1989 - The Offense Clicks
9-7 record, first of five in AFC East, third of 14 in AFC, 10 of 28 in NFL
Following the 1988 season the Bills were flying high. They had just appeared in the AFC Championship game giving the Bengals all they could handle. This, as I'm sure you all recall fondly, was the season in which the Bills began their "Glory Years" run.
The Bills lost a key figure in Bills history as Jim Ringo retired as Bills offensive coordinator and line coach, ending his 21-year coaching career. The Bills promoted quarterbacks coach Ted Marchibroda to lead the offense. Marchibroda was a quarterback at St. Bonaventure University and played for the Steelers and Cardinals in the NFL and had served as head coach for the Baltimore Colts in the 1970s. In the off-season the Bills signed Plan B Free Agent running back Kenneth Davis from the Green Bay Packers. (It turned out to be very fortuitous as solid backup running back Robb Riddick suffered a serious knee injury in the last preseason game.) The Bills did not have a first- or second-round pick in the draft due to the Cornelius Bennett trade but managed to select wide receiver Don Beebe in the third round. In June the Bills made some changes in the front office as well, promoting Bob Ferguson to assistant general manager/director of pro personnel and Bill Munson to assistant general manager/business operations. John Butler was promoted to director of player personnel and A.J. Smith became assistance director for college scouting.
In 1988 the Bills playoff run was largely due to the defense winning some close games. In 1989 second-year running back Thurman Thomas would explode out of the gate and the last missing piece would be added to Jim Kelly's arsenal. The Bills started the season scratching and clawing from an 11-point 4th quarter deficit to win in Miami and struggling to cut a three touchdown lead to one before ultimately losing to Denver in week 2. In week 3 Warren Moon and the Houston Oilers came into Buffalo for a record-breaking game. Jim Kelly threw for 366 yards and 5 TDs including the overtime game-winner to Andre Reed as Buffalo outgunned Houston 47-41. Two days later Buffalo signed 33-year-old free agent wide reciever James Lofton. Lofton was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection for the Packers and a member of the NFL's All-Decade team. The Bills went 3-1 in their next four leading up to divisional game against the Dolphins. In front of 80-thousand screaming Buffalo fans Thurman Thomas and fullback Larry Kinnebrew both topped one hundred yards rushing (the sixth time in Bills history two backs ran for the century mark) and Jeff Wright sacked Dan Marino ending Marino's NFL record streak of 19 games and 759 pass attempts without taking a sack. The Bills went 2-2 over their next four including a 24-7 win over the reigning AFC Champion Bengals and sat at 8-4, at least two games ahead of every team in the division. The start of December proved brutal for the Bills as they lost three straight games to sit at 8-7 heading into the final week of the season tied with the Dolphins and Colts for the AFC East crown. The Bills controlled their own destiny in Week 17. If they won their Week 17 tilt in the Meadowlands against the Jets they would win the AFC East for the second year in a row. The Bills held the Jets to 54 rushing yards and pounded the Jets 37-0. The win was the most lopsided in Bills history and clinched their second division title in two years.
With their 9-7 record the Bills were the third seed behind the Broncos (11-5) and Browns (9-6-1). In the divisional round the Bills squared off against the Browns in a match-up of the great Bills offense and the great Browns defense. Buffalo scored first with an Andre Reed 72-yard touchdown reception. But Cleveland struck back with a 45-yard field goal by Matt Bahr and a 52-yard touchdown pass from Kosar to Slaughter. Jim Kelly's 33-yard touchdown pass to James Lofton put the Bills back in the lead, 14-10, but Browns retook the lead with Ron Middleton's 3-yard catch shortly before the end of the first half. On the opening drive of the second half, Kosar hooked up with Slaughter for another touchdown pass, this one 44-yards, to increase their lead to 24–14. Buffalo responded with a 6 yard touchdown catch by running back Thurman Thomas, who tied an NFL playoff record with 13 receptions for 150 yards. But Browns running back Eric Metcalf returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown to give his team a 31–21 lead by the end of the third quarter. After an exchange of field goals, Thomas caught a three yard touchdown pass. But the extra point failed leaving the Bills down four points stead of three. On the final drive of the game Kelly led the Bills to Cleveland's 11-yard line with time running out. But fullback Ronnie Harmon dropped a potential game winning catch in the end zone and Kelly was intercepted by linebacker Clay Matthews on the next play with three seconds remaining to preserve a 34-30 Browns victory. Kelly threw for 405 yards and 4 touchdowns in the game.
On the year the offense took off scoring 80 more points than in 1988, an average of five more points a game, and gaining 500 more yards. The Bills finished ranked in the top five in points (3rd), yards (5th), and rushing yards (3rd) and Jim Kelly and Frank Reich combined to throw for 3589 yards ranking 8th in that category. Thurman Thomas rushed for 1244 yards (6th in the NFL) and had 669 receiving yards and scored 12 combined touchdowns. For the first time in his career the Thurmanator would lead the NFL in yards from scrimmage and all purpose yards. Andre Reed broke franchise records with 88 catches (second in the league) and 1312 receiving yards (fifth in the league) as well as averaging 82 yards per game (6th in the league). In his thirteen starts Jim Kelly threw for the highest yards per game in team history averaging over 240 yards a game and was fifth in the league with 25 passing touchdowns. Despite his numbers Jim Kelly was left off the Pro Bowl squad. Thurman Thomas was named to his first Pro Bowl and was joined by fellow Bills wideout Andre Reed, center Kent Hull, defensive end Bruce Smith, and linebacker Shane Conlan. Thurman was first team All-AFC and would have been All-Pro if not for his Oklahoma State teammate, rookie running back Barry Sanders. Reed, Smith, and Hull were named to the All-AFC team as well. Bills owner Ralph Wilson, Jr., was added to the Bills Wall of Fame. (Note: Local media members and club personnel make the decision, not Wilson.)