This is the sixth part of a ten part series dedicated to the worst moments or games in the history of the Buffalo Bills. As hard as some of these moments have been, we Bills fans wear our hearts on sleeves and consider some of these events badges of honor. Enjoy.
The 1999 season for the Buffalo Bills was a highly anticipated one. Expectations were high after the 1998 season saw the exhumation of Doug Flutie’s career that culminated in a playoff berth. You know the guy that threw the famous Hail Mary pass as a Boston College Eagle to beat the Miami Hurricanes on the last play?
Let’s back up to the 1998 season. Along with acquiring Flutie from the CFL where he played eight years and won three Grey Cups, they signed quarterback Rob Johnson. Johnson was coming off a stellar year for the Jacksonville Jaguars in which he was often injured but effective when healthy. Johnson was a star at USC, leaving the team with most of the passing records at the time and spending most of his senior season as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. Newly minted head coach Wade Phillips called the acquisition of Johnson the “start of a new era” in Buffalo.
For all the hope the 1998 season offered, it started off as a dud with three straight losses to the Chargers, Dolphins and Rams. To make matters worse, Johnson was terrible. The Rams game was the team’s home opener and failed to sell out which showed the organization that the fan base didn’t have much confidence in him.
Johnson redeemed himself two weeks later after the bye week when the unbeaten San Francisco 49ers came to town. The Bills came out gunning by throwing deep the very first play of the game and it was all Buffalo as they won 26-21.
The next week they travelled to Indianapolis and the history of the team would be changed forever. Rob Johnson would suffer an injury early in the game and in came Doug Flutie. At the time Flutie’s skills were a big question mark. He came to the NFL a decorated CFL veteran; but had a less than stellar career in the big show, which was in the 1980’s. Plus fans were softening up to Johnson a bit after taking down the Niners the week before. Flutie led the Bills to victory that day against the Colts and was named the starter for the immediate future as Johnson’s injury would keep him out for some time.
The next week at home against the Jaguars, who were also unbeaten, more history would be made. With one timeout and a 1:50 left, Doug Flutie led a drive that culminated in a 4th and goal naked bootleg on the goal line that won them the game. The pint sized quarterback also won over the hearts of the fans and “Flutie Mania” was off and running.
For the rest of the season, save the last game when Johnson was given the nod, Flutie was entrenched as the starter as the Bills went 7-3. The Bills lost to the Dolphins in the first round of the playoffs, but the season was already billed as a success. Buffalo was ready to move forward with Doug Flutie as their starting quarterback.
The 1999 season started out as a success in which the Bills ultimately kept the momentum from the previous season going. After an opening day loss to the eventual division champion Colts, the Bills rattled off four straight wins. They tacked on two three game winning streaks, and Buffalo was sitting alone in second place and a wild card berth in hand going into their home finale against Indianapolis. Like the previous year, head coach Wade Phillips decided to sit Flutie and let him rest for their first round playoff game the next week. Rob Johnson made the start and was very impressive, guiding the team to a 31-6 victory.
All was well in Bills land. They had a starting quarterback that was playing at an elite level who was also capturing the hearts of football fans everywhere. The defense was one of the best in the history of the franchise. They also had a capable backup in Johnson in which case if Flutie were to get injured, he could step in.
Days later, the collective football world was turned upside down when Phillips named Rob Johnson the starter for the playoff game against Tennessee. Phillips was basing his decision on his performance against the Colts. The media thought he was kidding. The fans thought he was kidding. I’m sure some of the guys on the team thought he was kidding. Is he really going to bench the guy that started 15 games for the team and guided them to a playoff berth? The cold hard truth was yes, Doug Flutie was being benched for the game against the Titans.
The game against the Titans was a cold, gray January afternoon. Perfect Bills weather. The fans were still in shock when Johnson stepped on the field instead of Doug Flutie. To no one’s surprise, the defense came to play. Rob Johnson didn’t. After a scoreless first quarter, the Titans scored twelve to build themselves a comfortable lead going into halftime. The punch-less Bills offense had no answer for the Titan defense. Tennessee had the crowd, the lead and the momentum. The halftime show consisted of commentators begging the Bills to put Doug Flutie back in there, but sure enough as the second half started so did Johnson. Could it get worse? Never say never in Bills land.
To the surprise of many, Johnson came out looking like a brand new quarterback. He led the Bills to the only touchdown of the third quarter, and Buffalo was right back in it. The fourth quarter was set up to be one for the ages. With 1:48 remaining and Tennessee trailing 13-12, an Al Del Greco 36 yarder put the Titans up 15-13. Johnson had a career drive on the ensuing possession, losing his shoe while completing a first down to keep the Bills in it. He played the last two plays shoeless as time was running out. Steve Christie nailed a 41 yarder to put the Bills up 16-15 with 16 seconds left.
What happened next will go down as one of the most famous(or infamous) plays in NFL history. The Titans knew that Christie’s kick will either be a pop up or a squib. So what they did was when the Bills popped it up, the entire special teams flooded one side of the field and left Titan wide receiver Kevin Dyson and a blocker on the other side. They were trying to bait the Bills to follow their flood and leave Dyson and the blocker alone. So when everything went just as the Titans wanted it to, tight end Frank Wycheck threw the ball across the field to Dyson and there was nothing but daylight.
The first thought that ran through everyone’s mind was it was a forward pass. It looked like one on TV. The Bills thought it was a forward pass, and of course if it was the play would be negated and all that would be left is for the Bills to board a plane to Indianapolis to play the Colts the next week.
After a few painful minutes, referee Phil Luckett(who has had a long list of blown calls mind you) came out of his “ref tent” and declared it a legal play. Game over. Putting it where mama hides the cookies. Kaput, kablamo, done. And man, did it hurt. In hindsight if he would have called that back the NFL would have had a riot on their hands and Luckett didn’t want the blood on his.
The Bills of course have never recovered from the Music City Miracle. It was their last taste of playoff action. The next year Johnson was the starter. Not surprisingly he struggled and Flutie played well when called upon. But the damage was done and Flutie left for greener pastures the next year. Can you blame him?
The world of a Bills fan seems very unfair. The Music City Miracle is a painful reminder of that.