The Buffalo Bills are one of the most tortured franchises in all of sports, largely on the back of four straight trips to the Super Bowl, in 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1993. The first, Super Bowl XXV, the Bills lost 20-19 to the New York Giants, with Scott Norwood’s 47-yard kick sailing wide right as time expired. From there, the Bills went on to endure three straight blowout losses in the Super Bowl to the Redskins and Dallas Cowboys. After the run of Super Bowl losses, O.J. Simpson, once the face of the franchise, went down in infamy for his role in the Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman murders.
Throughout it all, hardcore fans have remained loyal to the Buffalo Bills, and while four straight trips to the Super Bowl was a spectacular feat in itself, the Bills of the early 1990s also helped revolutionize modern football with their no-huddle “K-Gun” offense. Many of the greatest Buffalo Bills of all time, of course, were a part of this era. If anything, prominent Bills players have likely been historically underrated, due to the fact that the organization never claimed a Lombardi trophy.
1. Andre Reed
In 1985, the Buffalo Bills drafted Andre Reed with the 86th overall pick (4th round) out of tiny Kutztown State. From there, Reed immediately went to work as a possession receiver willing to give up his body to make plays over the middle. Away from the ball, Reed would also get down and dirty to throw blocks and free his teammates for big plays. In 1989, Andre Reed emerged as Jim Kelly’s go-to receiver, hauling in 88 receptions for 1,312 yards.
In 1990, Marv Levy granted Jim Kelly the freedom to call his own plays and run the no-huddle offense on a full-time basis. In the “K-Gun,” Andre Reed largely worked the underneath routes, while speedsters Don Beebe and James Lofton went deep over the top. In the slot, Reed often exploited mismatches against safeties and linebackers, as confused defenses were unable to properly make substitutions against the no-huddle attack. In the 1992 Wild Card Round, Reed hooked-up with back-up quarterback Frank Reich 8 times, for 126 yards, and 3 touchdowns. This unlikely duo was responsible for bringing the Bills back for the win, after trailing the Houston Oilers 38-3.
2. O.J. Simpson
Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson was, at one point in time, the most popular athlete in America. In 1969, the Buffalo Bills drafted the Heisman Trophy winner with the first overall pick out of USC. Somewhat of a late bloomer, O.J. broke out in his fourth season, in leading the NFL with 1,251 rushing yards, eventually owning the single-season rushing title on four separate occasions.
In 1973, Simpson put together one of the greatest individual seasons of all time. In 14 games, O.J. racked up 2003 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on only 332 carries (6.0 yards per carry). Simpson would often make one decisive cut before accelerating quickly through the hole. In the open field, Simpson, at 6-foot-2, would take long and swift strides to glide into the end zone for six. Up front, the offensive line embraced its Power Company nickname, for turning on The Juice in Buffalo.
3. Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith still owns the career sack record, with 200 sacks to his credit. A physical specimen, Smith could either overpower offensive linemen right into the backfield, or use a speed rush around the edge to take his shot at the quarterback. Against the run, Smith would often knife across the line of scrimmage to drop ball carriers for big losses. In 3-4 schemes, Bruce Smith would rotate between tackle and end to wreak havoc and beat double teams. Throughout his career, No. 78 was subject to chip blocks, triple teams, and outright holding, in desperate attempts to keep him off his game.
Vintage Bruce Smith would anticipate the snap count and immediately whip the left tackle off the ball. From there, Smith would go into his bull rush, before hitting the lineman with a forearm shiver. With the tackle off balance, No. 78 would go into a spin move, and then run unabated toward the quarterback. From the blind side, Bruce Smith would lay down a crushing hit and knock the football loose. Ralph Wilson Stadium at Orchard Park would begin to rock, “Bruuuuuuuuce!”
4. Thurman Thomas
A dual threat who could run and receive, Thomas led the NFL in yards from scrimmage for four consecutive seasons, from 1989 through 1992. On the ground, he was especially dangerous on counter and draw plays, where he would perfectly set up his blocks, before breaking into the second level of the defense. With the defense on its heels, Jim Kelly would often call a screen pass for Thurman, where he was free to work against burly linebackers and pick up large chunks of yardage in space.
In 12 years with Buffalo, Thomas amassed 16,279 yards from scrimmage (11,938 yards rushing / 4,341 yards receiving) and 87 total touchdowns. In helping the Bills make four consecutive trips to the Super Bowl, Thurman Thomas went on to own NFL postseason records for career points (126), touchdowns (21), and single-game receptions by a running back (13). In Super Bowl XXV, Thomas torched the Giants, for 135 yards rushing and 55 yards receiving. For his part, Thurman Thomas would have almost certainly claimed MVP honors, if Scott Norwood made the field goal.
5. Jim Kelly
Darryl Talley awarded Jim Kelly the nickname Heathcliff, a cartoon cat that behaved like a dog. On the field, Kelly was a quarterback who performed as if he were a linebacker. At 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, Kelly never shied away from getting physical. In the pocket, he often held onto the football until the very last moment, before firing a strike down the seam, and absorbing a vicious hit. For his career, Kelly completed 60% of his passes, for 35,467 yards and 175 touchdowns.
As the leader of the no-huddle offense, Jim Kelly would call his own plays, which is relatively common today but unprecedented at the time. Out of the K-Gun, Kelly would hit Reed over the middle, launch deep bombs to the likes of James Lofton and Don Beebe, and work tight end Pete Metzelaars into the offense as a security blanket. For Thurman Thomas, Kelly would mix in an array of lead draw, counter, and screen plays. In 1990, the Buffalo Bills emerged as the NFL’s highest scoring offense, at 26.8 points per game, with Jim Kelly at the controls.