The Buffalo Bills lost four straight Super Bowls from 1991-1994 while the Steelers have won a league record six over their history. The Bills are the poster children for failure on the big sports stage, at least the pigskin version, while the Steelers are the very icons of success. While the Bills did not actually lose any of those four Super Bowls to Pittsburgh, the Steelers sterling pedigree and sustained excellence qualify them as the ultimate winners in this arena.
But let’s forget about the Steelers for now. Those guys can put down the trophies and take off their rings and shut up for a few minutes, as can the members of the Giants, Redskins, and Cowboys teams that did win those Super Bowls. This is not about them.
And the odd thing is… it’s not even about the Bills. Not anymore. So much has been written about those losing Jim Kelly-led teams that there is not much to add to the factual record. We know that the Bills losing streak in the big game came smack dab in the middle of a 13 year stretch of dominance by the NFC over the AFC from 1985-1998. We know that three of the four Super Bowl losses were by scores so lopsided as to suggest a massive disparity in talent. We know that Scott Norwood missed a 47-yarder wide right at the buzzer to lose the one close game. We know that Thurman Thomas lost his helmet at one point in one of the games.
Because the Super Bowl is the highest ritual in our most devoutly practiced secular religion, the Bills’ serial failure has been magnified out of all proportion to reality. So much so that a new reality is formed. This story is no longer primarily a tale of underperformance or failing in the clutch, it is the very essence of also-ranness in America.
All we can do is stare, and react. How you feel about the Buffalo Bills says more about you than about them. When you think of those teams, do you feel – by some strange transference – shame? Guilt? Feeling defiant, do you counter the loser tag by reminding the critic of the fact that four straight conference championships were unprecedented at the time and unmatched since?
Do you feel glee? I doubt it. Now that would be cruel, and surprising. To find someone who today would look back at those guys and not wish a big game victory on them. Kelly and Thomas, Bruce Smith and Andre Reed. Three are Hall of Famers, the other will be. Fighters, all.
Where Are They Now?
The individuals have faded from the big stage, with no subsequent successes in other arenas large enough to reverse public perceptions. In a team sport, it’s the franchise that really bears the burdens of the also-ran label, and only a victory in the Super Bowl will remove it. The smart money is on that not happening anytime soon, however, as the Bills have been consistently poor since their heyday in the ’90s. Ralph Wilson, the team’s original owner, died in March, 2014 at the age of 95.
As noted, everyone’s takeaway on this will be different, and personal. Here’s mine. The seductive notion that if you just try hard enough you will attain your goals has always been a part of the American psyche. In times of distress, economic and otherwise, the equation seems to be embraced more fully, sometimes as a motivator, sometimes as a hedge against despair. The fact, as opposed to the myth, is that there are many external factors that determine a path – an individual’s or a franchise’s. Sometimes they all come together. We are all better off having the memory of the Buffalo Bills to remind us that sometimes they don’t.