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The Drought: How the Buffalo Bills went 17 years without making the playoffs

Fasten your seat belt and get ready to relive everything this city went through over the last 18 years of Buffalo Bills football.

The Buffalo Bills' playoff drought nearly became old enough to vote before some late heroics on New Year's Eve and a series of tiebreakers sent the team to the playoffs for the first time since 1999, ending the longest postseason drought in American professional sports.

How did we get here? Well, it's kind of a long story.

Fasten your seat belt and get ready to relive everything this city went through over the last 18 years of Buffalo Bills football.


Titans fans celebrate as Kevin Dyson runs into the end zone to complete the Music City Miracle on Jan. 10, 2000. (News file photo)

Jan. 8, 2000: Frank Wycheck’s disputed lateral to Kevin Dyson on a late kickoff helped spring the Tennessee Titans to a 22-16 win over the Bills in the wild-card round of the playoffs. The game is known as the Music City Miracle, but in Buffalo, it’s still the Forward Pass (video here).

Jan. 11, 2000: The Bills fired special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven three days after the loss, later replacing him with Ronnie Jones.

April 16, 2000: The New England Patriots drafted Michigan quarterback Tom Brady in the sixth round, 199th overall.

Dec. 11, 2000: Before a Monday night game against the Colts that both teams entered 7-6, Bills coach Wade Phillips infamously remarked that both teams were “basically out of it.” The Bills played like that in a 44-20 loss, but the Colts won out and made the playoffs.

Bills QB Rob Johnson gets sacked in the fourth quarter by the Colts' Ellis Johnson during the game in which the Bills were defeated, 44-20, on Monday Night Football on Dec. 11, 2000. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)


Jan. 7, 2001: Owner Ralph Wilson fired Phillips with one year left on his contract. General manager John Butler had been fired three weeks earlier. Wilson said Phillips was dismissed for refusing to fire Ronnie Jones after a disastrous season for his unit. The quarterback controversy between Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson certainly didn’t help Phillips’ case.

Feb. 1, 2001: The Bills named Gregg Williams head coach, hiring him over Marvin Lewis and John Fox. Williams was previously the Titans’ defensive coordinator. Tom Donahoe was named Bills GM in January.

Buffalo Bills defensive coaches are introduced at a media briefing Feb. 13, 2001, at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Head coach Gregg Williams, seated, is flanked by, from left, Miles Aldridge, Jerry Gray, John Levra, Danny Smith, Chuck Lester and Steve Jackson. (News file photo)

Sept. 23, 2001: Jets linebacker Mo Lewis put a devastating hit on Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe, leaving him with a concussion and internal bleeding. Brady was forced into action, and went on to lead the Patriots to victory in the Super Bowl over the Rams. The Bills finished 3-13.


April 22, 2002: The Bills sent the Patriots their 2003 first-round pick to acquire Bledsoe in a trade. Two days earlier, the Bills drafted Texas offensive lineman Mike Williams fourth overall. He was never a fit, and is known as a major draft bust.

Sept. 8, 2002: The Bills opened the season with back-to-back overtime games, but the special teams still needed work. The Bills allowed the Jets' Chad Morton to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in the opener, including the winner on the first play of overtime. Bills kicker Mike Hollis bounced a 54-yard field off the upright and in as time expired the following week to force overtime against the Vikings before a long Peerless Price touchdown gave the Bills the win. They finished 8-8 in a year that saw Brian Moorman hit an 84-yard punt, tied for the 13th-longest ever.


Willis McGahee, running back for the University of Miami, stands with agent Drew Rosenhaus and his mother, Jannie Jones, just after hearing the news that he'd gone in the first round to the Buffalo Bills. (Photo courtesy of the Miami Herald)

April 26, 2003: The Bills got back into the first round of the draft by trading Price to Atlanta. They used the pick on Miami running back Willis McGahee, who had to sit out the 2003 season as he recovered from a serious knee injury suffered in the NCAA’s national championship game.

Sept. 7, 2003: The Bills shut out the Patriots in the season opener, 31-0, while safety Lawyer Milloy – who signed with the Bills after being released by the Patriots just before the season – recorded a sack. Defensive lineman Sam Adams’ 37-yard interception return for a touchdown graced the cover of Sports Illustrated the following week, in a sign that the teams were heading in opposite directions.

Dec. 27, 2003: In a reversal from Week 1, the Patriots shut out the Bills in the season finale, 31-0. The Bills finished 6-10 and fired Gregg Williams after the season while the Patriots went 14-2 and won another Super Bowl.


Jan. 15, 2004: The Bills named Mike Mularkey head coach. He was previously the Steelers’ offensive coordinator. Dick Jauron and Charlie Weis were other potential candidates.

Quarterback J.P. Losman didn't play much in 2014 after being a first-round pick, but he took over in 2015. (John Hickey/News file photo)

April 24, 2004: The Bills drafted speedy wide receiver Lee Evans 13th overall. After missing out on quarterbacks Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, the Bills sent a hefty package to Dallas, including their 2005 first-rounder, for the 22nd overall pick, which they used to take Tulane’s J.P. Losman.

Jan. 2, 2005: After opening the season 0-4, the Bills got hot near Thanksgiving and entered the finale on a six-game winning streak, needing a win and help to make playoffs. The Bills got the help they needed from a Jets loss, but they suffered arguably the worst loss of the drought against a Steelers team that had already locked up home-field advantage and rested most of its important players. Bledsoe was released after the season, and the Patriots won another Super Bowl.

Bills kicker Rian Lindell (9) reacts to a missed 28-yard field goal in the third quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Jan. 2, 2005. (John Hickey/News file photo)


Oct. 2, 2005: The Bills played the Saints in San Antonio as Hurricane Katrina forced the team out of New Orleans. The Saints won 19-7 while playing in their temporary home for the first time.

Oct. 9, 2005: Kelly Holcomb replaced Losman under center and snapped a three-game losing streak. He kept the job until suffering a concussion in mid-November. The team finished 5-11.


Jan. 12, 2006: Mularkey resigned as Bills coach, eight days after Wilson had reaffirmed his status while naming Bills’ Super Bowl-era coach Marv Levy, 80, as the team’s new general manager and fired Donahoe. Mularkey, who had three years left on his contract that paid $1 million annually, was said to be uncomfortable with the new front-office setup. The team later hired Dick Jauron as coach.

April 26, 2006: Levy made two reaches in the first round of the draft, picking Ohio State safety Donte Whitner eighth overall instead of defensive tackle Haloti Ngata before trading back into the first round for DT John McCargo, who was a bust. The next day, Levy and assistant GM Tom Modrak picked Kyle Williams 134th overall.

A fan in the stands at the Bills-Titans game at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Christmas Eve 2006 hopes for a playoff berth. (John Hickey/News file photo)

Dec. 24, 2006: The Bills were still alive at 7-7 but trailed the Titans by one with under a minute to play when they faced fourth and 5 from the 28. Jauron said he looked into kicker Rian Lindell’s eyes and decided it was too far for a field goal in windy conditions; Losman’s pass was intercepted and the Bills were eliminated.


April 28, 2007: The Bills selected Cal running back Marshawn Lynch 12th overall and took Stanford QB Trent Edwards in the third round.

The Bills medical staff loads Kevin Everett into an ambulance during a game against the Broncos at Ralph Wilson Stadium in on Sept. 9, 2007. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

Sept. 9, 2007: Tight end Kevin Everett suffered a life-threatening spinal cord injury while making a tackle on special teams. Doctors used an experimental “cold therapy” that lowered Everett’s internal body temperature and operated for four hours. Everett never played again in the NFL, but he regained the ability to walk.

Oct. 8, 2007: The Bills lost a heartbreaker to the Cowboys on Monday Night Football, 25-24. Defensive and special teams touchdowns had the Bills ahead nearly the entire way in their first MNF appearance in seven years, but a collapse always felt like it was coming. Tony Romo threw a touchdown to close the gap with 24 seconds left, the Cowboys recovered the onside kick and Nick Folk hit a 53-yarder to win as time expired.

Kicker Nick Folk and the Cowboys celebrate after he hit the winning field goal to complete the comeback against the Bills on Monday Night Football on Oct. 8, 2007. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

Oct. 28, 2007: Fred Jackson made his first appearance for the Bills in a 13-3 win over the Jets. The undrafted running back out of Division III Coe College was first invited to training camp in 2006 after he spent a year playing indoor football and another in NFL Europe. Levy, the GM, was a fellow Coe College alumnus. Jackson went on to become a fan-favorite, staying with the team until 2014.

Dec. 16, 2007: The Bills lost in Cleveland, 8-0, in the infamous snow game widely considered one of the worst games of the drought. Two field goals and a safety gave the Browns enough of a cushion as Trent Edwards’ fourth-and-5 pass from the Browns’ 10-yard line fell incomplete in the final seconds. The loss eliminated the Bills from playoff contention.

The Bills lost to the Browns, 8-0, at a snowy Cleveland Browns Stadium on Dec. 16, 2007 (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

Dec. 31, 2007: Marv Levy resigned as general manager and retired again. Ralph Wilson promoted Russ Brandon to chief operating officer two weeks later, giving him dominion over both the business side and the football side of the organization. Brandon served as the team’s de facto GM for two years.


Oct. 5, 2008: The Bills opened 4-0 before quarterback Trent Edwards was concussed by a hit from Arizona’s Adrian Wilson on the third play of the game. Edwards returned in mid-October but wasn’t the same after the injury. The Bills lost eight of their last 10 games to finish 7-9 for the third year in a row under Jauron.

Fans in the upper deck of the Rogers Centre watch the Bills play against the Dolphins in the first game of the Toronto series on Dec. 7, 2008. (John Hickey/News file photo)

Dec. 7, 2008: The Bills played the Dolphins in Rogers Centre in the first game of their reviled Toronto series. The Bills lost, 16-3, and went on to lose five of their six games north of the border before ending the series early in 2013.


Mayor Byron Brown gives Terrell Owens a key to the city on the steps of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo on May 18, 2009. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

March 8, 2009: The Bills signed flamboyant free-agent wide receiver Terrell Owens to a one-year deal, two days after the Cowboys cut the 35-year-old star. He was presented with a key to the city in May. The Bills signed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to back up Edwards earlier in the offseason.

April 25, 2009: The Bills drafted Penn State defensive end Aaron Maybin 11th overall, despite him only having one productive college season. He was another infamous Bills bust, lasting only two seasons before being cut. The Bills also owned the 28th overall pick, which was part of the return from the Eagles in a trade for left tackle Jason Peters, with whom the Bills couldn’t agree on a contract. The Bills selected Louisville center Eric Wood.

Sept. 14, 2009: Leodis McKelvin fumbled on a late kick return against the Patriots, setting them up for the winning score. Bills fans vandalized McKelvin’s front lawn after the game.

Patriots' tight end Benjamin Watson celebrates his second fourth-quarter touchdown that gave the Pats the lead in the final minute while the Bills' Keith Ellison looks away. The game was played at Gillette Stadium on Sept. 14, 2009. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

Nov. 17, 2009: Wilson fired Jauron after a 3-6 start to the season and replaced him with defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, who became the first black head coach in team history, though on an interim basis. Jauron knew he was in a crucial season, and a switch to the no-huddle offense was largely ineffective. A month earlier, the team had played another infamous fame against the Browns, losing 6-3. Ryan Fitzpatrick replaced an injured Trent Edwards the following week as the drought reached 10 seasons.


Bills fans Robert Brown, center, and Bruce Carter watch a live television broadcast of the team's announcement of Chan Gailey as the next Bills head coach on Jan. 19, 2010. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

Jan. 19, 2010: After years of offensive futility, the Bills turned to Chan Gailey, a coaching veteran who had previously been the head man in Dallas. Buddy Nix was named general manager at the end of December, ending Brandon’s tenure as acting GM. Gailey brought Bruce DeHaven back as special teams coordinator.

Bills owner Ralph Wilson introduces the team's ninth overall pick, running back C. J. Spiller, on April 23, 2010. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

April 22, 2010: Nix opened his Bills tenure by drafting electric Clemson running back C.J. Spiller 11th overall despite Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson's still being on the roster. The Bills selected defensive tackle Torell Troup one pick before Rob Gronkowski the next day.

Nov. 14, 2010: The Bills opened the season 0-8, but went on two potentially franchise-altering winning streaks in the second half of the season. The first one began on this day with a 14-12 win over the Lions that moved the Bills out of last place in the league and out of the first draft position, which was eventually used on Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. Two weeks later, The Bills lost in overtime to the Steelers after Stevie Johnson had a game-winning pass fall through his hands. He took to Twitter after the game and questioned higher powers for dropping the pass.


April 28, 2011: The Bills, drafting third overall, selected Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus after missing out on Newton and linebacker Von Miller. Receivers A.J. Green and Julio Jones were available, as was defensive end J.J. Watt.

Sept. 25, 2011: The Bills beat the Patriots for the first time since the 2003 opener, 34-31. The Bills rallied from a 21-0 second-quarter deficit behind Fitzpatrick’s 369-yard game and Brady’s four interceptions. The win lifted the Bills to 3-0; they pushed their record to 5-2 before dropping seven straight games to miss the playoffs once again.

Bills kicker Rian Lindell is mobbed by teammates after kicking the winning field goal against the Patriots at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sept 25, 2011. It was the Bills' first win against the Patriots since 2003. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)


Dec. 9, 2012: The Bills blew a late lead at home against the Rams and lost 15-12 after Sam Bradford led an 84-yard drive for the winning touchdown. Asked why C.J. Spiller, who would top 1,700 yards from scrimmage that season, received only eight touches in the game, Gailey said sometimes Spiller “gets winded.” The Bills finished 6-10 again while Johnson became the first Bills receiver to log three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.

Dec. 21, 2012: With Wilson aging and the threat of relocation clouding the team’s future, the Bills signed a new 10-year lease with Erie Country, ensuring the team would remain in Buffalo. Owners would be hit with a $400 million penalty for leaving the market before 2023, with a one-time exception reducing the penalty to $29 million after the seventh year of the lease.

Dec. 31, 2012: The Bills fired Gailey after three seasons. The next day, Wilson, 94, gave up the role of team president and promoted Brandon to fill the post. Nix was retained.


Bills coach Doug Marrone, in red, is flanked by defensive coaches, from left: Jim O'Neil, linebackers; Donnie Henderson, defensive backs; Mike Pettine, defensive coordinator; Anthony Weaver, defensive line; and Chuck Driesbach, linebackers, on Jan. 24, 2013. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

Jan. 6, 2013: The Bills hired a college coach they viewed as an up-and-comer in Syracuse’s Doug Marrone. Ken Whisenhunt and Lovie Smith interviewed for the job, as did Ray Horton and Chip Kelly. During his tenure, Marrone reportedly referred to himself as “Saint Doug,” referencing the fact that it takes two miracles to be canonized; turning around Syracuse football was one, he thought, and the Bills would be two.

April 25, 2013: The Bills traded back from eighth overall to 16th and selected Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel, marking the first time they had drafted a quarterback with their first draft selection since taking Jim Kelly in 1983.

Sept. 8, 2013: Manuel was inspiring in his first two games, falling to the Patriots on a last-second field goal in the opener and leading a last-second touchdown drive to beat the Panthers the following week, but the allure quickly faded. In December, Scott Chandler’s fumble in overtime against the Falcons in Toronto was the defining moment of the Bills’ third straight 6-10 season.


After Ralph Wilson died, a statue of the Bills' founder was placed outside the stadium. His wife, Mary Wilson, and niece Mary Owen examine the statue after its unveiling Sept. 12, 2015. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

March 25, 2014: Bills founder and owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. died at 95. His family planned to put the team up for sale, reigniting fear that a new owner could eventually relocate the team.

April 22, 2014: The Bills cheerleaders, the Jills, ceased operations after filing a lawsuit against the team, citing unacceptable treatment and low wages. The team has not had cheerleaders since.

May 8, 2014: GM Doug Whaley traded two first-round picks to move up from ninth to fourth in the draft and select Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins in a shortsighted move that gave up far too much. Future all-pro edge rusher Khalil Mack, the UB product who had his pro day at One Bills Drive, was available at No. 4, or the Bills could have stayed put and selected LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr.

Sept. 9, 2014: Terry Pegula, owner of the Sabres, was revealed as the new owner of the Bills. His winning bid of $1.4 billion blew away the competition, which included a Toronto-based group fronted by rocker Jon Bon Jovi and a bid from real estate mogul Donald Trump, who frequently feuded with the NFL during his days as a United States Football League owner. Putting the team under Pegula control eased fears that the Bills would be relocated.

Bills fans hold up a "Pegula for President" banner during the Miami Dolphins game at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sept. 14, 2014. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is carried off the field on Oct. 5, 2014. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

Oct. 5, 2014: Marrone benched Manuel after a 2-2 start to the season and put in Kyle Orton, who led the Bills to a 17-14 comeback against the Lions in his first game. The Bills carried defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz off the field on their shoulders after the game; he was fired as Lions’ coach the year prior. The team went on to finish 9-7 and missed the playoffs after a brutal road loss to the 2-12 Raiders, but tied for the best mark over the drought, which reached 15 seasons.

Nov. 24, 2014: The Bills' home game against the Jets was moved to Ford Field in Detroit after a massive snowstorm left Ralph Wilson Stadium unplayable. The Bills rolled, 38-3.

Dec. 31, 2014: Marrone exercised a $4 million opt-out in his contract and quit as coach of the Bills. The clause was written into his contract in case the team was relocated. Earlier in the month, the Bills terminated the Toronto series, which was to run through 2017. Brady and the Patriots went on to win another Super Bowl.


Jan. 11, 2015: The Bills hired former Jets head coach Rex Ryan to replace Marrone. Ryan had a reputation as a defensive wizard and sold the Pegulas on his ability to frustrate Brady and the Patriots. The Bills were also reportedly interested in Kyle Shanahan, Hue Jackson, Greg Roman and Teryl Austin. Roman became Ryan’s offensive coordinator.

Rex Ryan goes for a fist bump with team president Russ Brandon as owner Terry Pegula watches after Ryan was introduced as the team's new head coach Jan. 14, 2015. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

March 4, 2015: In one of the biggest steals in team history, the Bills traded linebacker Kiko Alonso to the Eagles for running back LeSean McCoy.

Aug. 31, 2015: Ryan named Tyrod Taylor the team’s starting quarterback, beating out Manuel and veteran Matt Cassel. The Bills also cut fan-favorite running back Fred Jackson.

Oct. 25, 2015: The Bills lost to the Jaguars in London, 34-31. Manuel, starting for an injured Taylor, committed three turnovers in a two-and-a-half minute span – two of which were returned for touchdowns – but rallied the team back before a phantom pass interference penalty on Nickell Robey-Coleman late in the fourth quarter extended the Jags’ winning drive. The team finished 8-8, including an ugly loss in McCoy's return to Philadelphia that saw him kiss the Eagles' logo at midfield before the game.

The Jaguars' Telvin Smith scores a touchdown after intercepting a pass from EJ Manuel, who lays on the turf in the background. The Jags went on to beat the Bills at London's Wembley Stadium on Oct. 25, 2015. (Getty Images)


May 16, 2016: The Bills announced first-round pick Shaq Lawson would have surgery on his shoulder after aggravating a nagging injury during an offseason workout. Whaley had assured it wasn’t an issue after the draft, saying Lawson would start immediately. News also came out around that time that Watkins had surgery for a broken foot during the offseason. In August, second-round pick Reggie Ragland – another one of Whaley’s “off the bus” starters – went down with a knee injury during camp and would be lost for the season.

Aug. 13, 2016: New Era Cap Co. bought the naming rights to Ralph Wilson Stadium, and the name was changed to New Era Field.

Dec. 24, 2016: In a must-win game, the Bills lost to the Dolphins in overtime while Jay Ajayi posted his second 200-yard game of the season against Buffalo. Ryan punted on fourth and 2 in overtime because it was a “long 2” yards, and his defense was gashed for 57 yards on the next play because it only had 10 players on the field. Two weeks earlier, the Bills lost to the Steelers while allowing running back Le’Veon Bell 236 rushing yards, a franchise record for an opponent.

Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) leaps over Buffalo Bills cornerback Ronald Darby (28) for a first down Dec. 11, 2016. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

Dec. 27, 2016: Ryan was fired with one week to go in the season, along with his twin brother, Rob, the team’s “assistant head coach/defense.” Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, who was promoted from running backs coach in September after Ryan fired Roman, was named interim head coach. The following week, Whaley insisted he “wasn’t privy” to the reasons why Ryan was fired by Pegula. The Patriots later won another Super Bowl, Brady’s fifth.


Jan. 11, 2017: The Bills hired Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott as head coach. The team interviewed only candidates who had never been head coaches before, including Lynn, Harold Goodwin and Kris Richard.

Bills owner Terry Pegula, left, shakes hands with new coach Sean McDermott on Jan. 13, 2017. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

April 27, 2017: The team traded back from 10th overall to 27th and drafted LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White while netting an extra first-round pick. Whaley was fired after the draft and replaced with Brandon Beane.

Aug. 11, 2017: The Bills traded away Watkins and cornerback Ronald Darby while netting draft picks. The offseason also saw holdovers Ragland, Cardale Jones and Kevon Seymour traded while Stephon Gilmore was allowed to leave for the Patriots. Dareus would also be traded in October.

Nov. 19, 2017: Fifth-round pick Nathan Peterman threw five interceptions in his first half as a starting quarterback after replacing Taylor, whom McDermott benched earlier in the week. It was one of the worst statistical performances in NFL history.

Dec. 10, 2017: The Bills beat the Colts in whiteout conditions at New Era Field, keeping their playoff hopes alive while third-string QB Joe Webb replaced an injured Peterman, who was filling in for an injured Taylor.

Dec. 31, 2017: The Bills beat the Dolphins in Week 17 to finish 9-7 and got the help they needed to qualify for the playoffs when the Bengals scored a last-minute touchdown to beat the Ravens, whom the Bills edged for the final AFC playoff spot on the fourth tiebreaker.

Bills veteran defensive tackle Kyle Williams uses a selfie stick to make calls with his sons from the locker room in Miami after the team made the playoffs for the first time in 18 years on Dec. 31, 2017. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)


Jan. 7, 2018: The Bills face Marrone’s Jacksonville Jaguars in a wild-card game, almost exactly 18 years to the day since their last playoff appearance.

Remembering the highs and lows of Bills' roller-coaster season that ended The Drought

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