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Todd Christensen recalls The Comeback

BeebeComeback
Don Beebe makes a catch in the third quarter of The Comeback. (Photo: James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

By Greg Connors

Todd Christensen was the NBC analyst in the booth for the Buffalo Bills’ comeback game against the Houston Oilers 20 years ago, working with the late Charlie Jones.

The broadcast was blacked out in Western New York that day, because the game did not sell out.

Christensen shared some vivid memories of the comeback game in a phone conversation on Wednesday evening, beginning with Don Beebe’s touchdown, on which the Bills receiver may have illegally stepped out of bounds.

"It was 35-10 at the time," Christensen said. “I remember at the beginning of the second half Bubba McDowell had picked off that ricocheted pass and [scored to make it] 35-3. And I remember as we headed into commercial break I remember either Charlie or I said, 'It's time for our B or C material,' you know, because you can't fool the audience and say, 'Onside kick and they can go for a 25-point conversion.' It's not going to work like that.

"Buffalo scored what seemed to me to be a token touchdown, the psychology of Houston being so far ahead in a playoff game. They went down and scored to make it 35-10. That was a blip on the screen. But then, as I recall the cornerback pushed [Beebe] to get him to the outside, to kind of feed him to the safety, and from our vantage point, and from the replay, I thought it would reveal that he had stepped on the chalk and had stepped back in bounds, but the official missed it.

"That still made the score 35-17, but what I do recall about it, I remember saying to David Neal, our producer, could you just save [tape of] that just in case? It's an 18-point game, so I don't know, but to the credit of David Neal and Dick Klein, both excellent producers, directors, they did save it and so when the game became competitive, and at that point in the fourth quarter when Buffalo went ahead, David showed a replay of the Beebe touchdown, with Jones saying on air, 'Is the comeback tainted?' "

Christensen added a footnote to the Beebe non-call.

"The next week I was in New York and a gentleman from the officiating office came to me and went into great detail to explain to me that [Beebe stepping out of bounds] is not what happened," Christensen said. "What happened was his foot was above the chalk, but it didn't actually land on it. The temptation was immense for me to say, 'So you're telling me what IT is, is that what we're doing here?'" (a reference to some famous presidential hair-splitting).

"Again, the replay seemed to me to be pretty clear. Then again, you don't want the facts to get in the way of a good story. Like [the Titans’] Frank Wycheck throwing from the 19 and a half and a guy catching it at the 21, and we're supposed to believe that that's backwards.”

Christensen won two Super Bowl rings as a tight end with the Oakland Raiders. He had retired a couple of seasons before the Bills’ famous 51-3 bashing of the Oakland Raiders in the 1991 AFC Championship Game. I asked him if that game was tough to watch, as a former Raider.

"I don't think it [was tough to watch]," Christensen said. "Now had I been on that team that got beat 51-3 then maybe that's a different story. I was actually there at that game [working for NBC]. I was the sideline reporter, along with O.J. [Simpson]. They actually put me on the Bills' side and O.J. was on the Raiders' side, which seems odd because we played for the opposite teams.

“I remember what a thrill it was -- for me anyway, I'm sure it wasn't for him -- that after the game I was in the locker room interviewing Ralph Wilson as he was about to get the Lamar Hunt Trophy. Mr. Wilson had on his trench coat -- it was a cold day in Buffalo -- and he couldn't get up on the pedestal where you stand so he said, 'Can you give me a boost?' And so I put my hands underneath his arms and lifted him up, like one of my grandchildren. I remember being amused to myself afterwards, thinking, 'Wow, this is pretty cool, Mr. Wilson asking me to help him and then proceeding to do the interview.' "

How improbable was the Bills’ comeback that day?

"People forget the machine-like efficiency of the Oilers in the early '90s," Christensen said. "They might have been for that five-year period of time the best team to not play in the Super Bowl. They ran that run-and-shoot just the way Mouse Davis diagrammed it. They ran it to perfection. They had a terrific crew of receivers. They had a couple of really good running backs in Lorenzo White and Gary Brown.

"Offensively they were as good as any team. It was a cold and calculating efficiency. OK, you're gonna do this; we'll do this. And Buffalo just flat out could not stop them. And then when they got that gift interception, 35-3, I don't think anybody in the place believed [in the Bills' chances]. But after the Beebe touchdown there started to be a little bit of an energy.

"I think one thing about the Oilers during that period of time, if you could question them or say there was a little bit of a flaw, they seemed somewhat emotionless. And football requires at certain points in time for you to reach down for a something a little extra. And their level of excellence, they actually remind me a little bit of the Cowboys in the '60s. They were coldly efficient, but for some reason there was always a team that kept them out of the Super Bowl until the early '70s. So I think that in retrospect, I think that's why [the Oilers] hired Buddy Ryan as their D-coordinator the next year because they wanted a little more energy.

"After the Beebe touchdown, for whatever reason that Houston offense which had been such a juggernaut in the first half, I don't know what the number is, but I'm pretty sure it was somewhere in the neighborhood of three or four three-and-outs that they just couldn't afford to do. When they go three-and-out -- not unlike the K-Gun when Kelly operated it and Buffalo would go three-and-out  -- when they go three-and-out, ouch! The defense barely has time to get a drink of water, and they're back on the field again.

"Houston's defense was just really getting fatigued. And in retrospect I'm sure that Kevin Gilbride, if he had it to do all over again, might have not just tried to run the clock out, but might have said, 'Look, we've been attacking and this is working, let's continue to do this, let's not just bleed the clock,' because they started to do that a little too early."

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About Press Coverage

Tim Graham

Tim Graham

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

@ByTimGraham | tgraham@buffnews.com


Mark Gaughan

Mark Gaughan

Buffalo native Mark Gaughan started working at The News in 1980 and has been covering the Bills exclusively since 1992. He is a former president of the Pro Football Writers of America, and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.

@gggaughan | mgaughan@buffnews.com


Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida. He writes a weekly Fantasy column in addition to his beat writing duties.

@JaySkurski | jskurski@buffnews.com

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