The haze was turning to darkness over Buffalo Sunday, the big electric scoreboard in Rich Stadium read Bills 31, Jets 0, the loudspeaker was blaring a song called We're Talking Proud—every NFL team seems to have an anthem these days—and the fans were yelling, "We want the Bills!"
Oh yes, they yelled that in the old days, too, "We want the Bills"—for false representation, for alienation of affections—but now the fans wanted the players to come out and take a curtain call, as the Bills did last year when they beat the Rams in overtime, when 270-pound Middle Guard Freddie Smerlas and the boys returned to the field and high-kicked with the Buffalo Jills.
The fans got only the cheerleaders this time. Smerlas, the focal point of the infamous Bermuda Triangle (along with inside linebackers Jim Haslett and Shane Nelson), stayed in the locker room, where he was waving a small piece of paper. "This is why we aren't out there!" he growled, his dark eyes flashing, his handlebar mustache bristling. "Seventy percent of my paycheck. That's what was deducted. I broke out in a cold sweat when I looked at this."
"Where do we play next week, out of town?" Haslett said. "Thank God. At least we don't have to pay the New York State tax."
September 13, 1981
"Don't forget, we have to play the Jets at Shea in October," Nelson said. "That's New York State, too."
"Maybe we could move the team to Tampa or Miami," Haslett said.
Signs of the times. The Bermuda Triangle is now made up of 70-percenters. Each of the trio had his contract upgraded this year, Haslett not without considerable anguish and the threat of NLRB arbitration. That's what happens when you move into the six-figure bracket, fellas, when your achievements are recognized and those low, low wages become semi-respectable salaries by NFL standards. And if the Buffalo defense keeps playing the way it did against the Jets, there's no telling where the payoffs will end. With playoff money for the feds and the state to cut up? With a Super Bowl check to be drawn and quartered? Ah, it's hell being on top.
The Bills, you see, turned in the most impressive performance of Week 1 of the 1981 NFL season, and when the game was finished, when those many hands reached out to pat Coach Chuck Knox on the back in the locker room, he winced slightly and tried to remind everyone within earshot that the season is only one-sixteenth over.
Last year Buffalo's defense shocked the NFL, rising from the depths to become No. 1 in the league. Now it's no longer shocking, but there was still some mild surprise at what the Bills did to the Jets, the Boys of Summer, the darlings of the exhibition season. In running up a 3-1 preseason record, their best in six years, the Jets had turned the ball over only once in the four games. Quarterback Richard Todd had thrown 77 passes without an interception. Their ground attack had produced almost 170 yards a game, and their defense, nicknamed the Swarm, had held opponents to an average of fewer than 14 points a game.
Students of history pointed out that the smoke of August can quickly blow away once the weather turns nippy, that when the Jets had a 4-1 preseason record in '75, they also opened the regular season in Rich Stadium and got blown away by the Bills, 42-14, on the way to a 3-11 season.
But, gosh, 1981 looked so promising—a million-dollar rookie named Freeman McNeil to run the ball, and a new Todd working under a new offensive coordinator, Joe Walton, and the breathtakingly fast wide receiver tandem of Lam Jones and Wesley Walker. Where did it all go Sunday?
With 1:35 left in the first half the Jets were trailing 10-0, and their last four offensive series had been three downs and punt. Todd had thrown two passes, completed zero. Net passing yards, minus nine on one sack. Net everything yards, 41. McNeil had carried the ball once for one yard.
At this point the Jets gave up trying to establish a running game and Todd opened up. An interception by Buffalo Cornerback Charlie Romes ended that venture. Another one by the Bills' other cornerback, Mario Clark, cut off the Jets' first drive of the second half, and when Clark ran it back 45 yards to the Jets' 17, the rout was on.
The Jet defense had played pretty well in the first half, but now it cracked. Three Buffalo possessions in the third quarter, three TDs, and it was time to give the reserves a chance to earn their varsity letters. Buffalo Quarterback Joe Ferguson fired rockets all over the place. Nineteen yards to Wide Receiver Jerry Butler for the Bills' second touchdown, 31 yards to the other wide receiver, Frank Lewis, 46 more to Butler, who had a terrific day with six catches for 123 yards. The Jets were blowing coverages, coming over a step late, slipping on the artificial turf, which had been soaked by rain the previous day.
The Jets never got past midfield in the third quarter. The final yardage totals showed them 418-231 short enders. Their leading rusher was Todd with 32 yards. McNeil, caught in-the middle of a seven running-back shuffle, carried three times for 16 yards. No Jet runner carried more than four times. Lam Jones, the $1.6 million rookie of 1980, had three passes thrown to him. Zero receptions, one interception.
Are the Bills really that good? Did they crush a genuine contender, or are the Jets merely a rerun of last year's 4-12?
"We're not awesome; we won't overpower people with our personnel," Knox said afterward. "But we're tenacious. We play the same tough brand of football we played last year. We don't have great depth. Injuries can hurt us. But we're a hungry team, and when we play our game, we can be very nasty."
He paused for a moment. The Bills aren't a young team. Twenty of them have five or more years of NFL experience. Twelve of them are 30 or over. Knox has gradually brought in a group of oldtimers, including some rejects and four of his former Rams, to give his clubhouse a well-worn look. He has stuck with people who once were deemed uncoachable.
"Once, when I was on Weeb Ewbank's Jet staff in the early '60s," Knox says, "we were talking about one player who was a real coach's headache, and Weeb said something I'll never forget. He said, 'I have a feeling you just can't coach him, but if you want to be in the trained-seal business, go get a job in the zoo. Throw 'em a kipper and they'll clap their hands for you.' "
The soundness of Knox's ideas was reflected in the Bills' approach last year—a rather old-world mix of ball control and tough defense. But last Sunday the Bills showed a new dimension, which could lift them above the level of contender and into an early front-running Super Bowl position. They showed they could open up when they had to. They threw deep and they threw often. Ferguson completed 15 of 24 passes for two TDs and 254 yards, all the yardage coming in three quarters, and he says this might be a trend.
"Chuck made a comment this week that made me happy," he said after the win. "He told us we had to be more wide open, we had to throw the ball more. It surprised me. It was exciting. I think the Jets were expecting a more conservative approach, and when I opened up, it kind of confused them."
Ferguson was a low-key quarterback last season, very sound, very meticulous, but 18 NFL passers threw for more yardage than he did. Sure, it was Buffalo's superb defensive effort against the Jets that set up the carnage that followed, but when given the chance, the Bills showed the kind of quick striking power that was absent in 1980.
"They were biting on a lot of our play fakes, which left us open," said Halfback Joe Cribbs, who caught Ferguson's first touchdown pass, a 28-yarder. "I think you're going to see an explosive type of offense this year. I think we're going to score a lot of points."
Cribbs, who handled the ball more than any NFL back in 1980—running, catching and returning kicks—gets the ultimate mileage out of his 5'11", 190-pound body. Against the Jets he carried 15 times for 61 yards, a rather understated day for him. But he had plenty to say about the Jets' seven-back rotation.
"I wouldn't want to play in a system like that," he said. "If you've got a good back, you've got to work him. McNeil, for instance, is supposed to be a super ballcarrier, but I guess they must feel they've got other people who can do a job, too."
"It's no good," Smerlas said. "You come out of the game, you cool off. They were yanking guys in and out so fast that no one got the feel of anything. Sometimes even when you're tired, you get a feel of things in there."
In the Buffalo coaches' room Tom Catlin, the 50-year-old defensive coordinator, was buttoning his shirt and quietly accepting congratulations. He's in his 22nd year of coaching various phases of defense, and in those two decades-plus he has seen a lot of flashy offenses go down the drain. "He's a genius," said Right Linebacker Isiah Robertson, who was with Catlin for seven years in Los Angeles. "The reads he gave us today were right on the money. Perfect."
"I'm kind of glad the Jets went conservative early," Catlin said. "I thought they'd be going long earlier."
But what was the scheme, the brain-work behind this Opening Day shutout? Catlin smiled. The Bills have to play the Jets again in six weeks.
"We were just laying back playing a zone defense," he said.
But Lam Jones, Freeman McNeil—how did the Bills shut out $3 million worth of talent like that?
"I couldn't even tell you when Jones and McNeil were in there," Catlin said. "I couldn't keep up with that. People kept going in and out so fast you'd go crazy trying to follow it. We just played our normal scheme.
"You know, I'm kind of surprised the score showed 31-0. I'll remember this game as a dogfight."
But on Sunday it turned out that only one of the dogs had teeth.