24-yard field goal bounced in off the left upright, a sign of the shakiness that was to come.
Kelly and Thomas hooked up on another screen pass to convert a third-and-5 play from the Bills’ 15-yard line on their next possession, with Thomas dancing around Romanowski and bouncing off another tackle for a gain of 43 yards.
Thomas: “That was the plan going into the game. We knew if it was third and short, or maybe even third and long, they were a poor matchup with myself. We figured that I could beat anybody they would have guarding me, so if it got to third down, Jim was going to be looking for me.”
After another field goal from Christie cut San Francisco’s lead to 17-13 in the second quarter, the 49ers’ quick-strike offense hit again. Young hit Sherrard for a 56-yard gain to get deep into Buffalo territory.
Sherrard: “I was the third receiver, so I would usually come in when we took Rathman out, but when Jerry got hurt I got plugged in. I knew I’d be playing a lot. That was just a little curl route. I actually slipped a little on the dirt, and that helped because the defender (Kirby Jackson) ran right by me and I was able to get up the sidelines.
“The funniest thing about that game was Chris Hale, who was a defensive back on that Bills team, is one of my best friends. We lived near each other in Los Angeles in the offseason, and we talked so much trash about that game. I was the slot receiver and he was a nickel, so we were going to go one-on-one a bunch. Chris was also the Bills’ punt returner, so I asked him after the game, ‘Did you even play?’”
The 49ers got into the end zone again five plays later on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Young to John Taylor.
San Francisco suffered another blow in the second quarter when tight end Brent Jones went out with a hamstring injury, but took a 24-13 lead into halftime.
Enberg (on NBC broadcast): “We still haven’t seen a punt in this half, have we?”
There wouldn’t be one in the second half, either. The Bills needed just five plays in the third quarter to cut their deficit to 24-20 when Kelly connected with tight end Pete Metzelaars on the first of two second-half scoring plays for the pair.
Bills tight end Pete Metzelaars: “The play was called ’90.’ The tight end would go inside release and just run a go route and get out of the way. Jim generally was going to throw over to the other side because Andre was the slot, and he’s running like a 5-yard in, 85 or 90 percent of the time the ball would go to Andre. My job was to inside release, grab the inside linebacker, run as fast as you can through the middle safety and just get out of the way. We practiced it probably 1,000 times while I was there and that’s all I ever did. Don’t get in the way of the guys who are going to possibly catch the ball.”
Except, this time was different.
Metzelaars: “So when Jim calls the play, he says, ‘Hey Pete, be aware.’ So it’s like, ‘What does that mean?’ I’m like, ‘OK.’ So I release inside, I got up about 10 or 12 yards, I’m in an open area, I look around and, bam, here’s the ball coming to me. It was just an example of what made Jim special. He had a sense of the game, a feel for the game, he understood and saw things and he reacted to it. For some reason he just thought that seam was going to be open. They had a rookie free safety and somehow I made him miss, one of the few times in my career — and got into the end zone for a touchdown.”
Bruce Smith knocked the ball away from 49ers running back Keith Henderson on the ensuing San Francisco possession, and the fumble was recovered by Cornelius Bennett. Kelly and Metzelaars hooked up for their second touchdown of the third quarter five plays later, from 24 yards out to put the Bills up, 27-24.
Metzelaars: “It was really the same play. I was running clear. Jim got pressured, scrambled out to the right and I broke off the route. I was wide open again. He gave me the ball again. I think those were the only two catches I had in 10 years of running that route.”
While history remembers the game for the offensive explosion that it was, both defenses recorded three turnovers. After the Bills went ahead, each team traded turnovers, with Carlton Bailey forcing a fumble recovered by Nate Odomes and Bills running back Kenny Davis losing a fumble of his own to San Francisco’s Mike Walter.
The 49ers went back ahead when Young hooked up with Taylor again in the dying seconds of the third quarter, this time for a 54-yard touchdown.
San Francisco receiver John Taylor: “(Mark) Kelso tried to catch me at the end of the run and knocked the ball out right as I crossed the goal line. They tried to say I never crossed the line, but the official counted it as a touchdown. We were saying, ‘Damn, how much more do we have to do to put these guys away?’ ”
Schultz: “I kind of read the play and I went to break and I slipped and fell on my face and he hurdled me and went for a touchdown. That was my introduction to the NFL. It was one of those games where nothing could go right for me. I have all these individual memories, but I’m not sure I want to share them with the world.
“The fact was that we couldn’t stop them that day. But they were so high-powered, I didn’t remember who ran the ball or caught the ball. For a first start for a rookie, it was memorable in a lot of bad ways.”
Hansen: “I stopped sweating in the third quarter because there was nothing left to sweat out. I was absolutely out of gas.”
Metzelaars: “They were a good defense and ours was a good defense. It’s just kind of how it all worked out that day and how the stars aligned. It was like an old USFL shootout, back in the day when Jim was doing the Run ’n Gun and they were going up and down the field in Houston and Steve Young was out in L.A. throwing the ball all over the place. It was one of those shootouts.”
The Bills’ defense made one huge play in the fourth quarter, when Odomes intercepted Young on a pass intended for Sherrard.
That set up the go-ahead scoring drive. The infield dirt would factor in one more time when 49ers cornerback Don Griffin slipped on a fourth-and-4 play, allowing Kelly to complete a 9-yard pass to a wide-open Lofton to the San Francisco 11-yard line.
Thomas did the rest from there, rushing in for a touchdown on the next play.
Thomas: “It was kind of desperate on their part. They ran a double safety blitz, and Kent Hull did a great job of picking it up. I had just a small crease, which at the time was pretty much all I needed because once those safeties came up, there was no help behind them. I ran in pretty much untouched.”
The game wasn’t settled until Cofer’s attempt from 47 yards missed wide right with just over a minute remaining.
Cofer: “Right hash, I mean I hit the hell out of it. It was good for 15/16ths of the way there. If you look at the end zone shot, the ball’s inside the right upright the whole way, and at the very end it got Candlesticked, I say. It decided to veer to the right for some reason. From that distance you just try to get the ball up in the air, get a good, solid kick on it and hopefully it holds its line, but it didn’t hold its line all the way. It was probably good from 45 and no good from 47. It came down there to the end, whoever made a mistake. And I made the mistake.”
Tasker: “I was actually on the field offensively, when we were kneeling down. I can remember Kent Hull and Jim and his offensive lineman, we were really stoked that we went across the country and beat that team. That was a signature win to start that season. … Everybody focuses on the four Super Bowl losses, but there’s a handful of games in that stretch where we flexed our muscles, and that was one of them.”
When the clock hit zeroes, the numbers were dizzying. The 1,086 combined total yards of offense had been surpassed just three times in history, and still today ranks tied for 12th most in a single game. The 852 passing yards fell just 32 short of the of the then-NFL record of 884 set in 1986 set by the Jets and Dolphins.
Kelly surpassed 20,000 yards in career passing in what was the only 400-yard game of his Hall of Fame tenure. Young might have been even better, leading the 49ers to a then-team record 598 yards, an average of 8.8 yards per play.
Seriously, no punts
As the game went on, nobody seemed to realize that there hadn’t been any punts.
Tasker: “We were kicking off and covering kicks all day, so I felt like we were on the field just as much as always. I felt like I played the whole game. I didn’t really think about it.”
Metzelaars: “Afterward, we’re like, ‘We didn’t punt the whole game?’ You’re into it and just going, ‘Gosh, they scored again, we need to go score.’ That’s all you kept thinking about. We’re rolling and they’re having problems stopping us, so let’s just keep the pedal to the medal.”
Mohr: “I had never really thought a game with both teams not punting was really possible. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life. The K-Gun was rolling.
“I remember talking to (49ers rookie punter) Klaus Wilmsmeyer on the field and saying something like, ‘You think we’ll get paid tomorrow? We didn’t play.’”
Sitting in the locker room after the game, word filtered through the team that Mohr hadn’t punted. From there, the jokes started flowing.
Reed: “We ragged on him pretty good. We gave him a bunch of stuff on the plane on the way home. I think it was Thurman who got on the microphone on the plane and said, ‘Hey, is Chris Mohr on the plane? Because nobody saw him today.’”
Thomas (laughing uncontrollably): “That was me. That was definitely me. I was pretty much the only who was allowed to get on the microphone – to a certain point.”
Christie: “The funniest thing I remember is at the next practice, Ralph Wilson grabbed Chris Mohr, and said ‘We need to talk about your salary, because I’m paying you way too much to do nothing.’ We all thought that was pretty funny.”
Tasker: “Ralph brought that up for weeks afterward! He got a big kick out of that. He and Chris, they had a lot of conversations about it.”
The 49ers proved to be as good as advertised, finishing the 1992 season 14-2. They wouldn’t lose again until the NFC Championship Game against Dallas.
Cofer: “It was a tough loss, but it’s like, ‘Hey, let’s get back together and get on a roll.”
The Bills, meanwhile, struggled somewhat by their lofty standards of the day, going 11-5 and hosting an AFC Wild Card playoff game against the Houston Oilers.
Schultz: “We had this tremendous amount of confidence that we could come back against anybody at any time. We could score at any time. That’s huge. The greatest comeback in NFL history, we never thought we were ever out of that. Who knows what would have happened if we had lost that 49ers game? Maybe we don’t even get into the playoffs.”
Reed: “It was two heavyweights going against each other. Somebody was going to land the big punch, and somebody was going to go down. It set the tone for that year. That was the comeback year. Things were going up and down for us during the season. Our resiliency came to the forefront during that season. We stayed together. I’ll say it a million times: That’s what our team was about, was staying together.
“People always ask me about the Comeback game. That was pretty memorable, of course. … But there’s a couple games during that time that really stood out, and that 49er game is at the top of the list.”