ATLANTA — Bruce Smith, the symbol of Buffalo power, was on his knees in the end zone, the posture of surrender. All around him, Cowboys were dancing, doing high steps, mugging for the crowd. Half of them had their helmets off so the TV cameras could catch their faces. They mobbed Emmitt Smith, who had just scored a touchdown on fourth-and-one, a muscle test, yours versus ours, late in the game, the championship on the line; Smith had gone in standing up. Touchdown. Now flashbulbs exploded and rolls of toilet paper came flying from the stands.
Bruce Smith watched all this, still on his knees, looking from player to player, as if trying to find someone to blame. In the end, he stopped watching Cowboys and turned to Bills, his own bench.
And the truth is, that’s where the fault lies.
Four on the floor. Stomped once more. The Bills couldn’t beat Dallas in the Super Bowl last year because they made too many mistakes, and they couldn’t beat them this year because they made too many mistakes. The past will come back to haunt you if you don’t lear- . . .
Aw, hell, you don’t need to tell that to Buffalo, do you?
“We’re all wondering, what do we have to do to win one of these?” Jim Kelly said glumly, after the Cowboys beat the Bills, 30-13, to claim back-to-back Super Bowl victories — over the same victim, the Bills, who have now lost a record four straight Super Sundays. “What does it take?”
What does it take? Well, stop fumbling, for one thing. Stop throwing crushing interceptions. And stop playing the Dallas Cowboys. That would help.
The Bills could have won this game — they probably should have. But their history seems to creep up on them now the longer they play these Super Bowls, like a shadow that grows as the day goes on. They self-destructed. Thurman Thomas coughed up two fumbles, Kelly threw an interception, and the coaching staff kept calling plays that got dumped in the backfield. This all happened in the second half.
In the end, here were Smith and Kelly and Thomas and the rest, an hour after the game, dressed in street clothes, the same long faces, the same postgame sighs, trying to explain their failure, even as the opposing team could be heard whooping it up down the corridor.
Four on the floor.
“Does this one hurt more than the rest?” Bruce Smith was asked.
“It does,” he said. “Because this is still in the present. Those others are history.”
Well, let history show that Buffalo did win something Sunday: the first half. It was clearly theirs, in points (13-6), in yardage and in emotion. The Bills came out smooth and focused, as if they’d never been here before.
In some ways, so did Dallas. The Cowboys committed a dumb penalty on a punt that gave the ball back to the Bills and led to their only touchdown. And Troy Aikman threw an uncharacteristic interception toward the end of the second quarter, killing a drive.
By the time the country music singers came out for their halftime extravaganza “Rockin’ Country Sunday” — the first halftime in NFL history to feature four acts and three chords — the Cowboys were losing for real.
But here’s the thing about Dallas that makes it so great: If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Last year, Aikman was a razor, the MVP, slicing apart the Buffalo defense. This year, Aikman was a little hazy, so up steps a kid named James Washington, a kid the lowly LA Rams let loose — a Plan B free agent, for heaven’s sake! — and he makes three huge plays that change the game completely.
Washington was Thurman Thomas’ nightmare — not that Thomas needed any help in that department. Washington knocked the ball loose from Thomas early in the game, and in the third quarter he scooped up Thomas’ second fumble and proceeded to gain more yards on that play than Thomas would have all night. Washington ran, darted, cut back, waited for blockers, cut back again, broke free, and finally dashed into the end zone for a 46-yard touchdown that tied the game.
His first career touchdown?
In the Super Bowl?
A Plan B guy?
Where does Jimmy Johnson come up with these kids?
“I look for playmakers,” Johnson said, espousing the essence of the Cowboys’ roster. “Everybody on this team is capable of making a big play, causing a turnover or a touchdown. That’s what I look for. Turnovers and touchdowns. And we have guys like that on this team — even our backups.”
Turnovers and touchdowns. Not coincidentally, in a prayer huddle before the game, Washington and Emmitt Smith said those same words to each other:
“Turnovers and touchdowns.”
Must have been some prayer. Washington got the turnovers — and Smith got the touchdowns. Two of them. His wind-sucking effort on the go-ahead drive in the third quarter was the reason he — and not Barry Sanders, sorry, folks — is the most reliable running back in football. Smith simply bulled through the Bills, leaving them grasping, cursing, looking at his back. He carried on seven of the eight plays in that drive for 64 yards. And when he sliced into the end zone, voters began filling out their MVP ballot.
“At the start of that drive, I was asking (offensive coordinator) Norv Turner for the ball,” Smith laughed, after winning the MVP trophy and gaining 132 yards. “By the end of that drive, I was saying, ‘OK. Give it to somebody else.’ “
Fat chance. Smith is the pump that keeps the Dallas machine running — and the monkey wrench that ruins the Bills. On that remarkable drive alone, Bruce Smith went out with a rib injury trying to slow Emmitt down. Darryl Talley went out with a shoulder injury trying to do the same. Phil Hansen was injured on the touchdown play.
All these Buffalo bodies, limping to the sidelines, while Smith cruised to the end zone like a fine roadster. Says it all, doesn’t it?
Four on the floor.
“Did you earn your pay today?” someone asked Smith after the game.
“Earn my pay?” he mocked. “I’m kinda shortchanged right now, if you ask me.”
No, Emmitt. That adjective belongs to the Bills. No one should laugh at what they’ve accomplished. But history will. Not next week. Not next year. But five years from now, and 10 years, and 20 years — when nobody remembers the efforts, only the results. Four straight trips to the Super Bowl, four straight defeats? You thought the Minnesota Vikings took a bad rap? The Bills made history Sunday, the wrong way. Has there ever been a team that has so raised our sympathy and our eyebrows — at the same time?
“It is kind of weird,” sighed Thomas, whose two fumbles, meager output (37 yards) and inability to play much of the game with leg cramps made him the goat yet again. “Why did it have to happen today? I fumbled twice, and it’s 10 points. If that doesn’t happen, we can win the game. . . .
“I had one of the best games of my career last week, and now here I have one of my worst.”
How do you explain it? You don’t. Toward the end of the game, Thomas was all alone on the Bills’ bench, and the TV cameras zoomed in on his face, two sad eyes, wide open. All that was missing was the paw over his head and the whimpering.
But then, that’s a picture for all of the Bills and their weary fans. Maybe it’s something about this game. Maybe it’s something about the opponent. Or maybe it’s something about the Bills themselves. Perhaps they need a change
— a shakeup, a new philosophy, something. They clearly are not learning from mistakes, including the ones they should know the best:
Four on the floor.
And you know what? They’re talking about coming back next year!