ESPN 30 for 30: Four Falls of Buffalo (2015)

Directed by Ken Rodgers

Four Falls of Buffalo was a film when it was announced that I was afraid of. Often in the 30 for 30 series there seems to be installments that appear to be more geared toward specific audiences who might find interest in a particular story, especially one they’re already familiar with. For instance, this was a film I could see a great deal of Buffalo Bills fans rallying around to recall their glory days and to prove to the rest of the viewing audience that they were a dynasty and a great team. Despite that, the most obvious detraction for me was the snippets released prior to the film using perhaps the most lazy and contrived analogy possible for the Buffalo Bills of the early 1990s: Niagara Falls.

For those unfamiliar, Niagara Falls is the swift, powerful dropoff of the Niagara River, which indicates that the nearby Buffalo Bills of the early 1990s were also a swift, powerful team which was both awesome and awful at the same time, managing to win the AFC four consecutive year, a feat unmatched by a team in either conference. Despite reaching four successive Super Bowls, the Bills managed to lose all of them, in some cases in impossible fashion, most notably, in 1990 kicker Scott Norwood missed a 47 yard field goal, wide right, which would have won the game for the storied team. Showing great resiliency, the core of the team remained, and returned again from 1991-1993.

It would be too easy to dismiss this as a fan film, constructed to cater to Buffalo fans as proof their team was great, despite no Super Bowl Championships, but I think Rodgers and collaborating NFL Films were looking to do more than that. Now, whether they succeeded is another matter altogether though. In my view, Four Falls of Buffalo is nothing more than a standard NFL Films production, chronicling the four successive Super Bowl losses, game by game. It fails to ever add a whole lot of depth to the story by failing to bring to light any illuminating backstories, insights, or behind the scenes tidbits. Rodgers and company give us a few snippets and interviews from players, but nothing ever really satisfies.

That being said, this is one of the more unbelievable stories in NFL. It seem implausible, and almost statistically impossible, for a team to go to four Super Bowls in a row, let alone to come away the defeated in all of them. There were incredible moments along the way, like the comeback game against Houston, Scott Norwood’s wide right kick, the Don Beebe play (and his subsequent Super Bowl win with the Packers – and Bill Polian’s with the Colts). Beebe and Polian’s moments became victories even for Buffalo in a bizarre way. It is a sad story that has since become the laughing stock of the league, but this was a great team. It is unfortunate their failures overshadow their great success.

Again, I go back to how standard the material is treated, and the lack of depth or insight. Scott Norwood’s story is perhaps the most compelling, as you can tell it affects him even to this day, while most of the other players don’t seem to have as much regret. Norwood’s missed kick is a microcosm of the failure of this successful team, that as confident and capable as they were, the Buffalo Bills were not able to overcome the stumbling block that the Super Bowl had become. It became mental. It is a testament to the Buffalo Bills fans that they keep coming back to this day, supporting not just their team but Scott Norwood in particular. That loyalty is admirable.

I was worried about the Niagara Falls analogy and to Rodgers credit, he does not dwell on this comparison much after the beginning of the film. It’s true both falls are precipitous, but it is way too easy to draw on Niagara to explain the more complex Bills. The other hurdle Rodgers handled quite well is the individual story of quarterback Jim Kelly and his recent health struggles. Rodgers would have been remiss to not mention them, but he also moves along to focus on the team over Kelly, which maintains the focus of the film quite well. Four Falls of Buffalo is ultimately buoyed by the improbability of the story, but otherwise feels like an adequate NFL Network special. Hopefully the series’ next film, which covers another storied NFL team, the 1985 Chicago Bears, will be not only more insightful, but more entertaining.

**1/2 – Average

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