ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Some 13 years later, Rob Johnson wonders what might have been.
Recalling a day that was one of the Buffalo Bills' darkest moments and now stands as the franchise's last hurrah, Johnson still can feel the pain of the Music City Miracle.
"Yeah, I wish it would've been different," Johnson says. "You never know what would've happened, but it was very heart-breaking."
The Music City Miracle to most fans across the nation was to fans in Buffalo "The Home-Run Throw Forward." Bills fans to this day insist Frank Wychek's lateral to Kevin Dyson actually went inches ahead — thus rendering the play illegal — on the Titans' last-second kickoff return score that sealed Tennessee's 22-16 win in the AFC wild-card playoff on Jan. 8, 2000.
What matters is that Dyson's 75-yard touchdown return remains frozen in time as the final, frustrating reminder of the Bills' last playoff appearance. It's a game that could have well been Johnson's coming-out party, in which he would have proven wrong the critics who questioned why he was starting in place of fellow quarterback Doug Flutie.
"It was pretty bad there for a little while with me and Doug," Johnson said of a three-year debate that divided the fan base over who was better. "But maybe the football gods are showing them how real bad it can be."
Where have the good times gone? Because bad certainly sums up a once-proud franchise that's spent the last decade charting a course of gradual decline toward irrelevance.
At 4-7 this season, Buffalo's in jeopardy of extending the NFL's longest active playoff drought to 13 seasons.
It's a stretch in which the Bills have enjoyed just one winning season, a 9-7 finish in 2004, and own the NFL's fourth-worst winning percentage, according to STATS LLC. At 80-123, the Bills have five more wins than Houston, which re-entered the NFL as an expansion team in 2002.
"Thirteen years is a long drought," said Bruce Smith, the Hall of Fame defensive end and NFL's career leader in sacks. "Most teams spent two, three years in which they'll refuel, rebuild and whatnot. But we have remained stagnant for the last 13 years. And that's unacceptable."
The timing might not be entirely a coincidence, because the postseason drought also began with what happened following the loss in Tennessee. On Feb. 10, 2000, a day referred to as "Black Thursday" in Buffalo, the Bills cut ties with the last of the remaining nucleus of their Super Bowl-era teams by releasing Smith, running back Thurman Thomas and receiver Andre Reed.
"It was certainly unfortunate," said Smith, who declined to take a paycut, and went on to play four more seasons in Washington. "But trust me, there's no one who's pulling for the Bills more than the core guys who were let go. We'd love to see them back in the playoffs."
Coach Wade Phillips and GM John Butler were fired a year later, which prompted a series of revolving-door moves from which the Bills have not recovered. Since 2001, the Bills have had eight quarterbacks start at least one game, are on their fifth head coach (including Perry Fewell taking over on an interim basis in 2009) and fourth general manager.
Very little has gone right in Buffalo.
No quarterback but Drew Bledsoe has lasted more than three seasons as starter.
Bringing back Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy to serve as general manager didn't work from 2006-07. They attempted to lure high-profile coaches, only to be rebuffed by Mike Shanahan in 2009, which led them to hire Chan Gailey.
Given how the Bills have unraveled this year, it's unclear whether Gailey will return next year. With a 14-29 record, Gailey is much like his many predecessors in failing to have a handle on turning around the franchise.
"If I had that handle, I would've already grabbed it and jerked it and done something about it," Gailey said.
Buffalo's tried just about everything.
The team's flirtations with free agency have been hit and miss. In 2007, the Bills committed a combined $62 million to rebuild their offensive line by signing Derrick Dockery and Langston Walker, only to give up on both within two seasons. Terrell Owens' one-year signing helped sell tickets, but didn't prevent Dick Jauron from getting fired midway through the 2009 season.
And the jury's still out on their decision to sign Mario Williams to a six-year, $100 million contract in March. Williams, the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, has played better since having surgery on his left wrist, and now leads the team with 8 1/2 sacks.
Then there's their spotty draft history, with tackle Mike Williams (selected fourth overall in 2002) and defensive end Aaron Maybin (11th in 2009) standing out as the team's biggest busts.
Heck, even Johnson had a better eye for talent in the weeks leading up to the 2009 draft. In a chance meeting with Bills CEO Russ Brandon, Johnson said he suggested Buffalo draft linebacker Clay Matthews. The Bills passed on Matthews, who has become a star in Green Bay, and instead drafted Maybin, who was cut before his third season in Buffalo.
"You know, picks like that, it's hard to recover from," Johnson said.
Bills Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson has taken the blame for his franchise's missteps. At 94, and his health slipping, Wilson has previously acknowledged he's not sure if he'll be around to see the team return to the playoffs.
It's enough to have driven the passionate fan base to the edge.
"Is it frustrating? Yeah. Is it painful? Yeah, but difficult isn't the word I would put on it," said Jay Rosen, a season-ticket holder since 1987. "Sometimes you're more or less emotionally involved, I guess, as kind of a self-preservation mechanism. So you find something else to do on Sunday rather than watch."
Bad as they've been, Rosen would never give up on rooting for the Bills. He has contemplated cutting back his financial commitment and canceling his two season tickets, which cost him about $1,500 a year.
Ever the optimist, Rosen re-ups every season in fear he might miss the team's long-awaited rising. It helps that he's become close with the people who sit in his section at the stadium. And that's comfort enough.
"You suffer together," Rosen said with a laugh. "Everybody has that in common. So yeah, you're not suffering alone in silence."
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