"Some defenses are referred to as anchors, meaning they are stabilizing factors, the rock, of the team. In Buffalo's case the description means something else. The Bills' defense was an anchor last year, all right, one that dragged down the highest scoring attack in the NFL.
O.J. Simpson and his colleagues were the only bunch in the league that scored over 400 points. They led in touchdowns, rushing and various other offensive categories.
Buffalo's two main rivals in the Eastern Division of the American Conference are Miami and Baltimore. The Bills scored 51 points on the Dolphins last year, Miami scored 66 on the Bills and won both games. Buffalo scored 73 on Baltimore. Baltimore scored 73 on the Bills and got a standoff, winning a game in which the Bills led at one point 28-7. Things like that can be demoralizing.
The offense should be just about as potent as it was last year. Simpson is coming back and he's at the top of his game, and Buffalo's entire attack has matured. It's no longer O.J. left, O.J. right.
Joe Ferguson threw 25 touchdown passes, tying Fran Tarkenton for the NFL lead, and accumulated 2,426 yards. This is just his fourth season coming up. Only two AFC receivers caught more passes than Bob Chandler's 55 last year. J.D. Hill caught seven touchdowns. Jim Braxton, the pulverizing fullback, gained 823 yards, scored 13 touchdowns and blocked the ears off people.
It's versatility like that made O.J. so much more dangerous in '75. The Juice broke Gale Sayers' touchdown record, led the league in rushing with 1,817 yards and in scoring with 138 points.
The Electric Company, Simpson's offensive line, was more devastating than ever, mostly because of added experience. Guard Joe DeLamielleure became an All-Pro in his third season. The other guard, Reggie McKenzie, flies around the corner on sweeps like a dervish. Center Mike Montler is back. The only serious challenge may come from rookie Joe Devlin, who may push one of the tackles.
Coach Lou Saban's plan to convert Paul Seymour back to tackle, the position for which he was drafted, fizzled when Seymour's contribution as a blocking tight end became too vital. When Saban wants more offensive versatility, he substitutes swift Reuben Gant for Seymour.
So much for the offense. The major question is what Saban intends to do for the defense. One possible answer is the use of the Oklahoma defense- three down linemen, four linebackers- as the team's basic set. The idea would be to use a lot of blitzing linebackers and disguised coverages.
Saban banished Walt Patulski and Pat Toomay and drafted Ken Jones of Arkansas State and Ben Williams of Mississippi to inject some new blood into the defensive line. Jones was one of the highest ranked guards in the draft, but he played defense early in his college career so the Bills aren't taking a longshot. If he doesn't pan out here, they always have one more quality offensive lineman.
Saban also hopes he can get a good year out of Mike Kadish, similar to the one the big guy gave him in '74. Earl Edwards admittedly had an off season but he could snap back.
The linebacking revolves around the two reluctant draftees of last year, Nebraska's Tom Ruud and Bob Nelson. Their contract negotiations lasted until Labor Day Weekend, which meant they missed training camp. Ruud finally broke into the lineup for the last month. Nelson sprained an ankle, sulked a bit and sat out the entire year. The only linebacker of quality the Bills can count on is John Skorupan. Best of the rookie linebackers is Dan Jilek of Michigan.
The main chance for defensive improvement is in the secondary, which was an asset when Buffalo made the playoffs in '74. The problem last year was the injury curse. The Bills started with two All-Pros, cornerback Robert James and free safety Tony Greene. James tore up a knee in the exhibition season and was scratched for the season. Greene, coming off knee surgery anyway, broke his collarbone in the first exhibition. When he returned he was at about 60 percent of his efficiency and the Bills played him out of position at James' spot. Saban traded with Kansas City for strong safety Doug Jones. He tore up a knee in his second game.
All return this year, hopeful of pre-injury efficiency. The Bills made Oregon's Mario Clark, a corner, their first draft choice. Ed Jones developed into an all-rookie strong safety in Doug's absence. Dwight Harrison, the sole healthy vet, led the team in interceptions."
-Larry Felser, Pro Football 1976
"Quarterbacks: Fergy threw 25 touchdown passes, 10 more than the club record, but Gary Marangi took him to the wall last year and may again.
Performance Quotient: 2 [1 through 5, 1 being best]
Running Backs: Juice had a better all-around season than his fabled 2,003-yard year. He was death as a pass receiver, too. Jim Braxton's yardage would have led half of the clubs in the NFL. He's vastly underrated.
Vic Washington, the only seasoned sub, comes off knee surgery. There's a great chance for rookies and kick returners.
Performance Quotient: 1
Receivers: There are lots of versatile skills here. Bob Chandler finessed his way to a ton of catches. J.D. Hill is erratic, but defenders have to be wary of him. Paul Seymour is a linebacker's nightmare, a blockbuster of a third tackle. Reuben plays when Ferguson wants to go deep. He may get a challenge from Fred Coleman, a sleeper rookie with all the physical assets.
John Holland gets a chance now that Ahmad Rashad is departed. Scott Piper was 'Mr. Clutch' in college.
Performance Quotient: 2
Interior Linemen: These players comprise one of the better lines in professional football. The strength is at the guard positions. Joe D. was a Pro Bowler last year, Reggie McKenzie has been an All-Pro in the past. Mike Montler is a durable, gritty veteran. The tackles' forte is drive blocking for the running game but if rookie Joe Devlin develops quickly, he could push one of them.
Bill Adams and Willie Parker could be starters for other teams. The unit's only limitation is lack of speed at the tackle spots, but their experience will be hard to replace.
Performance Quotient: 2
Kickers: John Leypoldt slumped alarmingly, so Bob Berg, who had a great college career, will push him. Marv Bateman started poorly, but then punted along with the league's leaders.
Performance Quotient: 3"
-Larry Felser, Pro Football 1976
"Front Linemen: Two '75 regulars, Walt Patulski and Pat Toomay, were sent packing. It's anyone's job as the Bills decide whether to go to a three-man front. Earl Edwards had an off year. Jeff Winans hasn't delivered on his promise. Mike Kadish, after a big '74 campaign and a good start in '75, slumped considerably.
Don Croft and Jeff Yeates aren't out of the picture. Ken Jones, an All-America offensive guard, gets a shot here. If a three-man line is used, Ben Williams could be the single tackle. Les Benson will get a long look, too.
Performance Quotient: 4
Linebackers: John Skorupan is the only proven backer. Tom Ruud, the No. 1 draft a year ago, signed late and didn't contribute until November. Doug Allen also improved after a slow start. Bob Nelson was another late starter, but he didn't contribute at all.
There's a big chance for Dan Jilek, a Michigan ace. Mark Johnson, the Bills' top rookie for his special teams work, will operate as a utility man in a version of Miami's 53 defense. John McCrumbly is iffy. Improvement depends on Ruud and Nelson.
Performance Quotient: 4
Cornerbacks: The Bills were destroyed here last year when a knee injury shelved Bob James. To insure against further trouble, Mario Clark was drafted No. 1. If James recovers and Dwight Harrison keeps improving, this area could be Class A. Royce McKinney could wind up jobless.
Performance Quotient: 2
Safeties: Tony Greene goes back to free safety after playing the corner with a barely healed collarbone last year. Ed Jones won the strong side spot after Doug Jones got hurt. Doug, if healthy, could win back his job. Jackie Williams bids for a reserve role.
Performance Quotient: 3"
-Larry Felser, Pro Football 1976
"What's next for the Juice?
After a summer spent making movies in Italy and dashing through airports plugging the Superstar in Rent-A-Car on your TV screen, O.J. Simpson seems ready to return to what he does best- racing over, around and through National Football League defenses.
Simpson says that when he retires from football to pursue a full-time acting career, he wants to go out on top. And in a way that's good news for Bills fans- what could be better than another O.J. super-season, plus a Super Bowl ring?
'I always admired Jim Brown as a runner, but the thing I admired most about him was that he quit on top,' says Simpson. 'It's easy for a ballplayer to say, 'one more year, one more year,' but that can be tragic. People look at Jim Brown and remember how great he was. That's what I want to happen to me.'
It won't be easy for Simpson to better his 1975 season. 'I didn't think he could top the season he had in 1973, when he gained 2,003 yards,' says Buffalo coach Lou Saban, 'but believe it or not he was even better in 1975.'
Simpson was indeed magnificent last season, leading the leading in both rushing and scoring. He ran for 1,817 yards, an average of 5.5 yards per carry. That's the third-best season total of all time, behind only Simpson's record 2,003 and Brown's 1,863 in 1963. He scored at least one touchdown in every game of the season and finished with an NFL record 23 touchdowns- 16 rushing and seven receiving. He caught 28 passes, one-fourth of them for touchdowns. And all that was accomplished even though opposing defenses were keying on him.
O.J. had perhaps his best game ever on September 28 at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium against the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers. He carried the ball 28 times for 228 yards, ripping apart one of the finest defensive units ever assembled.
Simpson has been seeking to renegotiate the contract he has with Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson which runs through 1977. 'I would like to play another year or two of football, but I want to quit on top,' he said. 'Also, I want to get paid what I am worth.' The figure he has in mind is the $450,000 Joe Namath reportedly receives from the New York Jets.
The Bills, thanks to O.J., led the league in rushing and total offense last season. They were 24th- third from the bottom- in total defense, including dead last against the pass. In the off-season Buffalo took some steps to try to shore up that defensive unit.
You can't stop a passing attack if you don't get a pass rush, and the Bills didn't get one last year. So they sent their defensive ends packing: Walt Patulski to St. Louis for a draft choice and Pat Toomay into the draft pool, from where he surfaced in Tampa Bay. If the old faces weren't doing the job, Saban reasons, let's try some new faces.
Rookie Ken Jones (a guard at Arkansas State who will be shifted to defensive end), Ben Williams of Mississippi and Leslie Benson of Baylor will be given full shots at winning starting spots on the defensive front four.
After losing All-Pro cornerback Robert James and safeties Tony Greene and Doug Jones in the preseason, the Bills were forced to go with a patchwork defensive backfield, one that fell apart at the seams at times. A return to form by James, coming off knee surgery, would help a lot. Just in case, the Bills used their No. 1 draft pick on cornerback Mario Clark of Oregon.
Offensively, the Bills will again revolve around O.J., a pretty successful formula. But he's not their only weapon. Fullback Jim Braxton bulled his way to 823 yards to rank seventh in the AFC last season. Quarterback Joe Ferguson threw 26 touchdown passes, tying Minnesota's Fran Tarkenton for the league lead in that department. Ferguson ranked seventh among NFL passers with 169 completions in 321 attempts, a 52.6 percentage, for 2,426 yards, with 17 interceptions. Steady wide receiver Bob Chandler was fifth in the league with 55 catches, J.D. Hill had 36 and running backs Simpson and Braxton had 28 and 26, respectively.
Then there is the Electric Company, the offensive line which, yes, turns on the Juice. Tackles Dave Foley and Donnie Green, guards Reggie McKenzie and Joe DeLamielleure and center Mike Montler, plus tight end Paul Seymour, have played together for three full seasons now and are perhaps the most effective unit in the game.
Can Buffalo improve on last year's 8-6 record and climb past Baltimore and/or Miami in the AFC East and into the playoffs? A lot will depend on Simpson having yet another spectacular year, and on Ferguson's continued development as a pro quarterback. But in the end the answer will come when the other team has the ball. You can't go into a game hoping to simply put enough points on the board so the other club can't catch you. Winning teams in the NFL are built on strong, sound defenses, and that is something the Bills did not have last season."
-Alex Sachare, Gridiron News 1976 Pro Yearbook
"HEAD COACH: LOU SABAN
Buffalo finished in third place in the Eastern Division with an 8-6 seasonal record last year despite leading the entire NFL in total offense (390.5 total yards per game) and in points scored (420). Even the inspirational presence of O.J. Simpson could not compensate for the lack of defense. Lou Saban is acutely aware of the problem and has had a full year to correct the situation; if his efforts prove successful, there may be no stopping the high-scoring Bills in '76.
The incomparable O.J. may be the best running back ever to play the game of football. With his racehorse speed, deceptive strength, incredible stamina and proud competitiveness, Simpson carried the ball more often (329 times) and averaged more yards (138) than any back in the NFL during the '75 season. He also set an all-time pro record in crossing the goal line 23 times for touchdowns. He'll be back, trying for his fifth consecutive 1,000-yard campaign and, possibly, a shot at the Super Bowl. Burly Jim Braxton, the 245-pound fullback, will lead the way for Simpson with his power blocking and inside running. Saban is dangerously thin in his reserve backfield with only Vic Washington, Steve Schnarr and rookies Darnell Powell of Chattanooga and Bobby Joe Easter of Middle Tennessee on the roster.
Joe Ferguson gained 2,426 yards with his passes and topped the NFL with his 25 touchdown tosses but was notably erratic in crucial situations, which may open the door for talented Gary Marangi, a much-coveted young quarterback.
Bob Chandler, who pulled down 55 passes last season, will split time outside with Ahmad Rashad while bomb-catcher J.D. Hill operates on the opposite flank. Saban often employs two tight ends to capitalize on the combined blocking prowess of huge Paul Seymour and Reuben Gant. The drafting of tight end Fred Coleman (6'4"/230) of Northeast Louisiana may portend a shift of Seymour to a tackle slot.
Another indication of a shake-up at the tackle slots was the early round drafting of All-American Joe Devlin (6'5"/275) of Iowa. Incumbents Dave Foley and Donnie Green appear under great pressure. Mike Montler at center and Reggie McKenzie and Joe DeLamielleure at guards are outstanding performers.
Marv Bateman ranked second to Ray Guy on the AFC punting charts with a great 41.6 yard average. John Leypoldt should again do all the place kicking.
Buffalo allowed a whopping 355 points to opponents last season, a number Saban must dramatically reduce if he hopes to make it into the '76 playoffs. All-American Mario Clark of Oregon comes up with a big reputation and could start at the corners with former All-Pro Robert James, a key casualty last year. This allows Tony Greene to return to his free safety slot where he was All-Pro in 1974. Doug Jones is also coming off the injury lists and should reclaim the strong safety post. Dwight Harrison and Steve Freeman are the spot relief men.
The Bills rely heavily on their linebackers and appear to have an unusually good crew on hand. Tom Ruud and John Skorupan work the outside posts while Merv Krakau and John McCrumbley handle the interior slots in the four-man alignment. Bob Nelson and Doug Allen will try to break into the starting quartet, along with rookie Dan Jilek of Michigan, a light but exceptionally fast mover.
Saban will continue to rebuild his defensive line right up until the starting gate opens for the '76 season. Key draft choices Ken 'Mad Dog' Jones of Arkansas State (6'5"/255) and Ben Williams of Mississippi (6'4"/255) may step right in and allow Saban to revert to the standard 4-3 defense. Earl Edwards, Don Croft and Mike Kadish were the '75 regulars in the 3-4 alignment.
It is foolish to write off a team with an offense spearheaded by O.J. Simpson when considering possible contenders for the Eastern Division title. At the same time, no team can make it to the top without a good defense, as Buffalo proved last season. It all comes to the degree of improvement in the defensive unit; unless a major trade (for a top lineman) is affected prior to the start of the season, we cannot see the Bills finishing ahead of the Dolphins this year."
-Complete Sports Pro Football Special 1976, published by Complete Sports Publications, Inc.
"If anyone doubted the old axiom that no team can make it to the top without a solid defense, they need only look back at the '75 Bills. Paced by football's finest individual performer, O.J. Simpson, Buffalo led the NFL in total offense and scoring (420 points) and yet finished in third place in the Eastern Division with an 8-6 record. Coach Lou Saban struggled valiantly to overcome an already shaky defense further weakened by injuries but it proved much of a handicap for his brilliant offensive machine. Buffalo hopes it has corrected the situation during the off-season.
One of the colorful signs on display at home games states quite succinctly 'God Bless Mrs. Simpson.' The incomparable All-Pro halfback, possibly the best pure running back ever to play the game, was virtually unstoppable last season. Setting a new all-time NFL record with 23 touchdowns, O.J. won both the scoring (138 points) and rushing (1,817 yards) championships, carried the ball more often (329) and averaged more yards per carry (5.5) than any other running back in the league. At 6'2" and 220 pounds, O.J. blends racehorse speed with incredible strength and stamina in a manner that has stamped him a 'once-in-a-lifetime' runner. He'll be shooting for his fifth consecutive 1,000-yard-plus season and hopefully a shot at his most cherished dream, a trip to the Super Bowl.
Leading the way for him will be 245-pound powerhouse blocker-runner Jim Braxton, who gained 823 yards and scored nine touchdowns. Saban must beef up his reserve back contingent since only Vic Washington, Steve Schnarr and rookies Darnell Powell of Chattanooga and Bobby Joe Easter of Middle Tennessee are currently available.
Joe Ferguson, though notably erratic in pressure situations, nonetheless piled up 2,426 yards and scored an NFL-high 25 touchdowns with his play action passing. Young Gary Marangi is a much-coveted reserve passer and equally adept at exploiting defenses necessarily stacked to stop the run. Scott Gardner of Virginia, a fine athlete with a good arm, seeks No. 3 status in his rookie year.
Bob Chandler had a great season on the flank, catching 55 passes for 746 yards and six touchdowns. He splits time with flashy Ahmad Rashad who comes off the injured list. Bomb-catcher J.D. Hill handles the other wide post where John Holland and rookie Scott Piper of Arizona seek relief jobs. Saban uses both tight ends on power plays to exploit the blocking power of Paul Seymour (6'5"/245) and Reuben Gant (6'4"/230). The drafting of highly regarded tight end Fred Coleman (6'4"/230) of Northeast Louisiana may indicate a shift of Seymour to tackle where he was an All-American.
Further indication that regular tackles Dave Foley (6'5"/250) and Donnie Green (6'7"/255) have been found lacking was the drafting of All-American Joe Devlin (6'5"/275) of Iowa, an outstanding pass blocker. Mike Montler (6'4"/245) is secure at center while All-Pro Joe DeLamieulleure (6'3"/245) and burly Reggie McKenzie (6'4"/255) man the guard posts.
All-American guard Ken Jones (6'5"/250) of Arkansas State will be switched to defense as a pro due to his 'Mad Dog' tag as an all-out hitter. Ben Williams (6'3"/255) of Mississippi is another rookie with a good chance of seeing action in the front four. Veteran Earl Edwards (6'7"/255) is a sure starter but Mike Kadish (6'5"/270), Don Croft (6'4"/260) and Jeff Winans (6'5"/260) will have to hold off the threat posed by the rookies. Edwards and Kadish may be flanking middle guard Croft unless rookies Williams and Les Benson (6'3"/250) of Baylor force a change in plans. Winans and Jeff Yeates (6'3"/250) are also in the picture but most suspect Saban is not finished dealing in this area.
Top draft choice Mario Clark of Oregon has the size and speed to step right in at cornerback and team with former All-Pro Robert James who missed all of last season with an injury. This will allow All-Pro Tony Greene to return to his natural free safety position where he pairs off with Doug Jones, another key casualty in '75. Dwight Harrison is a solid operator at either corner while soph Steve Freeman looms the key relief man at the deep positions.
Saban's jumbo-sized linebacking contingent adds wiry Don Jilek of Michigan, a very fast outside candidate. Tom Ruud (6'3"/225) and John Skorupan (6'2"/225) are the regular outside backers with Bob Nelson (6'4"/230) and Bo Cornell (6'1"/220) the replacements. Rugged Merv Krakau (6'4"/235) and soph John McCrumbley (6'1"/245) are the interior men with Doug Allen (6'2"/230) their reserve.
Marv Bateman ranked second to Ray Guy in AFC punting with a great 41.6-yard average on 61 attempts. John Leypoldt hit on nine of 16 field goals. Washington will again return the kickoffs while rookie Easter may use his 4.5 speed returning punts.
With an improved linebacking crew and a healthy secondary, Buffalo needs only a little more strength up front to arrive at a respectable level defensively. If they achieve it, there may be no stopping O.J. and Company in 1976.
Forecast: 2nd Place"
-Football Forecast 1976, published by Lexington Libraries, Inc.
"While O.J. Simpson teeters on the brink of career decisions, the Bills wonder whether they can shoot for the stars if the Juice jets off to California- for good. Simpson's running mate, Jim Braxton, is still a vital part of the Buffalo ground game, and he could join the 1,000-yard rushing club before the coming season is over. But whether the Bills actually have a chance to win the AFC East title depends on what O.J. decides to do.
O.J. continues to be torn by several personal desires. He wants to be near his family on the West Coast during the five-month football season, he wants to play in the Super Bowl (say, with a team like the Los Angeles Rams), and he wants to retire from football and get started on a movie career.
O.J. has been used to starring in Buffalo's game films, something quite different from trying to achieve a four-star rating in such films as Cassandra's Crossing with Burt Lancaster, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner and other non-gridiron types running interference for him. Moreover, O.J. has his own feeling about movie game plans.
"When it comes to football,' says the Orange, 'I walk out onto the field and have nothing but confidence, but in Rome (that's Rome, Italy, not Rome in upstate New York), every movie scene I do, I keep thinking I could have done it better. People will say, 'that was good, don't worry about it,' but it still doesn't give me a feeling of security about my acting.'
If O.J. has any feelings of insecurity, he should consider the lack of security that pervades defensive units of opposing clubs whenever he carries the ball. In the past four seasons, he has twisted and sidestepped his way to 6,196 yards. His current career total for seven years of NFL action is 8,123 yards. This ranks him fourth on the list of all-time pro football rushing leaders- behind Jim Brown (12,312), Joe Perry (9,723) and Jim Taylor (8,597). If O.J. sticks to football, he'll undoubtedly surpass Jim Taylor this fall and move into third place.
Buffalo was first among all NFL clubs in 1975 in scoring, with 420 points; first in total offense (390.5 average yards a game); first in rushing offense (212.4 average yards per game); eighth in passing offense (178.1 average yards a game); and fourth in punting (41.6 average). But even with these impressive offensive statistics, the Bills could do no better than wind up with an 8-6 record for third place in the AFC East's final standings.
The obvious answer is dee-fense. Take the pass defense, for example. Here the Bills ranked 26th in the NFL, at the very bottom. And in total defense, they stood 24th, and that's damned close to the bottom. In defense against the rush, they ranked 14th.
This isn't to say that Buffalo's defense is totally inadequate- but it does say it's not adequate enough. There are some pluses. The Bills led the NFL in 'takeaways' last season with a total of 45, meaning they intercepted 25 enemy passes and recovered 20 of the enemy's fumbles. Cornerback Dwight Harrison pulled of eight of those interceptions while cornerback Tony Greene and linebacker Merv Krakau led in fumble recoveries with three each. But the corners and backers weren't too good at knocking down passes. The front linemen likewise failed to accomplish very much with their pass rush, and therein lies most of the answer to Buffalo's offense-defense dilemma.
Despite the apparent need for a beefed-up defense, the Bills chose two offensive players out of the first three choices they had in the recent NFL college draft. True, in the first round they picked Mario Clark, an All-West Coast defensive back from Oregon. But in the second round the choices were All-America guard Ken Jones of Arkansas State and another All-America, tackle Joe Devlin of Iowa.
As has been said, the Buffalo offense is something else again, and quarterback Joe Ferguson's 52.6 pass completion average gives it a fine balance. To get a proper perspective on the rushing attack, consider the Juice's running mate, Jim Braxton. His 823 yards overland last season would have made him the leading rusher on 14 other NFL teams. Braxton and O.J. together rushed for 2,640 yards- more yards rushing than any other club in the NFL. In other words, these two out rushed the entire league.
There's good news, too, from San Francisco. Kickoff return specialist Vic Washington was released from a hospital after undergoing successful surgery to remove torn cartilage from his knee. The surgery was performed by Dr. Lloyd Milburn, team physician of the San Francisco 49ers. In football, as in war, the opposing physicians put the patients first."
-Norman MacLean and Herbert Furlow, The Pocket Book of Pro Football 1976
"Quarterbacks: Joe Ferguson threw the ball more in 1975, really he did. It just seemed as though the Buffalo attack was 'all juiced up.' Ferguson passed for 25 touchdowns- seven to O.J. Simpson, seven to J.D. Hill and six to Bob Chandler.
Backup Gary Marangi did well when called upon. He might fit in if Fergy should get hurt.
Running Backs: The juice flowed over the NFL scene like water rushing over the nearby Niagara Falls. He'll be back, although a movie career still tempts him, as it did Jim Brown- but the thought of getting closer to Brown's 12,312 career record yards should keep O.J. flowing.
The 'other' Buffalo back, Jim Braxton, would be a star on almost any other team. He blocks better than Bleier, and ran for 823 yards last year when Buffalo was number one in NFL rushing.
Vic Washington and Steve Schnarr are the reserve backs, with Washington doubling on defense when needed and also performing as a consummate kickoff return man who garnered 923 yards in 1975. Roland Hooks has a tough act to follow.
Wide Receivers: Chandler and Hill are the top receivers, with O.J. and Braxton going out to catch one now and then. John Holland is the backup wide receiver. Paul Seymour is a great blocker at tight end; he's really a tackle, and he makes O.J.'s route that much easier. Reuben Gant is faster than Seymour, but lacks blocking savvy.
Interior Linemen: This is O.J. country. The offensive line, led by Reggie (My Main Man) McKenzie at pulling guard and featuring Dave Foley, center Mike Montler, Joe DeLamielleure and Donnie Green, clears the way for Simpson. The boys are getting even better at pass protection, a weakness in the past. Foley and Green are slowish; Joe D. and McKenzie are All-Pros.
Backups Willie Parker (who snaps the ball for punts) and Bill Adams (a good relief man) do the job when needed. Joe Devlin is an All-America rookie lineman.
Kickers: Marv Bateman booted for a 41.6 average in 1975, fourth best in the NFL. John Leypoldt kicks long but misses short, totaling only nine for 16. He might be replaced if Saban can find someone else."
-Norman MacLean and Herbert Furlow, The Pocket Book of Pro Football 1976
"Front Linemen: Only two NFL teams gave up more yardage than the Bills last year. Saban uses the 3-4 defense. The line performed fairly well in 1975 with Don Croft and Earl Edwards the rush liners. Mike Kadish has been a starter; Jeff Winans is now two years out from knee surgery. Mark Johnson joins the front line after a year at linebacker. Ken Jones is an All-America rookie who can also play guard on offense. The people are there, but where are the results?
Linebackers: Linebacking is another reason the team with the NFL's best attack didn't make the playoffs. Tom Ruud and Bob Nelson, top draft choices in 1975, are still around, and Saban hopes they develop. John Skorupan, Doug Allen, Merv Krakau and Ruud are starters. John McCrumbly is still too fat.
Cornerbacks: The secondary gave up 3,080 yards, making the Bills the only NFL team to surrender more than 3,000 yards passing last year. Injuries were the main reason for this; All-Pro corner Robert James was out for the season. Dwight Harrison stole eight passes. Harry Banks lacks experience. Rookie Mario Clark was one of the best on the West Coast at Oregon.
Safeties: Ike Thomas and Ed Jones filled in during 1975 and may stick as reserves. Steve Freeman and Royce McKinney are still getting experience. Doug Jones returns after a year out with an injury, and Tony Greene returns to safety after a good year at cornerback in 1975."
-Norman MacLean and Herbert Furlow, The Pocket Book of Pro Football 1976
"The Bills won their first four games last season- and then something funny happened to O.J. Simpson and his crew of high scorers. The Bills won only four of their last ten games.
'As opposing teams were able to study us,' says coach Lou Saban, 'they discovered there were weaknesses to be exploited.' Most of the weaknesses were in the defensive secondary- among the linebackers and deep backs. Opposing passers picked the Bills apart. Result: while the Bills were No. 1 in the NFL in total offense, they were 24th in total defense, ranking 14th in defense against the rush and a dead last 26th against the pass.
OFFENSE: Joe Ferguson led the league in throwing touchdown passes with 25 and has firmly established his credentials as a playoff-caliber quarterback. And he has running backs who, on the average, could pick up a first down with two bolts into the line. O.J. Simpson, the fabled 'Juice,' gained 5.5 yards a try and his running mate, Jim Braxton, earned an average of 4.5 yards each time he lugged the ball. When Ferguson stepped back to throw, he looked to wide receivers Bob Chandler and J.D. Hill, as well as tight ends Paul Seymour and Reuben Gant.
Simpson has talked about leaving the Bills. His loss, of course, would stagger any team, even one as powerful offensively as the Bills. In the past four years, he has led the league in rushing three times, scored 45 touchdowns and gained an average of more than 1,500 yards a season.
He runs behind what is almost certainly the best mow-em-down line in football. Together four years now, tackles Dave Foley and Donnie Green, guards Reggie McKenzie and Joe DeLamielleure and center Mike Montler pride themselves on being the juice's wrecking crew.
Owning this potent offense, will Saban dilute it by trades to bolster his defense?
DEFENSE: In the draft, Lou Saban, usually a seeker of point-scorers, picked defensive players as his first two choices. The No. 2 pick is Ken Jones (Arkansas State), who will be tried as a defensive end to replace the departed Walt Patulski, traded to St. Louis. Jeff Winans will also try to win that spot. Veteran Sherm White and rookie Ben Williams, a No. 3 pick from Mississippi, will lock horns to win the job at right end. Earl Edwards will be the right tackle, Mike Kadish or Don Croft the left tackle.
Saban had six different players starting at linebacker last season. Dan Jilek, a No. 4 pick from Michigan, could be a starter; so could Jeff Turner, a rookie from Kansas, a ninth round pick. Saban will try to decide among them and returners John Skorupan, Doug Allen, Merv Krakau, Bo Cornell and Tom Ruud.
Loss of starting cornerman Robert James, an All-Pro, and safety Doug Jones early in the season made a mess of the secondary. Saban had to push players into unfamiliar spots. If James is sound of knee, he'll be at one corner, Dwight Harrison at the other, with Ed Jones and Tony Greene the safeties. But likely to find a spot is No. 1 draft choice Mario Clark (Oregon).
SPECIALISTS: Kicker John Leypoldt had an off year (nine field goals in 16 tries). Punter Marv Bateman is the AFC's second best- a 41.6 average. Vic Washington is a burner on kickoff returns.
THE CRYSTAL BALL SAYS: Buffalo yielded 355 points last season. If the Bills shave that figure under 300, they could nip out Baltimore and Miami in the AFC East."
-John Devaney, Schenley Pro Football Guide 1976