The game from this week’s NFL schedule that we’ll feature in this week’s Throwback Thursday post is a contest between the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills. The game was played in January of 1990 and was an AFC divisional playoff game. It featured a classic shootout between two of that era’s top quarterbacks, Buffalo’s Jim Kelly and the Browns’ Bernie Kosar. The backdrop to the game was this: the Browns had lost a pair of heartbreaking games to John Elway and the Denver Broncos in the playoffs in previous seasons, and Buffalo, coming off an appearance in the AFC championship game the prior year, had regressed in the 1989 season. They ended the regular season with a couple of losses that almost cost them a playoff berth altogether, and those losses caused some infighting in a very competitive Bills’ locker room that earned the team the nickname “The Bickering Bills”.
The game itself was exciting and included some memorable plays, including a 90 yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Cleveland’s Eric Metcalf and a pass to Buffalo’s Don Beebe in which he was flipped by a Cleveland defender and landed squarely on his head. After falling behind late in the game, Buffalo’s coaches made the decision to go to a fast-paced no-huddle offense to save time, and it turned out to be highly successful. Kelly led his team on a couple of late scoring drives to bring the Bills to within four points at 34-30, hitting Thurman Thomas with a short scoring toss. Unfortunately, Scott Norwood slipped on the icy turf on the extra point attempt and kicked the ball into the backs of his offensive linemen, keeping the score at 34-30 and forcing the Bills to go for a touchdown rather than a tying field goal later on. After that drive, the Bills defense held Kosar to a three-and -out, and after the Browns punted, Kelly proceeded to lead his club downfield with a quick passing attack featuring short throws to his backs, mainly Thomas. The drive included a pair of fourth down conversions, and reached the Cleveland 11 yard line with 14 seconds left. Then came a controversial play in which Kelly found a wide open Ronnie Harmon in the corner of the end zone, and tossed him a pass that he got both hands on, but promptly dropped. There was controversy among fans and in the locker room afterwards about the play, with Harmon claiming the pass was overthrown but fans and some teammates accusing Harmon of having “alligator arms” and not going all out to make the catch. On the next play, Kelly tried to hit Thomas in the end zone but the ball was intercepted by Cleveland linebacker Clay Matthews, father of the current Packer legend.
Despite the loss, some good came out of the game for Buffalo. On the plane ride back home, the coaches, after seeing the success of the fast-paced offensive attack guided by Kelly, decided to make it their base offense the following season, and it was the impetus for the team’s four consecutive trips to the Super Bowl in the early 1990s. Named the “K-Gun” (supposedly after tight end Keith McKeller), it played a major role in making Hall of Famers out of players like Kelly, Thomas, Andre Reed and James Lofton.
Did Bills’ RB Ronnie Harmon have “Alligator Arms” on this potential game-winning pass?