October 16, 2012

1989: Backup QB Reich Leads Bills to Last-Minute Win Against Rams

The Buffalo Bills were 3-2 and without their starting quarterback as they took on the undefeated Los Angeles Rams on October 16, 1989. QB Jim Kelly suffered a shoulder separation in a 37-14 loss to the Colts the previous week and the little-known backup quarterback, Frank Reich, was forced to step in. Under Head Coach Marv Levy, the Bills had won the AFC East in 1988 and featured a productive offense that included RB Thurman Thomas and WR Andre Reed while the defense was anchored by DE Bruce Smith and included a good linebacking corps.

The Rams, in their eighth season under Head Coach John Robinson, were 5-0 and a more pass-oriented team than they had been throughout most of Robinson’s tenure with the club. QB Jim Everett was the reason, and he had a reliable target for his passes in WR Henry Ellard while second-year WR Willie “Flipper” Anderson was emerging as a potent deep threat.

It was a rainy Monday night at Rich Stadium for the nationally-telecast contest. Things started well for the Rams when CB Jerry Gray intercepted Frank Reich’s second pass of the night, giving LA good field position at the Buffalo 46. The Bills defense held, but Dale Hatcher’s punt was muffed by CB Mickey Sutton and recovered by LA’s WR Ron Brown at the Buffalo 16. Five plays later Everett threw to RB Buford McGee in the end zone for a three-yard touchdown.

There was no further scoring in the first quarter as neither offense was able to get much going. Buffalo got a break with 5:23 to go in the half when Los Angeles RB Greg Bell (an ex-Bill) fumbled at his own 20 and NT Jeff Wright recovered. Scott Norwood kicked a 28-yard field goal four plays after that to cut LA’s lead to 7-3.

The Bills got the ball back at the Rams’ 49 following a punt with 2:16 left on the clock and advanced to the 29 in seven plays, from where Norwood was again successful on a 47-yard field goal try to make it 7-6 at the half.

The defenses continued to dominate in the third quarter. On their third series of the second half, the Rams drove into Bills territory as Everett completed passes to Henry Ellard for 24 and 19 yards. The drive stalled at the Buffalo 17 and Mike Lansford booted a 34-yard field goal to stretch the LA lead to 10-6.

The Bills responded with a late-period scoring drive that stretched into the fourth quarter. Reich completed a pass to Thurman Thomas for 13 yards in a third-and-10 situation and Buffalo advanced to the Los Angeles 23. The 12-play, 52-yard possession ended with another Norwood field goal, this time from 40 yards.

It was once again a one-point game, but the Rams came back with a long series that covered 60 yards in 12 plays. Everett completed four passes and Lansford capped the drive with a 36-yard field goal.

On Buffalo’s next play from scrimmage, Reich threw to Andre Reed for a 47-yard gain to the LA 39. A costly defensive holding penalty nullified a sack of Reich on third down and a 15-yard completion to Reed put the ball at the six. Reich’s one-yard TD pass to Thomas and Norwood’s extra point put the Bills in front for the first time at 16-13 with a little over two minutes remaining.

The Rams failed to convert a fourth-and-four play just after the two minute warning, but three plays later Thomas fumbled and safety Michael Stewart recovered. LA made the Bills pay in short order as Everett passed to the fleet Willie Anderson for a 78-yard touchdown. It was 20-16 and, with the Bills getting the ball back with 1:17 left on the clock, it seemed as though the Rams would remain undefeated.

Reich passed to Reed on first down, who fumbled but C Kent Hull saved the day for Buffalo by recovering. A short completion to Thomas was followed by a false start penalty that made it third-and-six. Reich threw to Thomas for 17 yards and a first down at the LA 43. Two more passes to Thomas gained another 21 yards and a toss to RB Ronnie Harmon picked up 14 yards. With 20 seconds left in the game, Reich threw to Reed for an eight-yard touchdown to finish off the seven-play, 64-yard drive. It finished off the Rams, too, as there was time left for only one Everett pass and Buffalo won by a score of 23-20.

Buffalo outgained the Rams (348 yards to 266) and had more first downs (17 to 15). Of LA’s yardage total, only 59 came on the ground. The Bills turned the ball over four times, to two suffered by Los Angeles.

Frank Reich, overcoming a slow start, completed 21 of 37 passes for 214 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Thurman Thomas (pictured below) rushed for 105 yards on 24 carries and caught 9 passes for 67 yards and a TD. Andre Reed gained 106 yards on 8 pass receptions that included the winning touchdown.

For the Rams, Jim Everett was successful on just 15 of 36 throws for 219 yards and two TDs with one picked off. With the long scoring reception Flipper Anderson had 87 yards on only two catches while Henry Ellard hauled in 4 passes for 70 yards. Greg Bell, the NFL’s second-ranking rusher coming into the game, ran for 44 yards on 21 attempts.

Reich continued to perform well for the Bills, leading them to two more wins before Kelly returned to the lineup. It was a controversy-filled year in Buffalo as Kelly feuded with teammates, two assistant coaches engaged in a fist fight in the film room, and fingers were pointed at players who had fueled the ’88 surge but seemed less consistent in 1989. For all that, Buffalo topped the AFC East for the second straight year, but with a lesser 9-7 record. The Bills lost at Cleveland in the Divisional playoff round.

As for the Rams, the loss at Buffalo was the first of four in a row, but they recovered to finish with six wins in their last seven games to finish at 11-5 and second to San Francisco in the NFC West. They qualified for the postseason as a Wild Card and advanced to the conference title game where they lost to the arch-rival 49ers.

In his relief role, Frank Reich completed 53 of 87 passes (60.9 %) for 701 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. He went on to play five more years in Buffalo before moving on to the expansion Carolina Panthers, capably backing up Jim Kelly and engineering a memorable comeback in the 1992 postseason.