Bills quarterback Jim Kelly leaves the field after a fourth consecutive Super Bowl defeat.
Getting Used to 0-4
January 30, 1994
America's worst nightmare. That's what the Buffalo Bills called themselves during the days leading up to Super Bowl XXVIII. "We're Jason, we always come back," linebacker Darryl Talley said. "Get used to it, America."
But America wanted no part of cozying up to Buffalo and making friends with the three-time Super Bowl loser. Laugh as they might, the Bills couldn't overcome the stigma of a matchup that no one outside of western New York wanted: Buffalo against Dallas in a rematch of Super Bowl XXVII. Dallas vs. Kansas City and Joe Montana would have been much better; Kansas City vs. San Francisco would have sent ratings off the charts. But the Chiefs and 49ers had failed miserably in their respective conference title games, and there was no choice but to deal once again with the Cowboys and Bills.
The oddsmakers reacted immediately by making Dallas a 10-point favorite. That, of course, was an insult for Buffalo, but it was tough for the Bills to argue much, considering the credibility problem they had created over the last three years. Their first Super Bowl appearance (XXV) had been their best, a heartbreaking 20-19 loss to the Giants. But it got worse after that: 37-24 to Washington in XXVI, then 52-17 to Dallas, including a record nine turnovers. So here they were again, with essentially the same cast of stars, same coach, same offense, same optimism and, just to add to their problems, the next-to-worst defense in the National Football League.
"There's no pressure," quarterback Jim Kelly said. "Nobody thought we were going to be here. I don't feel any pressure. I'm coming in here and my mind is set on winning. I've been here three times. But if I were to retire tomorrow and not have won a Super Bowl, I've fulfilled all my dreams."
But the Bills had a message: Wake up, America, and live with what you are getting. And appreciate it. That's right, 0-3 represents a success story that wasn't receiving its true recognition. After all, getting to the Super Bowl once, much less three times, is tough enough.
"People who aren't involved in sports don't know what it took to get here, what we've accomplished, or the fighting, sweating and bleeding it took to win," defensive end Mark Pike said. "I think they are missing out on a great sports story. What we've displayed over the past three years is what sports is all about-getting knocked down and getting back up. I've sensed in the past week that there's starting to be a soft spot in people's hearts for us."
There was some truth to the Bills' case. It takes a formidable group to keep rebounding from these devastating championship losses and still play at such a high level. Buffalo's hierarchy had decided to maintain the nucleus of the squad instead of adopting a destroy-and-rebuild philosophy. Try as they might, other American Football Conference teams just couldn't find a way to get better than Buffalo, not after three years of trying.
The Chiefs, for example, brought in Montana to give them an edge, yet Buffalo clearly was the better club despite his presence. Coach Mary Levy told the Bills in training camp that they were "the most resilient, tough-minded SOBs who have ever participated in sports." During the 1993 season, even after losing stars such as tackle Will Wolford and Shane Conlan to free agency, even after getting worse on defense and performing sporadically on offense, they proved Levy correct.
But was Buffalo good enough to beat Dallas? Good enough to break the National Football Conference's nine-in-a-row stranglehold in the Super Bowl? No way. Other than doggedness, there wasn't much going for Buffalo in the rematch. Dallas wasn't quite on the same roll it had enjoyed entering Super Bowl XXVII, but the Cowboys still were a superior bunch. Their offense, built around Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith, was outstanding, and their defense, though not as solid as in 1992, still had the kind of speed and playmaking ability that made the rest of the league jealous. Their devastation of San Francisco in the NFC title game had sent out a distinct message: Watch out, America, the 'Boys are back.
Buffalo soon got the message, too. After actually leading going into intermission, the Bills were swept aside by a 24-0 Dallas surge in the second half and lost once again, 30-13. Even the oddsmakers had underestimated the domination of the Cowboys, who proved too quick and much too physical for Buffalo, which committed three turnovers and got a dreadful performance from star running back Thurman Thomas, who committed two costly fumbles.
Remarkably, Dallas Coach Jimmy Johnson seemed thoroughly sincere during Super Bowl week when he expressed concern about the ability of the Bills. Johnson, who had brashly predicted his team would beat San Francisco in the NFC championship, refused to make any predictions for the Super Bowl. He called Buffalo a "great, great team" and praised the Bills' accomplishments. He sensed that his squad wouldn't have the same ease of success it had realized against the Bills a year before.
"I'm looking for a difficult game," he said. "All you have to do is look at the films to see that they can play. I don't feel I have to convince my players to not become overconfident. They should want to repeat as champions. That should be enough incentive."
Still, the matchup was so unattractive that Johnson and Owner Jerry Jones, not the players or the game itself, became the focal point of the Dallas coverage. The two men had rebuilt the Dallas franchise in only four years and had shared in the glory of their masterpiece. But Johnson had become antsy, particularly after officials from Jacksonville, an expansion franchise that would begin play in 1995, came calling. Jones had reacted angrily, saying he would never give permission for anyone to talk to Johnson, who was under contract until 1998. But that didn't stop the outspoken Johnson from flirting with the rest of the NFL.
Things have come so easily to Johnson since joining the NFL that he already had reached the stage where he was laughing at his peers, toying with the media, jousting with his owner/boss and thumbing his nose at just about every coaching cliche he could challenge. There wasn't much room within his agenda to share space with anyone, particularly the equally ambitious Jones, whose power standing within the league had grown so rapidly that he truly had become one of its elite owners.
"After the year, I assess things, where I am, where I am going," Johnson said. "Do I need to make adjustments? Do I need to make changes? Every year I do it, and this year won't be any different.
"At times I get antsy. At times I get bored, and at times I do like a challenge. I am the way I am. I couldn't structure my life where you could plug in a tape recorder and have a little cardboard cutout of me standing there and you would know exactly what I was going to say." And what Johnson had to say -- the message he was sending Jones -- was mixed, at best. One day, he seemed content with staying at Dallas. The next, he claimed that even history didn't motivate him, that he vaguely knew what the Pittsburgh Steelers had accomplished, that he might be looking elsewhere for some stimulation.
"Jimmy likes to play games, he likes to stir things up when nothing is going on," said Joe Avezzano, the Cowboys' special-teams coach who had known Johnson since 1989.
"He's not playing games with me," Jones said, sternly. "We could be known as the greatest team in history. We've laid the cornerstones with our two Super Bowl appearances. But the good news is, we can get better. Jimmy has an obligation (regarding his contract). It would be highly unlikely (he would be released). So much so that it is misleading on my part to even hint it is possible. I know I wouldn't do it, and it would be unfair to any other team to think it is a possibility. There is no issue about him not coaching here."
The contract, which paid Johnson $1 million a year, was the stumbling block. Jones guaranteed it in 1989 and also agreed to fund a death-and-disability insurance policy for the face amount of the contract, worth about $7 million at that time. And that was before Johnson had coached a game in the NFL. But now he has coached two Super Bowl victories, and perhaps a new franchise is more appealing.
"With the league structured the way it is with free agency, I do believe a new franchise could be extremely competitive and have a very good team in the second year and could possibly do what we did (in Dallas) as quick, if not quicker," Johnson said. "Give me a shot at free agency. Give me a shot at saying this is how much money we can spend, give me an open checkbook and I can win quickly."
Although Johnson wanted to take credit for making the personnel decisions that built the team, Jones likewise wanted some of the accolades, considering he also is general manager. The two said their relationship, which never has been smooth, was better than it has ever been. But with their huge egos on the line, there inevitably will be a conflict within the franchise. By the end of Super Bowl week, it seemed only a matter of time before the relationship crumbled and Johnson left, whether Jones really wanted it or not.
But as long as they stayed together with the Cowboys, the franchise seemed destined for greatness rarely achieved by any team. Dallas won both the NFC title game and the Super Bowl by 17 points, clearly establishing itself as the best club, by far, in the NFL. With one of the youngest franchises in the league and with its star players under long-term contracts, the future appeared very bright indeed. Certainly, an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl victory would establish the Cowboys among the elite teams in history.
This had not been an easy ride for the Cowboys, at least compared to the previous season. Smith held out over a contract dispute and missed the first two games, which Dallas lost. Aikman was injured in midseason, as were a number of other key players. The Cowboys did not clinch the NFC East title, and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, until the final contest, when they beat the Giants on the road in overtime.
"This has been as stressful a season as I can remember," Johnson said. "With the injuries and the holdout and everyone shooting at you, it has been difficult. But this team is capable of performing well in big games. That's why I remained confident in their ability."
No team had ever won the Super Bowl after starting 0-2. But, of course, until 1992, no team had won the Super Bowl and also produced the league's rushing leader. No wonder Johnson displayed such confidence and brashness. Were there any obstacles Dallas could not overcome?
Certainly, Buffalo was not one of them. But, at least for three quarters, the Bills put up a fight, unlike their effort in Super Bowl XXVII, when those nine turnovers turned the game into a farce. This time around, Buffalo was much better prepared despite having only a week to get ready for the game. Normally, teams have two weeks between the conference championships and the Super Bowl. "Moving right into the Super Bowl without a long layoff is great for us," Bills receiver Andre Reed said. "That way we have less time to put up with all the questions concerning what we did in other Super Bowls."
On offense, Buffalo decided to try a ball-control approach, in part to keep Kelly, its emotional leader, under control and in part to take advantage of Dallas' zone defenses, which give up short completions. Kelly can be terrific, but he also has a history of trying to force big plays and losing patience. By having him take quick drop-backs and throw immediately, the Bills wanted to build up his confidence while also reducing his tendency to make mistakes. On defense, Buffalo put two defenders on each of the Cowboy wide-outs and, instead of mounting a consistent pass rush, had its front line concentrate more on stopping Smith's cut-back running.
Dallas was disrupted by these adjustments. Aikman, coming off a concussion against San Francisco, was not particularly sharp in the first half, but the Cowboys continued to call medium and deep patterns, asking him to throw into double coverage. Smith, who had won his third straight rushing title, picked up 41 yards before halftime but hadn't yet taken over control of the game. To add to the Cowboys' problems, they uncharacteristically made two major mistakes. The game opened with immediate excitement when Dallas' Kevin Williams returned the kickoff 50 yards to the Buffalo 48-yard line. Working with great field position, the Cowboys moved quickly to the Buffalo 24 but stalled when a third-and-six pass fell incomplete. Eddie Murray kicked a 41-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead. Buffalo answered with a 43-yard scoring drive of its own, ending on a Super Bowl-record, 54-yard field goal from Steve Christie. The first blunder of the contest came minutes later when Thomas cut up the middle and was hit from the side by safety James Washington, who knocked the ball loose. The Cowboys took over at the 50 but again couldn't capitalize fully on this favorable field position. Facing a third-and-five at the Bills' 10, Smith could gain only three yards, forcing a 24-yard Murray field goal and a 6-3 lead.
Dallas then made its first error. With the Bills facing fourth and three from their 41, Buffalo punter Chris Mohr was knocked down, resulting in a five-yard penalty and a first down. A mixture of short running plays and four Kelly completions advanced the ball to the Dallas 4. Thomas slashed off the left side and eased into the end zone for a touchdown. Buffalo was ahead, 10-6.
Aikman was having difficulty putting together a solid drive. He finally appeared to straighten things out when he moved the Cowboys to the Buffalo 37. But he badly overthrew a pass intended for Michael Irvin, and cornerback Nate Odomes intercepted it and returned the ball 41 yards to the Dallas 47. Working with only 63 seconds remaining in the half, Kelly methodically shredded the Cowboy secondary. A 12-yard pass to Thomas, a 22-yarder to Reed and a three-yard dump to Thomas moved the ball to the 9. The Bills attempted a third-down shovel pass to Thomas, trying to take advantage of the Cowboys' quick upfield rush, but there was no gain. Christie kicked a 28-yard field goal as time ran out.
Dallas had plenty to worry about at halftime, particularly that 13-6 deficit. "We were a bit too one-dimensional and they started doing a great job of putting some pressure on me," Aikman said. Smith went up to offensive coordinator Norv Turner and said, "Get me the ball." Turner didn't argue. "I always do what Emmitt says," Turner quipped. "But some of this was my fault. I was trying to be balanced on offense with my play-calling and I was forcing some passes that really weren't there."
The Cowboys had moved too far away from exploiting one of their major advantages over Buffalo: the size of their offensive line. Turner decided to correct that by returning to his ground game. He would run Smith until the Bills showed they could stop him. As it turned out, they couldn't.
Turner simply began calling power sweeps, mostly with two tight ends. Smith then could pick a hole. "We knew they would wear down," guard Nate Newton said. "They've got great players, but when you are messing with a bunch of 350-pound men, you've got to root-hot or die." In other words, the Bills had to dig in and stop the onslaught. But they couldn't.
First, though, Buffalo helped bring about its own downfall. On the opening possession of the third quarter, Thomas was tackled by Leon Lett and fumbled again. Washington, who had caused Thomas' first fumble, picked up the loose ball and went on a dazzling run, twisting his way through Bills tacklers and scampering 46 yards for a touchdown.
"I really did change the momentum around," Thomas said of his second mistake. "There's no doubt. That was the key to the game. It wasn't a matter of me being careless with the football. It was just that at certain times when I got the football I had somebody around me and didn't have enough time to tuck it away. I've never been a fumbler. I can't run with two hands around the football. That's just not my style. I just did what I normally do and they did a great job of knocking the ball."
Thomas, so important to any Bills game plan, spent most of the rest of the half on the sideline with leg cramps. His teammates obviously didn't appreciate his absence, but they resisted criticizing him openly. "When anyone is hurt, you have to go out and someone has to step up
take your place," Kelly said.
After a Buffalo punt, Dallas trotted out its refined offensive attack: Smith, Smith, Smith. Six times he carried, for 46 yards. After a three-yard pass to Daryl Johnston, Smith got the call again and this time he powered 15 yards for a touchdown and a 20-13 lead. The Cowboys had gained control of the game.
"The offensive line did a great job," said Smith, who would finish with 132 yards and win the game's Most Valuable Player honor. "They controlled the whole line of scrimmage the second half. I know I asked for the ball, but I didn't quite think I'd get it that much. I hardly had time to catch my breath."
Nor did the stumbling Bills. Dallas began countering Kelly's short passes by pressing the Buffalo receivers and disrupting the timing of the patterns. That allowed the Cowboys' front four to get more pressure on Kelly and suddenly he was scrambling and the passing attack was faltering. Without a running game, the Buffalo offense became predictable and ineffective. It became a matter of time before Dallas put the game out of reach-and that point came at the outset of the fourth period.
Kelly tried to go upfield to Don Beebe, but Washington again was in the right spot. He cut in front of the receiver and intercepted the pass, returning it to the Buffalo 34. After 10 plays (on which Smith handled the ball eight times), Dallas had scored again, with Smith capping the drive on a fourth-and-goal run from the 1. Johnson could have gone for the field goal, but the way Smith was running, a fourth-down call really wasn't much of a gamble.
All that was left was a 20-yard Murray field goal later in the period. By then, Buffalo knew it was facing the heartbreak of a fourth straight loss. It was not a comfortable feeling.
"I feel bad," Kelly said. "I've been here four times. I had all the confidence in the world, but you have to take your hats off to the Cowboys. They just did a great job. It's frustrating, it really is, but hell, I still have a couple of years left, so don't count me out, that's for sure.
"We'll just have to keep coming back until we get this thing right. We have to figure out a way to make things turn out differently."
Of the four losses, Levy said this one might have hurt the worst.
"Everyone was extremely disappointed in the locker room, maybe more so than in their previous losses," he said. "Extremely disappointed and very quiet. There was locker kicking going on. They really wanted to win the game.
Instead, it was Dallas doing the celebrating, extending the NFC's Super Bowl streak to 10 in a row.
"I don't want to hear any of this 'dynasty' talk," Irvin said. "But if we keep winning and if we can get back here and do it again, then maybe we do have something special going on."