1998 - Changes in Bunches
10-6 record, second of five in AFC East, fourth of 15 in AFC, ninth of 30 in NFL
After losing Marv Levy the Bills elevated defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to head coach. After the less-than-stellar quarterback play in the 1997 season GM John Butler went out and made two moves to shore up the position. In January, Butler signed CFL star Doug Flutie but it was assumed that he would be fighting for a back-up role. The other major move was trading the first- and fourth-round picks in the draft to obtain the rights to Jacksonville quarterback Rob Johnson. The Jaguars spent the first round pick on running back Fred Taylor. In the second round of the draft the Bills selected linebacker Sam Cowart to replace the departed Bryce Paup. CB Jeff Burris and offensive lineman Corbin Lacina signed elsewhere in free agency and Todd Collins was released in the preseason. The Bills also signed fullback Sam Gash from the Patriots.
The Bills started the year 0-3 but lost those games by a combined 9 points. In Week 4 the Bills were missing Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith to injuries and Rob Johnson was knocked from the game with a bloodied chin. Flutie came in and threw two touchdown passes to Andre Reed but a 54-yard John Carney field goal game the Chargers the lead with less than five minutes. Flutie drove the Bills to the Charger 21 but Steve Christie missed a field goal with under five seconds to play to give the Chargers the win. In Week 2 the Dolphins sacked Johson 8 times and held the Bills to 187 yards in a 13-7 Dolphins win. For the second straight week the offensive line and Rob Johnson allowed the opposing defense to pound the quarterback, combining to allow 9 sacks. Rob Johnson threw three touchdown passes and built a 28-10 lead. The Rams fought back and with eleven seconds left quarterback Tony Banks ran the ball in for the go-ahead score. On the final drive the Bills fell back into a prevent defense and allowed the Rams to methodically move the ball down the field in the loss. Following the needed bye week the Bills turned it around. The 49ers led by Steve Young were the most potent offense in the league but the Bills defense stepped up and held the offense in check in the first half while the Bills scored 20 points. With just over a minute left Young threw his third touchdown pass of the quarter but Buffalo recovered the onside kick and won 26-21. The next week Rob Johnson was injured taking a sack (surprise, surprise) and Flutie came in relief once again. Buffalo scored 24 straight points and held on to beat the Colts 31-24. Flutie started the next game for the first time in the season against the Jaguars. Playing their fourth string running back the Jaguars offense was paltry all day but still held a 16-10 lead over Buffalo just prior to the two minute warning. Defensive tackle Pat Williams sacked Brunell on third down and the Bills got the ball back with 1:38 left and Flutie worked his magic. He drove the team down the field and a 38-yard pass to Eric Moulds put the Bills on the one yard line. When veteran Thurman Thomas ran the wrong way on the next play it fooled everyone on the defense and Flutie, unfazed by the situation, was forced to tuck and run a naked bootleg in for the score and the 17-16 win. (Some have speculated that Flutie intentionally held the ball and didn't tell the offensive line or Thomas to fool the defense.) The Bills won their next two games and ran a five game winning streak into New Jersey to face the Jets. The Bills wins had not come easy and the cardiac Bills ran out of steam and lost to the Jets for only the fourth time in 21 games. The Bills beat the Patriots and Colts the following weeks and now at 7-4 had exceeded their win total from a year before. Week 13 would prove very controversial in New England. Down 17-24 with 1:51 remaining and no timeouts, Drew Bledsoe drove the Patriots into Bills territory. On 4th and 9 with six seconds left Bledsoe passed to wideout Shawn Jefferson whose foot appeared to be out of bounds and who appeared to be stopped short of the marker. With no replay the officials awarded the Patriots a first down and gave the Patriots a chance for a score. On the ensuing play the pass to Ben Coates fell to the ground but a pass interference call gave the Patriots an untimed play from the one yard line and Bledsoe was not one to squander three straight opportunities (HA!). He hit Coates on the next play for the go-ahead points. Coach Phillips was so livid at the officiating he refused to field his defense for the extra point and kicked Adam Vinetiari ran the ball in for a two point conversion. After the game Ralph Wilson vehemently challenged the officiating and was fined by the league. Buffalo rattled off two more wins and sat at 9-5 heading into the final two weeks. In a win-blown game the Jets beat the Bills to claim their first division title since 1970, a feat Buffalo repeatedly performed against the Jets in the earlier part of the decade, but the Bills clinched a wild card birth in the process. With a playoff spot wrapped up and no chance of altering their standing the Bills rested many key starters in week 17 including Doug Flutie. Rob Johnson threw three touchdowns and ran in another in Flutie's stead and the Bills blew out the Saints to finish 10-6. The Bills entered the playoffs as the final playoff team.
The playoff game would be played in Miami on a tiebreaker and the game would end up almost needing a tiebreaker, too. The Bills turned the ball over twice in the first half, including a Doug Flutie interception inside the six-yard line in the final seconds of the half, but still led 7-6. But the Dolphins came out of halftime looking to score some points and found themselves up on the Bills 24-14 with just 3:42 remaining. An Andre Reed catch was ruled down at the 1 instead of a touchdown and he was tossed for arguing the call at the two-minutes warning. The Bills kicked a field goal to bring the game to 24-17. Kurt Schultz recovered the onside kick and the Bills offense was in business moving the ball to the Miami 5 with just 17 seconds remaining on the clock. On the very next play Flutie double-pumped his arm and was leveled, forcing the ball loose. It was Buffalo's 4th fumble lost and 5th turnover of the game. Eric Moulds set an NFL playoff record with 240 receiving yards on only 9 catches on the day.
The Bills reloaded nicely from their unsuccessful 1997 season and Flutie provided the shot in the arm the offense needed. The offense jumped back up into the top half of the league finishing 7 in points, 6 in yards, 12 in passing yards, and 3 in rushing yards. The defense gave up the sixth-fewest yards but ranked 15 in points allowed and 25 in passing touchdowns. Flutie passed for 2711 yards in 13 games (10 starts) and was named to the Pro Bowl. Joining him was the AFC's leading receiver Eric Moulds who caught 67 balls for an amazing 1368 yards, still the most receiving yards in team history. Joining the duo in Hawaii was guard Ruben Brown, fullback Sam Gash, nose tackle Ted Washington and defensive end Bruce Smith. Robert James was added to the Wall of Fame in 1998. The undrafted James was a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro cornerback before severely injuring knee in 1975 preseason.