When Pete Gogolak left the Buffalo Bills in the neatest jump since Jack and the candlestick, Personnel Chief Harvey Johnson found himself sifting through close to 100 applications for Pete's place-kicking job. These included an ambidextrous Italian who could boot the ball a fabulous five feet off the ground, a mechanical engineer who made two feet, and an Austrian count who lives in a castle in the Alps. In camp the Bills pared the list down to Bob Hight, who has one arm and one eye; Wolfgang Felgemacher, a West German bricklayer; and a third gentleman—a frustrated actor who once played football for something called the New Bedford Sweepers. The Sweeper finally won the job. His name, as fans know by now, is Booth Lusteg. He can kick consistently and for distance; as a result Buffalo—with a new coach in Joe Collier but with the same depth, experience and cohesiveness that have made it the class of the American League for two seasons—may present pro football's most vociferous fans with a third Eastern Division championship, although the odds are always against such repetition.
The Bills do have their problems. Good running backs are scarce, and they could use more depth in the offensive line, especially now that Center Dave Behrman has retired. The Bills do have depth on defense, which is where they have won their championships. Mike Stratton, on the right side, is the best of the starting linebackers—Harry Jacobs and John Tracey are the others—who are beginning their fifth season as a unit. Second-year man Marty Schottenheimer is good enough to start, and rookie Paul Guidry from McNeese State is not far behind.
The Bills drafted Charlie King from Purdue for the defensive backfield, but he has little chance of breaking into what is probably the deepest secondary in the league. Butch Byrd, a gifted punt-return man and one of the meanest tacklers around, is All-League at corner back, as is George Saimes at free safety. When Booker Edgerson was injured last season Charley Warner did an excellent job at the other corner. This season Warner has won the job from him. Hagood Clarke and Tommy Janik, who were picked up from Denver in a steal, play strong-side safety.
Despite all this the Bills' primary defensive strength is a powerful line equally adept against the passing or running game. Ron McDole and Tom Day are quick and mobile ends whose special talent is pursuit to either side of the field. At one point last season Buffalo had not allowed a touchdown by rushing for 18 consecutive games. Tom Sestak, a perennial All-Star tackle, and Jim Dunaway, destined to become one, are both unusually skilled in the art of interior pass-rushing. Don Thiesen, cut by Cleveland, is a good-looking reserve tackle with a chance to make the team.
Except for one man, the offensive line has been together for five years. Led by Guard Billy Shaw and Tackle Stew Barber, it is superior to most in the NFL.
Last year the Bills began the season figuring to abandon their ball-control style and become a "home run" club going for the quick-scoring play. By the fourth game, injuries had finished top receivers Elbert Dubenion and Glenn Bass for the season, and the plan was dropped. Buffalo was again Buffalo grinding it out, wasting the clock, winning as unspectacularly as possible.
Now, however, with a good blocking and running back (Billy Joe)—who had replaced a great, but troublesome, blocking and running back (Cookie Gilchrist)—gone to Miami, the Bills are left with only one dependable regular, Wray Carlton. He is an excellent blocker but will not break away much. Rookie Bobby Burnett of Arkansas has beaten out Bobby Smith at the other running back position and, though he learns quickly and had a fine exhibition season, the Bills are skeptical. They are talking about going to the home run again, and this time there is nothing to fall back on. The runners are just not there. They will have to throw the ball more.
Flanker Dubenion and Split End Bass are completely recovered and can do the catching. Both have good moves and can break open any game with their speed. Tight End Paul Costa—at 6 feet 5, 256 pounds the biggest receiver in football—played well after being called up from the taxi squad in midseason, and a promising rookie, All-America Bobby Crockett of Arkansas, may be less than a year away.
At quarterback, Jack Kemp has always had the arm. Now he has become sound at play-selection—and is one of the best at calling audibles. He also has learned to stay in the pocket. Kemp has guided the team to two titles, is the league MVP and has the utmost confidence of his teammates. Daryle Lamonica, who used to come in and pitch the team out of trouble when Kemp had his erratic stretches, has just concluded his finest training camp and is ready again in the bullpen.
The Bills do a lot of thinking about the NFL-AFL merger and the "supergame" in January that should bring the leagues together for the first time. "We have always won on desire and pride," says Kemp. "It will be the same this year. Besides the money factor, which is substantial, that game is going to make history. Everybody will remember it for a long time. It would be the supreme thrill to play in it."
Houston, among others, will have something to say about that, but the Bills could make it on their defense, kicking game and the fine passing that would come with good years from Kemp and Lamonica. Mr. Lusteg has kicked his way onto quite a team.