"Three seasons after they were the basket case of professional football, the Bills made the NFL playoffs. The question now is where do they go from here?
The Bills might have arrived ahead of schedule. Their offense can move the ball on any team now, and it doesn't just consist of O.J. Simpson. But there is quite some doubt about whether the defense belongs in the upper echelon.
Coach Lou Saban won the playoff struggle with a combination of guile and tactics last year. He switched to the three down linemen-four linebacker defense at mid-season, even though he admits he isn't enamored of the device as a full-time setup. He used everyone but his nieces and nephews at linebacker.
This year Saban hopes he can find enough defensive end talent to return to the normal four-man front. And to help plug the other holes in the Bills' defense, his first three draft choices were defenders- two linebackers and a strong side safety.
But even if he doesn't improve this area, Saban's principal weapon's are on the attack. O.J. Simpson got injured in the first game of the season and never did fully recover. Even so, he ran for 1,125 yards, third in the NFL. The Bills' attack revolves around O.J., but it does not begin and end with him. When he got hurt last year, the Bills showed the world they can throw the football.
For half the season young Joe Ferguson led the AFC in passing. He was the sort of passer who excited the scouts in his early college days at Arkansas. With two years as a starter in his background, Ferguson's future seems unlimited. He could improve the Bills by 10 per cent himself this year.
Ferguson has two of the most dangerous receivers in football playing wide receiver for him. It seems almost suicidal to grant either J.D. Hill or Ahmad Rashad single coverage.
The big experiment will be at tight end. Paul Seymour has done a competent job there for two years, but he was originally a first round draftee as a tackle. The Bills need him there. Last year's No. 1 pick, Reuben Gant, is a tight end. He was hurt in training camp and didn't get much of a chance until late in the season. Saban thinks he can play regularly with Seymour moving inside to give more speed to the offensive line.
Saban wants as much versatility as possible in the line to make maximum use of O.J. Teams were taking away much of the outside on Simpson last year with gimmick defenses like the 3-4. Seymour can challenge either Dave Foley or Donnie Green at tackle. The guards are set with Joe DeLamielleure and Reggie McKenzie, and Mike Montler had a good year at center.
Fullback Jim Braxton is one of O.J.'s most important blockers. Braxton is a punishing power runner but he fumbled too much last year. Penn State's Tom Donchez was the team's fourth round pick, the first offensive player the Bills selected. He moves in behind Braxton (after the trade of Larry Watkins).
Buffalo traded both of its return men, Wallace Francis (kickoffs) and Donnie Walker (punts), opening up a spot for Gil Chapman, the team's seventh round selection from Michigan. Chapman returned both kickoffs and punts for the Wolverines, and he seems to have a place on the roster made to order for him.
Saban's problem in the defensive line is an oversupply of tackles. Earl Edwards' best position was inside. Mike Kadish had an excellent year there. Jeff Winans, who tore up a knee during the exhibition season, is one of the most promising youngsters on the Buffalo squad but he, too, is a tackle. The only natural end is Walt Patulski. The big hope is that Winans can make the switch.
The only proven linebacker on the Buffalo squad is John Skorupan and he underwent knee surgery midway through last season. Middle linebacker Jim Cheyunski is a plugger but he is very small for his job. Dave Washington makes some big plays and commits some glaring errors.
The first two draft picks were a pair of linebackers from Nebraska, Tom Ruud and Bob Nelson. It wouldn't be a big surprise if Skorupan, pro sophomore Doug Allen and the two rookies did most of the playing.
Buffalo's secondary is the strongest part of its defensive game. It contains two All-Pros, free safety Tony Greene and cornerback Robert James. With Greene in the deep secondary, Saban can afford to play the gambling Dwight Harrison at the other corner. Ex-Bengal Neal Craig had a peaks-and-valleys season at strong safety. Saban drafted Glenn Lott of Drake in the second round to assure Craig's concentration.
The Bills have a superior place kicker in John Leypoldt, and former Cowboy Marv Bateman punted well for them."
-Larry Felser, Pro Football 1975
"Quarterbacks: For the first five weeks, Fergy was the NFL's leading passer; he wound up 13th. Experience will bring maturity. Gary Marangi's development has to come vicariously. Scott Hunter is nice to have.
Performance Quotient: 3 [1 through 5, 1 being best]
Running Backs: Injuries held O.J. to 1,125 yards, a ho-hum output for him. But no NFL player is more of an obsession to NFL strategists- thus other avenues are open to the Bills. As a power runner and blocker, Jim Braxton complements him well but coughs up the ball a lot. Gary Hayman, O.J.'s understudy, is coming back from a broken leg. Don Calhoun and Tom Donchez compete behind Braxton. Reggie Cherry is a interesting new arrival and Clint Haslerig will be struggling to hang on.
Performance Quotient: 1
Wide Receivers: Ahmad Rashad and J.D. Hill give deep backs the heebie-jeebies. They're fast, quick and elusive. When they add concentration ... wow! Reuben Gant, who's also fast, has another chance to prove he can start and, of course, block. If so, Paul Seymour is free to upgrade the offensive tackle situation. Bob Chandler comes back from knee surgery. Gil Chapman will return kicks.
Performance Quotient: 2
Interior Linemen: Powerful, purposeful drive blockers one and all. But their pass protection could improve. Screen passes are hardly used because Dave Foley and Donnie Green are more than a trifle slow. A shift of Seymour from tight end would add mobility. Reggie McKenzie again received All-Pro recognition but Joe D. did better in battle. Mike Montler knows the ropes.
Halvor Hagen was adequate when he got a chance. Bill Adams is an aggressive spot player. Bruce Jarvis, who used to start, has had considerable difficulty bouncing back from knee surgery. Willie Parker, who also snaps on punts, is competent.
Performance Quotient: 2
Kickers: John Leypoldt seems better from long range than short. Waived by Dallas, Marv Bateman found northern air suits his fancy.
Performance Quotient: 2"
-Larry Felser, Pro Football 1975
"Front Linemen: The return of Jeff Winans from knee surgery is the key. It is hoped he can slide from tackle to fill the void at right end. Otherwise he'll change places with Earl Edwards, although the Bills would prefer Edwards at tackle. On Notre Dame's side of the line, Mike Kadish is a willing brawler but Walt Patulski hasn't been inspired with any semblance of regularity. Don Croft, a '73 knee case, was undistinguished. Jeff Yeates is learning and Dave Means is for emergencies.
Performance Quotient: 3
Linebackers: Help is on the way to this beleaguered area. Tom Ruud and Bob Nelson, rough-and-ready Cornhuskers, were drafted 1-2. Ruud will probably move right in. Jim Cheyunski is wise and gutsy but gets shoved around; sooner or later he'll give way to Doug Allen- or maybe even one of the rookies. John Skorupan, out injured the last eight games, is an asset.
Dave Washington can look like a game's best player, or one of the worst. Bo Cornell does an honest day's labor. John McCrumbly is intriguing; he looks fat, though.
Performance Quotient: 3
Cornerbacks: The Bills were No. 3 in the NFL in pass defense. A rash of ill-timed penalties not withstanding, Robert James again was All-Pro. Dwight Harrison is gradually picking up the finer points. Harry Banks will get a look.
Performance Quotient: 2
Safeties: No pro safety had a better year than Tony Greene. He was the heart of the team and made a ton of big plays. Neal Craig is all right but must do better to stay ahead of rookie Glenn Lott.
Performance Quotient: 2"
-Larry Felser, Pro Football 1975
"The Buffalo Bills discovered something fascinating last year- that quarterback Joe Ferguson could do more than just turn around and say to O.J. Simpson, 'Here, you take it.'
They found, to their delight, that Ferguson knew how to throw the ball and, equally important, when. The quarterback, who had spent the 1973 season watching Simpson bash his way to 2,003 yards, threw the ball with such timeliness and accuracy that he wound up ahead of such names as Jim Plunkett, Mike Phipps and a guy on the Pittsburgh Steelers named Bradshaw in the AFC passing statistics. That was one of the major reasons why the opposition found it couldn't key on O.J. and assume the Bills' offense would come apart. The opposition's going to find out something even more unnerving this time around- that it won't be able to run on the Bills the way it did in '74. The Bills will be doing the running, right to the top of the Eastern Division.
'This, I believe, is our year,' O.J. said matter-of-factly as he looked toward the '75 campaign. And Coach Lou Saban echoed: 'I believe we've plugged up a few of the holes that kept us from winning a few more games last year.' What they both mean, of course, is that the close ones will now go to Buffalo instead of against them.
The biggest hole was at linebacker. Not anymore. Not with their first two draft picks, Nebraska All-American Tom Ruud and teammate Bob Nelson, selected to the All-Conference team in the Big Eight.
Behind them are such standouts as safety Tony Greene, second in the NFL with nine interceptions, and cornerback Robert James, plus rookie defensive back Glenn Lott from Drake. In front, Mike Kadish and Earl Edwards anchor the line and improvement can be expected with Jeff Winans returning from an injury that kept him out of action last year.
Still, offense is the Bills' ace in the hole- and O.J. is no longer the only man who has to find the holes in the defense to keep them moving. Ferguson can be counted on to throw a lot more than the slim 232 passes he attempted last year, and Ahmad Rashad and J.D. Hill can be expected to catch a lot more than the 68 and 1,005 yards they combined for in '74.
'I think last year I had to spend a lot of time proving to people I actually knew how to pass,' Ferguson joked. 'Of course, now that they know that I can, I may have a little more trouble trying to.'
And if he doesn't feel like putting the ball in the air, so what? O.J. can move it anytime he wants, as his 1,125 yards, third best in the league, showed last year. And not to be overlooked is Jim Braxton, almost sure to improve from the solid 543 yards he amassed last year, as is Larry Watkins, who provided some key yards and, equally important, allowed Simpson and Braxton to catch their breath when necessary.
Almost anyone would look good behind the offensive line the Bills have, headed by Simpson's 'main men': Reggie McKenzie, Mike Montler and Joe DeLamielleure, plus valuable tight end Paul Seymour.
If a weak spot can be found on the Bills it might be punter Marv Bateman, but with O.J. and ball control, he won't do his thing that much. If Buffalo can't get the ball all the way to the end zone, John Leypoldt will get three points as he did 19 times last year when the place kicker was third in the AFC in scoring.
But don't count on John to do too much field goal kicking this year. Mostly he'll be involved in extra points- lots of times."
-Bruce Lowitt, Gridiron News 1975 Pro Yearbook
"A superb season-long performance by the defense plus another great contribution by football's finest running back, O.J. Simpson, brought Lou Saban's Bills a fine 9-5 record and a wild card berth in the playoffs. After jumping off to a 7-1 mark, injuries pointed up lack of depth at key positions which resulted in the sharp decline capped by a 32-14 playoff loss to the Steelers.
Saban hopes he corrected a glaring weakness at the linebacking via the draft. The No. 1 and No. 2 picks were used to secure the Nebraska duo of 6'3"/225 Tom Ruud and 6'4"/230 Bob Nelson, while the No. 5 choice was huge (6'3"/250) John McCrumbly of Texas A&M. All are top prospects and should shake up the holdover contingent of John Skorupan, Doug Allen, Dave Washington, Jim Cheyunski and Bo Cornell. When forced to resort to a 3-4 defense midway in the season, Saban got good performances from Earl Edwards, Mike Kadish and Walt Patulski up front. They'll be back along with Jeff Winans.
No team in the NFL boasted a better secondary than Buffalo. They allowed only 11 touchdown passes and had two starters named to the All-Pro team, cornerback Robert James, premier bump-and-run defender, and Buffalo's MVP, free safety Tony Greene. The late season injury to Greene was a crippling blow. Dwight Harrison, Neal Craig, Rex Kern and Bill Cahill round out the secondary and are joined by Glenn Lott of Drake.
Long-striding kick returner Wally Francis (25. average) may team with newcomer Gil Chapman of Michigan this year. Marv Bateman returns as the punter and John Leypoldt will perform placement booting.
Despite Joe Ferguson's improved passing, opponents continued to ignore the aerial threat and concentrate on stopping O.J. Handicapped by sore ankles and knees, Simpson nonetheless carried the ball 270 times more than any back in the NFL and racked up 1,125 yards from scrimmage. Mr. Superstar enjoyed some fine blocking from fullback Jim Braxton, who returns with Don Calhoun and young Tom Donchez of Penn State.
Although blessed with gifted flankers in Ahmad Rashad, the mercurial J.D. Hill, and Bob Chandler, Buffalo's three quarterbacks (Ferguson, Scott Hunter and Gary Marangi) managed to gain only 1,492 yards in the air, an AFC low, and had the worst overall stats in the conference.
Rookie tight end Reuben Gant was injured in a preseason contest but is expected to take over that job this campaign, allowing Saban to shift powerful Paul Seymour back to his normal tackle position where he will team with Donnie Green. Reggie McKenzie and Joe DeLamielleure at guards and Mike Montler at center are a superior interior unit, as O.J. will quickly and happily testify.
Buffalo faces a tough schedule this season and, unless Saban opens up his 'O.J. left-O.J. right' offense, it will be difficult for them to duplicate the 9-5 mark of '74. Still, Saban's a winner and he can be counted on to field a tough ball club, and as long as O.J. stays healthy no one can count them out."
-Jim Stewart, Pro Football Illustrated 1975
"Offense: When the Buffalo Bills were eliminated from the NFL playoffs last December, O.J. Simpson said, 'We set our sights too low. We set our goal before the season. It was to make the playoffs. Now our sights are higher. We want the Super Bowl.' Setting their sights low was understandable for the Bills. They have come so far in such a short time they should be a surprise even to themselves. Buffalo how has the offensive potency that justifies the raising of sights in 1975.
The Bills showed the rest of the league from the start of last season that they are not a one-dimensional team. O.J. was bothered by leg injuries from the first game, so the Bills leaned on their newly developed versatility and it worked. Joe Ferguson established himself as one of pro football's brightest young quarterbacks. Ferguson inflated his touchdown pass total from two in 1973 to 12 in 1974.
Simpson is still the keystone is this attack, however. Despite his leg problems The Juice managed 1,125 yards. It was the kind of season most runners dream about, but coming on the heels of the epic 2,003-yard season of 1973, it was ordinary for O.J. Behind Simpson is Larry Watkins who averaged 4.1 yards for 41 carries in '74. The other starter is the large but mobile fullback, Jim Braxton.
There could be an alteration in O.J.'s offensive line, the 'Electric Company.' Saban would like to get Reuben Gant into the lineup at tight end. If that happens the incumbent tight end, Paul Seymour, would switch to tackle, where he has to beat out either Dave Foley or Donnie Green. Guard Joe DeLamielleure graded higher than any lineman last year, but center Mike Montler and guard Reggie McKenzie were right behind him.
Defense: There is great strength in the secondary where two All-Pros, free safety Tony Greene and cornerback Robert James, work. Greene was Buffalo's most valuable player last year. The Bills play more man-to-man coverages than most NFL teams, and James and Dwight Harrison play bump-and-run as well as any cornerbacks around.
Saban switched to the 3-4 defense in the second half of the 1974 season but he would like to return to a four-man front. If big Jeff Winans can rebound from a knee injury, he would be the fourth man with ends Walt Patulski and Earl Edwards and tackle Mike Kadish, who had his best season in '74. Buffalo's top-rated linebacker, John Skorupan, missed the last half of the '74 season due to a knee injury. Veterans Jim Cheyunski and Dave Washington and second-year man Doug Allen also are in the linebacking scramble."
-Scouting Report, The New York Jets Official 1975 Yearbook
1975 Buffalo Outlook According to Head Coach Lou Saban
"For the Buffalo Bills, the 1974 season was one of contrasts. Satisfaction on the one hand, frustration on the other.
Satisfaction sprang from making the playoffs for the first time since 1966 and compiling a second consecutive won-lost record of 9-5. Frustration followed our inability to advance in postseason play, our unsuccessful attempt to unseat Miami as champion of the AFC East, and a ragged finish of five losses in the final seven games.
The Bills' performance through eight games was definitely of championship caliber. We were unable, though, to sustain our momentum beyond mid-season. If nothing else, the experiences of 1974 have clearly established our priorities for 1975.
Injuries were a prominent problem. Preseason knee surgery cost us the services of Jeff Winans, a promising second-year man we had counted on to win a starting job in the defensive line. Linebacker John Skorupan and free safety Tony Greene, two defensive stalwarts, missed seven and three games respectively with knee injuries, both requiring corrective surgery. Fullback Jim Braxton and tackle Donnie Green were offensive regulars who missed one or more games due to injury.
What the injuries revealed was a critical lack of depth, a circumstance we must correct if we are to challenge again in 1975. We moved in the draft to improve our depth on defense in particular. As Pittsburgh proved conclusively in Super Bowl IX, strong defense is a hallmark of champions.
Our defense did show an overall improvement in 1974. In the Conference rankings, we jumped from seventh to second in total defense and came all the way from ninth to the runner-up position in pass defense. The one area in which our standing slipped was rushing defense, down from fourth in 1973 to sixth last fall.
Probably no one made a more significant contribution to the defensive, or for that matter total team, effort than free safety Tony Greene. Tony's nine interceptions were only one measure of the dimension he added in every defensive department.
As a group, our secondary broke the Buffalo team record by better than 200 yards, permitting 14 opponents only 1,620 total passing yards.
Corners Robert James, again an All-Pro, and Ike Harrison; strong safety Neal Craig and Greene, who joined James on the All-Pro team, give us an excellent nucleus around which to build our secondary. Depth is a problem we hope to have solved by drafting three promising collegians- Glenn Lott of Drake, Harry Banks [of Michigan] and Tom Drake of Michigan.
In the defensive line, we were unable to develop a consistent starter at right end. Earl Edwards gave us another good year, playing both end and tackle, and Mike Kadish furthered his reputation for solid, often spectacular, play inside. Edwards and Kadish give us a strong combination at tackle.
Three-year starter Walt Patulski should again lay claim to the left end position but who will play the opposite side is a question mark. Winans, one of last year's injury victims, is a possibility, although he was strictly an inside player as a rookie in 1973. Rookie Mark Johnson and second-year man Dave Means also figure as does Jeff Yeates, who checked in with a strong performance after missing all of the 1973 season with a knee injury.
The successful recovery of Skorupan from knee surgery and development of young talent is important in our linebacking plans. Skorupan's injury at mid-season precipitated a juggling act with the linebackers that continued until the end of the year. Three of our first five draft choices were linebackers- Tom Ruud and Bob Nelson of Nebraska and John McCrumbly of Texas A & M- and Penn State product Doug Allen will be playing only his second year. Bo Cornell, a running back just two years ago, is another still learning the linebacker position.
We achieved a better offensive balance between rushing (2,094 yards) and passing (1,492) last season but, in the process, our total production fell 499 yards off the Bills' 1973 pace. Buffalo's rank in the Conference dipped from fifth to 12th overall.
This despite another 1,000-yard season from O.J. Simpson, Jim Braxton's best statistics as a professional and a dramatic improvement in the passing and field leadership of sophomore quarterback Joe Ferguson.
For much of the first half of the season, Ferguson was the leading passer in the League. While his statistics lagged in the final weeks of the campaign, Joe Ferguson established himself in our mind as a top-flight NFL quarterback, certainly capable of shouldering his share of the offensive burden.
An injury to Ferguson in the Miami game provided a look at rookie Gary Marangi, whose first pass as a pro produced a Buffalo touchdown. Marangi has a bright future with the Bills.
Receivers Ahmad Rashad and J.D. Hill had big years, leading the team in catches and receiving yards respectively. Rashad, an off-season acquisition from St. Louis, snared 36 for 433 yards and four touchdowns. Hill made 32 receptions for 572 yards and six scores.
Simpson and Braxton continue to provide us with one of the most feared rushing punches in the game. Combined 1974 statistics of 1,688 rushing yards are testimony to their double-barreled effectiveness. Simpson's speed and Braxton's power give our attack an enviable versatility.
One of our necessities is to develop depth at running back, which accounts for our choice of Penn State's Tom Donchez, Houston's Reggie Cherry, and Roland Hooks of North Carolina State in the recent college draft.
With the exception of four weeks when Donnie Green was shelved with an appendectomy, our offensive line remained the same as in 1973- Green and Dave Foley at the tackles, Reggie McKenzie and Joe DeLamielleure at guards, Mike Montler at center and Paul Seymour at tight end. As a group, they are still young and capable of further development.
Our kicking game appears sound with the return of placement specialist John Lepoldt and punter Marv Bateman. Leypoldt led us in scoring for the fourth consecutive year, hitting on 19 of 33 field goal tries last fall. Bateman, acquired as a free agent after the Houston game, had an excellent 43.9 average on 34 punts.
Changes are certain in both our punt and kickoff return departments. Both of last year's returners- kickoff specialist Wallace Francis and [punt specialist] Donnie Walker- have been traded (Francis to Atlanta, Walker to Los Angeles), creating openings for a specialist like Gil Chapman of Michigan, our seventh round pick in the draft, who did both for the Wolverines. Another newcomer, Roland Hooks of North Carolina State, showed good speed and quickness at our mini-camp. Hooks holds the N.C. State record for returns.
This is an important year for the Buffalo Bills. We have become a consistent winner, a playoff participant, a championship contender. Now, we must face the prospect of living up to our reputation."
-Lou Saban, Buffalo Bills 1975 Yearbook