January 27, 1991, Tampa Stadium, Tampa, Florida: With eight seconds remaining in Super Bowl XXV, Buffalo Bills placekicker Scott Norwood lines up a 47-yard field goal attempt. Bills special-teams coach Bruce DeHaven looks on as the kick sails wide right, handing the New York Giants a 20-19 victory.
January 8, 2000, Adelphia Coliseum, Nashville, Tennessee: After converting a 41-yard field goal with 16 seconds left, the Bills need only to cover a kickoff to preserve a 16-15 upset victory over the Tennessee Titans in a wild-card playoff game. After fielding the kick, Titans running back Lorenzo Neal laterals the ball to tight end Frank Wycheck, who in turn, passes the ball across the field to wide receiver Kevin Dyson. DeHaven watches helplessly as Dyson races 75 yards up the left sideline for a touchdown, giving the Titans a 22-16 win.
For 13 seasons, DeHaven toiled for the Bills, building a reputation as one of the NFL's very best special-teams coaches. From 1987-90, his kickoff coverage unit led the league, and in '91, his punt coverage team set an NFL record by allowing only 53 return yards in 16 games. He coached Steve Tasker—a seven-time Pro Bowl selection—generally considered the greatest special-teams player in history, as well as Mark Pike, the league's all-time leader in special-teams tackles. During DeHaven's tenure the Bills went to a record four consecutive Super Bowls in the early '90s.
Still, for all of DeHaven's success, fate has associated him with two of the NFL's most infamous post-season plays—Super Bowl XXV's “The Miss” and last season's “Music City Miracle,” a.k.a. “The Immaculate Deception.”
What are DeHaven's recollections of the two plays? “You can't compare them,'” he says. “My part of the equation in Scott's kick was getting the right guys on the field and making sure the protection was there. The thing about Scott is that his longest kick was 49 yards, and we asked him to make a 47-yarder on grass in the final seconds of the Super Bowl. He absolutely drilled the ball. It would've been good from 60 yards if it was three feet to the left.”
DeHaven's memory of the last few moments before the kickoff in Tennessee is particularly vivid. “The last thing I told my players was to get ready for a trick play. 'Keep the ball in front of you.' You'd have hoped they'd play it better, but I don't place blame on those guys.”
Yet, the Bills organization knew who to blame. Three days after the loss to the Titans, DeHaven was fired. Buffalo head coach Wade Phillips insisted that it wasn't the one play but his overall disappointment with the Bills' special-teams. Many felt the move unfairly cast DeHaven as the scapegoat. After all, he told his young coverage team, made up of mostly first- and second-year players, to stay in their lanes. It wasn't he that overpursued the ball, leaving Dyson a clear path to the end zone.
Having played under DeHaven for more than 10 years, Tasker—today an NFL TV analyst for CBS Sports—has his own opinion about the play. “I think Bruce's players let him down,” Tasker says. “He told them what to look for, and they didn't do the job.”
DeHaven says the Tennessee loss and his subsequent firing were certainly the low points of his professional career, and he admits to having watched the replay of the runback many times. But unlike many people in professional athletics, he has perspective. “It's not life and death,” he says. “The great thing about football is that there's always next week and next season. You can't afford to rest on your laurels if you win, and if you have a setback you need to push ahead.”
After losing the only NFL job he ever knew, DeHaven received more than 100 phone calls from his peers, some expressing their outrage. He fielded no fewer than six job offers, finally accepting one from San Francisco 49ers head coach Steve Mariucci, with whom DeHaven coached in the United States Football League (USFL).
Among those phoning DeHaven was his old boss, Marv Levy, with whom he worked 11 seasons. “He was hurting something awful over what had happened. Then to be let go on top of it, well, I was very hurt to see it happen too,” says Levy. “I think back to the response after Norwood's miss, when eight or 10 players came over to him in the locker room after the game and said, 'Scott, I missed a tackle that could've won the game for us,' or 'I dropped a pass.' To blame Bruce for the team not advancing in the playoffs wasn't right.”
After having a few months to reflect, DeHaven now feels that the firing might have had a positive effect. “It made it possible to put the play behind me. If I was in Buffalo right now, [the Music City Miracle] is something I'd face every minute of every day. I'm not saying it flippantly. I felt much worse about the fact a TD was scored on my guys that cost us a big game than the fact that I was fired from a job I held for 13 years.”
DeHaven, who has overcome two hip replacements to continue coaching, says working for the upbeat and always-cerebral Levy taught him a lot about life. After all, Levy set an example for his peers by coping with four Super Bowl defeats with incredible dignity.
“One of the things I learned from Marv is the importance of resiliency,” says DeHaven. “He'd always say, 'You're only defeated if you allow yourself to be defeated.' That's how I approach things.”
This autumn as he begins his first season as special-teams coach for the 49ers, resiliency is something DeHaven may need in abundance. Prognosticators are calling for San Francisco to be among the weakest teams in the league.
And how does it feel to be wearing scarlet & gold after 13 years of red, white and blue? “I'll always be a Buffalo Bill no matter where I go,” DeHaven says. “It's such a fibre of my being.”
Leo Roth is an award-winning sports writer for the </i>Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat & Chronicle <i>and has covered the Bills since 1989. The Music City Miracle didn't cost him his job, just a new lead.