Wide Right 25 Years Later: A Super Bowl So Much Larger Than Just Scott Norwood

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 27, 2016

Scott Norwood of the Buffalo Bills walks dejectedly off the field after missing what would have been the game-winning field goal in Super Bowl XXV, Jan.27, 1991 in Tampa. Buffalo lost to the New York Giants, 20-19.(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
CHRIS O'MEARA/Associated Press

Where were you when Bill Buckner cost the Boston Red Sox the 1986 World Series? Or at least when that long-suffering franchise finally did win a championship 18 years later? 

Where were you for Kerri Strug's one-foot landing at the 1996 Olympics? Where were you when Dwight Clark made "The Catch"? When Michael Jordan hit his final shot with the Bulls? When David Tyree used his helmet to catch a Super Bowl-saving pass? 

You certainly remember where you were on 9/11, and you may even know where you were during O.J. Simpson's low-speed chase in that white Bronco. 

Do you baby boomers remember where you were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated? What about when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon? Where were you when Al Michaels asked if you believe in miracles? 

You often easily recall your whereabouts for iconic moments like these by utilizing something called flashbulb memory. Essentially, the moment you learn or experience something you perceive to be shocking and consequential, your brain takes a highly detailed snapshot of your surroundings. 

Naturally, these occasions are rare. But on Jan. 27, 1991, 25 years ago, millions of Americans experienced multiple "Where were you when?" moments. 

That night in Tampa, a Super Bowl defined a team, epitomized a city and characterized a nation. Hyperbolic in regard to a simple game? Depends on who you ask. But the NFL's silver anniversary Super Bowl might have been the first truly unforgettable game of the modern era. 

New York Giants 20, Buffalo Bills 19.

The only one-point scoring margin in Super Bowl history, complete with a Hollywood script that went haywire the moment a last-second missed field goal from Bills kicker Scott Norwood spawned an archetype—let's call it the "pariah place-kicker"for a generation to come. 

"No good," declared ABC's Michaels the moment it became apparent Norwood's 47-yard attempt would not split the uprights behind the south end zone at Tampa Stadium, incidentally injecting his voice into a second flashbulb memory for those who did believe in miracles in 1980.

"Wide right." 

Although the notion that he became a pariah is nothing more than a myth, Norwood's name has since become synonymous with last-second field-goal failures. And for tormented Bills fans, that conclusion made the Music City Miracle feel like a pinch on the forearm. But the experience might have been tougher to swallow had it not been for the big-picture perspective that was introduced by an elephant in the stadium. 

America had just gone to war in the Middle East, causing great concern over public safety, the state of the troops and whether it was appropriate to revel in what was becoming the nation's most elaborate annual party. 

This was an unforgettable game that easily could have been postponed or cancelled. Ultimately, two teams fittingly donning red, white and blue provided a much-needed distraction for a crowd overwhelmed by an atmosphere that contained an emotional mix of pride and fear.

But before we even had a chance to be introduced as a nation to the game's unlikely heroes and goats, before we had a chance to witness a remarkable battle between Buffalo's top-rated scoring offense and New York's top-rated scoring defense, before we were able to get our first nationwide glimpse at the work of art that is a Bill Belichick game plan and before "Norwood" entered the national sports lexicon, the NFL gave us the flashbulb memory-inducing Whitney Houston. 

None of this means millennials void of those memories have to care about Super Bowl XXV. It happened, like, 25 years ago. A total of 33 players scheduled to participate in Super Bowl 50 weren't alive that night. Get in the now, right? But the reality is this game taught us a lot about our culture, and nostalgia has yet to go out of style. 

If Twitter had existed that night, it would have burned. 

 

The 'Security Super Bowl'

That was the moniker tabbed on that Sunday morning by Vito Stellino of the Baltimore Sun, with Ira Berkow of the New York Times writing the next day that "there had never been a Super Bowl like this Super Bowl. And the Super Bowl hadn't even started yet."

Operation Desert Storm—the combat phase of the Gulf War—was only 10 days old, and terrorist groups had set off bombs at American and British banks in Greece earlier that month. With the nation on edge, serious thought was given to postponing the game, with the league even issuing a potential makeup date of Feb. 3. 

"I remember thinking, 'Holy smokes, our country is going to war! Are we really gonna play a football game?'" Giants tight end Howard Cross told Bleacher Report. "So in my mind, it was a great game, great ending, great everything, but the fact we were playing under those circumstances—which seems like an everyday occurrence now—was overwhelming."

But the NFL and its cohorts took no chances with regard to public safety. 

At the time, it might have been the most fortified sporting event in history—an effort that utilized more than 500 security officials as part of a coalition between the Tampa police, the U.S. Army and Coast Guard, the FBI (which provided an anti-terrorist SWAT team) and 18 other agencies. 

A perimeter was established using a six-foot fence and concrete barriers, every vehicle that entered the stadium was checked thoroughly for bombs, and machine gun-wielding SWAT members patrolled from above. 

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 27:  General view of a military helicopter patrolling the air space above Tampa Stadium looking for terrorist prior to Super Bowl XXV between the Buffalo Bills and the New York Giants at Tampa Stadium on January 27, 1991 in Tampa, Flor
George Rose/Getty Images

"It’s the first time I can recall seeing concrete barriers surrounding a stadium," said Michaels, who called the game for ABC. "Little did we know, it would become standard operating procedure."

True, a lot of this is the norm nowadays, but back then the country was still in shock as it launched its first major military intervention since Vietnam. And because the war had only reached peak elevation that month, the league had scant time to prepare, and fans had little idea what to expect. 

If you're wondering why you can't recall the Disney-produced Super Bowl XXV halftime show, that's because it never aired live. Instead, ABC broadcast Desert Storm news coverage to its television audience. 

And if you're wondering why you haven't seen any amateur photographs from the 73,813 spectators in attendance that evening, it's probably because cameras, phones and pagers were banned from the stadium. 

"It was unprecedented to say the least," said Jim Steeg, who at the time served as the NFL's senior vice president for special events. "I would say we probably had a month's knowledge that we needed to ramp everything up, versus Super Bowl XXXVI [which] we had four months to get ready for [after 9/11]."

ESPN's Andrea Kremer remembers how strange it was having to file all of her pregame reports from outside the stadium because "they weren't going to have any extra people in there until they absolutely needed to do so."

"We led that whole telecast on security," Kremer—now a correspondent at NFL Network—told Bleacher Report, "which I don't know that any network would do today."

Considering that all of these measures were at the time unprecedented, it makes sense. Much to the dismay of Anheuser-Busch, which lobbied then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue to reconsider, the Budweiser blimp was grounded in favor of a Black Hawk helicopter, which—per Kremer's initial report from outside the venue—could be used to "combat a potential invasion of the cleared air space over the stadium."

"This stadium," Kremer declared during her live spot with host Chris Berman, "is setting a new standard for security."

In fact, according to Steeg, the league bought the country's entire remaining supply of atropine—an antidote for the type of nerve gas that had been used in chemical warfare by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. 

"They came to me and said that they'd find me right away if [an attack] happens and give me a dose," said Steeg, "and I said, 'I want to be the last one you do, because if something happens here I'll spend the rest of my life in court.'"

Thankfully, the atropine was never needed, which gave the NFL the ability to sell the supply off to the NBA, which eventually sold it to Major League Baseball. So, fears didn't dissipate nationwide for quite some time. But that night, the biggest scare came from the sky, when in the third quarter an unmarked helicopter approached the stadium from the north, causing snipers to take aim. 

"They were waiting for the call to shoot," recalled Steeg. "And then somebody held up the shot because it was some photographer that was trying to get an overhead shot. He literally would have been shot." 

All of this was unbeknownst to the players, coaches, media and fans, including Western New York native, lifelong Bills fan and U.S. Air Force veteran Dave Antonio, who at the time was assigned to a combat unit in Cocoa Beach, Florida, just two hours from Tampa. 

"The game was a distraction from life, from everything else. It was a good distraction because you knew your buddies were getting bombed every day," said Antonio, who said he was in touch daily with friends at the KKMC base in Saudi Arabia, a prime target for Scud missiles. "At that point, nothing mattered but the Super Bowl."

Antonio, who was 20 at the time and would later ship out to Bahrain, contemplated making the short trip to Tampa that Sunday but was forced to help prepare equipment to be sent to overseas. Even with so much more at stake, the loss hurt, and gloating Giants fans outnumbered him. He remembers fighting back by sending an empty bottle of Jack Daniel's to one relishing Giants supporter who was already on tour in Saudi Arabia, where alcohol was illegal. 

Antonio was relieved the game wasn't cancelled, noting that there was little buzz anyway—at least on baseabout the dynamic of holding a Super Bowl during such a frightening time. Yet he was observing from an environment that had already been exposed to realities the rest of America was still coming to grips with.

For the rest of the nation it was something different, which is why Super Bowl XXV had a distinctly subdued atmosphere all week. Parties that weren't called off entirely were mellower than usual, and the day lacked the festive feel we've become accustomed to. The pomp was gone. 

"It was also a murky, overcast late afternoon and evening," said Michaels, "which sort of fit the mood of the country."

However, it was that exact environment that gave 27-year-old singing sensation Whitney Houston the chance to raise 50 states' worth of goosebumps. 

"It was truly one of the most memorable moments of anybody's sporting career," Kremer said of Houston's powerful live performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner," which drew so much adoration that it was later released as a single. "It was probably one of those things where 200,000 people told you they were there in the stadium. It was just one of those moments that you knew was going to resonate forever."

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 27:  Whitney Houston sings the National Anthem before a game with the New York Giants taking on the Buffalo Bills prior to Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium on January 27, 1991 in Tampa, Florida. The Giants won 20-19. (Photo by George Ro
George Rose/Getty Images

And while they were preparing for the biggest game of their lives, the coaches and players felt it, too. 

"It was the most beautiful rendition I have ever heard," Bills head coach Marv Levy told Bleacher Report. And while he watched the anthem for a recent 30 for 30 documentary from ESPN and NFL Films entitled Four Falls of Buffalo, Bills running back Thurman Thomas remarked, "I probably remember this more than anything that happened throughout the game."

That's lofty, considering how it ended.

Combine the fear, the emotions and the security efforts, and even before kickoff Super Bowl XXV had established itself as the most unique championship game in modern NFL history. Those measures made you feel safer, Whitney made you feel stronger and football could certainly make you feel merrier. 

"Having played in four Super Bowls and coached in one, I can tell you that that Super Bowl was a different feeling than anything else I've been around," said former Bills quarterback Frank Reich. "You got out on the field before that game in warm-ups and it didn't feel like another game. The atmosphere was so surreal and it was so much bigger than a football game. I'd never felt that before, and while the other Super Bowls were huge events, that one was just different."

 

'No Good...Wide Right'

A supremely eerie headline for a story from Vic Carucci published Saturday, Jan. 26, in the Buffalo News read, "Norwood Is Ready To Win It All in Last Second."

"Do I visualize that? Sure," said the steady 30-year-old kicker in that article, which Bleacher Report obtained via the News. "You start to think about what would be the ultimate for a kicker, and that would be it."

He added that "some guys get a little shaken under the pressure they're put under at this level" but that "it was never that for me."

Finally, he said: "It could happen. And should that situation arise, I won't have to hope or wish. I know that I'll be able to put it through."

ESPN/NFL Films

About three hours after Houston brought the stadium to tears, Norwood found himself in a situation in which he'd automatically do the same thing. 

The question was whether they'd be tears of joy or anguish. 

The scene that produced millions of flashbulb memories: It's the game's penultimate play—the last one that matters and the only one most of us remember. The Buffalo offense has been thwarted for much of the night by Belichick's hard-hitting New York defense, but quarterback Jim Kelly and running back Thurman Thomas—both future Hall of Famers—have shared the load on a 61-yard drive in order to give Norwood a chance to win the game with a 47-yard field goal in the final seconds. 

Kelly completed only two passes for 10 yards on said drive, but he scrambled for 18, and Thomas ran once for 22 before picking up 11 yards to set up the final field-goal attempt in a game the Giants led 20-19. 

"That last run was crushing to me," said Jeff Lax, a rabid Giants fan who was watching as a teenager from his childhood home on Staten Island. "Because I'm a New Yorker, I wasn't familiar with Norwood's history. As a 17-year-old kid, to me the 30-yard line was makeable range. So I'm like, 'Oh man, they're going to lose. Don't lose. Just don't lose this.'" 

While it's easy to express certainty in hindsight, Cross indicated that despite the fact Buffalo had entered "field-goal range," the Giants were still generally confident they had the Bills where they wanted them. 

"When they lined up for the kick it was a small victory because he was outside of the border where they said he could make the kick," the former tight end recalled. "Everybody knew that while they were trying to stop them. We had very detailed scouting reports on every player. Whatever you couldn't do, whatever was your weakness, whatever was out there on you, someone had put it in a report and we read the reports on all the guys."

If indeed the Giants defense made a calculated decision to defend deep and allow the Bills to inch away toward the 30-yard line—and the fact that Kelly was forced to scramble three times and didn't complete a pass beyond six yards during the entire two-minute drill indicates that was the game plan—then it was a stroke of genius that paid off. 

But in reality, nobody knew for sure what would happen on a kick that was considered to be about a 50-50 shot, especially under such unprecedented circumstances. 

We were all just guessing, maybe trying to find tea leaves. 

"I remember the Bills holding hands on the sideline, which made me feel good because it meant this is not a chip shot," said Lax. "You saw they were nervous. They were the favorite, they were a juggernaut, but they were being stripped of that status."

Craig Fujii/Associated Press

"A 47-yarder is certainly not a slam dunk by any stretch of the imagination, but we had a ton of confidence in Scott," said Reich, who as the backup quarterback was Norwood's holder. "He was a great kicker, a great clutch kicker. We played a lot of big games in Buffalo over the years he was there and he made a lot of clutch kicks. So you get lined up and you're not thinking anything except for the fact that this thing is going to go through and we're going to win the Super Bowl."

That, of course, is not how things played out. 

"When he hit it I thought it was through," added Reich. "It started out at the right upright and rather than hooking in, it just kind of veered out a little bit."

"I will go to my grave," he said in Four Falls of Buffalo, "seeing that ball veer back out to the right."

Indeed, it did appear as though the kick was going to draw before suddenly deciding instead to fade, trading fame for infamy. 

When it left his foot, it hardly appeared off target. 

ESPN/NFL Films

"As I watched the kick my first instinct was that it was going to be good," Carucci told B/R. "You follow the trajectory of the ball from the angle I was watching, there was almost like a murmur like it's gonna happen. And your mind starts to move so quickly, like this is really it. The Bills are gonna win a Super Bowl here. And then there was just disbelief when you knew he missed it."

It's still the only missed field goal in a Super Bowl in Bills historyand the only missed kick in Super Bowl history that has stood as the difference between a clear win and a clear loss. 

"You're sitting there and you're putting questions and storylines in your mind, and then all of a sudden this happens and it's kind of like—excuse my French—an 'oh s--t' moment," recalled Kremer. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, this is monumental. It's so heartbreaking for them.'"

 

Like Being in a Car Wreck 

Afterward, a stunned yet valiant Norwood spent about half an hour trying to explain to the media what went wrong. He knew he could put it through and had said so himself earlier in the week.

"What recollection I would have after would definitely be categorized as a blur," he said in Four Falls of Buffalo, relating the feeling to that of post-traumatic shock, as if he was in an accident. 

Flashbulb memories from fans indicate most of them felt the same way.

"I truly believed that he was going to make that kick," recalled Robyn Mundy, a retired oncology nurse with Western New York roots who runs BuffaloFamBase.org. "I had no doubt. So when it didn't go through, I would say that I was in shock. What was I feeling at that moment? I don't think I was feeling anything. I was just completely in shock. It's like when you're in a car wreck. At first, when something like that happens, your mind just goes blank. And I remember my mind going blank and I just couldn't believe it. I literally had to see it again and again."

"I remember it clear as day," recalled Liam Delaney, an Irish emigrant and Bills addict who watched from a bar in Fulton, New York. "I was watching on a projector TV above a jukebox, leaning against a wall. And when the ball went up, it took forever. And he missed, and I went, 'No, that's not what's supposed to happen.'

"I remember just sliding down the wall, the wood paneling. It was like an out-of-body experience, I just remember sliding. And it must be what shock feels like. I just remember bursting into tears and sobbing, and sobbing, and sobbing. And I remember people coming over and saying, 'C'mon, man, it's just a game.' And I remember saying, 'No, it's not.'"

RUSTY KENNEDY/Associated Press

"I remember thinking that once a team got to the 30-yard line, a field goal was easy," said Matt Carlucci, a native of nearby Cheektowaga who works as a Bills practice official but was only nine at the time. "I went into the other room because I knew that it was going to happen but I didn't want to see it happen." 

After that, he only remembers hearing a loud, harmonious "no!"

"I walked in the room and my mom and my dad were crying," he said. "And I didn't get it. I was like, 'He had to have made it. They were at the 30-yard line. He was supposed to make it.'"

Antonio described his immediate feeling as "sick," and not in the cool way the kids use it. Buffalo Fambase co-creator Del Reid only remembers silence before, during and after the kick. Reid's father-in-law, Tom Galla, used the word "demoralized."

So you can imagine how the players must have felt.

"It hurts," Kelly told Bleacher Report 25 years later, "because when I was a little boy growing up in Pittsburgh, I was a teenager when the Steelers won all their Super Bowls. I wore a No. 12 jersey as a boy, thinking I was Terry Bradshaw and that one day I'd be one of those guys that would have to lead my team to the Super Bowl with two minutes to go to win it. Of course, that's exactly what happened to me in Super Bowl XXV. All the dreams that I had to lead an NFL team came true, except of course the ending when it went wide right."

Of course, at the time, the Bills and their fans had no idea they'd wind up losing each of the next three Super Bowls, becoming the first (and still only) team in pro football history to fall in four consecutive championship games. 

And while the next three losses might have been just as disappointing, the Bills were defeated by at least 13 points in all of them.

On the final Sunday of January in 1992, 1993 and 1994, they were beaten. But on the final Sunday of January in 1991, they were tortured. 

"That was the most painful of the four Super Bowls" recalled special teams star Steve Tasker to Bleacher Report. "You can understand how hard it is to get there, and then to have it end like that and know that as you walked off the field it doesn't matter anymore and you've got nothing to show for it, it's pretty excruciating."

 

Destiny Unfulfilled 

Again, this all happened before Buffalo became the snakebite capital of the United States. This was the Bills' first Super Bowl, the infancy of what appeared to be a dynasty in the making. When this game was played, Thurman Thomas had never missed Super Bowl snaps due to a lost helmet and Frank Wycheck wasn't famous for a controversial lateral. When Norwood missed, the Buffalo Sabres hadn't yet lost a Stanley Cup on a goal that shouldn't have counted. 

These people believed the Bills were destined to win the Super Bowl, which only intensified the shock they felt when everything came crashing down. 

"It was destiny," said Reid, who was 15 while watching that three-second sports horror film from his childhood home in nearby Tonawanda. "It was meant to happen. This was it. Everybody expected it would happen. They had already beaten the Giants earlier in the year and they were playing a backup quarterback. There was no fear, no scared anticipation. The Bills were gonna bring it home."

That backup quarterback, 29-year-old Jeff Hostetler, was actually pretty good. The 1984 third-round pick offered a little more mobility than regular starter Phil Simms, and he had won all four of his starts since taking over for the injured former Super Bowl MVP. 

But the supreme sense of confidence Bills fans possessed had little to do with what the Giants brought to the table and almost everything to do with the damage Kelly and that no-huddle offense had been doing. 

"It seemed like all the stars were lining up," recalled longtime Bills lover and local talk radio host Neil Boron, who was 30 at the time. "The Bills were blowing teams out."

Indeed, the Bills had scored 95 points in their first two playoff games, capped by a violent 51-3 rout of the Los Angeles Raiders in the AFC Championship Game. 

"I remember thinking at that game, 'They're going to win the Super Bowl. They're going to win!'" recalled Michael Necci, a diehard from Rochester who had just turned 13 at the time and attended the Raiders blowout. "They scored 95 points in two games. Who's stopping this team? And of course it was Bill Belichick."

Yes, Belichick. Long before he became a legendary head coach in New England, he won two Super Bowls as a defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells in New York. And on Jan. 27, 1991, a 38-year-old Belichick drew up a masterful game plan that roughed up Kelly's receivers and forced the Bills out of their element. 

The Giants installed—for one game only—a totally new, linebacker-heavy defense that took away crossing routes and punished Buffalo's receivers, forcing the suddenly one-dimensional Bills offense to resort to a running game it hadn't been accustomed to leaning on. By the time the Bills adjusted and started running Thomas down the Giants' throats, it was (barely) too late. 

How great was Belichick's game plan? Today, it resides at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

But even after the Giants dominated by controlling the clock for more than 40 minutes, when Kelly and that No. 1-ranked offense took the field down 20-19 with 2:16 to play, the majority of Bills fans continued to believe it was their time. 

"What else could you want as a Bills fan?" Necci remembered thinking. "Jim Kelly with that offense; you just felt confident they were going to walk down and get into field-goal range."

27 Jan 1991:  General view of the scoreboard at Super Bowl XXV between the Buffalo Bills and the New York Giants at Tampa Stadium in Tampa, Florida.  The Giants won the game, 20-19. Mandatory Credit: Rick Stewart  /Allsport
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

"I remember feeling no stress," added Delaney, who likened it to Ronda Rousey's shocking head-kick KO at the hands of Holly Holm last year. "I said, 'Oh my god, I'm actually rooting for a team that's gonna win the Super Bowl.' And I don't think being a fan for just a few years that I knew the magnitude of it all. I thought, 'Oh, this is the way it's supposed to happen.' There was no stress, it was all meant to be."

"I drank the Kool-Aid like everyone else," recalled Mundy. "We saw what that team was like; we saw what they were capable of. It never even occurred to me that they would lose. It felt to me like, finally we're going to hoist that Lombardi and have that monkey off our backs."

 

But Why? And How?

But as Cross and his teammates knew, the odds were never really in Buffalo's favor. 

"He kicks it, we're looking and like, 'Oh my!—oh, OK he didn't make it,'" recalled Cross, emphasizing that split-second delay in which it looked like the Bills would be Super Bowl champions. "It went with the scouting report, which said on grass he really wasn't good past a certain mark."

Yes, Norwood was a first-team All-Pro in 1988. But to that point, his longest career field goal on grass was a 41-yarder against the Miami Dolphins in 1987.

According to a 2005 episode of a defunct ESPN series entitled The Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame..., during the previous five years leading up to Super Bowl XXV, kickers missed more than half of their attempts from 47 yards on grass. Norwood didn't have a strong leg to begin with and was less familiar with kicking off grass than some of his peers were. 

He spent his entire career playing home games at Ralph Wilson Stadium (known then as Rich Stadium), which at the time had artificial turf. Thus, during the course of a 108-game career that spanned seven seasons, he had made only 18 field goals on grass. 

To that point, he was 8-of-17 in his career on grass, with most of those good kicks coming from short range. He had attempted just one field goal of 40-plus yards on grass in the prior two seasons—a 42-yard miss in Cleveland—and was 1-of-5 in his career under those circumstances. 

Longest grass field goals of Scott Norwood's career
LengthGameOpponent
42 yardsWeek 12, 1991Miami Dolphins
42 yardsWeek 15, 1991Los Angeles Raiders
41 yardsWeek 7, 1987Miami Dolphins
38 yardsWeek 11, 1991Green Bay Packers
37 yardsWeek 1, 1989Miami Dolphins
Pro Football Reference

So he was trying to do something he had never done before in the most pressure-filled moment of his life. 

This was always, at best, a 50-50 proposition. 

Which raises many questions, all of which will be addressed. The first, though, is related to Norwood's psychological approach to the kick. 

Did he try to do too much?

"He provided enough power in that kick to have made it from probably 65 yards," said Carucci, "and that might have been the problem—that he kicked it too hard and it never pulled inside for him because of the force with which he kicked the ball."

In a postgame interview with ABC's Lynn Swann, Norwood wondered the same thing.

"I knew it was a long kick and I may have emphasized a bit too much trying to get a lot of leg into it, and may have taken away a little bit from the follow-through and getting the ball to come in from the upright," he explained. "You don't get a second opportunity. If I had a second opportunity I might do something a little bit different."

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 27:  Scott Norwood #11 of the Buffalo Bills attempts against the New York Giants during Super Bowl XXV January 27, 1991 at Tampa Stadium in Tampa, Florida. The Giants won the Super Bowl 20-19. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Later on, during his postgame press conference, he noted that his "hips didn't come through," so the kick may have been flawed even if he hadn't drilled it through the break. 

What's more, at that point, Norwood's field-goal accuracy rate had actually dropped substantially in back-to-back seasons, and according to Carucci's superstitiously ominous article from the day before the game, he had made some adjustments earlier in the year in order to break out of a slump. 

"One of the first conclusions Norwood made was that the angle of his approach was too shallow, and, as he twisted his hips, the ball hooked left," Carucci had written. "So he widened it by about six inches, causing his hips not to twist as far, and it straightened the ball's flight."

That again has to cause you to wonder if Norwood was overcompensating, especially considering that Reich noted he was hooking the ball more than usual during pregame warm-ups. 

Of course, there's also former Bills running back Kenneth Davis' possibly-but-not-definitely-tongue-in-cheek theory that the government is responsible. 

"At the 20-, maybe 30-yard line you could start seeing the ball move," said Davis in Four Falls of Buffalo. "You start seeing it move. And to this day I tell people that I think it was the wind that was blowing from the Apache helicopter that was hovering over the stadium."

 

52 Other Guys

Whitney's anthem and Norwood's miss serve as excellent bookends for an unforgettable game, but Belichick, Hostetler, Kelly, Thomas, Bruce Smith, Andre Reed, game MVP O.J. Anderson and an array of role players worked for 59 minutes, 52 seconds to provide that final stage for the Virginia-born place-kicker. 

To this day and to a man, Norwood's teammates insist it never should have come to that. 

"There was so much disappointment in ourselves, and there was plenty of it to go around," said Tasker. "Nobody really even thought about Scott being the guy who lost the game. My thoughts were that Scott was going to get blamed for it, and that seemed really unfair, because we all felt like we could have played better, should have played better."

 

Exhibit A: The Buffalo Offense Was Slow To Adjust to Belichick's Strategy

A lot of folks believe that even in a losing effort, Thomas should have been the Super Bowl XXV MVP. Yes, the Giants were giving him space, but the man was still running possessed. He averaged a ridiculous 9.0 yards per carry, but Levy's offense gave him the ball only 15 times. 

"I wish we had started running the ball a little more often earlier," said Tasker. "Thurman had 135 yards in the game and probably should have had a lot more had we started handing it to him earlier. That kind of stuff gets lost in it a little bit. But that's why nobody's really bothered by Scott missing that kick, because there's plenty of things that could have gone differently for all of us, and that kick would have been meaningless."

Thomas ran the ball on 26 percent of Buffalo's first-half plays and 27 percent of the offense's second-half snaps. What's more, he ran just three times on the final two drives of the game (picking up 37 yards). So there's really no indication the Bills were willing to cave on their original design. 

Buffalo Bills running back Thurman Thomas (34) sprints downfield in a 20-19 loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV at Houlihan's Stadium Tampa, Florida on January 27, 1991. (Photo by Allen Dean Steele/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
Allen Dean Steele/Getty Images

"The Bills' biggest mistake was not Norwood's miss," said Carucci. "It was failing to recognize what was right in front of them, and that was a defensive strategy by Bill Belichick that was begging them to run the ball more."

Ultimately, the Bills ran 37 pass plays and only 19 run plays, which in a close game is rather ridiculous. And while even Kelly confesses a slightly more balanced attack might have been beneficial, he'd like to issue a warning regarding hindsight. 

"You want to rely on what you did in the past, what got you to the Super Bowl," said the five-time Pro Bowler. "You live with that. For me personally, yeah, maybe we should have ran it a little more, but it's always easy for the outsider to say, 'You should have done this, you should have done that.' Well, get your ass out to where we were and tell me what you would have done. It's very easy for people to say these things once it's all over."

 

Exhibit B: A Safety That Should Have Been a Touchdown? 

This marked only the second time all year in which the Bills failed to register a takeaway on defense (ironically but maybe not coincidentally, both were against the Giants), but they did score two points on D when Smith sacked Hostetler in the end zone for a safety in the second quarter.

On paper, that still sounds like a complete victory for the Bills. But take a look at the play and you realize how close Buffalo came to forcing a fumble, which might have resulted in a defensive touchdown. 

After tripping over Anderson's foot during his dropback, Hostetler somehow found his footing in time to break away from Smith and avoid losing control of the ball, despite the fact the 1990 Defensive Player of the Year had Hostetler's right forearm in his monstrous hand.

ESPN/NFL Films

"The superhuman strength—when you figure who that was pulling on Hostetler's wrist—to be able to pull that ball back into his chest and take the safety is just insane," said Reid. 

It was the type of play that had Cross thinking the Giants, instead of the Bills, might have been a team of destiny. 

"He tripped over Ottis' foot!" Cross said, laughing. "He falls down but he had a great grip on the ball. Bruce Smith grabs his hand and he goes down in the end zone. That just doesn't happen. That's kind of one of those 'We're destined' kind of moments, because that stuff just doesn't happen."

 

Exhibit C: They Couldn't Convert Third Downs

The high-powered Bills went the first 58 minutes, 12 seconds of Super Bowl XXV without converting a third down. As a result, the offense was on the field less than 20 total minutes (an all-time Super Bowl low). The Bills weren't getting any yards after the catch, their receivers were getting pounded and Hall of Famer Andre Reed had trouble hauling in several catchable passes, including one on 3rd-and-1 in the second quarter.

On that final Buffalo drive, the Giants defense was somewhat inexplicably gassed. Imagine how much worse off that unit might have been had the Bills been able to stay on the field for more than nine minutes in the second half. 

 

Exhibit D: They Couldn't Stop the Giants on Third Down

The Giants converted more third downs (nine) than the Bills attempted (eight). Buffalo also made Hostetler and Anderson look like superheroes, but the tackling was the real issue. 

One particular conversion epitomized that problem while leading to what would wind up being the game-winning field goal. 

Early in the fourth quarter, with the Giants trailing by two, Mark Ingram caught a Hostetler pass eight yards short of the sticks on a 3rd-and-13 and then proceeded to elude four different Bills defenders in order to pick up an incredible first down. 

"He gets the ball well short of the sticks and starts twisting and turning trying to get there, and no one's really hitting him," recalled Cross. "They're just grabbing, and as long as he's not being hit he kept moving towards the marker. And by the time they figured out they had to pull him down and get enough bodies on him, he had already got there." 

"To me, that was the defining play," said Reid. "To me, in hindsight, that's the real knife in my heart."

 

Exhibit E: Could They Have Been More Aggressive on the Final Drive? 

With the ball at the Giants' 46-yard line and 48 seconds on the clock, ABC color commentator Dan Dierdorf suggested Buffalo should probably be "targeting at least the 25-yard line."

But from that point forward, Kelly threw a short pass and then handed off to Thomas, who saved the day with an 11-yard gain. Not once on the final drive did Kelly attempt to take a shot down the field in order to make things easier for Norwood. 

"They were playing back and trying to keep us in front of them," Levy told B/R. "I think we moved to the spot and there was a chance at it. I don't have any regrets that we should have called something else. There's 100 things in every game—whether you win or lose—where you say, 'Oh gee, maybe I shouldn't have done that.' Former coach Tommy Prothro said it best: 'What makes a decision right or wrong is what happens after the decision.'"

 

Exhibit F: Did They Party Too Hard?

Let's not forget that this was the first time anyone on the Bills roster had played in a Super Bowl. They were going up against a more experienced opponent, and for what it's worth, it was only the third time in history in which there hasn't been a two-week break between the conference title games and the Super Bowl. 

The Bills didn't have a curfew early that week, and it's been suggested they may have partied excessively. Were they hungover on Super Bowl Sunday? No, but you wonder if distractions from a wild week factored in. 

"They were way too satisfied to just be there for the game," said Carucci. "Going back to the bigger picture of not doing enough to win it, what was their focus like? They were the team out and partying. Marv did not give them a curfew early in the week, and they took full advantage of that. They were a pretty fun-loving group that celebrated its success with maybe some excess, and that didn't stop in Tampa. And multiple players have talked about that with a sense of regret, that they went down there and didn't treat it enough as a business trip."

It's also enough to make you wonder what would have happened had this game been played later in that four-year Super Bowl run, especially since two of the next three championships took place on artificial turf. 

Yes, it always comes back to Norwood's miss. 

"It absolutely starts and ends with the kick, which resonates through history," said Ken Rodgers, who directed Four Falls of Buffalo on behalf of ESPN and NFL Films. "It's such a singular moment when at the end of the game, a win or a loss is based on the performance of one person. If it's a touchdown pass to end the game, or any regular play, you need all 11 people on your side of the ball to beat the 11 people on the other side of the ball. But when it comes down to a kick that is fielded cleanly and put down cleanly and just missed, the target goes on one person."

 

Supporting Scott

Failure may build character, but it also quite frequently reveals it. And the way the Bills and their fans responded to Norwood's miss did a lot to uncover the spirit at their core. 

"I wanted to console Scott," said Levy, remembering the predicament he faced when watching Norwood lament in the locker room. "I walked over and I had no idea what I was going to say, but before I could talk to him Darryl Talley and Nate Odomes walked up and said, 'Hey, if we had made that tackle on 3rd-and-13 it wouldn't have come down to it.' Andre [Reed] came over and said, 'If I would have caught that pass at the 15-yard line we would have had a touchdown instead of a field goal.'

"About four or five guys came over with their own mea culpa and when it got done, I just had to look at Scott with a little smile and not say a word."

Reich, who hadn't worked as a holder until that season, still wonders if he could have done more. 

"Was it the perfect hold?" he asked rhetorically. "The laces were out, as they say. But when you're kicking a 47-yarder, the thing that you want more than anything else is to give him the longest look possible."

Regardless, the Bills insist they lost as a team. Hell, Reich even contends they missed that kick as a team. 

"As a holder and as a kicker, you're kicking together," he said. "You're a unit. So it's on Scott's record that he missed the kick, but snapper, holder, kicker are all together, so we all missed that kick."

Less than 24 hours later, 1,000 miles north, about 30,000 fans were also volunteering to get in on the miss. That's about how many were chanting "We want Norwood" at an unprecedented rally to support a losing team in Buffalo's Niagara Square. 

According to the Buffalo News, the "warmest, loudest and longest applause" that day was reserved for Norwood, who—while fighting back tearsdeclared to the forgiving-yet-freezing mass that he had "never felt more loved than right now."

ESPN/NFL Films

"I was definitely not blaming Scott Norwood at all," said Boron, typifying the sentiment expressed by every fan we could find. "I think one of the greatest things anyone's ever done in sports is own that the way that he did, and I have nothing in my heart but pride for him. And I think the city of Buffalo owes him a lot for handling it the way that he did."

Hear that? The city of Buffalo owes Scott Norwood? On the surface, it's hard to fathom. But Norwood never did shy away, and he did take responsibility. That a city in mourning found a way to recognize that says a lot. 

"I wanted so bad to be mad at him, but I just didn't feel it," said Carlucci, who attended the Niagara Square rally with his father. "I just remember everybody had smiles on their faces. They weren't defeated. It was like, 'Hey, we did this awesome thing.' It brings a tear to my eye even thinking about it now that we were so supportive of this team that should have really disappointed us but it didn't."

It's amazing, because the city was in economic decline as the manufacturing sector dissipated. This team was all a lot of Western New Yorkers had, but they couldn't stay mad at it. The team let a lot of people down, but they couldn't help but embrace it anyway.

"I always tell people that the day after Super Bowl XXV might have been the greatest day in Buffalo sports history, just for what it signified," said Bills radio voice John Murphy, who saw the rally as "an amazing act of civic forgiveness."

"Typically Super Bowl champions have parades and rallies, and Super Bowl runners-up do not," added Murphy, "but it was a rare moment that day."

 

Remembering the Loser

Actually, you won't likely find footage of the Giants' rally, because there wasn't one. No rally, no parade, no White House visit. According to Steeg, the team accidentally left the Vince Lombardi Trophy in the locker room after the game. 

“There was no celebration afterwards,” tight end Mark Bavaro said, per Michael Eisen of Giants.com. “They just dropped us off at the back of the hotel and they had plastic-wrapped sandwiches and sodas in a cooler. That was our Super Bowl party. We didn't stop to eat them. You just grabbed it on your way back to your room."

Part of that had to do with Desert Storm, but the juxtaposition is strong enough to extinguish, at least in this particular case, the popular and usually legitimate notion that losers are forgotten. 

"It was nice going to the Super Bowl," said a fan named Adrian Meadows at the Niagara Square rally, per the Chicago Tribune. "But no one remembers the team that lost."

Ironically, that same afternoon, Ralph Wilson was declaring the loser the winner. 

"Last night I thought the Bills lost," said the team's late owner. "But after seeing this reception today, the Buffalo Bills won."

Corny? Yes. A cliche? Definitely. But in many ways, true.

We may remember the 1990 Bills better than we do the 1990 Giants.
We may remember the 1990 Bills better than we do the 1990 Giants.Michael Adamucci/Getty Images

"You remember the winner, you don't remember the loser," said Kremer. "But I would venture to say that of all the Super Bowls played, you would remember who lost that game more than any other."

 

No Ray Finkle

Like it or not, Wikipedia has become the unofficial website of record for public figures. And on Norwood's Wikipedia page, a link is rightly acknowledged between his real-world failure and the quasi-fictional archetype that has become embedded into pop culture as a result of said failure. 

Wikipedia

The Ace Ventura: Pet Detective character who may or may not have been inspired by Norwood was a bitter recluse, a pariah who dreamed of getting revenge against his holder for leaving the laces in. 

That is not, and has never been, Scott Norwood. 

Contrary to what many folks outside of Buffalo are inclined to believe, the miss didn't even end his career.

"I've heard people say that it's a shame Scott's last kick in Buffalo was that Super Bowl miss," said Tasker. "Well actually he kicked in the next Super Bowl and he was the best player on the team. He was the only guy who was perfect in that game. That kick gets blown out of proportion in terms of how it affected that team and how it was perceived by a lot of people afterwards."

Norwood's field-goal success rate dropped for a third straight year in 1991, which might explain why he lasted only one season beyond Super Bowl XXV. But he did make all five of his kicks in the '91 playoffs, including a 47-yard attempt against the Chiefs and his only attempt in the Bills' Super Bowl XXVI loss to Washington.

Norwood continues to be well-received by Bills fans.
Norwood continues to be well-received by Bills fans.Bill Wippert/Associated Press

By no means does he seek limelight. It took about two years for ESPN and NFL Films to coordinate their interview with him, and the only other published quotes from Norwood this century came in a 12-year-old Sports Illustrated story that declared him to be "almost a recluse."

But Norwood isn't Ray Finkle. He's not a pariah. He's become a businessman. He has a wife and three kids. His life didn't end on Jan. 27, 1991—even though what happened that night will follow him forever.

"I remember thinking that Scott would have to live with this, basically unfairly, for the rest of his life," said Michaels. "But that's the way it is in sports. Bill Buckner had over 2,700 hits, but it's hard for most fans to recall any of them. On the other side of that coin, [Super Bowl XLIX game-saver] Malcolm Butler will forever be a folk hero."

The way Rodgers sees it, that stigma tells us a lot about our core American values. 

"It's amazing to me to see Scott Norwood's name still instantly [evoked] whenever someone fails in a big situation," he said. "It's kind of sad and mostly unwarranted, but it shows how defining winning and losing is in our culture. It's easy to say that we care about getting up when you get knocked down and that winning isn't everything and it's how you play the game, but that's not true at all. If you really study what we cheer for, we cheer for winners. We love winners. The Bills and Norwood are defined in many people's minds as losers, even though they had more resiliency than any team maybe ever."

 

Three More Years

The problem might be that we don't celebrate resiliency like we do prosperity, which is why Norwood and the Bills typically garnered nothing but pity—and eventually some resentment as a result of overexposure—on a non-local level. 

"I wouldn't mind doing this every year," Kelly said that week in Tampa, with no precogs present to warn him to be careful what he wished for.

"Believe me," he told Swann on ABC after the game, "we're going to get the taste again."

The star quarterback delivered on that promise, but the Bills lost three lopsided Super Bowls in a row to Washington, Dallas and Dallas again in 1992, 1993 and 1994.

"The more we're removed from those games," said Kelly, "the more people realize what we accomplished and that it will never be done again."

Bill Sikes/Associated Press

It's true. They may be the greatest team to never win a championship. But that still puts them behind the worst team that actually won one.

"I think most fans would say that if they had just won that one," said Galla, whose business catered Bills workouts and draft events in the 1980s, "even if they lost the other three it would have been OK."

And the only winnable game was Super Bowl XXV. Unless the NFL adopts fractional points, there'll never be a closer one.

"I don't think there's any doubt," said Kremer, "that if 'Wide Right' doesn't occur, the whole storyline of NFL history is changed."

It's wild to imagine what the Buffalo sports scene and the Bills fanbase would look like today if Norwood's kick had faded left rather than right. But the team is now 0-for-50 in the Super Bowl era and hasn't made the playoffs this century. 

Yet, Bills fans don't appear to be going anywhere. Despite riding a playoff drought that has now spanned 16 seasons, the team sold a record number of season tickets last year to a dwindling, aging population. 

"It must be like what a drug addict feels like," said Delaney, suggesting that the loss to the Giants only made him a more hungry and passionate fan. "I just can't give it up."

 

Where Were You?

Where were you when one sporting event—trivial in the big picture—provided a welcome distraction to a frightened nation fresh at war?

Where were you when Whitney Houston used nothing more than her voice and a song you'd heard at least a thousand times before in order to stop an estimated 79.51 million stressed-out Americans in their tracks for 116 seemingly frozen seconds? 

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 27:  Whitney Houston sings the National Anthem prior to Super Bowl XXV between the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills at Tampa Stadium on January 27, 1991 in Tampa, Florida. The Giants defeated the Bills 20-19.  (Photo by Michael Zagari
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

Do you remember where you were when a by-all-accounts kindhearted, hardworking 30-year-old Virginian became the international face of failure in a span of three seconds? Or when he was almost immediately and roundly forgiven by the teammates, coaches and fans who had their dreams crushed as that man's would-be game-winning field goal sailed wide right?

If you're below the age of 30, you most likely do not. And you may even think it to be a shame that almost everything memorable that occurred that night in Tampa was draped in pain. 

The more things change, the more they stay the same. A quarter-century later, the United States is again combating enemies in the Middle East. Nobody wants to be at war, and in the sports world nobody wants to see a player collapse in the biggest moment of his career. The hope is that we haven't become desensitized by either tragedy, because what made Super Bowl XXV so special is that we felt. 

We felt on a variety of levels, which in most cases were by no means comparable. We felt for ourselves, our soldiers. But we also felt for a broken soul, his destitute team and its downtrodden city.  

We may never again experience a game that makes us feel the way we did when we experienced Super Bowl XXV. 

So don't expect to forget where you were.

 

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.