The Buffalo Bills sit high atop the NFL. They were 4-0 after Sunday's surprisingly easy 24-7 victory over the Oakland Raiders, and only Detroit and San Diego could match that record. Yes, these are the same Bills who generated about as much preseason excitement as the new rule regarding injury time-outs in the last two minutes.
Buffalo's right guard, Conrad Dobler, and his matching set of arthritic knees were run out of New Orleans as a medical disaster. The Bills' right linebacker, Isiah Robertson, was run out of L.A. on grounds of instability. Their quarterback, Joe Ferguson, spent the first half of his eight-year NFL career handing the ball off to O.J. Simpson. And their coach, Chuck Knox, spent five years with the Rams, cranking out playoff teams. Let him go, the diehards said. His offense shows as much imagination as a Woody Hayes team operating in a blizzard.
How could anyone get excited about these Bills? Granted, they were inching their way toward respectability in 1979, but still they were the worst team in the NFL at running the ball. And their defense was the fifth worst at stopping the rush. Besides, when the bell sounded four weeks ago, the offense was stripped of Buffalo's only active Pro Bowl player. Guard Joe DeLamielleure, who was traded to Cleveland, and the defense was going with exactly the same group that bombed out in '79.
Now it's 4 p.m. on Sept. 28, 1980, and the fans are blowing horns and tipping up that last can of beer in the parking lot at Rich Stadium, because their Bills have just shut down the Raiders, the No. 1 offensive team in the AFC. No one in the parking lot could quite figure out why the Bills are transformed, but they are. They're suddenly doing it the hard way, with tough defense, with ball control, with third-down conversions.
Buffalo has held three of its four opponents to less than 100 yards rushing. Oakland, coming off a 227-yard running game against Washington, could get only 70 against the Bills. "It's just a matter of a lot of young guys maturing, of a unit learning to play together," says Fred Smerlas, the 23-year-old nose tackle.
No, no, that's coaching talk. Party line. A stiff last year is a stiff this year. You don't just wave a magic wand.
"Listen," Smerlas says. "This year I've learned some moves, some fakes. Last year I just wanted to stand there and wrestle with the center, to club him—like this."
He waves a massive club that is disguised to look like a right arm. Smerlas is an imposing specimen, 270 pounds, thick through the chest, menacing behind a black mustache. "In a year you pick up some moves," he says. "I've learned to swim, to come in with the arm-over. Against [Oakland Center] Dave Dalby today, I was faking the head-butt to freeze him and then I'd swim—you know, swing the arm over to get by him, then take on the guard waiting for me."
The 3-4 defense begins with the nose tackle, and Smerlas is one of the NFL's most underrated and most unusual. He is one of the few, maybe the only one, who plays the whole way without relief. "I'm used to it," he says. "I was 270 coming out of high school. When I was 19 I got up to 305, just lifting weights and eating. At Boston College I played on a defense that was on the field 85 plays a game. One game, against Pitt, we faced 67 plays in the first half. At halftime they packed me in ice and kept pouring water into me. I'd lost 25 pounds. Then I went out and played the second half. I can play dizzy, too. It doesn't bother me."
The 3-4 may begin with the nose tackle, but it must stay solid all the way through the middle. When Tom Cousineau, Buffalo's and the league's No. 1 pick last year, defected to Canada, the Bills had to come up with another middle linebacker in a hurry. They found one in Jim Haslett, a wild man out of Indiana (Pa.) University. They already had a solid guy to play the other middle linebacker spot, Shane Nelson. Haslett had to be their sticker, but until this year his only brush with fame had come in the final game of 1979 when he stepped on Terry Bradshaw's head.
"The worst part of that was that I'm from Pittsburgh, and in the off-season it was all I heard," Haslett says. "My kid brother would get heat about it in school. I guess I was kind of wild last year. There would come a point in the game where I'd say, The hell with it. The hell with all this reading. I'm just going to chase the ball.' I started doing that this year, too, but you know, that's where they did a smart thing in bringing in Phil Villa-piano from Oakland. He took me aside one day in practice and started showing me things, like how to keep the guards off me. I was trying to hand-fight. He showed me how to use the rip instead, to rip 'em through the head to get rid of them in a hurry."
Villapiano doesn't start for Buffalo, and there had been some concern that the Bills gave up too much for him in Wide Receiver Bobby Chandler, who's a regular for the Raiders. But on Sunday the Bills awarded Villapiano a game ball for his help in preparing them for his former teammates.
The Buffalo defense doesn't dazzle you with names, but something has clicked. Last year's stiffs have learned to play. For instance, the left end, Ben Williams, had one sack last year; now he has a team-leading 5½, after Sunday's 2½-sack game against Dan Pastorini.
The Bills' free safety is a tall, rangy guy named Jeff Nixon, whose main claim to fame had been an ancestor, not his accomplishments on the field. He's a direct descendent of Johann Sebastian Bach, and he takes a serious approach to the guitar. But right now his five interceptions, including a dive for a deep one against Pastorini, lead the NFL.
O.K., the season is only one-fourth over. This Sunday the Bills are in San Diego, and the whole equation could get upset. And before we get carried away, let's look at one statistic of significance. No defense in the NFL has been on the field for fewer plays this year than Buffalo's, which does say something for the Bills' ability to control the ball. Knox says the Bills have had possession of the ball for an average of nine minutes more per game than the opposition; on Sunday they held it for 41:07, leaving Oakland with only 18:53. "We ought to get half the defense's paychecks today," Dobler said.
The Bills controlled the ball for almost nine minutes the first time they had it and almost nine minutes the last time, and when things got sticky they fed it to a 5'11", 190-pound workhorse named Joe Cribbs (30 carries, 90 yards). If his legs hold out, Cribbs will be a strong candidate for runner-up to Billy Sims as Rookie of the Year. The Bills have been converting third-down plays at a rate of better than 60%, and when they load up on third-and-one, they've been getting the yardage with two and three to spare. This leads one to believe that Knox is following the same conservative approach that put everyone to sleep in L.A., but it's not exactly true. There's a bit of the trickster in Knox, and this year it has surfaced.
Against Miami he opened the game with a bloop onside kick and threw a pass out of punt formation. He burned the Jets with an end-around on fourth-and-one. He opened the New Orleans game with a bomb. He picked up three first downs against the Raiders by slipping the ball to Roland Hooks on a draw play out of the shotgun. And he put the Oakland game away in the fourth quarter with a bit of razzle-dazzle called Fake 35 Reverse Pass, which gave the full treatment to Left Linebacker Ted Hendricks. Fake a running play at him, fake a reverse the other way, pass the ball to Cribbs. And while Hendricks was going into his backstroke, Cribbs was walking in for a 21-yard touchdown.
"Chuck brought stability to this organization," Ferguson says. "Jim Ringo was a good coach, but the authority had been taken out of his hands. He didn't have the say on trades. The drafts hadn't been good. Chuck came in and took over the whole show."
"The first place you have to start is in the scouting department," says Knox, who came to the Bills in 1978. "I got us out of the BLESTO combine and into a group with Dallas, Seattle and San Francisco. I brought in Norm Pollom to run our operation. He'd been responsible for getting a lot of those good defensive players for the Rams. In Buffalo they had been letting the BLESTO scouts do their drafting for them.
"This year I brought in some veterans I thought would give us stability, guys like Dobler and Ron Jessie and Villapiano who'd been with winners. The right kind of people can help you in ways that don't show up right away."
"They've started calling me an inspiration," says Dobler. "That's quite a transition, isn't it, from the meanest man in football to a medical wreck to an inspiration? Someday I'd just like to be known as a football player."
The Buffalo fans, who haven't had a playoff season since '74, have shown their appreciation in tangible ways. Last week 80,020-seat Rich Stadium was SRO by Tuesday, giving Buffalo its first home telecast since 1975. The Bills sold only 21,300 season tickets. The people in Buffalo are show-me fans. They don't commit big dollars in advance.
When the Bills opened the season by beating Miami for the first time in 11 years, the Buffalo fans tore up chunks of the AstroTurf, inflicting $8,000 worth of damage. They also ripped up the aluminum goalposts and tried to plant one of them in the private box of owner Ralph Wilson. "I'm going to have a section of the goalpost put in the box with the date and score inscribed on it," Wilson said. "This is the biggest win we've had here in 20 years."
Gently, gently, Ralph, there's a long season ahead.