WNY's All Time Greatest Sports Team: The '64-'65 AFL Bills v. The '90-'91 NFL Bills
AFL photo courtesy of remembertheafl.com; NFL photo by Robert Smith, courtesy of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society
For those born in the late seventies or early eighties (1980 pour moi), the Buffalo Bills teams of the early nineties seem a relic from long, long ago, like Compuserve, or Zima. We were too young to fully grasp the enormity of what was happening, what it meant that our long-suffering team had achieved the remarkable, unduplicated feat of going to four straight Super Bowls. Leave it to Wikipedia to describe the accomplishment in the simplest way possible: “Buffalo is also the only team to win four consecutive American Football Conference Championships, the only team in either conference to play in four consecutive Super Bowl games, and the only team ever to lose those four consecutive Super Bowls, consequently to the NFC East.”
Grrr. It stills burns, doesn’t it? (See also, my piece about the film Buffalo 66.) Of course, the Bills did win two championship titles, in 1964 and 1965—American Football League (AFL) championships, that is. It seems rather obvious, then, that one of these squads would have to be considered the all-time best team in Buffalo history. (This rationale would also kill the 1974–75 Sabres and the “no goal” 1999 team.)
But the AFL teams predate my existence by about fifteen years, so I find the comparison to the Super Bowl-era Bills a tricky one. I turned to AFL expert (and Forever Young genealogy columnist) Angelo Coniglio for his thoughts. As he points out, “‘All-time best of’ is deceiving when speaking of sports, because of the advances in equipment, training, and technology.” But, he says, “the 1964–1965 Buffalo Bills were among the best pro football teams of their era. They were a force on defense, giving up the fewest points for those years, and holding opponents without a rushing touchdown for seventeen consecutive games over two seasons. On offense, in addition to Hall of Fame guard Billy Shaw, at the ‘glamour’ positions they had Jack Kemp, the only AFL quarterback listed as a starter for the entire ten years the league existed; Cookie Gilchrist, the league’s first 1,000-yard rusher; and Elbert ‘Golden Wheels’ Dubenion, one of the most exciting receivers of the time.”
Hard to argue with. But for me, the AFL Bills need to share Title No. 3 with a team that never won one: the 1990-91 NFL Bills, the first of the Super Bowl squads. Consider: This was the first year of the no huddle (“K-gun”) offense, included a 13-3 record, saw the Raiders decimated 51-3 for the AFC Championship, and, of course, came to an end with a wide right kick. And despite three more Super Bowl appearances, that is the game, and team, that lingers. Jim, Thurman, Andre, and Bruce don’t just remain household names—they are part of Buffalo’s one-name club, like Ani, or Irv.
Plus, the questions alone—What if Bruce had pried the ball loose from Jeff Hostetler in the end zone? What if they’d gotten closer for the final kick? What was going on with “Downtown” Julie Brown?—make this the single most memorable sports season in Buffalo history. Imagine if they’d actually won.
Associate editor Christopher Schobert almost made it through this whole piece without mentioning Zubaz.