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1989 Buffalo Bills – Bickering Bills

by Bill Choinski


Whether it was the taste of success, youthful exuberance, or cockiness, the 1989 season was a stormy one for the Buffalo Bills. It was a year riddled with locker room strife and controversy.

In February, as a compromise to the free agency demands by the player’s union strike in the 1987 season, each team in the league submitted a list of 37 “protected” players. Any player under contract not on the list became an unrestricted free agent. This was the beginning of “Plan B” free agency. Veterans Tim Vogler, Joe Devlin, Rob Riddick, Steve Tasker, and many others were left unprotected. Most eventually re-signed with the Bills. Dale Hellestrae and Martin Mahew were two noticeable losses . The Bills managed to pick up some valuable pieces in Plan –B. RB Ken Davis (Green Bay) and John Davis (Houston) were two of four players to sign with the Bills.

Bruce Smith was vehement in his demands to being the top paid defensive player in the game. The Denver Broncos offered him a tender contract worth $7.5 million over 5 season, Better than the $1 million per year Buffalo was offering. Smith himself suggested Buffalo not match, and take the pair of first round picks instead. Polian chose to match the offer, thus securing his services. He became the top paid defensive layer in the league, and second highest paid Bill behind Jim Kelly.

With a slim slate of picks (Buffalo traded the #1 and #2 for Bennett last season) Buffalo selected speedie WR Don Beebe with their 3rs round choice. Other selections included CB’s Brian Jordan and Chris Hale in the 7th round, and LB Richard Harvey in round 11.

The summer of discontent continued, with WR Chris Burkett holding out for a contract extension. At the beginning of camp, the NFL handed out their first wave of 30 day drug suspensions, and Bills RB Rob Riddick was on the list. Without Riddick, Thurman Thomas became the primary RB threat . Going 1-3 in preseason action, RB Rob Riddick suffered a serious knee injury in the last preseason game following his return to action against the Atlanta Falcons. The injury lost Riddick’s services for the year. WR Trumaine Johnson was shipped to San Diego in a trade.

Just prior to the season opener, more NFL 30 day suspensions came down from the league, and some of the names on the lost were shocking. Buffalo’s Bruce Smith and the Giant’s Lawrence Taylor headed the list. Smith would miss the entire month of September serving his suspension.


Buffalo would open the season against Dan Marino and the Dolphins in Miami. Tied 10-10 in the 3rd quarter, Miami blocked a John Kidd punt for a score to put the Dolphins up 17-10. After a Norwood FG drew the Bills within 4, Miami seemed to salt it away when Marino found Andre Brown with a TD pass to make the score 24-13 with 5:17 remaining in the game. That was no problem for Kelly and the Bills, as the quarterback capped off one of the best comebacks in Bills history himself.

Kelly went to work, and was able to connect on five straight passes to complete an 82-yard drive with a 26-yard touchdown pass to Flip Johnson in just 2:27. The Bills then got the ball back from the Dolphins as Nate Odomes got his second interception of the afternoon, and returned the ball to the Buffalo 49 with 1:44 left on the clock. Kelly completed three passes to move the ball to the Dolphin 30, and kept the chains moving with an 11-yard pass to Thurman Thomas at the Miami 19. Reed then caught a 15-yard Kelly pass to move the ball to the 4, and Kelly had to spike the ball. Miami took an offside penalty to move the ball to the two-yard-line, which was the margin of victory and defeat for Buffalo. With just two seconds left on the clock, Kelly dropped back to pass, but then decided to take it himself, and just beat Louis Oliver to the goal line to give the Bills a dramatic 27-24 win over the Dolphins. It was his first rushing TD in 45 games in the NFL. It was Buffalo’s fifth victory in a row over the Dolphins.


Buffalo then entertained the Denver Broncos on Monday Night football for their home opener. Denver opened the scoring with a safety, when Jamie Mueller was tackled in his own endzone. Two FGs and 2 TDs later, Buffalo found themselves in a 21-0 hole midway through the 3rd. Kelly engineered back to back scoring drives to pull the Bills within a score at 21-14, but the Denver defense tightened. Bobby Humphries salted the game away with a late TD to make the final score 28-14. Chris Burkett, an unhappy camper all preseason, got into a heated exchange with Jim Kelly on the Buffalo sidelines during the game. Two days after the game, Burkett threatened to quit the team after losing his starting WR spot to Flip Johnson. Buffalo obliged the hot headed receiver by waiving him. The New York Jets picked him up immediately.


Buffalo traveled to Houston to take on the Oilers. Inwhat turned out to be one of the most memorable games in team history, the Bills and Jim Kelly outgunned the Oilers “Run and Shoot” offense in the Astro Dome- former home to Kelly’s Houston Gamblers during his USFL days.

In a wild game, Kelly tossed his first touchdown of the afternoon to Thurman Thomas with :10 remaining in the first quarter to give Buffalo a 10-7 lead. After the teams traded field goals, Mark Kelso finished the first half with a blocked field goal attempt that he took 76 yards for a touchdown and a 20-10 Bills lead as the teams headed to the locker rooms. Kelly finished Buffalo’s first series with a 63-yard pass to Don Beebe on a third-and-8 from the Buffalo 37, giving the Bills a commanding 27-10 lead. However, Houston wouldn’t go away, as Alonzo Highsmith got a rushing touchdown and Cris Dishman blocked a punt for a touchdown to pull the Oilers to within three as the third quarter ended.

The Bills answered back, as Kelly hit Andre Reed for a 78-yard touchdown strike just 10 seconds into the fourth quarter to give Buffalo a 34-24 lead, but Warren Moon hit Ernest Givins to pull Houston back within a field goal just 5:18 later. On the next series, Steve Brown returned an interception to the Buffalo 7, and Lorenzo White scored on a 1-yard run to give Houston a 38-34 lead. Kelly made up for his mistake, putting together an 83-yard drigve that ended with Thomas’ 26-yard touchdown catch with 1:52 left in regulation to put Buffalo up 41-38. Houston managed to tie the game as Tony Zendejas hit a 52-yarder as time expired, forcing overtime.

In the extra session, Zendejas wasn’t as lucky, as he missed a 37-yard attempt that would have won the game for Houston. Kelly responded by driving 80 yards in just seven plays, hitting Andre Reed for a 28-yard touchdown to win the game with 8:42 elapsed in overtime. The game-winner was Kelly’s fifth touchdown of the game, tying him with a pair of Joe Ferguson performances in the Bills’ record books, and he also finished with 363 yards, a career-best.. During the game, Buffalo’s outstanding DB Derrick Burroughs suffered a severe neck injury, necessitating his removal from the field by stretcher.



Giving up 93 points in 3 games, the Buffalo defense finally stiffened. The Bills held the Patriots to a single TD in a 31-10 win at home. Leading 24-3 at the half, Patriot’s QB Doug Flutie connected on a 20 yard TD pass to draw the Patriots into the game. On the ensuing drive, Thurman Thomas broke the game wide open with a 74 yard TD pass from Kelly to begin the 4th. Thomas had a breakout performance. Rushing for 105 yards and receiving for 99 more, he also added 2 TDs on the day. After the game, Buffalo replaced the recently departed Chris Burkett with 7 time Pro Bowl WR James Lofton, waived earlier in the season by the Raiders.


Week 5 saw Buffalo return to the Hoosier dome, which had become a house of horrors for the Bills , losing 5 of the last 6 games played there. The porous Bills defense gave up the first 23 points in the game. Midway through the 3rd, OT Howard Ballard missed a block allowing the Colt’s John Hand a free shot in on Kelly. While Kelly completed the pass, a 17 yard TD to Andre Reed, the hit resulted in a separated shoulder, knocking Kelly out of the game and out of action for the next month. Backup Frank Reich was less than spectacular in relief, throwing an interception that was returned 80 yards by the Colts. Buffalo lost, 37-14.

The bickering in the press hit a new high. Jim Kelly lashed out at his offensive line, in particular Howard Ballard, for giving up the sack resulting in the injury. Kelly would rescind his remarks, but the scars remained in the locker room. To add fuel to the fire, The Los Angeles Rams came back to town sporting the league’s only undefeated record for another marquis Monday Night Football match-up. RB Greg Bell, a former Bill traded to Los Angeles in the Cornelius Bennett deal, lashed out against his former team mates. He accused Former Bill Jim Haslett and current Bill Fred Smerlas as being “rednecks” and hinting they were prejudiced as well. He accused coach Marv Levy of being a “con artist” as a coach.


In his first professional start in front of a prime time audience, Frank Reich and the Bills offense had a less than spectacular game for nearly 55 minutes. Reich was picked of on his first drive, but the Buffalo defense came through forcing a Rams punt.. Much maligned the first half of the season, they played inspired defense against the NFL’s most explosive offense. The Bills special teams had a rare miscue when recently acquired Mickey Sutton muffed the return, giving the Rams prime field position on the Bills 16. Buford McGee was on the receiving end of a Jim Everett 4 yard TD pass.

Buffalo managed to pull within 1 at the half on 2 Norwood FGs. The Rams managed to answer with a FG of their own in the third, and appeared to frustrate the conservative Bills offense. Both teams exchanged FGs in the 4th, giving the Rams a 13-9 advantage. With 6 minutes remaining, Reich managed to put together a drive of 86 yards in 10 plays. Thurman Thomas’s 1 yard plunge put Buffalo ahead 16-13 with 3:23 remaining.

The Buffalo defense appeared to finish the Rams off when Everett failed to connect on any of his 4 offensive plays. Taking over on downs at the Ram 20 yard line, Thurman Thomas fought for yards to give the Bills a first down that would end the game. However, Thomas fumbled and the Rams received one more shot at their own 22. Jim Everett made the Bills pay for their mistake, hitting WR Flipper Anderson on a 78 yard bomb on the very next play, giving the Rams an almost certain unlikely victory.

Down 20-16, Reich took over on his own 36 with 1:17 and 3 timeouts remaining. On the first play, Reich hit Andre Reed for 6. Reed fumbled when tackled, but Kent Hull recovered, sustaining the drive. On the next 3 plays, Reich found Thomas open on short dump off passes over the middle, gaining 17, 6, and 15 yards, placing the ball on the Ram 22 yard line. Ronnie Harmon broke open and caught a Reich pass down the sidelines to the Ram 8, stepping out of bounds killing the clock with 20 seconds left. On the next play, Reich hit Reed at the 2 yard line, and with 2 Rams defenders draped on his back, he powered his way across the plane of the goal line. With 16 seconds remaining, Reed put the Bills up for good 23-20.



The victory gave the Bills a needed boost of confidence and it bolstered the defense. In the next 2 games the AFC East leading Buffalo hosted the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins. Coach Marv Levy kept the offense simple, limiting Reich to 29 passes total over the two games, completing 19 with no interceptions. The Bills rushing attack meanwhile produced 484 yards in those 2 contests completely dominating the opposition. The Jets went down 34-3. While throwing only 20 passes in this game completing 13, 3 went for touchdowns.


The Bickering Bills sunk to a new low in the days leading up to the Miami game. Asssistant coaches Tom Bresnahan and Nick Nicolau were participants in a brawl that broke out between the two while reviewing game film. Nicolau punched Bresnahan in the chin. Nicolau then got Bresnahan into a headlock and ran his head through a wall. The two coaches were offseason room mates together. The Bills took their frustrationa out against Miami, as both Thurman Thomas (148) and Larry Kinnebrew (121) broke the century mark rushing . Buffalo took that game convincingly, 31-17. The 80,208 on hand was a new stadium record.


Jim Kelly returned from his injury and played well against the Bills’ week 9 opponent, the 2-6 Atlanta Falcons. In what was becoming a regular occurrence this season, the Bills and Falcons put on another offensive display with under 2 minutes left in the game. Buffalo held a 21-20 lead. Falcon QB Chris Miller led a 7 play 61 yard scoring drive to put Atlanta on top 27-21 with 1:22 remaining for an apparent upset win. Rookie Don Beebe returned the ensuing kick off 85 yards to the Falcon 8 yard line. Larry Kinnebrew Put the Bills up 28-27 with 29 seconds left with his 1 yard plunge. Miller wasn’t done, tossing a desperation 41 yard pass that Stacy Bailey out-jumped CB Nate Odomes for in the dying seconds. The reception placed the ball at the Bills 34 yard line. With 2 seconds left on the clock, Paul McFadden completed the upset with a 50 yard kick. Atlanta 30, Buffalo 27.


Exacting revenge on the Colts in week 10, Buffalo ran the ball down Indianapolis’ throats tot the tune of 232 yards. Thurman Thomas led all runners with 127 yards and a TD. Andre Reed put up 2 TD receptions in the 30-7 rout. Cornelius Bennett was injured and would need 5 weeks to recover.



Week 11 saw more late game heroics work against the Bills. Leading 13-10 heading into the 4th quarter, Kinnebrew and Thomas each scored to put the Bills comfortably in front with under 9 minutes remaining. The Patriots then tore off 4 scores over the final 7:45 of the game to steal the victory. Game 12 saw a number of Bills milestones fall in a victory against the Bengals, 24-7.. James Lofton started for the first time all season. Andre Reed surpassed 1,000 yards for the year receiving for the first time in his career. LB Darryl Talley notched tackle #500, and Scott Norwood eclipsed OJ Simpson as the franchise’s highest scoring player. Thomas had 100 yards as the Bills rushed for 228 as a team.


In the next stretch of 3 games, the Bills continued their habit of blowing 4th quarter leads and losing to inferior opponents. In their third MNF game of the season, Buffalo played poorly in a 17-16 loss tot the Seahawks. After falling behind 10-0 early, Kelly rallied the Bills with a 61 yard bomb to Andre Reed. 3 Norwood field goals later put Buffalo on top 16-10 midway through the final quarter. John L Williams caught a 51 yard YD pass with 5:38 remaining for the victory.


With heavy snow falling during the game, a backup quarterback playing for the Saints, and the Saints’ being a southern based domed stadium team unaccustomed to the weather, , the odds were all stacked in the Bills favor. In an ironic twist, the Saints moved the ball quite well, the Bills offense having all sorts of problems adapting to the conditions. The Bills again found themselves with a lead in the second half, 19-16, only to see Morten Anderson cap off two Saints drives with field goals, the last coming with 1:53 on the clock for a 22-19 Bills loss.

As the Bills continued their slide, Kelly and Thomas got into a war of words off the field . In the Darryl Talley Show, Thomas was critical of Jim Kelly and his comments toward other players. Kelly had also chimed in with more criticism of players, including Ronnie Harmon’s penchant for dropped passes. In another kiss and make up press conference, Thomas and Kelly read prepared statements to the media clearing the air and apologizing to team and the fans.


Having the advantage of playing later on the west coast, The Bills learned that the Miami Dolphins took a beating at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts 42-13, giving the Bills an opportunity to clinch their second straight division title. The Bills and their defense were able to contain Steve Young and the 49ers most of the day, limiting the prolific 49er offense to a mere 9 completions. But in a 5:40 span of the second half, the 49ers struck for 3 TDs sending Buffalo down to defeat 21-10.


With the division on the line, Buffalo closed out the Jets in their most dominant offensive and defensive performance of the season. In front of 21,000 at the Meadowlands, Buffalo smothered the Jets 37-0. The Jets were held to 200 total yards and 11 first downs. Buffalo managed 208 in the air and 233 on the ground. Four different backs scored for the Bills (Kinnebrew, Thomas, Harmon, Davis) in the rout. The win secured the division title for the Bills and sent them packing off to meet the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland for the AFC divisional playoff round.

In many ways, this game was a turning point for the Buffalo Bills in their ascendancy into dominance in the AFC. While the game ended in defeat for Buffalo, it was here where the bickering Bills were left behind, and the exciting no huddle, resilient, “Circle the Wagons” Buffalo Bills were born.


Buffalo drew first blood in dramatic fashion. Opening the game with a new look- 3 wide receiver shotgun formation, the Bills came out with all guns blazing. Two plays after a missed Browns FG, Kelly hit Andre Reed for a 72 yard scoring strike. Cleveland responded, with closing out the first period with a 45 yard Matt Bahr FG. On the Cleveland’s next possession, Browns QB Bernie Kosar hit Webster Slaughter with his own big play, a 52 yard TD pass that put the Browns up 10-7. In this see-saw scoring battle, Kelly then answered again, capping a 5 play Bills drive with a 33 yard TD pass to James Lofton. Late in the half, Kelly was intercepted giving thre Browns the Ball at midfield. Kosar drove the Browns to the end zone on a great play fake and pass to a wide open Ron Middleton in the End Zone.

Cleveland’s offense opened the third quarter much like it did in the second. Webster Slaughter struck again with a 44 yard TD catch putting Buffalo down 24-14. Midway through the 3rd quarter, offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda went with a modified 2 minute drill, having Kelly call his own plays at the line of scrimmage. The Bills went with 3 wides in Lofton, Reed, and Don Beebe, with Thomas in the backfield. Thomas came into his own as a receiving threat this afternoon, finishing with an astounding 13 receptions for 150 receiving yards.

Kelly rallied Buffalo again, after Mark Kelso recovered a fumble giving Buffalo the ball at the Cleveland 21. Thurman Thomas’ 6 yard TD catch pulled Buffalo within a FG at 24-21. A rare special teams mistake cost the Bills dearly. On the ensuing kickoff, Eric Metcalf sliced his way throught the Buffalo return team for an electrifying 90 yard TD return.

The Buffalo Bills refused to quit. After an exchange of FGs in the 4th , Kelly completed 7 of 8 passes and moved his team 77 yards. Kelly’s 4th TD of the day was a toss of 3 yards to Thomas. Again, a rare special teams breakdown killed the Bills. Norwood missed the extra point that would have drawn the Bills within a game tying FG. The blown extra point left the score 34-30 with 4 minutes left.

The Buffalo defense came alive and forced the Browns to punt after only 3 plays, the key play being Darryl Talley’s sack of Kosar. Kelly’s final drive was full of drama. Taking over at the Bill’s 26, he hit Ronnie Harmon for a pair of passes. Facing 4th and 10 after 3 straight misfires, Kelly found Don Beebe for 17 to sustain the momentum. Kelly was forced to convert on 4th down a second time on the drive, hitting Reed for 10 yards on 4th and 1. After an 11 yard strike to Thomas put the ball on the Cleveland 11 yard line, Kelly spiked the ball to kill the clock at 14 seconds remaining. On the next play, Kelly had Ronnie Harmon wide open in the corner of the end zone and floated a pass right into the RB’s hands. Harmon had the ball bounce off his fingertips, dropping the winning score. On the Bills last play, a desperate heave by a pressured Jim Kelly fell into the hands of LB Clay Matthews, killing the Bills hopes. Buffalo was eliminated 34-30. Kelly’s heroics in defeat produced club playoff records for attempts (54) completions (28) and yards (404).

Thurman Thomas had an outstanding season leading the team with 1244 yards rushing, and was second on he team with 60 catches for 669 yards receiving, adding 12 TDs. Andre Reed led all Bills with a team records for receptions ( 88) and shattered the team record for yards with 1312, adding 9 TDs. During the season he eclipsed Elbert Dubenion as the team’s all time leading receiver. Playing only 12 and a half games, Kelly still managed 3130 yards, completing 58.3 % of his passes,with 25 TDs against 18 interceptions.

On Defense, Leonard Smith led the team with 99 tackles followed up by Cornelius Bennett and Talley with 97 each. Bruce Smith’s suspension forced him out of 4 games, but he still led the team with 13 sacks. Tally was second with 6, Bennett not far off with 5.5 of his own. Mark Kelso led the team again with 6 interceptions, with Nate Odomes contributing 5.

On offense, Buffalo was represented By Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, Thurman Thomas, and Center Kent Hull for the Pro Bowl. On defense, Bruce Smith, Cornelius Bennett, and Shane Conlon were selected to represent.

1989 Buffalo Bills Statistics     1989 Team Results