"The Bills played a one-note tune most of last season and still came within an eyelash of making the playoffs. This year they hope to go further with some new versatility.
Until last season, Buffalo's offense consisted almost exclusively of O.J. Simpson's running. The quarterback was a rookie, Joe Ferguson; the fullback, Larry Watkins, was essentially a blocking back; the tight end was a tackle, Paul Seymour, used for his blocking ability; and the wide receivers were 75 percent crack-back blockers, 25 percent pass catchers.
But as the Bills closed with four consecutive victories, Coach Lou Saban took the handcuffs off Ferguson and allowed him to throw more, and Watkins, an effective journeyman, was replaced by Jim Braxton, whose back injuries kept him drydocked for months. Braxton performed like a latent superstar.
So this is what the Bills have going for them as they zero in on a playoff spot- or even something more ambitious, namely the catching of the Dolphins:
1. Ferguson has a year's experience and has convinced people he possesses a major league arm.
2. Braxton will be paired with O.J. from the beginning.
3. The No. 1 draftee is tight end Reuben Gant from Oklahoma State. If he produces as the Bills hope he will, Seymour can be returned to the interior of the line.
4. The young offensive line which helped Simpson rocket for 2,003 yards and was a vital factor in the Bills' setting an NFL record for yards gained by a team, 3,088, should be even better with a year's experience and Seymour playing his natural position.
5. The Bills already possess two of the better wide receivers in the NFL, Bobby Chandler and J.D. Hill, and now have another, Ahmad Rashad (the former Bobby Moore), who was acquired from St. Louis.
But the hole card, of course, is still O.J. Even if the Bills' new versatility connects and the anti-crack back rule hinders outside running, Simpson still should flirt with 1,500 yards and remain the man the opposing defenses have to compensate for.
With Simpson stretching the defenses, Braxton breaches the inside openings. Jim is also a talented pass receiver, having been an All-America tight end one season with West Virginia.
The offensive line includes one All-Pro, guard Reggie McKenzie, plus a couple of No. 1 draftees who won starting jobs last season, Seymour and guard Joe DeLamielleure. When center Bruce Jarvis got hurt at mid-season Saban switched former New England guard Mike Montler to center and it looked like an inspirational move. There will be a battle now.
Defensively, the Bills have holes, but up front they may be so strong that other flaws can be covered. There are a parade of good defensive linemen. Exhibit A is Earl Edwards, who came last year in a trade with San Francisco, was switched from tackle to end, and won the Bills' Most Valuable Defensive Player award. The other end is Walt Patuslki, who was benched for five games early season, then woke up to produce like the NFL's bonus draft choice he once was. Don Croft was the team's best defensive lineman as a tackle in '72, tore up a knee in training camp last year, missed the whole campaign and now is being converted to end.
Jerry Patton, a regular tackle last season, was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles. That leaves one hole in the defensive front. Mike Kadish, once Miami's No. 1 pick, has first crack at the other inside position, but he could be challenged. Jeff Winans, who showed as a rookie in 1973 that he has immense possibilities as an interior pass rusher, inherits Patton's spot. And Jeff Yeates, a fourth round draft choice who was hurt all of last year, could force his way into the lineup.
Jim Cheyunski, who was acquired in a trade prior to last season, had a big campaign at middle linebacker. He doesn't have the stereotyped heft for the position but he makes up for a lot with his savvy. John Skorupan, the former Penn State All-America, was a hit as a starting linebacker in his rookie season and Saban hopes his ex-college teammate Doug Allen, the No. 2 draftee, can take over on the other side.
Cornerback is a well-cared-for position with All-Pro Robert James on one side and former receiver Dwight Harrison on the other. Saban would like to move free safety Tony Greene back to corner for protection but there is a lack of skill at safety. Ernie Kellerman 'unretired' to start on the strong side last year.
John Leypoldt is one of the bright young place kickers in the NFL but punter Spike Jones can be pushed by Notre Dame rookie Brian Doherty."
-Larry Felser, Pro Football 1974
"Quarterbacks: Poised Joe Ferguson, whose major league arm was under wraps, will be permitted more leeway. Gary Marangi is the lone backup.
Performance Quotient: 4 [1 through 5, 1 being best]
Running Backs: What more can you say about O.J.? There's never been a ball carrier as magnificent. The defensive attention he merits opens things up for Jim Braxton, a freight train who's a 'deja vu' of Cookie Gilchrist. Larry Watkins gave a good account of himself, then Braxton took over. Pete Van Valkenberg and Steve Jones just watch the master from their seats on the bench. Reports are that Carlester Crumpler resembles Calvin Hill.
Performance Quotient: 1
Receivers: Yes, the Bills employ receivers. Good ones. And this year they'll be used for more than blocking. Note the steal- er, deal- for ultratalented Ahmad Rashad. He doesn't plan to sit. Holdover starters are speed merchant J.D. Hill, who always rates double coverage, and Bob Chandler, a Raymond Berry type. Paul Seymour is really a third tackle. He'll move inside if Gant produces. Wallace Francis is the AFC's best kickoff returner. Ray Jarvis isn't bad.
Performance Quotient: 2
Interior Linemen: Are there any complaints about a convoy of bulldozers that paved the way for 3,088 yards of rushing? Actually there are shortcomings, but none that time-in-grade won't correct. When Seymour moves from tight end, he'll start. It's a shame that either Dave Foley or Donnie Green will have to exit.
Reggie McKenzie cuts defenders down like a machete- he's All-Pro. Joe DeLameilleure excelled as a rookie and should be a fixture for years. When Bruce Jarvis was hurt, Mike Montler took the job. Now Bruce will try to win it back. Bob Penchion, Willie Parker and Halvor Hagen provide ample depth.
Performance Quotient: 2
Kickers: John Leypoldt, despite an occasional flub, has a strong, effective leg. He booms kickoffs. Spike Jones will be severely threatened by rookie Brian Doherty (42.7 yards a kick in college last year).
Performance Quotient: 3"
-Larry Felser, Pro Football 1974
"Front Linemen: All of sudden, the Bills are well fortified here. The bargain with the 49ers for Earl Edwards provided the missing piece. After a five-game benching, Walt Patulski saw the light. If he gives 100 percent, he can be All-Pro. Mike Kadish, redeemed from Miami's doghouse, performed with dignity but he's not secure. Jeff Winans and Jeff Yeates will be difficult to suppress.
Bob Kampa, Don Croft (a '72 regular who sat out last season with a knee injury) and Steve Okoniewski are impressive young toughs.
Performance Quotient: 2
Linebackers: Despite a face-lifting here, the complexion here still sags. Jim Cheyunski came in a swap with New England. The spirit is willing but the flesh doesn't intimidate anybody. John Skorupan was a precocious rookie and will get better. Richard Lewis, who became a starter late, looks over his shoulder at Doug Allen, the No. 2 draftee.
Fred Forsberg gives his all. He and Dave Washington, out seven weeks in '73 with a broken arm, have started before. Phil Croyle is run-of-the-mill.
Performance Quotient: 4
Cornerbacks: Robert James is a bona fide All-Pro. With the bump-and-run now limited, he'll have to alter his tactics. Dwight Harrison switched from wide receiver with flying colors. Donnie Walker subs at safety, too.
Performance Quotient: 2
Safeties: Tony Greene bounces from corner to safety. His size is a detriment. Ernie Kellerman is wise in NFL ways but a trifle slow. Bill Cahill exhibits a lot of get-up-and-go. A shakeup can occur here.
Performance Quotient: 4"
-Larry Felser, Pro Football 1974
"What O.J. Simpson did for the Buffalo Bills was incredible. He gained 2,003 yards. He set league records by the handful. He was the single most exciting player to hit the NFL since Jim Brown (whose records were the ones to fall). He became an offense within an offense, and his effect on other teams was so great he made heroes out of ordinary players because he drew all the attention.
Still, more than O.J. happened to the Bills. Since he never once made a tackle or intercepted a pass, there was an equal if not nearly as noticeable improvement on defense. The Bills allowed 147 fewer points than they did in 1972, and at least part of the reason for their surprising 9-5 record and just-miss playoff berth rests here.
And from the appearance of the team, there should be only greater accomplishments in store for 1974.
O.J., of course, is still the pivotal factor. But the quarterback was a rookie, Joe Ferguson, and he has a world of memories now- most of them good ones. That will help his confidence ... and his passing.
Jim Braxton (494 yards) or Larry Watkins (414) will be the fullback. J.D. Hill (29 catches for 422 yards) and Bob Chandler (30 for 427) are the wide receivers. No. 1 draft pick Reuben Gant should step in at tight end. And the interior line of guards Reggie McKenzie and Joe DeLamielleure, tackles Dave Foley and Donnie Green and center Bruce Jarvis is young and should remain intact.
Defensively, head coach Lou Saban plans a front four of Walt Patulski, Jerry Patton, Mike Kadish and Earl Edwards. His linebackers- subject to some change- are Jim Cheyunski in the middle with John Skorupan and Richard Lewis on the outside.
Robert James, the cornerman on the left, is an All-Pro. Dwight Harrison, the other corner, led the team with five interceptions. Safeties are Billy Cahill at the free spot and Ernie Kellerman as the strong side defender, and Saban seems set with this combination since the first defensive back drafted was 14th round Phil Lamm. But the coach would like to find some depth there anyway, perhaps in young vets Donnie Walker or Tony Greene.
That area, plus the need for a quality backup quarterback (it may be third round pick Gary Marangi of Boston College), stand out as the two most unsettled parts of the team.
Wide receiver Ahmad Rashad (drafted as Bobby Moore) was picked up from St. Louis for quarterback Dennis Shaw, and he can also fill in at running back. Indeed, with his potential, he might well become O.J.'s backup, unseating Pete Van Valkenburg.
In all, the Bills have youth, enthusiasm, confidence and O.J. Simpson going for them- not necessarily in that order."
-Gridiron News 1974 Pro Yearbook
"Offense: The question for 1974 is, 'What is the limit for O.J.?' The man who reached pro football's version of Nirvana with a 2,003-yard season in 1973 is the closest there is to a one-man offense in the NFL. The Bills' coach, Lou Saban, recognizes this and is taking steps to widen the team's offensive horizons.
One step will be to open up his passing game with young Joe Ferguson, who started at quarterback as a rookie last year. Ferguson has a major league arm but Saban wanted to limit the risks in 1973, knowing he had O.J. to get the Bills out of trouble in a much surer, safer way.
Jim Braxton was unveiled as Simpson's partner toward the end of last season. Once he shook back miseries, Braxton bore a resemblance to Larry Csonka as a power back.
Wider use is sure to made of J.D. Hill, potentially a superstar receiver. He did not catch a touchdown pass in 1973. The Bills obtained another player in the Hill mold when they traded backup quarterback Dennis Shaw to St. Louis for Ahmad Rashad (Bobby Moore). Ferguson's prime target when he did throw last year was tricky Bob Chandler. To make full use of O.J., Saban played his number one draft choice, tackle Paul Seymour, as a tight end. Seymour's blocking was a strong factor in Simpson's record, but Seymour wasn't feared as a pass receiver. This year Saban drafted a tight end, Reuben Gant of Oklahoma State.
If Gant can block and catch, Seymour will go back to his normal position. With guards Reggie McKenzie and rookie Joe DeLamielleure leading the way, the revitalized line helped crack Miami's one-year-old NFL rushing record. The Bills totaled 3,088.
Defense: What started out last season as a liability turned out to be the Bill's best asset on defense- the front four. Saban made a big trade with San Francisco, getting huge Earl Edwards, whom he switched from tackle to end. Edwards became the steadying anchor on the young line. Saban also traded for Mike Kadish, who won a tackle job. Walt Patulski, pro football's top draft choice in 1972, started to produce as advertised about mid-season and Jerry Patton also had a big year. Two second-year men, Jeff Winans and Bob Kampa, may push for work.
Saban is hoping that another big year up front will help hide deficiencies in the linebacking and at safety. Rookie linebacker John Skorupan broke into the lineup last year and played well. Pro Bowler Robert James is the top player at the deep positions at corner. Former wide receiver Dwight Harrison made a successful switch to corner.
Kicking: John Leypoldt may be the best long distance field goal kicker in the AFC. He had many long kicks among his 21 successes. Spike Jones had an up-and-down year as the punter.
1974 Outlook: This a team that has come a long way in a short time. Just two years ago the Bills were 1-13. O.J. Simpson, obviously, is the major reason for the rise. To many, he is the number one offensive player in the game today. He can be stopped five or six times in succession, then on the seventh play he can be standing in the end zone.
But Simpson isn't the only reason for the Bills' improvement. O.J. was there in the terminal years, too. All those high draft choices are starting to pay off. Two players taken in last year's draft, Seymour and DeLamielleure, won jobs in the starting lineup. Patulski could be one of the league's finest defensive linemen for years to come.
The question is: How much closer is Buffalo to Miami now? Last year the Bills provided the stiffest competition in the AFC East and still were outscored 44-6 in two games with the Dolphins."
-Scouting Jets Opponents, The New York Jets Official 1974 Yearbook
1974 Buffalo Outlook According to Head Coach Lou Saban
"A total effort by every player on our 47-man roster took the Bills to the doorstep of the playoffs last fall. In all my years of coaching, I've never had a team do a more abrupt about face. The promise we saw in the final few games of 1972 became reality in 1973.
Looking ahead for 1974, we hope for improvement in all departments, which may or may not mean a better won-lost percentage. The Buffalo Bills must be taken seriously again and teams that looked past us in prior years won't make the same mistake.
In our favor, we have one of the youngest teams in professional football, a club whose hunger to excel was, we feel, only stimulated by last year's near-miss. Because of our youth, we're not likely to become complacent with successes, individually or as a team. If we do, our ambitions for greater goals in 1974 will be in seriously jeopardy.
Two of the more significant elements in our final record of 9-5 were freedom from serious injuries and an unusually seasoned performance from the nine rookies who made our club, four as starters. Another factor often overlooked, we feel, was the dramatic improvement of the Bills' overall defense. It's well known O.J. Simpson gained 2,003 yards as the heart of a rushing offense that developed into the best ever in the NFL. Almost hidden in the shadows of such extraordinary offensive accomplishment is another meaningful statistic- a drop of 147 points (from 1972) in the opposition's cumulative scoring total.
In the final four games of the season, all victories, the defense surrendered an average of only 12.5 points per appearance. Our 1973 success was, therefore, a mix of many things- a minimum of disabling injuries, a great group of rookies, a spectacular rushing offense, and a much-improved defense.
Offensively, we have rushing weapons the equal of any in the NFL. O.J. Simpson is unquestionably football's most gifted running back. He has the instincts, the intensity, and the intelligence associated with greatness. The question we get most is: Can O.J. improve on 2,003 yards? Incredible as it sounds, such a possibility genuinely exists. The 2,000 and 3,000 yard (team rushing) seasons are now history and athletes are constantly improving on history.
With the exception of center Bruce Jarvis, who missed six games, our offensive line remained intact throughout the season. The veterans- centers Jarvis and Mike Montler, guard Reggie McKenzie, tackles Dave Foley and Donnie Green- had the best year of their career, collectively and as individuals. The rookies- guard Joe DeLamielleure and tight end Paul Seymour- played with consistency and poise. The offensive line, in our opinion, should get better.
To complement O.J. in the offensive backfield, we have two punishing fullbacks- Larry Watkins and Jim Braxton. Watkins carried the burden during the first half of the season when Braxton was on the injury list. When Jim returned, he caused a lot of people to sit up and take notice by rushing for 450 yards, an average of 90 yards per appearance, in the final five games.
One of the items sure to stir comment during the off-season is the imbalance between rushing and passing last fall. With runners like Simpson, Watkins, and Braxton, an aerial game was hardly necessary. Quarterback Joe Ferguson, a rookie, did not have a great many opportunities to show off his passing skills in 1973. Joe definitely has a professional arm along with the quick and analytical mind necessary to read modern coverages. Our wide receivers, J.D. Hill and Bob Chandler, are opposite types- Hill with the blinding speed to threaten deep, Chandler a master of the precise pattern. As Joe becomes more familiar with them and vice versa, our passing precision will rise.
Trades were the making of the Bills' defense. We acquired end Earl Edwards, tackle Mike Kadish, and middle linebacker Jim Cheyunski in deals that, in retrospect, were pivotal. Two rookies, linebackers John Skorupan and Richard Lewis, stepped into starting positions and gave a solid performance. In the secondary, Dwight Harrison, a convertee from wide receiver, and Ernie Kellerman, an eight-year pro who joined us about mid-season, worked well with returnees Bob James and Tony Greene.
For the second straight year, our secondary permitted the lowest percentage of pass completions in the National Football League. The opposition was held to a figure of 45.1%, a real credit to the outstanding work of our defenders.
Aside from James and Greene, the only holdovers from the Buffalo defense of 1972 were tackle Jerry Patton and end Walt Patulski, both of whom played with distinction in starting roles. End Bob Kampa and tackle Jeff Winans experienced quick growth as rookies last fall.
With Patton gone, we look to Winans or Don Croft, out of last season with a knee injury, to step into a starting position at tackle. Another defensive lineman still to be heard from is Jeff Yeates, a fourth round draft choice in 1973 who did not sufficiently recover from knee surgery to play last fall.
Edwards deserves a special mention for the leadership he provided, particularly to our young players. Coaches can teach and re-teach techniques but seeing an experienced pro put them into practice is the best way to learn. Earl was unquestionably the catalyst of our defense last season.
Cheyunski answered any questions about his ability to play in the middle with a solid season, despite a variety of troubling injuries. We also discovered a player of considerable potential in Merv Krakau, a 14th round draft choice out of Iowa State who was an effective reserve and special teams player.
Our attack gets an additional lift from specialist John Leypoldt, third ranking kicker in the AFC last fall, and kickoff returner Wallace Francis, who led the Conference in that department as a rookie. Punter Spike Jones had an inconsistent 1973, which we hope he can improve upon in 1974.
The acquisition of wide receiver Ahmad Rashad for quarterback Dennis Shaw figures to strengthen our offense. Rashad, a number one draft choice of the St. Louis Cardinals, played running back in college and, conceivably, could provide help at two different spots.
Our position in the draft was poor (picking alternately 18th and 17th) but our choices, overall, are promising. Principally, we expect the 1974 rookies to occupy reserve roles, giving us critical depth we lacked at key positions last fall. If people like Reuben Gant (tight end, Oklahoma State), Doug Allen (linebacker, Penn State) and Gary Marangi (quarterback, Boston College) play to their potential we have definitely improved our ball club.
The sweeping rule changes adopted by the NFL at the April meetings are sure to have a significant impact on the game in 1974. Until we see them in practice, however, it is difficult to evaluate precisely how they will affect the Bills. We will be watching closely in training camp and the preseason to determine how the new rules will alter our approach.
There are a couple of question marks as we begin to plan for 1974. We lack an experienced backup at quarterback, have some concerns in the secondary and linebacking areas, and need to further develop our confidence and maturity."
-Lou Saban, Buffalo Bills 1974 Yearbook