Raider defensive coordinator Dave Adolph shifted nervously from side to side as he signaled to his defense during Sunday’s AFC championship game against the Buffalo Bills.
Using an elaborate series of hand and body gestures, like a third base coach, Adolph tried to position the Raiders to stop quarterback Jim Kelly and the Bills.
Adolph never found a formation that could deter the Bills, who embarrassed the Raiders, 51-3. It was the most points ever allowed by the Raiders in a playoff game and the fourth-most in any game since the franchise began play in 1960.
“We never really got adjusted to their offense,” Adolph said. “We had a hell of a time with them, and we never really slowed them down. We just didn’t play well. It’s that simple.”
Adolph isn’t the only defensive coordinator unable to design a scheme to contain the Bills, the NFL’s highest scoring team this season.
Miami Dolphin defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti was near tears after a 44-34 loss to the Bills in an AFC semifinal game Jan. 13.
Unlike Olivadotti, Adolph maintained his composure, but he was unable to put a finger on what went wrong with the Raider defense, which Coach Art Shell maintained was the greatest in the Raider history. Adolph is so highly regarded around the NFL for molding the Raiders into the second-best defense in the AFC this season that he has been mentioned as a candidate for the Cleveland Browns’ vacant coaching job.
“I have total faith in Dave Adolph as a defensive coordinator,” Raider nose guard Bob Golic said. “I think every decision he made out there was what should have been used to stop them.”
Kelly completed his first six passes for 65 yards and passed for 247 yards and two touchdowns in the first half as the Bills took a 41-3 lead.
“Kelly was unstoppable,” Raider defensive end Howie Long said. “He was really getting rid of the ball quickly. By the time we got there the ball was gone.”
Kelly wound up completing 17 of 23 passes for 300 yards, including touchdown passes of 13 and eight yards to James Lofton.
Lofton, a former Raider, confounded Raider cornerback Lionel Washington, catching five passes for 113 yards, including a 41-yard reception which set up Buffalo’s second touchdown.
Washington was near tears after the game.
“I went against James for two years in practice, so he knew a lot of my moves and I knew a lot of his moves,” Washington said. “It was just one of those days, I guess.”
Bill running back Thurman Thomas accounted for 199 yards in total offense. The AFC’s leading rusher, Thomas gained 138 yards on 25 carries, including a 12-yard touchdown, and caught five passes for 61 yards.
The Raiders, who had held opponents to 275.8 yards per game during the regular season, gave up 502 yards in total offense. The Bills scored five touchdowns in their first seven possessions. After giving up only 107.3 yards per game rushing this season, the Raiders gave up 202.
“I don’t know how they did it,” Raider linebacker Jerry Robinson said. “It was just like clockwork. Everything they did, it was just like clockwork.”
The Bills set the tone on their first drive, marching 75 yards in nine plays. The Raiders seemed to be caught off guard when Buffalo opened the game in the shotgun formation with three wide receivers and one running back, instead of employing a normal offensive set of two wide receivers and two running backs. And the Raiders didn’t have time to adjust because Buffalo’s no-huddle offense didn’t allow them to substitute.
The Raiders, who faced Cincinnati’s no-huddle offense twice this season, said Buffalo’s scheme posed no problem.
“We knew they were going to go with the no-huddle,” Long said. “So I can’t say it was a lack of preparation. We were prepared for it.”
The Raiders may have been prepared for it, but they couldn’t stop it.
After the Bills drove from their 25 to the Raider 20, the Raiders called time out only five plays into the game to try to stop the momentum. Kelly hit tight end Keith McKeller for nine yards on the first play after the timeout.
The Raiders missed a chance to end the drive when Kelly fumbled the snap on second-and-goal at the 13. Defensive end Greg Townsend went for the ball and Kelly eluded Townsend, throwing a 13-yard touchdown pass to Lofton, who used three moves to work himself free from Washington.
Cornerback Garry Lewis said the Raiders were caught off guard when Kelly opened the game passing.
“We were looking for them to run the ball first and then come out passing,” Lewis said. “But when they started passing so much we had to put in an extra defensive back.”
The Raiders went to their “bandit” defense on the Bills’ second series, employing an extra defensive back. The Bills drove 66 yards in four plays. Lofton set up Thomas’ 12-yard touchdown run with a 41-yard reception to the Raider 23. Thomas scored two plays later, breaking a tackle by Lewis at the five.
The Raiders made another adjustment on Buffalo’s third series, employing two extra defensive backs. And it seemed to work when Lewis intercepted a Kelly pass that bounced off the hands of Thomas.
“I thought the interception would turn the momentum around, but it didn’t work out that way because we couldn’t take advantage of it,” Lewis said.
The Raider defense was quickly back on the field after quarterback Jay Schroeder gave the ball back to the Bills with the first of his five interceptions.
The Raiders went to a three-man line on the Bills’ fourth series, but the adjustment didn’t deter the Bills. They drove 57 yards in 13 plays, scoring on fourth down when running back Kenneth Davis bolted over from a yard out for the first of his three touchdowns to make it 27-3.
“Everything was ineffective,” Long said. “The story of the day wasn’t a case of us making adjustments, it was a case of not stopping them. There are no excuses.
“We were prepared. They just did a super job. They were on a roll. We just didn’t play well. I don’t think anyone could have stopped them.”