History of the Buffalo Bills
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This article details the history of the Buffalo Bills. The team began play in 1960 as a charter member of the American Football League (AFL) and won two consecutive AFL titles in 1964 and 1965. The club joined the National Football League (NFL) as part of the 1970 AFL-NFL Merger. The Bills have the distinction of being the only team to advance to four consecutive Super Bowls, but also has the dubious distinction of losing all four of them.
- 1 Before 1960
- 2 1960–1980
- 3 1986–1997: Marv Levy–Jim Kelly era
- 4 2001–2014: The Decade of no playoffs and New Ownership
- 4.1 2001–04: The Tom Donahoe era
- 4.2 2005–07: Marv Levy returns to the fold
- 4.3 2008–09: Toronto and Terrell Owens
- 4.4 2010–2012: The Buddy Nix Era
- 4.5 2013–2014: The New Russ Brandon Era and the death of Ralph Wilson
- 5 2015-Present: The Terry Pegula Era
- 6 Future
- 7 References
- 8 External links
The Bills were not the first professional football team to play in Buffalo, nor was it the first NFL team in the region. Professional football had been played in Buffalo and in upstate New York since the beginning of the 20th century. In 1915, Barney Lepper's "Buffalo All-Stars" were founded; the team would later be replaced by the Niagaras in 1918, then the Prospects in 1919. The Prospects were the basis of what would become the "Buffalo All-Americans," who joined what would become the NFL in 1920 and finished in a tie atop the league standings in 1921. After changing their name to the Bisons in 1924 (and, for one season, the Rangers in 1926), the team suspended operations in 1927, then came back in 1929 and re-folded at the end of that season.
After Buffalo hosted two NFL games in 1938 (a practice that would become a semi-regular occurrence in the city until the current team's arrival), the third American Football League installed the Buffalo Indians in the city; the Indians played two years before the league suspended and ultimately folded due to World War II. After the war, when the All-America Football Conference formed, Buffalo was again selected for a team; originally known as the Buffalo Bisons, the same name as a baseball team and (at the time) a hockey team in the area, the team sought a new identity and named itself the "Buffalo Bills" in 1947. When the AAFC merged with the NFL in 1950, the AAFC Bills were merged into the Cleveland Browns. Though there was no connection between the AAFC team and the current team, the Bills name proved popular enough that it was used as the namesake for the future American Football League team that would form in 1959.
The forerunners to the Canadian Football League would also play at least one game in Buffalo during the 1950s.
The AFL years
When Lamar Hunt announced formation of the American Football League in the summer of 1959, Buffalo was one of the target cities Hunt sought, based on its previous success with the Bills in the AAFC. His first choice of owner, however, turned him down; Pat McGroder (then a liquor store owner and sports liaison with the city of Buffalo) was still hopeful that the threat of the AFL would prompt the NFL to come back to Buffalo to try and stop the AFL from gaining a foothold there (as the NFL would do with teams in Minnesota, Dallas, St. Louis and later Atlanta). McGroder's hopes never came to fruition, and in 1961, he took a position in the new Bills organization.
Harry Wismer, who was to own the Titans of New York franchise, reached out to insurance salesman and automobile heir Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. to see if he was interested in joining the upstart league. (Both Wismer and Wilson were minority owners of NFL franchises at the time: Wilson part-owned the Detroit Lions, while Wismer was a small partner in the Washington Redskins but had little power due to majority owner George Preston Marshall's near-iron fist over the team and the league). Wilson agreed to field a team in the new league, with the words "Count me in. I'll take a franchise anywhere you suggest." Hunt gave him the choice of six cities: Miami, Buffalo, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Atlanta, or Louisville, Kentucky; after being turned down in his effort to put a team in Miami, he consulted with Detroit media, who connected him with McGroder and The Buffalo News managing editor Paul Neville; their efforts to lobby Wilson to come to Buffalo were successful, and Wilson sent Hunt a telegram with the now-famous words, "Count me in with Buffalo."
The Buffalo Bills were a charter member of the American Football League (AFL) in 1960. After a public contest, the team adopted the same name as the AAFC Buffalo Bills, the former All-America Football Conference team in Buffalo. The AAFC Bills franchise was named after the Buffalo Bills a popular barbershop quartet, whose name was a play on the name of the famed Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody. The franchises are not officially related, other than in name, to each other.
After an inaugural season that saw the Bills finish 5–8–1 (third in the four-team AFL East Division), the Bills gained four of the first five picks in the 1961 AFL draft, including the top slot, which they used to draft offensive tackle Ken Rice. They also drafted guard Billy Shaw in the same draft. Success did not come overnight. On August 8, 1961, the Bills became the first (and only) American Football League team to play a Canadian Football League team, the nearby Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Because of that game, they also hold the dubious distinction of being the only current NFL team to have ever lost to a CFL team, as the Tiger-Cats won, 38–21. Hamilton was one of the best teams in the CFL (they would go on to win the Big Four title but lose in the 49th Grey Cup that year), and Buffalo, at the time, was the worst team in the AFL. That, however, was about to change.
In the 1962 offseason, Buffalo began to stock up on offensive talent. Jack Kemp was acquired off waivers from the San Diego Chargers after the Chargers thought Kemp, who had led the Chargers to back-to-back AFL title games, had a bum hand. The Bills also drafted Syracuse running back phenomenon Ernie Davis and had a serious chance of getting him to play for Buffalo after the Redskins, a team Davis refused to play for, drafted him; however, Davis instead opted to play for the NFL after the Redskins traded him to Cleveland, and he died of leukemia before playing a single down of professional football. Instead, the Bills then acquired one of the CFL's top running backs, Cookie Gilchrist. These offensive weapons, coupled with the buildup of one of the AFL's staunchest defenses, resulted in a swift turnaround that had the Bills into the playoffs by 1963.
In the AFL, a predominantly offensive league, the Bills were a great defensive team. The 1964 Bills allowed just 913 yards rushing on 300 attempts during the regular season, a pro football record. The same defense registered fifty quarterback sacks, a team record that stands today, even though it was established in a 14-game season. They were the first American Football League team to win 13 games in a season. The 1964 defense also allowed only four touchdowns rushing all season, and started a string that would extend into the 1965 season: seventeen straight games without allowing an opponent to score a rushing touchdown. Eight members of the 1964 squad were on that year's AFL Eastern Division All-Star Team, including cornerback Butch Byrd. Three were eventually named to the American Football League's All-Time Team, and six to the second team. The only professional football player ever inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, without ever playing in the NFL, was a member of the 1964 Bills; guard Billy Shaw. Mike Stratton, famous for his hit heard 'round the world in the 1964 AFL championship, played for the Bills during this era, as did punter (later ESPN analyst) Paul Maguire and, from 1965 to 1968, future NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer.
The Bills won AFL championships in both 1964 and 1965 (their 1965 championship was the last pro sports championship for the city of Buffalo) and were one of only three teams to appear in an AFL championship game for three consecutive years, and the only AFL team to play in the post-season for four straight years, 1963 through 1966. In addition to their defensive prowess, the Bills had offensive muscle as well, in stars such as fullback Cookie Gilchrist, quarterbacks Jack Kemp and Daryle Lamonica, and receivers Elbert Dubenion and Ernie Warlick. Tragedy struck the Bills when Bob Kalsu, an offensive lineman, quit the team after his 1968 rookie season to serve in the Vietnam War, where he was killed in action in 1970.
The 1968 season was a tumultuous one. With starter Jack Kemp injured, Buffalo resorted to converting wide receiver Ed Rutkowski to quarterback in a rotation with Rutkowski, Kay Stephenson and Dan Darragh. The result was disastrous, and the Bills once again dropped to last in the league, resulting in the Bills earning the first overall draft pick in what was now the combined AFL-NFL draft. The Bills selected O. J. Simpson with their pick.
1970–1977: The O.J. Simpson-"Electric Company" era
Before the 1969 season, the Bills drafted running back O. J. Simpson, who would become the face of the franchise through the 1970s. The NFL-AFL merger placed Buffalo in the AFC East division with the Patriots, Dolphins, Jets, and Colts. Their first season in the NFL saw the team win only three games, lose ten, and tie one. In 1971, not only did the Bills finish in sole possession of the NFL's worst overall record at 1–13, but they also scored the fewest points (184) in the league that year while allowing the most (394); no NFL team has since done all three of those things in the same season in a non-strike year. They thus obtained the #1 draft pick for 1972, which was Notre Dame DE Walt Patulski. Despite good on-field performances, he struggled with injuries before being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1976. Lou Saban, who had coached the Bills' AFL championship teams, was re-hired in 1972, in which the team finished 4–9–1.
Meanwhile, War Memorial Stadium was in severe need of replacement, being in poor condition and too small to meet the NFL's post-1969 requirement that all stadiums seat at least 50,000. Construction began on a new stadium in the suburbs after Ralph Wilson threatened to move the team to another city; at one point after the 1970 season Wilson was “prepared to move the team” to Husky Stadium in Seattle and was also fielding offers from Tampa and Memphis. Western New York leaders acquiesced to Wilson's demands and built a new open-air facility that featured a capacity of over 80,000 (at Wilson's request) and, unlike other stadiums, was built into the ground. Rich Stadium (now Ralph Wilson Stadium) opened in 1973 and continues to house the Bills to this day.
1973 was a season of change: Joe Ferguson became their new quarterback, they moved into a new stadium, Simpson recorded a 2,000-yard season and was voted NFL MVP, and the team had its first winning record since 1966 with eight wins. The "Electric Company" of Simpson, Jim Braxton, Paul Seymour, and Joe DeLamielleure as recounted in the locally recorded hit "Turn on the Juice", lead a dramatic turnaround on the field. The "Electric Company" was the offensive line (OG Reggie McKenzie, OT Dave Foley, C Mike Montler, OG Joe DeLamielleure and OT Donnie Green) which provided the electricity for the "Juice". O.J. became the only player to rush for 2,000 yards prior to the introduction of a 16-game season. The team made the NFL playoffs at 9–5 for the first time in 1974, but lost the wild card round to the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
After an 8–6 1975 season, the Bills had internal troubles in 1976; Ferguson was injured and Gary Marangi proved ineffective in replacement. The team dropped to the bottom of the AFC East at 2–12, where they stayed for the rest of the 1970s. On a high note, the 1976 Thanksgiving Day game saw Simpson set the league record for rushing yards in a game, despite a 27–14 loss to the Detroit Lions. After the 1977 season, Simpson was traded to the San Francisco 49ers.
1978–1985: The Chuck Knox-Kay Stephenson era
Chuck Knox was hired as head coach and he would end up leading the Bills back to the top.
1980 marked another breakthrough for the Bills. They beat the archrival Miami Dolphins for the first time in 11 years in their season opener, en route to winning their first AFC East title. The following season, they lost their title to the Dolphins, but won their first NFL playoff game (over the New York Jets). They lost in the second round to the eventual AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals. The following year—the strike-shortened season of 1982—the Bills slipped to a 4–5 final record.
In the famous 1983 draft the Bills selected quarterback Jim Kelly as their replacement to an aging Joe Ferguson, but Kelly decided to play in the upstart United States Football League instead. Knox left his coaching position to take a job with the Seattle Seahawks, and running back Joe Cribbs also defected to the USFL, a loss incoming head coach Kay Stephenson unsuccessfully attempted to stop in court. In 1984 and 1985, the Bills went 2–14. By this point, attendance at Rich Stadium had fallen to under 30,000 fans per game for most of the 1985 season, leaving the team's long-term future in doubt.
1986–1997: Marv Levy–Jim Kelly era
Buffalo benefited greatly from the collapse of the USFL. Among the names that Buffalo picked up after the league's demise were general manager Bill Polian, head coach Marv Levy (both from the Chicago Blitz), starting quarterback Jim Kelly (of the Houston Gamblers), center Kent Hull (of the New Jersey Generals), and linebacker Ray Bentley (of the Oakland Invaders), all of whom joined the Bills for the 1986 season; this, combined with the high draft picks accumulated over the course of the teams' poor seasons in the USFL years, propelled the Bills into a national powerhouse. Midway through the 1986 season, the Bills fired coach Hank Bullough and replaced him with Levy, who in addition to the Blitz had also previously coached the Kansas City Chiefs and Montreal Alouettes. Levy and Polian put together a receiving game featuring Andre Reed, a defense led by first-overall draft pick Bruce Smith, and a top-flight offensive line, led by Hull along with Jim Ritcher, Will Wolford and Howard "House" Ballard.
After the strike year of 1987, in 1988, the rookie season of running back Thurman Thomas, the Bills went 12–4 and finished atop the AFC East for the first of four consecutive seasons. After having an easy time with the Houston Oilers in the divisional playoff, they lost the AFC championship to the Cincinnati Bengals.
1989 was a relative disappointment, with a 9–7 record and a divisional playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns. The Bills had a chance to win the game as time was running out, but Ronnie Harmon dropped a Kelly pass in the corner of the end zone. During this season, the Bills were called the "Bickering Bills" by the fans and media due to significant infighting among the players and coaches throughout the season.
The Super Bowl years
In 1990, the Bills switched to a no huddle, hurry-up offense (frequently with Kelly in the shotgun formation, the "K-gun", named for tight-end Keith McKeller), and it started one of the most successful runs in NFL history. The team finished 13–3 and blew out the Miami Dolphins and Los Angeles Raiders (51–3) in the playoffs on their way to Super Bowl XXV. The Bills were overwhelming favorites to beat the New York Giants (whom they had beaten on the road during the regular season), but the defensive plan laid out by Giants coach Bill Parcells and defensive coordinator Bill Belichick kept Buffalo in check (and without the ball) for much of the game. The game featured many lead changes, and with the score 20–19 in favor of New York with eight seconds left, Bills kicker Scott Norwood attempted a 47-yard field goal. His kick sailed wide right, less than a yard outside of the goalpost upright.
The Bills steamrolled through the 1991 regular season as well, finishing 13–3 again and with Thurman Thomas winning the Offensive Player of the Year and NFL MVP awards. They also had an easy time with the Kansas City Chiefs in their first playoff game and beat the Denver Broncos in a defensive struggle in the AFC Championship. The Bills looked to avenge their heartbreaking Super Bowl loss a year earlier by playing the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XXVI, but it was not to be. The Redskins opened up a 17–0 halftime lead and never looked back, handing the Bills a 37–24 loss. During this game, Thurman Thomas lost his helmet and shockingly had to sit out the first two plays of the game, making the Bills the butt of jokes nationwide.
The Bills lost the 1992 AFC East title to the Miami Dolphins and Jim Kelly was injured in the final game of the regular season. Backup quarterback Frank Reich started their wild card playoff game against the Houston Oilers, and they were down 35–3 early in the third quarter. Undaunted, the Bills scored touchdowns on 5 consecutive possessions to take the lead, 38-35. Houston managed to kick a field goal to tie the game. Steve Christie kicked the game-winning field goal in the extra session to cap the biggest comeback in NFL history, 41–38. Buffalo then handily defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional playoff and upset the archrival Dolphins in the AFC Championship to advance to their third straight Super Bowl. Super Bowl XXVII, played against the Dallas Cowboys, turned out to be a mismatch. Buffalo committed 9 turnovers en route to a 52–17 loss. The Bills became the first team in NFL history to lose three consecutive Super Bowls. One of the sole bright spots for the Bills was Don Beebe's rundown and strip of Leon Lett after Lett had returned a fumble inside the Bills' 5 and was on his way to scoring. Lett started celebrating too early and held the ball out long enough for Beebe, who had made up a considerable distance to get to Lett, to knock it out of his hand. The play resulted in a touchback, not a touchdown, thus stopping Dallas from breaking the record for most points scored by a team in a Super Bowl (55), which was set three years earlier and is still held today by the San Francisco 49ers.
The Bills won the AFC East championship in 1993 with a 12–4 record, and again won playoff games against the Los Angeles Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs, setting up a rematch with the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXVIII on January 30, 1994. The Bills became the only team ever to play in four straight Super Bowls, and in this game became the first team to face the same team in 2 straight Super Bowls, and looked ready to finally win one when they led at halftime. A Thurman Thomas fumble returned for a touchdown by James Washington tied the game, with Super Bowl MVP Emmitt Smith taking over the rest of the game for the Cowboys and the Bills were stunned again, 30–13.
The four consecutive failures to win the title game, despite a 14-2 regular-season record against the NFC, inspired many jokes. Steve Tasker recalled that when he made motivational speeches to groups of children, "invariably, some little guy raises his hand. He goes, 'Do you know what Bills stands for?' and I've heard it a hundred times. I go, 'No, what?' He goes 'Boy, I Love Losing Super Bowls'." A player denounced the team's poor reputation: "They still consider us losers. That is the most unfair statement that I've ever seen or heard or read in my life". Andrea Kremer recalled, however, that "I don't think there's any doubt that America, that the national fan base, turned their back on the Bills. They're just tired of it". The Bills would not get a chance to make it five straight in 1994. The team stumbled down the stretch and finished 7–9, fourth in the division and out of the playoffs. During this period Tasker established himself year in and year out as the league's top special teams performer.
In 1995, Buffalo signed free agent linebacker Bryce Paup to anchor the defense. The expansion Carolina Panthers ended up selecting several key Bills contributors (backup quarterback Frank Reich, wide receiver Don Beebe and tight end Pete Metzelaars) in the expansion draft, where they formed the core of that team's inaugural roster.
The Bills again made the playoffs with a 10–6 record, and defeated Miami in the wild card round. They would not get a chance to get back to the Super Bowl—the Pittsburgh Steelers, who went on to advance to the Super Bowl, beat Buffalo in the divisional playoffs 40–21.
In 1996, the Bills saw their commanding lead in the AFC East race disappear to a surging New England Patriots team; the Bills won against the Patriots in September, then in late October the Patriots won after three touchdowns were scored in the final 85 seconds. The Bills still made the playoffs as the Wild Card home team; they became the first victim of the cinderella Jacksonville Jaguars, the first (and as of the present only) visiting team ever to win a playoff game at Rich Stadium. Jim Kelly retired after the season after the Bills management told him they were moving in a new direction and wanted him to help develop a younger QB to take over, signaling an end to the most successful era in Bills history. Thurman Thomas gave way to new running back Antowain Smith. Kelly's loss was felt in 1997, when his replacement Todd Collins faltered and the Bills stumbled to 6–10. Coach Marv Levy retired after the season.
1998–2000: The Wade Phillips-Doug Flutie era
The Bills, under new coach Wade Phillips signed two quarterbacks for the 1998 season, one that Buffalo traded a high first round pick for, and one that was signed as almost an afterthought. The former was for Jaguars backup Rob Johnson and the latter was former Heisman Trophy winner and Canadian Football League star Doug Flutie. Despite many Bills fans wanting Flutie to get the starting job after Flutie looked the better of the two QBs in camp and in preseason, Phillips named Johnson to the position. The Bills stumbled to begin the season 0-3, and after Johnson suffered a rib injury against the Indianapolis Colts, Flutie came in and led the Bills to a playoff spot and a 10–6 record. They faltered in their first playoff game against the Miami Dolphins, although Eric Moulds set a playoff record for most receiving yards in a game with 240.
Flutie's popularity continued into the 1999 season, with the Bills finishing 11–5, two games behind the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC East standings. Wade Phillips gave Rob Johnson the starting quarterback job in the first round playoff game against the Tennessee Titans even though Flutie had won 10 games and had gotten the Bills into the playoffs. The Bills scored a field goal with 16 seconds left to give them a 16–15 lead. But the Titans won the game on a controversial play that became to be known as the "Music City Miracle": During the ensuing kickoff, Frank Wycheck lateraled the ball to Kevin Dyson who then scored the winning touchdown. Although Wycheck's pass was close to an illegal forward lateral, replays were ruled inconclusive and the call on the field was upheld as a touchdown. The Titans went on to advance to the Super Bowl. As of 2014, this was the Bills last playoff appearance.
The final ties to the Bills' Super Bowl years were severed in 2000, when Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and Bruce Smith were all cut. Antowain Smith, Eric Moulds, and Marcellus Wiley respectively had long since eclipsed them on the depth chart. After an 8–8 season, and the team still caught up in the Johnson vs. Flutie controversy, general manager John Butler departed for the San Diego Chargers—and took Flutie and Wiley with him, among many other Bills contributors. Doug Flutie left the Bills with a .677 winning percentage in 31 starts. Antowain Smith also left as a free agent for the New England Patriots, where he was the starting running back on their first two Super Bowl championship teams. Both Flutie and Smith were dominant in their final game as Bills, in a 42–23 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Thomas would be quickly replaced by rookie Travis Henry.
2001–2014: The Decade of no playoffs and New Ownership
2001–04: The Tom Donahoe era
In 2001, following the departure of John Butler, team owner Ralph Wilson announced his retirement as president of the organization and handed the reins of his franchise to Tom Donahoe, a former executive with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The move turned out to be disastrous. Donahoe (just a year after the team had released three eventual Hall of Famers in a salary cap move) proceeded to gut the franchise of most of its remaining recognizable talent and replaced it with young, inexperienced, unknown lower-end players, much of which joined Butler in San Diego that year, and installed Rob Johnson as the starting quarterback. The team went from playoff contenders to a 31–49 record during Donahoe's five-year tenure. The Bills still have not made it to the playoffs since Donahoe's arrival, even after his departure.
Titans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams took over as head coach for the 2001 season, which proved to be the worst in recent memory for the Bills. Rob Johnson went down in mid-season with an injury and Alex Van Pelt took over. Buffalo finished 3–13. The Bills even lost a much-hyped mid-season match up with "Bills West" (the Flutie-led Chargers). After the season, they traded for quarterback Drew Bledsoe, deemed expendable by the Patriots after Tom Brady led them to a Super Bowl victory.
Bledsoe revived the Bills for the 2002 season, leading them to an 8–8 record, setting 10 team passing records in the process. However, in a tough division with all other teams finishing 9–7, they were still in last place. Another Patriots castoff, safety Lawyer Milloy, who joined the Bills days before the 2003 season began, gave the team an immediate boost on defense. After beating eventual champions New England 31–0 in the first game, and crushing the Jaguars in their second game, play-by-play announcer Van Miller immediately announced his retirement as of the end of the season, expecting the team to have a shot at the title. However, the Bills stumbled through the rest of the season, finishing 6–10. In fact their season had ended the exact opposite of the beginning as they were trounced by New England 31–0. In one game, however, the Bills' fans gained a small measure of satisfaction when the defense sacked Rob Johnson multiple times in his relief effort for the Washington Redskins.
Gregg Williams was fired as head coach after the 2003 season and replaced with Mike Mularkey. The Bills also drafted another quarterback, J.P. Losman, to be used if Bledsoe continued to struggle in 2004. Unfortunately, Losman broke his leg in the pre-season and missed most of the regular season, seeing very limited action.
Bledsoe continued to struggle in 2004. The Bills started the 2004 season 0–4, with Bledsoe and his offense struggling in their run-first offense, averaging only 13 points per game. Additionally, each loss was heartbreakingly close. The team finally managed to turn things around with a victory at home against the also winless Miami Dolphins. This, along with the emergence of Willis McGahee (a first round-pick and a gamble by the Bills due to the knee injury that McGahee suffered in his last college game) taking over the starting running back role from the injured Travis Henry, and emergence of Lee Evans to give the Bills a second deep threat, sparked the Bills to go 9–2 in their next eleven games. This string of victories allowed the Bills to be in the hunt for a final AFC wildcard playoff spot. Though they would lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the final game of the season, costing them a playoff berth and devastating the fans, the late season surge gave the team a positive direction to approach 2005.
After the season, wanting to go in a younger direction and unhappy with Drew Bledsoe's overall performance, the Bills decided to hand the starting quarterback reins to J.P. Losman. This angered Bledsoe, who demanded his release, which the Bills granted. Bledsoe then signed with the Dallas Cowboys, reuniting him with his former New England Patriots coach Bill Parcells.
2005–07: Marv Levy returns to the fold
Losman's development did not proceed as quickly as the Bills had hoped it would. He began the 2005 season 1–3 as a starter, prompting Kelly Holcomb to replace him. Losman would not see action again until Holcomb was injured in Week 10 against the Kansas City Chiefs. He led the Bills to a win in that game, but would again be replaced by Holcomb after losing the next several games. Perhaps the low point of Losman's season was a 24–23 loss to the Miami Dolphins, a game in which Buffalo led 21–0 and 23–3, but gave up 21 unanswered points in the 4th quarter. Buffalo's 2005 campaign resulted in a 5–11 record and the firing of General Manager Tom Donahoe in January 2006. Marv Levy was named as his replacement, with hopes that he would improve a franchise that failed to make the playoffs during Donahoe's tenure. That same month, Mike Mularkey resigned as head coach, citing family reasons along with disagreement over the direction of the organization. Dick Jauron was hired as his replacement.
The 2006 and 2007 seasons both brought 7–9 records under Jauron's coaching, having been eliminated from playoff contention in December in both years. 2006 saw the additions of Donte Whitner, Ko Simpson, Ashton Youboty, Anthony Hargrove and Kyle Williams to the defensive corps while 2007 brought in Trent Edwards to quarterback the offense, rookie first-round draft pick Marshawn Lynch, second-round pick Paul Posluszny, offensive linemen Derrick Dockery and Langston Walker, and backup running back Fred Jackson. J. P. Losman played all 16 games in 2006 but was benched in early 2007 in favor of Edwards.
At the end of the 2007 season, Levy retired once again, citing the fact that he had reached the end of his two-year contract. Meanwhile offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, a frequent fan target for the Bills' offensive woes, was hired as head coach of Colorado State University's football program. Offensive line coach Jim McNally retired shortly after the end of the season. All of those positions were filled from within, with Turk Schonert promoted to offensive coordinator.
2008–09: Toronto and Terrell Owens
One of the most notable moves in the league occurred during the 2008 offseason, when league officials approved an October 2007 proposal by Bills owner Ralph Wilson to lease his team to Canadian media mogul Edward S. "Ted" Rogers, Jr. to play an annual regular season game and a biennial preseason game in Toronto, Ontario, Canada's Rogers Centre over the next five years, in exchange for a sum of C$78,000,000 cash. The games began during the 2008 season. Notable additions to the roster for 2008 include linebacker Kawika Mitchell, acquired as a free agent from the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, and defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, in addition to draft picks, cornerback Leodis McKelvin and wide receiver James Hardy. The Bills started extremely well that season, starting out with a 5–1 record before their bye week and showing promise in Trent Edwards as finally being a capable quarterback for the Bills. However, Edwards suffered a concussion from a huge hit in a game against the Arizona Cardinals. The team then went 2–8 in their last games, earning them another 7–9 record, which then resulted in the longest active streak of missed playoffs at the time.
On March 7, 2009 the Buffalo Bills made a major splash in the free agency market when it acquired veteran wide receiver Terrell Owens, who had recently been released by the Dallas Cowboys and is known as much for his elaborate touchdown celebrations as he is for his on-the-field play. Owens was signed to a one-year deal. In addition, former starting quarterback J. P. Losman, by this point relegated to third string behind Trent Edwards and Gibran Hamdan, was allowed to become a free agent. In the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft, the Bills selected defensive end/linebacker Aaron Maybin from Penn State with the 11th overall pick and center Eric Wood of Louisville with the 28th overall pick. Buffalo also selected free safety Jarius Byrd of Oregon, guard Andy Levitre of Oregon State, tight end Shawn Nelson of Southern Mississippi, and cornerbacks Cary Harris of USC and Ellis Lankster of West Virginia. As the season began, Terrell Owens proved to disappoint for most of the season, and the offensive line suffered from severe turnover, leading the team to stumble to a 3–6 start, after which the Bills fired head coach Dick Jauron midseason. Overall, Owens' stats for 2009 were modest: 829 yards and five TDs. The season opener against New England was a loss, although Buffalo's morale was raised by the fact that it was only by a single point. Other notable games included a 16–13 OT victory over the Jets in Week 6, and the Week 10 game against Tennessee, where that team's owner Bud Adams made an obscene gesture at Bills fans and was fined $250,000. The Week 13 game against the Jets was an international series match held across the border in Toronto. In Week 15, the Bills hosted New England, but despite optimistic predictions, fell 17–10, marking the fifth season in a row where they lost both matches against the Patriots. This completely eliminated Buffalo from playoff contention and marked their tenth consecutive season without a playoff appearance. On the season ender, they "routed" the 14–1 Indianapolis Colts 30–7 to end the year at 6–10, however, it should be noted that Peyton Manning was benched early due to this being a meaningless game for the playoff bound Colts. Quarterback Trent Edwards battled injury throughout the whole season, splitting games with back-up Ryan Fitzpatrick, formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bills were hit with another hard blow when star running back Marshawn Lynch was given a three-game suspension by Commissioner Goodell for pleading guilty to misdemeanor weapons charges. Though back-up running back Fred Jackson did quite well in Lynch's absence, his performance then hindered on Lynch's return but he still had a 1,000-yard rushing season. However, the performance of free Safety Jarius Byrd showed extreme promise as Byrd led the NFL with 9 interceptions and was selected to the 2009 Pro Bowl.
2010–2012: The Buddy Nix Era
Buddy Nix, a former assistant general manager of the San Diego Chargers, was named general manager in the final week of the 2009 season. One of his first personnel moves was to cut ties with Owens (ironically, a man he had recruited during his time in college football).
On January 20, the team named Chan Gailey as head coach. Gailey was previously the offensive coordinator of Kansas City and head coach of Georgia Tech and the Dallas Cowboys, going 8–0 in the division in 1998, and leading the team to the postseason in both 1998 and 1999.
With the expiration of Terrell Owens' contract in March 2010, the Bills chose not to re-sign him.
As 2010 began, the Bills lost to Miami at home. After going 0–4, the Bills released Trent Edwards and named Ryan Fitzpatrick starting quarterback. Despite some close games, they ended up at an 0–8 record before beating Detroit at home in Week 10. Then came a 49–31 win in Cincinnati and an OT loss to Pittsburgh. The team finished 2010 with a 4–12 record.
The Bills fired Tom Modrak, one of the last connections to the Donahoe era, shortly after the 2011 NFL Draft. As a result of the Bills' poor play in 2010, the team earned the third overall selection in said draft, using it to select defensive tackle Marcell Dareus in an effort to improve the team's long-struggling run defense.
Buffalo had an excellent start to 2011, routing Kansas City 41–7. The following week, they hosted Oakland and erased a 21-3 deficit, winning 38–35. In week 3, the Bills hosted the Patriots; they erased a 21-0 Patriots lead and led 31-24 in the fourth; a late Tom Brady touchdown tied the game, but the Bills whipped into range of a last second field goal. The 34-31 win ended a 15-game franchise losing streak spanning 8 years to the Patriots. Despite starting the 2011 season with a 5–2 record, leading the AFC East for several weeks, a wave of injuries to several key starters led to the Bills compiling a 7-game losing streak, pushing the team out of playoff contention for the twelfth straight year. The losing streak was finally broken with a defeat of the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos on Christmas Eve, in a game that had unusually poor attendance.
Following another disappointing season in 2012 where the Bills went 6-10, the Buffalo Bills relieved Chan Gailey and his entire coaching staff of their duties.
2013–2014: The New Russ Brandon Era and the death of Ralph Wilson
On January 1, 2013 it was announced that Ralph Wilson had "passed the torch" to Russ Brandon, and that he would have complete control of football operations. He then served as CEO and President of the team.
In the 2013 NFL Draft the Bills traded back from their 8th pick to the 16th pick and selected quarterback E. J. Manuel out of Florida State. Olympic sprinter Marquise Goodwin and linebacker Kiko Alonso were among the other notable players chosen in the 2013 draft. After the draft, Nix announced his resignation; Doug Whaley moved into the general manager position. A knee injury to Manuel almost forced the team to start undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel as their opening day starting quarterback; Manuel nonetheless recovered in time to start week 1 only to injure his other knee a few weeks later, which resulted in the signing of Thad Lewis (who himself had started a game as an undrafted rookie the previous year with the Cleveland Browns). The Bills finished yet again 6-10 and missed the playoffs for the 14th consecutive season.
Owner Ralph Wilson died March 25, 2014, at the age of 95. Wilson's assets, including the team, were placed into a trust governed by four members: Wilson's widow, Mary Wilson; his niece, Mary Owen; Jeff Littman, the Bills' chief financial officer; and Eugene Driker, an attorney. The trust sold the team to Buffalo Sabres owner Terrence Pegula, along with his wife Kim, reportedly for $1.4 billion in cash, which the Wilson trust intends to use as an endowment for charitable causes in Western New York (and Wilson's hometown of Detroit); Pegula outbid two other parties, a Toronto-based consortium led by Jon Bon Jovi and a stalking horse bid from Donald Trump, to secure the team. The deal closed October 10, 2014.
The Bills finished the 2014 season with a 9–7 record, which broke a league-leading streak of nine consecutive losing seasons. However, they were eliminated from playoff contention after a loss to the Oakland Raiders in the second to last week of the season, which extended their league-leading playoff drought to fifteen seasons. The starting quarterback for most of the 2014 season was Kyle Orton, a last-minute signing who was named starter a month into the regular season. Orton announced his retirement the Monday following the conclusion of the season.
2015-Present: The Terry Pegula Era
2015: The Rex Ryan Era begins
The 2015 season will be the first full season for the Bills under the Pegula Family's ownership. On December 31, 2014 Doug Marrone chose to opt out of his contract with the Bills. He asked for a contract extension, but his request was denied by Mr. Pegula. On January 11, 2015 it was reported that Rex Ryan, who had recently been fired from his head coaching job with the New York Jets, would become the next head coach. Ryan was officially named the new head coach the next day, January 12, 2015. The day after that, January 13, 2015, it was announced that defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz would not be returning for the 2015 season. The team dramatically overhauled its offense in the offseason, bringing in a number of new starters: quarterback Tyrod Taylor, running back LeSean McCoy, fullback Jerome Felton, wide receiver Percy Harvin and tight end Charles Clay.
The Bills set a franchise record for season ticket sales for the 2015 season with more than 60,000 season tickets sold, a franchise record. The Rex Ryan hiring has been linked to the high increase in sales. The Bills opened the 2015 season with a 24-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts, but faltered (despite an unsuccessful late-game comeback) against traditional nemesis New England. Through the first quarter of the season the Bills led the NFL in penalties heading into their Week 5 game against the Tennessee Titans. After being flagged 17 times in Week 4 against the New York Giants, the Bills were penalized only seven times in their 14-13 victory over the Titans. In the end, the Bills finished a middling 8-8, missing the playoffs for the 16th consecutive season, the longest active streak in major professional sport (after the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays broke their then-22-year streak). One highlight of the season was defeating Ryan's former team, the Jets, twice, each time by a score of 22-17. One of those victories came in the final week of the season and kept the Jets from qualifying for the playoffs.
As of 2016, the Buffalo Bills are the only team in the National Football League to have not yet made the playoffs in the 21st century. Heading into that season, the playoff drought stands at 16 seasons, the longest active droughts in the league (the Bills' streak of nine consecutive losing seasons, also a high among active streaks, was broken in 2014). In addition, the Bills have suffered attendance problems at Ralph Wilson Stadium, particularly in the later portions of the season, when Buffalo's weather declines and the team usually falls out of playoff contention. Of the fourteen home games at Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2010 and 2011, six were blacked out due to the failure to sell out, and a seventh very narrowly avoided the same fate. Christmas Eve games in 2006 and 2011 were particularly poorly attended, with only 45,000 in attendance at the 2011 contest, an estimated half of which were fans of the opposing team.
On December 21, 2012 Team CEO Russ Brandon, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz announced a new 10-year lease for Ralph Wilson Stadium. Included in the terms are $130 million in renovations and a $400 million buyout to move the team out of Buffalo (in addition to the NFL re-locating fee). The lease will include the team paying for part of the renovations for the first time. The deal also calls for a committee to explore building a new stadium in the Buffalo vicinity, a proposal the Pegulas have put on hold.
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- Koshinski, Bob (May 5, 2014). Perspective Buffalo Bills’ Owner Needs 3 Trustee Votes For Winning Bid. WBBZ-TV. Retrieved May 5, 2014.
- "Rex Ryan breaks his 'Yes sir' wristband after giving them to players". ESPN. October 11, 2015. Archived from the original on October 11, 2015. Retrieved October 11, 2015.
- Rodak, Mike (January 20, 2016). "Kathryn Smith hired by Bills as NFL's first full-time female coach". ESPN.com. Retrieved January 20, 2016.
- Precious, Tom (21 December 2012). "Bills agree to lease deal with $130 million in stadium upgrades". Buffalo News. Retrieved 2 January 2013.
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