One of the great fallacies of team sports fandom is that championships are the ultimate measure of value. Don’t get me wrong. The goal of any team is to win it all; and for the fans of those teams, there’s nothing that feels as satisfying as seeing the guys or gals in your colors hoisting a trophy. But as a lifelong Atlanta Braves fan, I can tell you that I enjoyed our decades of dominance more than our current “rebuild”—even though those boon years only resulted in one title. Being in the mix is always better than being irrelevant.

Then again… the Braves did get one. After we lost the Series in 1991 and 1992, some wags dubbed us “the Buffalo Bills of baseball,” which Atlanta may have taken as motivation leading up to the big win in 1995. But what would you make of that insult if you were a Bill? Or a Buffaloan?

The 30 For 30 “Four Falls Of Buffalo” is a fine example of what the series does well. It’s not an all-timer. Because of the nature of the story, it becomes a bit of a grind by its second hour. But it’s smart and assured, and it has the goods when it comes to interviews. Perhaps because it’s an NFL co-production (necessary, for the sake of getting all the game footage), there’s a refreshing wonkiness to “Four Falls Of Buffalo,” which digs into the actual strategic decisions that led to the Bills’ success in the early 1990s, and the series of calamities kept them from winning the last game of the year, four years in a row.

Is Scott Norwood interviewed, you may ask? Yes he is. Not only does the kicker talk, at length, about the 47-yarder he missed at the end of Super Bowl XXV—the first of the four straight losses, and still the most painful—but he becomes the heart and soul of the whole piece. Externally, the perception is that Norwood must be living his life cowering in embarrassment, as one of sports’ most famous goats. But while Norwood still feels terrible about what happened—and still chokes up talking about it—the truth is that Buffalo fans cheered him in 1991, and still stand and applaud whenever he makes a public appearance in the city. Meanwhile, his teammates all talk about the plays they didn’t make in that game, and point to the weather conditions and distance as a way of reminding knee-jerk football fans that Norwood’s kick was no gimme.

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Nevertheless, throughout “Four Falls Of Buffalo,” director Ken Rodgers (who previously helmed the excellent 30 For 30 “Elway To Marino”) shows running back Thurman Thomas and defensive end Bruce Smith sitting together watching highlights of the Bills’ big games; and when they get to Super Bowl XXV, there’s a silence after Norwood’s field goal try, followed by Smith quietly saying, “I still somehow imagine that this kick’s gonna go through.”

There are three main thrusts to “Four Falls Of Buffalo.” The first means to celebrate players like Thomas, Smith, and quarterback Jim Kelly—all Hall Of Famers whose distinguished NFL careers sometimes get unfairly diminished with the tag, “But he never won the big one.” This 30 For 30 is reminder of how thoroughly the Bills dominated the league between 1990 and 1994, with players like Andre Reed, Steve Tasker, Don Beebe, and backup QB Frank Reich all playing parts in steamrolling the competition, year after year. With coach Marv Levy spouting homilies like, “When it’s too tough for them, it’s just right for us!” and the no-huddle “K-gun” offense exhausting opponents in the Buffalo chill, the Bills became a team no one wanted to face—especially at Rich Stadium.

That’s the second big point that Rodgers and his team make with this episode—that Buffalo is a special place. From the early footage of The Maid Of The Mist floating on the Niagara River, to the anecdote about how a local diner shipped Kelly and Reich’s favorite table to Pasadena for luck before Super Bowl XXVII, this documentary functions as an explanation of sorts for why the Bills players still hold their heads high. It’s because their city still supports them. Kelly, who originally chose to play in the USFL rather than go to Buffalo when they drafted him, has since become a pillar of the community, and credits the city—and, in a way, his failures there—for helping him get through multiple personal tragedies in the years since he retired.

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But the most compelling element of “Four Falls Of Buffalo”—and the one that sets it apart from other “let’s take a look at a team that was pretty good for a while” 30 For 30 episodes—has to do with the character of a “loser.” The Bills players tried to be cool about it all as the mockery piled up. They joked about themselves in public; and they answered every insulting question the media threw at them before and after every Super Bowl. But the question this documentary asks is: What was this team supposed to do? Just go away?

It was pretty clear by the third Super Bowl run that the football punditry—and fans of other teams—were sick of the Bills. There’s a lot of footage in “Four Falls Of Buffalo” of various media jackasses saying things like, “You lose two in a row… now it becomes a pattern,” or laughing off the worst Super Bowl loss by calling Norwood “a little guy who didn’t belong on the field.” (That last one comes courtesy of Skip Bayless, Lord Of The Jackasses.) Meanwhile, Kelly rallied the troops by saying, “Let’s piss them off and go for four.”

If nothing else, this episode is a reminder of something that non-idiots realize: It’s not easy to lose four Super Bowls in a row. It takes talent, and perseverance. That’s not to say the Bills didn’t deserve to lose all four. “Four Falls Of Buffalo” doesn’t let them off the hook for all the team did wrong when it came down to the wire. But still… What the Bills did was memorable. How well do football fans recall the 1998 Atlanta Falcons or the 2006 Chicago Bears, who both lost in the big game and then didn’t return? Heck, how well do we remember the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won?

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In the context of the four times they failed, the Bills are “losers.” In the context of the history of football, they’re among the greats. And this 30 For 30 does them justice.

Stray observations:

  • As often happens with these docs, “Four Falls Of Buffalo” documents its era in unexpected ways, taking viewers back to the early 1990s: when Bill Belichick was still Bill Parcells’ defensive coordinator, and O.J. Simpson was still a sideline reporter, and Whitney Houston sang a moving rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as Operation Desert Storm raged. Heck, is there anything more “1990s” than Thurman Thomas missing a key series because a member of Harry Connick Jr.’s band moved his helmet?

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