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Curses? Bills playoff drought reaches 14 seasons

December 20, 2013

ORCHARD PARK, New York (AP) — It has been so long since the Buffalo Bills made the playoffs, Thurman Thomas is starting to buy into the theory the NFL franchise just might be cursed.

“Yeah, it could be that. I’ve mentioned it to a couple of people at 1 Bills Drive about it,” the Hall of Fame running back said, referring to the team’s headquarters. “I tell you what, ever since we were let go on ‘Black Thursday,’ they haven’t been to the playoffs.”

Thomas meant a day regarded by Bills fans as among the worst in team history. On Thursday, Feb. 10, 2000, the Bills parted with the last core members of their AFC Championship teams by releasing Thomas, Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith and receiver Andre Reed.

The Bills haven’t been to the postseason since. The purge came a little over a month after “The Music City Miracle,” an AFC wild-card playoff game which Buffalo lost at Tennessee on a last-second kickoff return for a touchdown.

The loss stung Thomas, and the abrupt nature of his departure made it worse. He found out by reading the news crawl across the ticker at the bottom of the TV screen.

“I don’t think that we were let go or released properly,” Thomas said. “Hey, I guess what goes around, comes around.”

A curse? Why not.

There has been enough amiss in Buffalo to include numerous explanations how a once-proud team owns the NFL’s longest active playoff drought. The streak reached 14 years after the Bills were eliminated from contention with a 5-9 record last weekend.

“I could have never thought it was possible: 14 years in a row,” Thomas said. “There were a lot of bad draft picks, a lot of bad decisions that went along with that.”

Nothing has worked.

Since 2000, Buffalo is on its sixth head coach (Doug Marrone), sixth general manager (Doug Whaley), and had 11 quarterbacks start at least one game.

And then there’s Buffalo’s spotty drafting history. Of the 12 players the Bills selected in the first round from 2000-09, only three have stayed with the team beyond a fifth season. That doesn’t include center Eric Wood (selected 28th in 2009), who signed a contract extension in August.

The lack of continuity, coupled with numerous dubious decisions, has the Bills pushing modern-day NFL limits for futility.

Since 1933, Buffalo’s 14-season drought is tied for the 11th longest in league history and well short of the NFL-record of 25 seasons shared by the Chicago/St. Louis Cardinals (1949-1973) and Washington Redskins (1946-70), according to STATS. But among teams whose droughts began after 1970, the Bills are tied for second with Kansas City (1972-85), Tampa Bay (1983-96) and Cincinnati (1991-2004), and one short of the St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals (1983-97).

The Bills haven’t had a winning season since 2004.

“I’m not asking for patience because I am impatient right now,” Marrone said. “It’s been 14 years. That’s too damn long. And we’re going to change that.”

Super Bowl-winning quarterback turned broadcaster Trent Dilfer is familiar with what the Bills are going through.

Dilfer was the starter on a Tampa Bay team that ended the Buccaneers’ 14-season playoff drought in 1997. In Seattle, he saw coach Mike Holmgren transform a team that had made one playoff appearance from 1989-2002 into a contender.

“I think every scenario’s different,” Dilfer said. “I don’t know if there’s a formula, but I think there’s a commonality.”

It begins with a front-office having the conviction to stick to a vision. The second step is communicating that plan. The third is having the players accept change.

“It’s better to have your entire team doing it the wrong way, than half your team doing it the right way,” Dilfer said.

That’s what happened in Tampa Bay in 1996, when Tony Dungy took over. Dilfer and his teammates bought in, and a season later the Bucs went 10-6 to make the playoffs.

“Tony Dungy sold us a very simple product and we bought in,” Dilfer said. “We went from the worst to very good.”

Though Dilfer won a Super Bowl with Baltimore in 2001, he regards 1997 as his most gratifying season.

“In 1997, I cried when we made the playoffs,” he said. “That was the ultimate. We were so bad, we were so dysfunctional, we were awful. And to get to where we got in ’97 ... was a monumental accomplishment.”

Dilfer sees potential in the Bills under Marrone, and called it important for a small-market franchise like Buffalo to be a contender once again.

“The NFL needs the Bills,” Dilfer said. “We need the Buffalo Bills to be relevant. It’s good for the soul.”

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