Bills Hope to Regroup After Hitting Bottom of NFL Barrel in 1984
A windstorm busted off tackle across the outskirts of town here in early April and tore off the fiberglass roof that covered the Buffalo Bills’ 60-yard artificial turf practice field.
The roof crash-landed on top of the trees several hundred yards away, leaving the Bills with a $750,000 shattered wreckage that never again will protect their winter practices from snowflakes or sleet.
Fred Smerlas, the Bills’ defensive tackle and resident Rasputin, said there was minimal despair over the loss.
“The roof blowin’ off,” he said, snickering, “musta been an act of God.”
Maybe the killer breeze was some symbolic act of mercy, the one final sweeping motion that, in destroying the 7-month-old roof, at last, cleansed the Bills of the memory of last season. Translated loosely, Buffalo meant Lookoutbelow! in 1984. The Bills lost their first 11 games and ended 2-14.
Yep, worst in the league.
Consequently, the team’s season ticket sales have dropped to about 17,000.
Yep, worst in the league.
“Everyone is laughing at Buffalo right now. We were talked about as the dirt of the league last year,” Smerlas, a four-time all-pro, said. “We had the talent, the core. It was humiliating. The team was pitiful. The low point had to be the Cincinnati game. We were already 2-13 and then we get mauled by the Bengals in that last game (52-21). We had our faces put in the mud.”
“I’ve never gone through a losing streak like that before,” said Terry Bledsoe, the team’s general manager. “You lose games you can’t believe. We lost, 21-17, in the opener (to New England) after having been down, 21-3. So I told our coach, ‘That’s one we can build on.’ The next week we get blown away by St. Louis (37-7). In the first four games, we were in three of them, but lose them all and then in the fourth game (quarterback) Joe Ferguson gets hurt against the Jets.
“It then begins to occur to you that maybe the breaks won’t all even out.”
Ralph Wilson, the only owner the Bills have known in their 25-year history, was more succinct in his reflection on 1984:
“There’s a lot of players we had last year who won’t be with us this year.”
Life always has been a bit daffy with the Bills.
They claimed a quarterback from San Diego for the $100-waiver price in 1962 and that player led the team to two American Football League titles in 1964-65. The quarterback was Jack Kemp, now a congressman from New York. Wilson called the waiver-wire acquisition the “best $100 I ever spent.”
In 1968, Harvey Johnson took over as coach early in the season, replacing Joe Collier. The Bills finished 1-12-1. Johnson was fired after the season, but returned as Bills coach in 1971 to finish 1-13. He was fired again.
Elbert Dubenion, the former “Golden Wheels” wide receiver of the Bills’ glory years who now is a scout for the team, said, “I remember some of the great halftime speeches Harvey Johnson used to give in ’68. We’d be getting beat bad at the half and Harvey would come in and say, ‘Look, I don’t want to go back out there, either, but we have to finish the game.’ You check the coaching records and you won’t find Harvey Johnson’s name next to Knute Rockne’s.”
And Wilson, providing a flimsy defense for Johnson, said, “Harvey Johnson was a scout. He helped us out a couple times when we had problems with the head coach. He stepped in to fill the breech. He did it as a favor to me. Every time we’d lose a couple games, I’d look at Harvey and he’d run. He didn’t want to be coach.”
In the early 1970s, the Bills started bulding a new home, Rich Stadium. They drew more than 80,000 for the stadium opener in an exhibition game in 1973. The Redskins’ Herb Mul-Key returned the opening kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown. No penalty flags, just silence.
The Bills have been breathing for a full quarter-century and Wilson, the owner, insists that the high point of the franchise was not the titles in 1964-65 when the coach was Lou Saban and the stars were Kemp, Cookie Gilchrist, Ron McDole, Billy Shaw, Tom Sestak and George Saimes.
Nor was the high point, Wilson said, when O.J. Simpson rushed behind “The Electric Company” for a then-league record 2,003 yards in 1973. Simpson’s record--combined with the interest in the new stadium--pushed the Bills’ season ticket sales to more than 50,000. The Bills were 9-5, regulars on national television.
Nor was the franchise high point, Wilson said, the resurgence that came in 1980-81--after Simpson had left--when the Bills made the playoffs under Coach Chuck Knox. That’s when the defense was led by such veterans as Isiah Robertson and Bill Simpson, the offense by running back Joe Cribbs and Ferguson.
Instead, Wilson insisted, the high point of the Bills’ history came in the 1980 season opener. Their 17-7 victory over Miami was the first time they had beaten the Dolphins in 10 years.
It’s just been that kind of 25 years for the Buffalo Bills.
“The fans tore down the goalposts, thousands and thousands of them stayed in the stadium afterwards and sang a song and they passed the goalposts all the way up to my box,” Wilson said. “I don’t know why that’s the greatest moment. It just struck me that way.”
The offseason has seen the roof blow off the entire Buffalo organization. In the grandstands, they call it overhaul, Big Bang style. In the Bills’ think tank, though, it’s more of a “retooling.”
“I think we’ve taken a sound approach,” said Coach Kay Stephenson, he of the Pixie Stix physique and the Walter Cronkite seriousness. He is the former Bills quarterback who, at 40, is the league’s youngest head coach. “One approach is mortgage the future for players who’ll help immediately. But if you do that, you’re looking at a future collapse. We’ve done it through the draft, built a good foundation.”
The events have been dramatic in the Bills’ offseason: the team fired eight assistant coaches and, among the replacements, hired two former head coaches as coordinators--Jim Ringo to run the offense and Hank Bullough to run the defense. Ringo coached the Bills for the second half of the 1976 season and in 1977 (3-20 record). Bullough coached the now-defunct Pittsburgh Maulers of the U.S. Football League.
Perhaps most surprising in this offseason is that the Bills retained Stephenson for a third season, even after 1984 ended with Rich Stadium howling the refrain, “Goodby Kay, we hate to see you go.”
“I was thinking that maybe it would be best to bring somebody new in as head coach,” Wilson said. “Then I got to thinking: Kay’s a bright young fellow, easy to work with. Let’s bring him back.
“Everybody was surprised that I had him come back after that disastrous season last year. Maybe he has learned a lot. I think he has,” said Wilson, who notes that he hired Bullough--"Henry’s a 30-year friend of mine"--but not Ringo--"I had nothing to do with hiring Ringo. Kay liked Ringo. I like Jim even though I let him go once as head coach.”
Stephenson smokes his cigarettes furiously and his jaw stiffens when the rude whispers are made audible: If the Bills are struggling by say, Halloween, Stephenson will fade into the Bills’ unique history book and the new chapter will begin, “Hello, Coach Bullough.”
“That’s eighth-grade Orchard Park thinking,” Stephenson said. “We went out and got the best coaching staff we could get. That, very simply, was our approach.”
Most impressively, the Bills manuevered their draft picks expertly and stocked two picks in each of the first four rounds. “We had a symmetry like I’ve never seen before,” said Bledsoe.
Matters were helped when Cleveland gave Buffalo its first- and third-round picks in exchange for the Bills’ first choice in the supplemental draft, usually an irrelevant pick. With that pick, the Browns selected quarterback Bernie Kosar.
The riches reaped by the Bills on draft day were, arguably, the most substantial in the league. The grand prize was Virginia Tech defensive tackle Bruce Smith, the No. 1 choice in the league draft who is projected to become Mean Joe Greene II. The Bills had only 26 quarterback sacks last season. Smith had 16.
The other draft nuggets were Memphis State cornerback Derrick Burroughs, who is expected to contribute immediately; Nebraska all-America tackle Mark Traynowicz, who came to camp with a flat-top haircut “like Sarge used to wear on Gomer Pyle,” Smerlas said. Six-foot-5 Jackson State wide receiver Chris Burkett, tall and tough, and Maryland quarterback Frank Reich