Music City Miracle

Last updated
Music City Miracle
LP Field 2009 crop.jpg
Adelphia Coliseum, the site of the game
1234Total
BUF007916
TEN01201022
DateJanuary 8, 2000
Stadium Adelphia Coliseum, Nashville, Tennessee
Referee Phil Luckett
Attendance66,782 [1]
Hall of Famers
Bills: Ralph Wilson (owner), Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed
Titans: Bruce Matthews
TV in the United States
Network ABC
Announcers Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann, and Paul Maguire

The Music City Miracle was an American football play that took place on January 8, 2000, during the National Football League's (NFL) 1999–2000 playoffs. It occurred at the end of the American Football Conference (AFC) Wild Card playoff game between the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills at Adelphia Coliseum in Nashville, Tennessee. After the Bills had taken a 16–15 lead on a field goal with 16 seconds remaining in the game, on the ensuing kickoff return, Titans tight end Frank Wycheck threw a lateral pass across the field to Kevin Dyson, who then ran 75 yards to score the winning touchdown to earn a 22–16 victory.

Contents

Background

The 1999 Tennessee Titans season was the 40th in franchise history and the first in which they used the name Titans, having previously played as the Oilers. Steve McNair began the year as the team's starting quarterback. However, after an opening week victory, he was diagnosed with a ruptured disc, and Neil O'Donnell assumed the starting role. [2] O'Donnell led the team to a 4–1 record before McNair returned to finish the season. The team's rushing attack was led by Eddie George, who ran for 1,304 yards and nine touchdowns en route to a Pro Bowl appearance. [3] The team leader in targets and receptions was tight end Frank Wycheck, while Kevin Dyson led the team in receiving yards. [3] Rookie defensive end Jevon Kearse, selected with the 16th pick in the 1999 NFL draft, had 14.5 sacks and led the NFL with eight forced fumbles, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year at season's end. [4] The Titans finished 13–3, however, the Jacksonville Jaguars won the AFC Central with a 14–2 record. Both of the Jaguars' losses came against the Titans. [5] Given a Wild Card berth in the 1999–2000 playoffs, the Titans had the best record of any team in NFL history to not win its division. [5]

The Buffalo Bills possessed one the NFL's best defenses in 1999. The unit allowed the fewest yards (252.8) and second fewest points (14.3) per game in the league. [6] Running backs Jonathan Linton and Antowain Smith shared carries out of the backfield, while wide receiver Eric Moulds led the team with 994 receiving yards. [7] Several veteran players who had been a part of the Bills' four straight Super Bowl appearances in the early 1990s played minor roles, including Andre Reed, Bruce Smith, and Thurman Thomas. The Bills finished 11–5, qualifying for the postseason for the eighth time in the decade.

Prior to the teams' Wild Card game, some fans and media members believed that the winner could be a serious contender to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. [8]

Rob Johnson–Doug Flutie controversy

Going into the game, Bills coach Wade Phillips created a stir by starting quarterback Rob Johnson, rather than Doug Flutie. Johnson and Flutie had competed for the starting job since the 1998 season, with Flutie compiling a better record in regular season competition during 1998 and 1999. [9]

Flutie started the first 15 games of the 1999 season, winning 10. With the Bills' playoff seed assured, Phillips rested Flutie in the final regular season contest. Johnson performed well in Flutie's absence, completing 75% of his passes and throwing for 287 yards and two touchdowns in a dominant victory over the Indianapolis Colts, who had won their previous 11 games. [10] Phillips subsequently named Johnson the starter for the Bills' first round playoff game. Titans coach Jeff Fisher said that the decision left him "a little surprised" given that Flutie had been the Bills' starter for the majority of the season. [11] Years later, Phillips wrote that the decision to start Johnson came at the urging of Bills owner Ralph Wilson. [12] [ better source needed ]

Previous playoff meeting

The previous playoff game between the two teams had occurred in 1993, when the Titans were known as the Houston Oilers. Held at Rich Stadium in Buffalo, the game became known as The Comeback after the Bills rallied from a 35–3 deficit to win 41–38 in overtime. [13] At the time, this was the largest comeback in NFL history. [13]

Game summary

1999–2000 Wild Card Playoff: Buffalo Bills at Tennessee Titans
Period1234Total
Bills007916
Titans01201022

at Adelphia Coliseum, Nashville, Tennessee

Game information

First half

The Titans opened the scoring in the second quarter when Jevon Kearse sacked Buffalo quarterback Rob Johnson in the end zone for a safety. [14] Johnson struggled against the Titans' defense throughout the game, completing just 10 of 22 passes while being sacked six times, twice by Kearse. [14] [15] Tennessee wide receiver Derrick Mason returned the free kick after the safety 42 yards to the Bills' 28-yard line; Titans quarterback Steve McNair scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to culminate the drive. [14] [15] After their defense forced a punt, the Titans drove 56 yards in 11 plays. [15] Kicker Al Del Greco initially missed a 45-yard field goal attempt, but the Bills were penalized for defensive holding on the play and Del Greco's second attempt was good from 40 yards. [14] The field goal gave the Titans a 12–0 lead at halftime, the Bills having only gained 64 yards of offense while surrendering 44 yards on penalties. [14]

Second half

In the second half, the Bills rallied. On Buffalo's first play of the third quarter, Antowain Smith broke off a 44-yard run, sparking a 62-yard drive that ended with his 4-yard touchdown run. [14] [15] Later in the quarter, Antoine Winfield Sr. intercepted a pass near midfield, but the Bills were unable to capitalize on the good field position, their subsequent drive resulting in a three-and-out. [15] Following a Tennessee punt, the Bills received possession with 41 seconds remaining in the third quarter. [15] They drove 65 yards, including a 37-yard completion from Johnson to Eric Moulds and aided by a red zone roughing the passer penalty on Kearse. [14] [15] Smith finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run, giving the Bills a 13–12 lead after a failed two-point conversion attempt. [14] [15] The teams then traded punts in what had become a low-scoring, defensive game. The Bills managed 219 total yards on offense during the contest, while the Titans were limited to just 194, [15] most of which were gained by running back Eddie George, who accounted for 106 yards on 29 rushing attempts and another four yards on two receptions. [14]

Tennessee received possession with 6:15 remaining in the game. Titans receiver Isaac Byrd's 16-yard punt return gave the Titans good field position at the Bills' 45-yard line. [14] On the second play of the drive, the Titans got a break when a McNair pass bounced off of linebacker John Holecek's elbow and into the hands of Frank Wycheck for a completion. [14] The drive culminated in a 36-yard field goal by Del Greco, giving the Titans a 15–13 lead with 1:48 left in the game. [14] The ensuing Buffalo drive began at the Bills' 39-yard line after a 33-yard kickoff return by Kevin Williams. [15] Johnson began the drive with a completion to rookie wide receiver Peerless Price for 14 yards and a first down. [15] After an incomplete pass, a 12-yard run by Jonathan Linton gave the Bills a first down on the Titans' 35-yard line with under a minute to play. On the next play from scrimmage, Johnson lost a shoe in a scramble, and with the clock running, he had no time to put it back on. With only one shoe, Johnson rolled out and completed a pass to Price, who broke a tackle and got out of bounds at the 24-yard line with 20 seconds left. After this play, Wade Phillips sent out the field goal unit for a 41-yard attempt. Bills kicker Steve Christie, who had made the deciding field goal in overtime to cap the Bills' comeback win in the previous playoff meeting between the teams, converted the try. The Bills led 16–15 with 16 seconds remaining. [14] [15]

The play

Kevin Dyson receiving the lateral pass Music city miracle lateral.png
Kevin Dyson receiving the lateral pass

The kickoff return play was named "Home Run Throwback" by the Titans and was developed by special teams coordinator Alan Lowry. He had learned the play in 1982 as a member of the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff, watching SMU execute a similar kickoff return to score the winning touchdown in the final seconds of its game at Texas Tech. [16] The Titans had practiced the play once a week during the regular season. [16] The practices usually involved starting kick returner Derrick Mason, however, he had suffered an injury earlier in the playoff game and was unavailable for the final seconds. [16] [17] The second option for the play, Anthony Dorsett, was also unavailable for the play due to cramps. [16] [17] As a result, the Titans put in Isaac Byrd as their main option to retrieve the lateral pass, with Kevin Dyson trailing behind him. [17] As one of the team's leading wide receivers, Dyson rarely practiced with the special teams unit and was unfamiliar with the layout of the play. As a result, head coach Jeff Fisher called him over before the play and gave him a brief summary of what to expect. [16] [17]

After observing Frank Wycheck playing a throwing game during downtime at practice, Titans offensive coordinator Les Steckel had designed an option pass play with Wycheck in mind. The Titans ran that play against the Atlanta Falcons during the 1999 regular season, and Wycheck threw a 61-yard touchdown pass. After the success of this play, Lowry assigned Wycheck to throw the lateral on Home Run Throwback.

Meanwhile, because the Bills defense had accumulated a large number of injuries, their coaches asked for volunteers to cover the kickoff. As a result, numerous defensive starters, who were inexperienced on special teams, were in the game on the play. Initially, the Bills planned on kicking the ball deep, but special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven suggested that the Bills attempt a pooch kick, in which the ball is kicked higher and shorter than a regular kickoff to limit the opportunity for a runback.

Steve Christie executed the pooch, and the kick was fielded by Lorenzo Neal. Neal handed the ball backwards to Wycheck. [16] [17] Bills defenders converged on Wycheck on the right side of the field, breaking their running lanes in the process. As devised, Wycheck threw the ball across the field to Dyson. As Dyson caught the ball, the momentum of the play abruptly shifted to the left, catching every Bills defender except Christie out of position. Dyson thus had an open path in front of him and ran 75 yards into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown with three seconds remaining. [16] [17]

The play was reviewed by replay officials in order to determine whether Wycheck's throw had been a lateral, as had been called by referee Phil Luckett's crew. [14] If the pass had gone forwards, the Titans would have been penalized at the spot of the throw and the touchdown would not have counted. Luckett upheld the call on the field, and the touchdown stood. Buffalo was unable to score on the Titans' subsequent kickoff, and the game ended in a 22–16 Tennessee victory. [15]

Upon crossing midfield, Dyson later said he considered going out of bounds in field goal range, as all the Titans needed was a field goal to win the game. However, upon seeing that the only player with a chance at tackling him was Christie, who was being blocked by two players, Dyson simply kept going into the end zone. [8]

Officials

Aftermath

Immediate

The victory, in front of a franchise-record crowd at Adelphia Coliseum, advanced the Titans to the AFC divisional round for the first time since 1993, when they were still based in Houston. Subsequent victories over the Indianapolis Colts and the Jacksonville Jaguars sent the Titans to Super Bowl XXXIV to face the St. Louis Rams, in which they lost by a touchdown in another game that went down to the final seconds, known as "One Yard Short" or "The Tackle".

For the Bills, the debacle led to the firing of special-teams coach Bruce DeHaven, who had been with the team for 13 seasons. (DeHaven was eventually rehired by the Bills into the same position for three seasons beginning in 2010.) DeHaven's replacement, Ronnie Jones, did not perform well. In 2000, the Bills had one of the worst special teams units in NFL history, and it completely neutralized their #9 offense and #3 defense with the team going 8–8. After the 2000 season, Phillips was fired, having failed to lead the Bills past the first round of the playoffs during his tenure. Phillips was replaced by Titans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

Long-term effect on the Bills

The Music City Miracle was added to the list of infamous moments in Buffalo sports history, joining "Wide Right", "No Goal", and the later "13 Seconds". It marked the start of a long playoff drought, as the Bills went on to miss the playoffs for 17 straight years, eventually earning the longest active playoff drought in the NFL. Although Buffalo finally qualified again in the 2017 season (the playoff game in question then taking place in 2018), the Bills did not win another playoff game until Saturday, January 9, 2021. The Music City Miracle would also mark the last game in a Bills uniform for its last remaining key members of its 1990s Super Bowl runs, as Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, and Andre Reed would all leave the team in the offseason due to salary cap constraints; all three of them alongside Jim Kelly and Marv Levy (both of whom were already retired prior to the 1999 season) are now members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Although the Bills had lost four consecutive Super Bowls before this game, many Bills fans consider this game to be their single most humiliating loss in franchise history, due to the surreal and controversial ending as well as the long-term impact the game had on the team. Bills fans generally refuse to call this game and climactic play by its standard "Music City Miracle" name, and instead have taken to calling it more insulting names, most popularly "The Forward Lateral" and "The Immaculate Deception". In his 2017 autobiography Son of Bum , Bills coach Wade Phillips called the play "The Music City Mistake".

The drought eventually came to be called "the Curse of (Doug) Flutie". As the Bills' slump wore on, rumors circulated around upstate New York that Flutie's father Richard Flutie had become so enraged after learning his son had been benched on Ralph Wilson's orders that he swore the Bills would not make the playoffs again in his lifetime and/or that of the Bills' owner. [21] Either way, such a "curse" would have held — Wilson died on March 25, 2014, while Doug Flutie's parents both died of natural causes on November 18, 2015. [22] Within months of Wilson's death, the team was sold by his estate to Terry and Kim Pegula. The Bills' playoff drought finally came to an end three years after the Pegulas assumed ownership of the franchise.

Legacy

NFL Films hired a computer analyst to determine whether Luckett had made the correct call. After taking a closer look, it was determined that the ball indeed did not travel forward and that Luckett had made the correct ruling. [23]

Due to the massive amount of interest the game received as a result of its climactic play, the NFL scheduled a rematch between the Titans and Bills as the opening Sunday Night game of the 2000 NFL season. The Bills won this time, 16–13. However, the Titans would get the last laugh as they finished the season with the NFL's best record at 13–3 while the Bills finished 8–8 and missed the postseason. The Bills wouldn't defeat the Titans again until 2015 — 16 years after the Music City Miracle — with a 14–13 win.

During the NFL's centennial season in 2019, the Bills–Titans matchup in Week 5 was designated as one of 16 weekly games commemorating notable events in NFL history, namely the Music City Miracle. [24] However, in a reversal of luck, the Titans were denied a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter after it was determined that Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota crossed the line of scrimmage prior to making a forward pass to the end zone. The subsequent penalty loomed large as Titans kicker Cairo Santos missed the resulting field goal attempt, and Buffalo scored the game-winning touchdown on the ensuing drive. [25] Santos was released shortly afterward.

During the Bills–Titans matchup in 2021, which the Titans narrowly won 34–31, the Titans attempted a "home run throwback" play during a first quarter punt return. After corralling a punt, Titans returner Chester Rogers threw the ball to teammate Chris Jackson, who advanced the ball 22 yards before being tackled. However, Rogers' pass visibly advanced 5 yards downfield, drawing an illegal forward pass penalty. This led to mockery from the Buffalo media and other Bills supporters. [26]

See also

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