In 1988, the Buffalo Bills appeared to have turned the corner as a franchise. They had an elite quarterback in Jim Kelly, one of the best defenders in the game in Bruce Smith, rising rookies Cornelius Bennett and Thurman Thomas, Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Reed, and an All-Pro kicker in Scott Norwood. That team went 12-4 and lost in the AFC Championship game, but seemed poised to make a run again in 1989.
That run would be delayed, though. The Bills finished 9-7 in '89 after a tumultuous season where they earned the moniker "Bickering Bills" from media and fans for rumors of significant infighting among the players and coaches.
In the off-season, several personnel moves started the downward spiral. Smith was tendered a contract by the Denver Broncos that the Bills eventually chose to match - despite Smith advising them to take the two first-round picks they would have received. Chris Burkett held out for a new contract, and the NFL suspended Robb Riddick for a drug violation in July.
During a Week 2 loss, Burkett got into it on the sidelines with Kelly. Two days later, Burkett threatened to quit the team after losing his starting spot. He didn't have to. The Bills cut him, and he was picked up by the New York Jets.
After a mistake-filled Week 5 loss that saw Kelly separate his shoulder, the bickering reached another peak. Kelly started by ripping his offensive line - specifically Howard Ballard, who whiffed on the defender that injured Kelly. Kelly would later back off his comments, but the damage had been done.
In Week 6, the Bills faced the St. Louis Rams on Monday Night Football. Greg Bell, who had been traded to the Rams as part of the deal that brought Cornelius Bennett a year earlier, lashed out against his former teammates leading up to the game. He accused Jim Haslett and Fred Smerlas of being "rednecks," and hinted that they were prejudiced. He didn't stop there, accusing Marv Levy of being a "con artist" as a coach. The Bills got the last laugh, knocking off the undefeated Rams 23-20.
But verbal jabs took a back seat leading up to the Bills' second game against division rival Miami. According to various reports, assistant coaches and former off-season roommates Tom Bresnahan and Nick Nicolau brawled while reviewing game film. Nicolau punched Bresnahan in the chin. Nicolau got Bresnahan into a headlock and ran his head through a wall. You know, perfectly normal stuff for the film room.
After four losses dropped the Bills to 8-6, exceeding their loss total from the previous season, Thomas joined the bickering. Kelly had added to his offensive line comments by publicly criticizing Ronnie Harmon's pass-catching ability. On the Darryl Talley show, Thomas was critical of Kelly's comments toward other players. A few days later, Thomas joined Kelly for a press conference where they read prepared statements to the media apologizing to fans and the media.
Despite all the in-fighting, Buffalo clinched the division in the final week of the regular season by putting a 37-0 drubbing on the Jets. The Bills lost in the Wild Card round when Harmon dropped a winning touchdown pass in the end zone. The Bills put together a great effort in the game, and put the Bickering Bills behind them the following year when they went to their first Super Bowl.