Synopsis: A team for the ages won more games than anyone else over a four-year period during which they lost four Super Bowls. Were they all-time greats or merely a band of lovable losers? In sports, as in investing, it is important to make sure you are asking the right question.
It was thirty-eight degrees on January 20, 1991 and winter winds were whipping up from Lake Erie, making suburban Buffalo feel more like it was closer to single digits on the Fahrenheit scale. From the shotgun formation, the quarterback of the Buffalo Bills surveyed the scene, adjusting his receiver’s routes with an audible.
He had a not-so-secret hatred toward cold weather; he hated it enough to flee his native Pittsburgh (craziness!) to attend college in sunny southern Florida at the University of Miami. But he didn’t feel the cold now, although his breath was visible in a steady and even plume as he sized up the defense in front of him. A thin sheen of sweat covered his face and adrenaline coursed through him every time the crowd exploded into cheers, which had been often over the last few minutes. He felt strong, warm and loose. In contrast, the beefy boys on the defensive line breathed in irregular gasps, their lungs tight and muscles burning. They were already hunched over, gasping. The pace was punishing. Unable to make substitutions, the defense had taken a timeout two plays previously to rest.
“Hey Kelly, can you slow it down? Seriously!” bellowed Howie Long, a future Hall of Famer, his hands on his knees gasping for breath.
Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, a future Hall of Famer himself, had a brief reply: “Hut!” And the next assault was underway.
Long and his compatriots were still in the same defensive set that had been carved up for over eighty yards in under four minutes. So, Kelly knew exactly what he was facing and how to make them pay on 2nd down and goal to go. But he soon realized something was wrong. The snap, arcing to his left, glanced off his hand and flopped to the artificial turf, landing on the hash mark at the 18-yard line. The AFC Championship game, which had started so promisingly seemed about to turn. Perhaps the smart move was to fall on the ball and regroup?
But Jim Kelly was a gambler. Indeed, he was a former Houston Gambler of the now defunct United States Football League. As a young, brash rookie, he had spurned Buffalo’s offer during the NFL draft because it was on a short list of cold weather cities he told his agent not to consider. It turned out to be a blessing for the Bills. While in Houston, Kelly came under the tutelage of “Mouse” Davis (formerly of Portland State) who redefined what offensive football could look like with an up-tempo, “run and gun” offense that placed a premium on quick decision making and limiting defensive substitutions. An early adopter of the philosophy, Kelly was now a master of the craft and would eventually come around on the whole Buffalo thing.
Now, picking up the ball, he rolled right to buy time and spotted a receiver breaking toward the middle of the field at about the 5-yard line. On the run, he squared up and delivered a strike, hitting him in stride so he could cruise untouched into the end zone. The delirious crowd thundered its approval, the noise swelling as a wintry mix of rain and sleet began to fall. The kicker, Scott Norwood kicked the extra point with 11:30 still on the clock in the first quarter. It was 7-0, but there was a lot of time left. Unfortunately for Howie Long and the Raiders, more time merely meant more offensive series for Kelly and the Bills. The “K-Gun” offense rolled to the most lopsided victory in an AFC title game, 51-3 and the Bills were headed to their first Super Bowl. Installed as 7 point favorites over the cross-state New York Giants for Super Bowl XXV, Kelly and Bills fans had to feel like the best was yet to come.
It wasn’t. As is often the case, the highest of highs proceed the lowest of lows. The Bills luck turned cold against a defensive coordinator named Bill Belichick and a Giants offense that gobbled up clock on long, plodding drives. Norwood missed a forty-seven-yard field goal that went wide to the right that would have won the game. The Bills lost a heart breaker but promised they would return to the big game. To their credit, they did, three times. Each trip they found new and interesting ways to lose the Super Bowl. It had all started so promisingly on that cold January day in Buffalo. By the time they lost Super Bowl XXVIII, everyone was asking: Were these the biggest losers in all of football?
Yes, they underperformed at big moments, but losers? The saying goes that when everyone is asking the same question, it is often the wrong one. The Bills weren’t losers at all. Indeed, over that four-year period they had the best overall record in the sport, including a 14-2 record versus supposedly dominant NFC opponents in the regular season. Howie Long, a Super Bowl winner and their overwhelmed opponent from January 1991, said “some people label them losers. Not me, though.” Indeed, he thought them worthy of consideration for his list of The Ten Best Teams of All Time.
The questions I’m hearing early in the game in 2017 seem to be the wrong ones as well. Will a stray tweet wreck the stock market rally? Are interest rates going to continue to rise this year? Is China going to replace America as the preferred global trading partner? Even if you knew the answers, could you move fast enough on offense to take advantage of them? Not likely. My advice is to keep the big picture in mind and ignore the noise of the crowd. Don’t be too euphoric when ahead or too depressed when behind. When it comes to the short-term news cycle, perhaps the best question an investor can ask is the simplest: so what?