1997 - Replacing Legends
6-10 record, fourth of five in AFC East, 12 of 15 in AFC, 22 of 30 in NFL
After the disappointing loss to the Jaguars at home and injured on the sidelines, Bills legend Jim Kelly called it quits after eleven years under center for the Bills. His center for those eleven years, Kent Hull, also retired. In the first round Buffalo selected running back Antowain Smith and in the second round selected defensive end Marcellus Wiley with an eye towards replacing the aging Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith, respectively. They traded their third round pick to the Raiders for quarterback Billy Joe Hobert. The Bills also drafted offensive lineman Jaime Nails and after the draft signed undrafted free agent defensive tackle Pat Williams.
Replacing a legend like Jim Kelly is never easy and Todd Collins certainly had his problems attempting. Collins was solid in Week 1 going 25 for 39 for 299 yards and a touchdown pass including seven throws to Andre Reed for 142 yards. The Bills offensive miscues and defensive blunders doomed the team and they lost to Minnesota, 34-13. In Week 2 the Bills came back from ten points down on the back of a solid defensive performance to win in the Meadowslands 28-22. The defense held the Jets to 39 rushing yards and sacked Neil O'Donnell eight times en route to the first win of Todd Collins' career. A close week three loss to the Chiefs preceded a fierce effort in Week 4. The Colts jumped on the Bills, scoring the first 26 points on the first five possessions of the game but before the end of the half the Bills had closed the lead to 26-10. After an Antowain Smith run to bring the score to 26-16 (two point conversion failed) and a Colts field goal to go back to 29-16 the Bills took over on a touchdown pass from Collins to Quinn Early. After a defensive stand the Bills marched down the field and Smith scored again giving the Bills a 30-29 lead. After another goal line stand Antowain Smith took the first play at his own 46-yard line and ran for a 54-yard touchdown to put the Bills up 37-29. The Colts rallied and scored on a Marvin Harrison touchdown with 14 seconds left. Kurt Schultz prevented the two-point conversion and the Bills ran out the clock to preserve the win. It was the second largest regular season comeback in NFL history (26 points). After the bye week, the Bills opened the next game against the Lions in the K Gun offense and Buffalo won its second straight but the offensive mojo ran out and Buffalo alternated wins and losses to the Patriots (33-6 loss), Colts (9-6 win), Broncos (23-20 loss in OT), and Dolphins (9-6 win). During the Patriots game Hobert saw action in relief at quarterback and looked awful. Following the game he admitted to not studying the playbook and not anticipating playing before being waived a couple days later. Against the Dolphins the Bills started their back-up quarterback Alex Van Pelt, fumbled six times (recovering five) and muffed a punt but still won the game. The Bills sat at 5-4 and still very alive in the AFC East but three straight losses to the Patriots, Dolphins and Oilers dropped the Bills to two games under .500. In Week 14, the Bills scored their first offensive first quarter touchdown of the year (think about that for a second) and went on to beat the Jets 20-10 at home. Marv Levy called the next game against the Bears the worst offensive output he ever oversaw as coach. The Bills were held to 160 yards by one of the league's worst defense and managed only three points in a loss. After a loss to the Jaguars the Bills were 6-9 and out of the playoffs but headed to Green Bay. In one of the weird events in Bills history, Steve Tasker, who had previously announced that this would be his last game, bumped an official while arguing a call and was ejected from his final game. (I remember the umpire apologetically throwing Tasker out of the game.) Playing against the Packer back-ups the Bills could only mount a modest comeback from a 24-0 deficit and lost 31-21. The team finished the year 6-10, the worst record since 1986 when Hank Bullough was fired midway through the season and replaced by Marv Levy.
After the worst full season record as coach since his very first year with the Chiefs, Marv Levy hung up his whistle at the age of 71. Levy's 112 regular season and 11 playoff wins put him far atop the hill of Bills coaches and his 17-5 record against the great Don Shula is one of my favorite stats. Steve Tasker appeared in 195 regular season and playoff games during his career, he made 204 career special team tackles and seven blocked punts to his credit.The Bills offense dropped to 29 in points and 25 in yards. The defense did not do much better ranking 23 in points allowed. The team averaged just under 16 points a game while allowing almost 23. Todd Collins went 5-8 in his first year starting at quarterback and Alex Van Pelt went 1-2 in relief. Thurman Thomas was relegated to a second fiddle role and rushed for only 643 yards with Antowain Smith getting the bulk of the carries and racking up 840 yards on the ground. Andre Reed and Quinn Early led the team with 60 catches each and five touchdowns , Reed going for 880 yards and Early for 853. Guard Ruben Brown, Bruce Smith, Bryce Paup and big defensive tackle Ted Washington were selected to the Pro Bowl and Smith earned All-Pro honors for the fifth consecutive year, his eighth and final selection. Electric Company guard Joe DeLamielleure was added to the Bills Wall of Fame in 1997. Joe D. played eight seasons for the Bills opening holes for O.J. Simpson's record-breaking 2000 yard season and was named to six straight All-Pro teams from 1975-1980.