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1988 Buffalo Bills – The Thurminator Arrives

by Bill Choinski


For the first time since 1980 the fans and the city of Buffalo had a peaceful offseason void of any controversy. There was peace on the labor front and no threat of a strike. All of Buffalo’s rising young stars were signed and under contract. There were no rival leagues snatching up talent like the CFL / USFL bidding wars of the early 1980’s. The franchise was stable and poised for great things. Fans began buying into the optimism surrounding the club, as season ticket sales climbed to new heights.

In 1988, at the start of just his second full season as head coach of the Bills, Levy was faced with going into the draft without a first round pick, which had been traded away. “We badly needed a running back,” Levy said. “Six running backs went off our board by the middle of the second round so we had to make a decision on a guy.”

That guy happened to be Thurman Thomas, who was passed over by several teams because of an injury he suffered while at Oklahoma State. Levy and his personnel department carefully surveyed all their information that included a report that Thomas was healthy.

In what turned out to be a twist of fate for the Bills, they chose Thurman with the 13th pick of the second round and the 40th player overall. “Had we had a first-round choice,” Levy said retrospectively, “we probably would have gone for someone else.” In a deep running back draft, Gaston Green (Rams), John Stephens (Patriots), Lorenzo White (Oilers), Brad Muster (Bears), Craig Heyward (Saints), Icky Woods
(Bengals), and Tony Jeffries (Cardinals) were all selected ahead of Thomas.

Thanks to one of the best scouting departments assembled in the league, Buffalo again had a very productive draft in the late rounds. WR Bernard Ford was selected in the 3rd, Safety John Hagy in the 8th, NT Jeff Wright also in the 8th, LB Carlton Bailey in the 9th, and CB Martin Mayhew in the 10th.

Officially departing the club after a string of series of serious injuries in the past 4 seasons was WR Jerry Butler. Defensive End Sean McNanie was dealt to Arizona. The Bills picked up former Pro Bowl DE Art Still from Kansas City to replace him. OT Ken “House” Ballard signed with Buffalo a year after being drafted, as he chose to remain in school in 1987. LB Eugene Marve was shipped to Tampa Bay for a future draft pick.

Stunning developments in training camp shocked the Bills. RB Rob Riddick was suspended for the month of August for violating the NFL’s new drug abuse policy. Just as Riddick was reinstated prior to the home opener, All –Pro DE Bruce Smith was hit with a four game suspension for violating the policy as well. He would not be the only big name in the NFL sitting out September, as the New York Giants would lose LB Lawrence Taylor as well.

Bills 13, Vikings 10

Despite the loss of Smith for the opener, Walt Corey’s defense stepped up in a dominating performance against the Minnesota Vikings. Art Still collected 2½ of Buffalo’s 6 sacks on QB Wade Wilson. Cornelius Bennett’s interception on the 3rd play of the game set up a Scott Norwood 27 yard FG to open the scoring. The Bill’s second drive resulted in a Norwood miss from 47 yards out, and their third drive culminated in a Thurman Thomas 5 yard run for a score, his first in the NFL.

The Bills extraordinary special teams play set up the Bills third score. Rob Riddick tackled Viking punter Bucky Scribner at the 11 yard line setting up a 26 yard chip shot for Norwood. The Vikings managed a late score with 4:38 remaining in the game to pull themselves to within a FG at 13-10. Thurman Thomas broke a critical 28 yard run with under 2 minutes remaining to seal the Vikings fate. Thomas finished the game with 18 carries for 86 yards.

Bills 9, Dolphins 6

Miami came to Buffalo to play in front of another sellout crowd in week 2. Jim Kelly nearly missed the game due to a severe case of the flu. In a defensive battle, Scott Norwood out-dueled Fuad Reveiz in a battle of field goals, 9-6. It was their 3rd consecutive defeat of the Dolphins, matching a franchise high.

Bills 16, Patriots 14

The Bills then exercised another demon in week 3 at Sullivan Stadium against New England. Losers of 11 straight to the Patriots going back to 1981, Buffalo found themselves down early, 14-3. CB Nate Odomes registered his first career interception 2 plays intot the second half setting up a Norwood FG. In the 4th, Kelly led a 10 play 66 yard drive culminating in a 3 yard Rub Riddick run. Trailing 14-13, Kelly took control at midfield with 1:50 on the clock. Kelly hit Harmon and Reed, putting the Bulls at the NE 31. Harmon and Riddick added 4 yard runs apiece to the New England 23. After Kelly spiked the ball to kill the clock with :16 left, Norwood was summoned to win the game, his 41 yard FG made the final 16-14 Buffalo. It was the team’s best start since 1980.

Bills 36, Steelers 28

Buffalo entertained the Steelers at Rich Stadium, and Scott Norwood stole the show. Norwood hit 5 FG’s on the day extending his streak to 12 in a row, a new team record. Rob Riddick score 2 TDs, the second off of a blocked punt by Steve Tasker that Riddick returned 5 yards for a score to put the Bills up 30-14. The Steelers added 14 in the 4th, but they never were a threat. Buffalo remained undefeated during Bruce Smith’s absence, winning 36-28.

Bears 20, Bills 3

Bruce Smith’s return was a welcome addition to the lineup, but against the Chicago Bears at Soldier field, it didn’t make a difference. Mike Ditka’s “Monsters of the Midway” completely dominated the Bills, holding the offense to a net of 0 yards rushing. Chicago scored all their points in the first half, and cruised to a 20-3 win. Smith registered his first sack of the year in his return.

Bills 34, Colts 23

Buffalo looked like they would lose their second game in as many weeks when they entertained the Colts in week 5. Trailing 17-0 with the ball backed up on their own 2 yard line at he 2 minute warning of the first half, Kelly rallied the Bills. Completing 5 of 6 passes, he moved the Bills in 1:17 capping the drive with a 26 yard TD to Ronnie Harmon. Taking the second half kickoff, Kelly then engineered an 11 play 64 yard drive culminating in a 16 yard TD pass to Andre Reed. Following a Colt FG, Reed caught his second TD on the day putting Buffalo up 21-20. The Colts took the lead once more on another FG, But Buffalo finished the gam with 3 scoring drives to claim a 34-23 win. Kelly threw for 315 yards and 3 TDs in the win.

Bills 37, Jets 14

Buffalo traveled to New York to take on the Jets on Monday Night Football. Buffalo opened the game with a 59 yard drive resulting in a Norwood FG. After forcing a Jets punt, Jim Kelly struck the Jets deep, hitting Andre Reed on the first play of the drive on a 65 yard TD pass. The Jets again were forced to punt, and Kelly struck again. On the third play of the drive, WR Flip Johnson caught a tipped Kelly pass and raced 66 yards for a 17-0 Bills lead just 11:55 into the game. Riddick added a TD run in the second, and following a Jet’s TD by Johnny Hector, Kelly and Andre Reed hooked up again on a 16 yard score. Kelly stle the primetime spotlight finishing the first half passing for 261 yards and 3 TDs. Bruce Smith added 2 ½ sacks, Safety Leonard Smith added one, as the Bills defense held the Jets to a mere 10 first downs in the game. The Bills put it away on 2 more Norwood FG’s for a 37-14 final.

Bills 23, Patriots 20

Norwood victimized New England for the second time in a season, kicking the game winner with 13 seconds left to propel the Bills to a 23-20 win in Orchard Park. Half way through the schedule, Buffalo was sporting a 7-1 record with a comfortable 3 game lead.

Bills 28, Packers 0

Week 9 saw the Green Bay Packers come to town and get a huge dose of the Buffalo defense. Packer QB Don Majkowski was sacked 6 times with Cornelius Bennett registering 2 ½ of them. Jim Kelly was 10-14 for a mere 80 yards, but his 1 yard pass to reserve TE Butch Rolle put Buffalo up 14-0 at the half. Bruce Smith forced a poor Majkowski pass in the 3rd quarter which was picked off and returned 78 yards for a TD by Mark Kelso. Late in the game, Mark Pike forced a fumble that Leon Seals returned 7 yards for the Bills final score.

Thurman Thomas registered his first 100 yard game with 116 yards. Buffalo registered the 28-0 shutout to move their record to 9-1, with a 4 game division lead over the Jets, Pats, Dolphins, & Colts. Two days later, LB Hal Garner became the third Bill to get a 4 game suspension for violation of the league drug policy.

Bills 13, Seahawks 3

Buffalo put on another defensive display in a 13-3 win over the Seahawks, their first against that franchise. Buffalo allowed only 145 yards against and registered 4 sacks in the win. Rob Riddick score Buffalo’s only TD.

Bills 31, Dolphins 6

Back on Monday Night Football in Miami, Buffalo continued their dominance. Rob Riddick and Ronnie Harmon each scored twice in the 31-6 win. It was the sixth consecutive game Riddick scored a TD in. The win was Marv Levy’s 50th as an NFL head coach. Buffalo converted an incredible 80% of their 3rd downs, going 14-17. Marino was intercepted 3 times, once by Bennett. It was Buffalo’s 4th in a row against the Dolphins.

Bills 9, Jets 6 OT

Buffalo entered week 12 with the opportunity to lock up the AFC East crown against the Jets. Late in the 4th quarter, with both teams able to muster just 2 FGs apiece, the Jets looked poised to pull off the upset and ruin the Bills’ celebration party. A Thurman Thomas fumble in Jets territory late gave them the ball. Ken O’Brien drove the Jets to the Buffalo 23 with :18 seconds left. Pat Leahy’s game winning kick was blocked by Fred Smerlas giving the Bills new hope. In OT, Derrick Burroughs forced the Jet’s RB Roger Vick to fumble, and Cornelius Bennett recovered. At the Jets 32. Riddick gained 20 yards on 4 straight runs giving Norwood an easy 30 yard kick for the win.

The FG gave Norwood 100 points on the season, becoming the first Bill to accomplish the feat since OJ Simpson in 1975. Following the game, fans stormed the field tearing down the goalposts.

Bengals 35, Bills 21
Tampa Bay 10, Bills 5
Bills 37, Raiders 21
Colts 17, Bills 14

With the division locked up, Buffalo coasted through the final 4 games, dropping 3. Buffalo’s #1 ranked defense was torched for 455 yards in a 35-21 loss to the Bengals. It would prove to be a costly loss in the playoffs, as Buffalo would find themselves tied with Cincinnati at the end of the season, with the Bengals taking the tiebreaker. Buffalo dropped a 10-5 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, before coming back strong in a 37-21 win against the Raiders. In the win, Thurman Thomas ran for 106 yards, including a 38 yard run for a TD. Buffalo amassed 255 total rushing yards on a bitter cold day, at 11 degrees it was the coldest game ever played in Buffalo. The Bills dropped the final game to the Indianapolis Colts. Buffalo took a 14-3 lead with 13:00 left in the game on an Andre Reed TD, but Gary Hogeboom led 2 scoring drives in the final 5:32 of the game to steal the win and cost the Bills home field throughout the playoffs. Shane Conlon sprained his foot and would miss 4 weeks.

AFC Divisional Playoff
Buffalo 17, Houston 10

riddickvsoilers_1.jpegAfter a first round playoff bye, Buffalo opened the playoffs against the Houston Oilers. It was the first home playoff game for the Bills in 22 seasons. The game was dominated again by the Buffalo Bills special teams unit. The Bills blocked one punt and a FG attempt. Early in the game the Oilers withstood a Bills threat deep into Oiler territory. Thurman Thomas broke a 40 yard run to the Oiler’s 2 yard line. On 4th and inches, Kelly’s pass to TE Pete Metzelaars fell incomplete. After the Oilers took over on downs and their drive stalled, Leonard Smith blocked the ensuing Oiler’s punt putting the Bills in prime field position at the Houston 46. Trumaine Johnson caught a pair of Kelly passes for 28 yards, followed by a Thomas 16 yard run to the Oiler 3. Rob Riddick punched it in 2 plays later for a 7-0 Bills advantage.

Houston answered with a FG after an 11 play drive. The Oilers threatened again late in the half, but Bennett blocked a Louis Zendejas FG attempt. In the 3rd quarter, Thurman Thomas scored his first playoff TD by running off right tackle from 11 yards out. After an Oiler punt on the next drive, Kelly found Andre Reed open for a 53 yard completion to the Oiler 3. Again Marv Levy chose to forgo the chip shot FG and tried a 4th and inches at the goal line. Riddick was stuffed by Oiler defender John Grimsley.

Two plays later in the shadow of their own goalpost, Warren Moon’s pass was intercepted by Mark Kelso. The Oiler defense stood tough, and Scott Norwood was called upon for a 27 yard FG to push the lead to 17-3 with 11:35 left. Cornelius Bennett forced Patrick Jeffers to fumble on the next drive, but Scott Norwood missed from 36 yards out, keeping the Oiler’s slim hopes alive. Moon then directed an 80 yard scoring drive to pull Houston within a TD at 17-10 with5:12 remaining. Steve Tasker and the special teams put the game away late, forcing Curtis Duncan to fumble a punt return with under 2 minutes remaining. The Win would put Buffalo on the road to the Bengals in the AFC Championship game.

AFC Championship Game
Bengals 21, Bills 10

In a tight defensive struggle, the game was decided in the trenches. Buffalo could not win the battle at the line of scrimmage on both offense and defense. The Bills could only muster 45 rushing yards for the game. Buffalo went 0-10 on 3rd down conversions. The Bengals, behind rookie RB Icky Woods’ 102 yards, compiled 175 total for the game. The Bengals would also hold the time of possession edge, controlling the clock for 39:29 of the game’s 60 minutes. The Bengals opened the scoring by turning a Jim Kelly interception early into a quick 7 points. Starting at the Buffalo 18, the Bengals converted the turnover into a TD in 5 plays, with Woods taking it in from the 1. On the next drive, Kelly responded in kind, driving the Bills 56 yards and hitting Reed with a 9 yard TD pass to tie the score. The Bengals answered right back with a 76 yard drive of their own James Brooks was on the receiving end of a 10 yard Boomer Esiason pass to put the Bengals up 14-7. With 1:02 left in the half, Kelso intercepted Boomer Esiason returning the ball to the Bengal 29. Norwood booted a 39 yard FG to draw Buffalo closer at the half, 14-10.

The Bills offense sputtered badly in the second half, getting held to 53 total yards. The back-breaker for the Bills occurred when CB Derrick Burroughs lost his cool and collected a personal foul and a game ejection late in the 3rd quarter following an unsportsmanlike hit on Bengal receiver Tim McGee. The penalty gave the Bengals an automatic first down and the ball on the Buffalo 4 yard line. Icky Wood’s second TD of the game to start the fourth quarter put the game out of reach at 21-10. The personal fouls continued for Buffalo, as Rob Riddick lost his cool on the ensuing kick putting Buffalo in another hole. Kelly managed to drive the Bills as close as the Cincinnati 17 with 8 minutes left, but on 4th and 10 Kelly’s 3rd interception on the game killed the drive and the season. The Bengals then churned out 4 first downs to kill the clock. Cincinnati went on to the Super Bowl only to lose to Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers 20-16, on a John Taylor TD reception with :34 seconds left.

Thurman Thomas became the 4th rookie in 10 seasons to lead the club in rushing yards with 881 and 2 TDs. Due to 9 Thomas fumbles, Rob Riddick became the primary weapon for the Bills inside the red zone. Riddick added 438 yards rushing, an additional 238 receiving on 30 catches, and led the team with 13 TDs. Ronnie Harmon was inserted on passing downs, and added 212 yards rushing, was 3rd on the team with 37 receptions for 427 yards, and added 4 TDs. Andre Reed led the team for the 4th straight year with 71 receptions for 968 yards and 6 TDs. Trumain Johnson unseated Chris Burkett as the team’s #2 receiver with 37 receptions for 514 yards. Jim Kelly finished with 3,380 yards, completing 59.5% of his passes, with 15 TDs and 17 interceptions.

The defense had a spectacular season. Bruce Smith registered 11 sacks in 12 games, followed be Bennett with 9 ½ , Art Still with 6, and reserve rookie NT Jeff Wright registered 5 in limited playing time. Ray Bentley led the team with 122 tackles, followed by Bennett’s 103. Kelso led the team with 7 interceptions, returning 1 for a score.

Bruce Smith, Fred Smerlas, C- Kent Hull, Bennett, Shane Conlon, and Scott Norwood were selected to play in the Pro Bowl. It was Fred Smerlas’ 5th selection, tying a team record. Andre Reed was added to the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement. Jim Kelly was added to the Pro Bowl after Boomer Esiason and Dan Marino pulled out due to injury. Kelly later declined, citing elbow tendinitis.

1988 Buffalo Bills Statistics      1988 Team Results