Scrawled untidily on the wall outside one of the dressing rooms at the football stadium in Buffalo is a small legend which reads, hopefully, "Bring on the Colts." The Bills have proved pretty conclusively that they are the best team in the American Football League this year, and the enthusiastic Buffalo fans sincerely believe they could whip the top team in the National Football League as well. At the moment that would be the Baltimore Colts.
The loyalty and enthusiasm of the Bufflo fans, however, seem to overshadow their judgment. Should they get their wish—which they will not, since the NFL remains adamant in its refusal to recognize the rival league—the fans would see the Bills' winning streak brought to an abrupt and decisive halt. The score would be something like 48-7—or higher, if Colt Coach Don Shula used his first string units all the way.
The Bills' owner, Ralph Wilson Jr., has indeed built a good team in Buffalo. In the next few years, if he continues to draft as intelligently as he has in the past and to spend money as freely in signing his draft choices, the Bills will be on a par with NFL teams.
An assistant AFL coach recently pinpointed the principal difference in the leagues. "No one has had a chance to establish continuity on defense," he said. "To do that, you must keep a defense reasonably intact for four, maybe five years. When I played in the NFL, I played on a unit which had been together that long, and it was a good one. If we made changes in personnel it was one man or at the most, two. We reached a point where communication among the veterans, in the backfield and in the line, was instinctive. I knew precisely how the man beside me would react to any situation. He knew I would protect him and how I would. When a rookie moved into the lineup, we talked to him constantly during a game. We knew all the offenses and we could warn him what to look for. We knew our own defense so well that we did not have to think about that, either. When you have to stop and think of your assignment on every play, it costs you a split second of reaction time, and this game is made up of split-second reactions. You don't have that much time to waste."
Although Buffalo is one of the most stable teams in the AFL, the personnel turnover has been far greater than on any NFL club. For example, the only player still on the team who was on the original roster in 1960 is Elbert Dubenion, the fine flanker. The rest of the club has been acquired since then so that no unit—offensive, defensive, special—has had the time to develop the intuitive play which is necessary for a pro club to become a championship team in the NFL.
As is true of all AFL clubs, the Buffalo team suffers most on pass defense. With John Unitas throwing to Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore or John Mackey, the Buffalo pass defense would look even worse than it did two weeks ago when Houston's George Blanda threw 68 passes against the Bills and completed 37 of them.
Conversely, Dubenion, who has averaged nearly 30 yards per catch against defenders in the AFL, would find no one in the Baltimore secondary easy to beat. For instance, in the first game the Bills and Jets played this year, Dubenion beat rookie Bill Pashe for two long touchdown passes and was open deep on two other occasions.
In a position-by-position comparison of the two teams, the Colts rate better than the Bills in almost every case. Unitas, of course, is a far better quarterback, both as a signal caller and as a passer, than either Kemp or Lamonica. Lamonica is potentially a fine quarterback, but he is only in his second year. Even if he threw as well as Unitas and released the ball as quickly—which he does not—he would still be years away from acquiring Unitas' finesse as a field general. Kemp has neither the arm nor the tactical sense, although he has been in pro football for eight years.
The Colts hold as big an edge in pass receivers. In Berry, Mackey and Orr, they have three receivers who are thoroughly familiar with the Unitas pattern of throwing. More to the point, Unitas has thrown to the three of them so often that he knows almost by instinct precisely where they will be on every play. Unlike Kemp or Lamonica, who usually throw after a receiver has made his break because they are not absolutely sure where he will wind up, Unitas often throws while Berry or Orr is still faking, hanging the ball in the air at a point he knows they will reach a second later.
Dubenion is as fast or faster than any of the Colt receivers, but the inept AFL pass defenders have not forced him to learn the moves that the Colt receivers have had to develop against the established secondaries in the NFL. Dubenion and Glenn Bass, the other Buffalo receiver, would be met by a Colt secondary defense which has been together for four years—with the exception of Jerry Logan, who is in his second season. The Colt receivers, on the other hand, would encounter a Buffalo secondary that is playing its first season as a unit. It is a secondary, too, with a rookie on the right corner and another at safety. Berry and Orr have, at one time or another in their careers, put several rookies on waivers when the youngsters were assigned to cover them man to man. It is safe to say that George Byrd and Ha-good Clarke would spend a long afternoon trying unsuccessfully to cover either Colt.
The Bills more nearly approach the caliber of the Colts in running backs, but the Baltimore defense could set up to stop the Buffalo running game, knowing that their secondary defense could easily contain the Buffalo passing. The Colts are deeper in good running backs than the Bills. With Jerry Hill, Lenny Moore, Tom Matte, Tony Lorick and Joe Don Looney, they have five exceptional runners who more than match the Bills' pair—Cookie Gilchrist and rookie Bob Smith. And the Bills certainly could not set their defense to contain the Colt running at the expense of conceding to the secondary the task of smothering Unitas' passes.
With a wide edge both in passing and running, Baltimore would control the ball for most of the game. When a team can establish this kind of ball control the damaging effect on the opposing defense is greatly increased, since the defense spends a disproportionate amount of time on the field and gets little rest.
The Colts would score easily enough early in the game, and by the fourth period the Bill defense would be worn out. It is not a deep defensive team, and the first-string players would have been in action some three-fourths of the time. In its final minutes the game would become a rout.
It will be at least three years before the Bills—or any other AFL team, for that matter—develop the resources in talent and in experience to play a team like Baltimore on nearly even terms. For most of the other teams in the AFL, the make-ready time is nearer five years. In its first three years of existence, the AFL had three or four teams that drafted poorly and one—the old New York Titans—that signed only five draft choices. The pool of player talent in the league suffered, and the image of the league was a poor one. This gave the NFL a powerful leverage in signing college stars—the really good football players who had pride in their ability. They signed with the NFL to prove themselves, even when the money offered by the two leagues was the same.
The image has improved in the last two years, since Sonny Werblin bought the New York club. Now the addition of NBC television money to bolster the bidding of the not-so-rich AFL teams will enhance it further. NBC has offered to advance money against television payments (they begin in 1965) to assist the poorer clubs in the draft war, which will be a bloody one, at the end of this season.
With a larger share of good football players signed in the draft and with a sound nucleus of good players on each team, the AFL should improve rapidly. But neither the Bills nor the AFL are yet strong enough to press for a game with the NFL champions.
The handwriting is indeed on the wall, but not scrawled outside the Bills" 1964 dressing room in War Memorial Stadium.