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Bills Hope to Regroup After Hitting Bottom of NFL Barrel in 1984

June 24, 1985|GARY POMERANTZ | The Washington Post

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — 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.

Cheap thrill?

Naaaw.

It's just been that kind of 25 years for the Buffalo Bills.

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