Bills take painful trip down memory lane

After slipping a pen into my blazer pocket and picking up my notebook, I wondered how to get rid of this lousy toothache now that over-the-counter painkillers were no longer working. "See you in Jacksonville," I said to the rest of the road-weary press corps covering the Buffalo Bills, the thought of another road trip - even one to Florida in January - far less appealing than it would ordinarily have been.

Formulating the questions I would ask of Rob Johnson, Antowain Smith, Dusty Zeigler and Steve Christie -- the heroes responsible for Buffalo's stirring, improbable comeback win over Tennessee -- I took one last glance at the Adelphia Coliseum field before heading toward the press box elevator.

I saw Christie's high, short kickoff tumbling end over end, coming down around the Titans' 25-yard line, where Titans fullback Lorenzo Neal was waiting. Glancing back at the Bills' kickoff coverage unit, an odd pattern was impossible to miss.

All of the players in white were converging on the middle of the field. They were thinking the same thing as almost everyone else in the stadium.

Tennessee will try a couple laterals, like Cal against Stanford.

Nothing will come of them, because pro players are too fast and too smart for such nonsense.

We'll all jump on the pile.

Then it's party time.

Then I noticed Kevin Dyson standing just inside the sideline on my side of the field and realized the Titans just might have something else in mind.

Then I saw Lorenzo Neal, not heaving the ball blindly, but methodically turning and handing the ball to Frank Wycheck, the Titans tight end with a knack for throwing, as well as catching.

And throw it Wycheck did. From my vantage point at about the 40-yard line, the trajectory absolutely seemed to be headed forward from the point of release.

Dyson caught it and took off up the sideline. Glancing upfield, it was immediately obvious that no one was going to stop him.

Wycheck's throw triggered little more than a murmur in the press box. It grew to a full-fledged buzz as he pranced down the sideline. But even as he crossed midfield, a resigned voice from a row of hometown media vocalized what most were thinking.

"Forward lateral. It's coming back."

But everyone on the field kept moving. Maybe they just couldn't hear the whistle over the roar of the crowd.

When Dyson reached the end zone and the touchdown signal went up, it became clear there had been no whistle.

The ensuing review didn't add any suspense. Anybody with a fraction of a brain realized the officials weren't going to risk their own lives by overturning their game-deciding call and going against the home team.

But the delay let what we had all watched sink in. When referee Phil Luckett finally pulled his head out from under the black apron and turned on his microphone, he only confirmed what we already knew.

"The play stands as called on the field. Touchdown."

You could almost hear the screams coming all the way from Buffalo.

With the Bills headed back to Tennessee for their first regular season game since that Saturday afternoon in January, 2000, a few questions deserve answers, even if only six players from that game remain on Buffalo's roster:

Q. Was it a lateral, or a forward pass?

A. Having seen it in person and approximately 1,278 times on television from every conceivable angle and reviewing scientific studies done of the throw, I can unequivocally say with absolute certainty that I'm still not sure.

And if that's true, you really can't blame it on the officials. They made the call in real time. No truly objective viewing of the replay offers the irrefutable evidence required to overturn a call.

Home Run Throwback was not part of some grand conspiracy by National Football League officials to screw Buffalo and its fans. It was a brilliantly conceived, almost-perfectly executed play made possible by a complete meltdown by the Bills' coverage team.

Q. What was the long-term impact?

A. Miami's win at Seattle the next day sent Tennessee to Indianapolis, rather than Jacksonville. The Titans won in both cities to reach the Super Bowl, where they lost a thriller to St. Louis. They've remained one of the NFL's top five teams over the nearly four seasons since.

The loss didn't merely end Buffalo's season. It stands as a turning point in the franchise's history.

The Bills fired longtime special teams coach Bruce DeHaven. The woeful inadequacy of his replacement, Ronnie Jones, ultimately cost Wade Phillips his job.

Home Run Throwback also marked the beginning of the end for Rob Johnson in Buffalo. Phillips fueled the Johnson-Flutie controversy by starting Rob in the playoff game after "resting" Doug in the season finale against Indianapolis.

After a horrid first half behind a decimated offensive line, Johnson repaid Phillips' confidence with a brilliant final 30 minutes, calmly bringing the Bills back from a 12-0 deficit that seemed like 42-0.

Capping the comeback by completing a pass despite missing a shoe to set up Christie's go-ahead field goal, Johnson's ballsy performance was the obvious storyline. Right up to the moment the football left Wycheck's hand.

What happened next wiped Johnson's star turn from the collective memory of the Bills Nation. Some Flutiephiles even swear to this day that their guy could have somehow done better. Truth is, if someone wearing a Bills uniform had stayed in his lane,

We'll never know whether Johnson would have built on that day had the score stayed 16-15. But this much is indisputable -- Buffalo compiled a 37-27 record in the four seasons leading up to the Music City Miracle, earning three trips to the playoffs. The Bills are 25-36 in nearly four years since, with zero postseason appearances.

The Titans, also 37-27 leading up to that Wildcard playoff game, are 40-21 since.

Q. What does all of the above mean on Sunday?

A. Just about nothing. But with this year's Bills just about needing an act of Congress to reach the postseason, it's refreshing to recall a time when Buffalo's most painful losses occurred on the road to 13-3 teams in January, instead of at home to expansion franchises in November.

Oh, and keep an eye on that Wycheck character. He hasn't thrown the ball yet this season, so he's due.

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