O.J. Simpson was unresponsive last week to the basic needs of America's pro football cult. Just when it appeared that popular demand would result in Canton, Ohio being assigned to him as a permanent summer home, or at the very least in his being named to the Supreme Court, Simpson had this deplorable afternoon in Buffalo, the city of his labors. He gained only 138 yards rushing. It was as if the supreme French chef had served the pot-au without the feu. As if Givenchy had shown only bathrobes and sailor hats. As if John Steinbeck had written Travels With My Gerbil. Sure, the Bills had crumbled the Denver Broncos as easily as they had mangled the Jets and the Steelers in their previous two games, but O.J. had not galloped for his customary 4,000 miles. In the aftermath a rumor circulated that Reggie McKenzie had wept.
On the other hand, think of it this way: O.J. has gained 538 yards in only three games, and 35 years ago—is 1940 that long ago?—a sidestepping judge named Whizzer White led the NFL in rushing for a season with 514 yards. Or consider that O.J.'s 538 yards is the best beginning ever for a pro running back, including all of those years Jim Brown trotted up and down the spines of cornerbacks and safeties.
Or better still, get out your pocket calculator and multiply Simpson's per game average of 179.3 yards by 14, the number of games in a season. If your Bowmar Brain doesn't blow a transistor, you'll find out that O.J. is headed for exactly 2,511 yards rushing in 1975. That is five playing fields more than he gained two seasons ago when he set the record and became the sport's first 2,000-yard runner.
But enough of this new math. O.J. Simpson lives. He is the light, the spirit, the guru of all running backs. He became that as a collegian at USC, when he was merely brilliant enough in only two seasons to make everybody's alltime, 100-year team. And now, after a slow start in Buffalo that was largely attributable to the coaching genius of such pillars of the profession as John Rauch and Harvey Johnson, who thought in terms like "Hey, gang, I've got an idea; let's use him as a decoy," O. J. has immortalized himself as a pro.
As anyone who ever saw him at USC knew, Simpson was destined to become the best there ever was, if he could stay healthy and if he was given the opportunity to carry the ball behind a group of linemen who could block as well as Donald Duck's nephews. He missed that opportunity in his first three seasons in Buffalo under the marvelous tutelage of first Rauch and then Johnson. Although O.J. always said, "The more I carry the ball, the better I get," in no season from 1969 through 1971 was he called on often enough that he was able to gain as many as 750 yards. It was not until Lou Saban returned to Buffalo as the head coach that O.J. was unloosed.
Simpson says, "A running back is one of the few players on a team who can step right in as a rookie and from the start play his position as well as he'll ever be able to play it. Frankly, I think my best years have been wasted. When I came to the pros I was 22 years old, I could run the 100 in 9.4 and I was at my best athletically."
But it may be that Rauch and Johnson did O.J. a favor. They could have worn him down by running him behind Buffalo's old offensive line. It could not compare with the Bills' current bunch of blockers—The Electric Company. Turns on The Juice. Get it? Welcome to headline-writers' heaven.
As John Brodie, the ex-49er who is now a quarterback for NBC-TV, says, "The only time an offensive lineman ever gets his name mentioned is when he's caught holding." Simpson long has been on a campaign to change all that. He always gives lavish credit to his blockers, invariably referring to himself and his exploits in the first-person plural. In short, O. J. is the first one to acknowledge that at least part of what he has become is the result of the work of these great Americans:
•Mike Montler. He is the center. He snaps the ball to Quarterback Joe Ferguson, who then hands it to O. J. If Montler refuses to snap the ball, there is no play. He is 6'4", 245 pounds and he played at Colorado. New England thought Montler was too slow to be a tackle. He is. The Bills took him on two years ago because they thought he could play center. He can. He's a strong drive blocker, which is as essential to the well-being of a good ballcarrier as a deodorant endorsement.
•Reggie McKenzie. He is the left guard. That means he pulls a lot to lead O.J. around the right side of the line. McKenzie is 6'4", 244 and he played at Michigan. He might have been slightly overrated among left guards in the past because his close friendship with O.J. had gotten him considerable publicity. But this year he may no longer be overrated because he is an improved pass blocker, which makes him a better friend of Joe Ferguson's. If it does a runner good to have a high-spirited cheerleader on the squad, O.J. certainly has one in McKenzie.
•Joe DeLamielleure. He is the right guard and he pronounces it dah-lom-a-leer. Undoubtedly, DeLamielleure has one of the most frequently misspelled names in professional football, but there may be no better guard in the business. He is 6'3" and 248 pounds, he played for Michigan State and he is strong, tenacious and tough. He also is the best offensive lineman the Bills have ever had. In Buffalo's season opener DeLamielleure outplayed the Jets' Carl Barzilauskas, who has been compared to Dracula. The next week he outplayed the Steelers' Mean Joe Greene, who is Dracula. And last Sunday he knocked over so many Broncos in the Bills' 38-14 victory that Fullback Jim Braxton got to pick up 102 of Simpson's yards.
•Dave Foley. If you hang around a bar in Buffalo, somebody will tell you that Dave Foley has "slow feet" and that he was considered "the weak spot" in the Bills' line until this year. Foley is the left tackle, he comes from Ohio State where he used to get hollered at by Woody Hayes, and he is 6'3" and 247. That is a few pounds lighter than he used to be, and the loss has speeded up his feet. Saban says Foley is "playing the best football of his career."
•Donnie Green. Green distinguished himself by putting a whole bunch of good fire-out blocks on Pittsburgh Defensive End L.C. Greenwood a couple of weeks ago. At 6'7" and 252 pounds, Green is almost big enough to be the right tackle for two teams. He played his college ball for Purdue.
•Paul Seymour. Seymour is the tight end, and at 6'5", 243 he is one of the largest of his species. In fact, he is so big that the same guy in the Buffalo bar will tell you Seymour, who went to Michigan, gives the Bills a "third tackle." Few people would care to argue whether Seymour is the best run-blocking tight end in the game. He is.
These are the guys who have been clearing the way for Simpson. Their alma maters—Colorado, Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan State—give them what the scouts call "good breeding." And they played like thoroughbreds as Buffalo destroyed its first three opponents and, in the process, took on the aura of a serious Super Bowl contender, if such a thing exists this early in the season.
Calmer minds might be tempted to suggest that Buffalo met the Jets before Joe Namath had unlimbered his passing arm, that the Bills caught the defending champion Steelers dozing and that Denver last week was without the services of Otis Armstrong, the mile-high version of O.J. who was last season's NFL rushing leader. Such notions can only be measured against the laughable ease with which Buffalo won its first three games. With Simpson tearing up so much ground and the Bills looking better balanced and more mature than ever, Buffalo still would have won those games had their victims been at their peaks.
Why? That's easy. Two years ago when Simpson raced for his record 2,003 yards, Buffalo was simply not a good team. Last season, when Buffalo made the playoffs and was a moderately good team, Simpson was never really healthy. He gained more than 1,000 yards, but he did it almost as if he were in a wheelchair.
"I sprained my ankle in the opener against Oakland and I tried to come back too soon," O.J. says. "We had the Dolphins the second game. I hurt both knees against them. After that, to keep from getting hit from the side—which would have been really bad on my ankle and knees—I would come through the line and try to turn around and face most tacklers head on."
For a runner who combines the power, speed and cutting ability of Simpson (and he combines them better than anyone ever has), this was the equivalent of a concert pianist being forced to play while wearing ski mittens.
"Eighty percent of our running plays don't end up going through the hole they're designed for because of things the defense does," O.J. says. "Last year I really couldn't take it wherever it looked good like I can now."
Now Simpson says he can tell McKenzie in the huddle, "Come outside with me and take the linebacker with you. I'll cut up inside and meet you downfield." Presumably, this is all right with Ferguson. And McKenzie undoubtedly replies with something on the order of, "Fine, I'll meet you between their 40- and 45-yard lines around 2:37 p.m. I'd rather you not be late."
This loose, I'll-meet-you-in-their-secondary play calling is a manifestation of the trait that perhaps has done more than anything else to make O.J. what he is. It is his mysterious and instinctive ability to create things. Other runners have had it, Jim Brown especially and Gale Sayers and Hugh McElhenney, who was never as celebrated as he deserved to be. But none had O.J.'s talent to create, plus the speed that allows him at age 28 to run the 100 in 9.7 and the power that comes from a physique which, when he is disrobed in the locker room, makes him look—from the waist up—almost as big as McKenzie.
What he created against Denver seemed so easy. Each time he carried the ball it looked as if he just might squirt away on one of those 88-yarders, like the run he strapped on Pittsburgh two weeks ago. And he gave that impression even when his rushes lasted only a few steps. But short gains for O.J. were few. On all but one of his first 12 carries he picked up at least four yards. He would hit the hole, dart, cut, twist and slash for four, then eight, then five, then eight, then 10 or 12. Once in the third quarter he got away for 22 big ones. And later in the same period he gave it one of these and one of those and was outside and away for 16 yards and a touchdown.
Simpson was so effective, and Denver was so conscious of his whereabouts, that when Braxton got the ball the big fullback's major concerns were avoiding his own blockers and trying not to appear too startled by the distances separating him from the nearest defenders. Although Braxton runs hard and is fully capable of butting an opponent over backward, O.J. was in a sense responsible for many of the yards Braxton gained. To claim it works both ways is to say that Buffalo's foes are unaware of Braxton's old hobby, fumbling. Maybe he's given it up. So far the Bills have turned the ball over just twice in three games; meanwhile, the Buffalo defense has forced a total of 14 turnovers. Thus Buffalo has the football. And thus it can be given to O.J.
During his first three games O.J. has averaged 29 carries, more than twice as many as he averaged when he was a "better athlete" in those early days at Buffalo. He is also gaining more than twice as many yards as he did in his early seasons. And the Bills are at least four-times-better a team. Whether his early years were wasted or not, he is today, as he always has been, the only runner football has produced who could make a performance like last Sunday's seem routine.