After the longest delay of game—eight weeks—in pro football history, the NFL returned to action last Sunday. The bitterness of the strike was forgotten—temporarily, at least—as attention shifted from percentage of the gross to percentage of completions, from defections to deflections, from payoffs to playoffs. Would the players be ready for 60 minutes of hitting after only four days of practice? What about injuries? What about game plans? What about the fans' plans?
Around the league the answers varied. In St. Louis the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers reopened the shortened season facing hasty elimination from the new 16-team playoffs. They had lost their first two games in September, and a third straight defeat would mean they could practically kiss the postseason goodby. But the Niners profited by their long layoff, showing midseason form as they beat the Cardinals 31-20. The Washington Redskins and the Green Bay Packers, both 2-0 back in September, remained undefeated by winning convincingly over the Giants (27-17) and the Vikings (26-7), respectively. Surprisingly, it was the only matchup of unbeaten teams, Miami vs. Buffalo, that produced what most observers had expected for the league as a whole: a sloppy exhibition lacking everything, including points.
In Buffalo the fans turned their backs on pro football's return. A crowd of only 52,945 showed up in 80,020-seat Rich Stadium to watch the Dolphins outdismal the Bills 9-7 under gloomy, drizzly skies, and you had to go back three years, through 19 home games, to find a punier turnout in Buffalo.
So much for the prediction that the fans, starved for the NFL's brand of entertainment, would come flocking back. So much for letting bygones be bygones. Buffalo is not Tinseltown. There are never any LUV YA BLUE huts in the stands. Skydivers don't alight on the 50-yard line at halftime. Bills fans are show-me people. The team sells only 30,000 season tickets; the rest of the 80,020 go on a let's-see-what-ya-got-for-us basis.
The people of Buffalo clearly didn't expect much from Week 1 of the post-strike season, and they didn't get much:
One touchdown, which came from a fumble.
The lowest scoring game of the 13 played on Sunday.
Nine turnovers, including seven by the home team.
Nine dropped passes and a completion percentage of 41.4 for both teams.
The fans booed Buffalo Halfback Joe Cribbs when he entered the game after five plays. Cribbs had been a holdout; he'd rejoined the team on Friday, and two days of practice were all he'd had since January. But they cheered when he darted for seven yards on his first play, and they kept cheering him because Little Joe had come back in shape. It soon became obvious, too, that Cribbs was one of the few things the Bills had going for them. He carried the ball 21 times for 74 yards—"About twice the work I expected they'd give him," Buffalo Quarterback Joe Ferguson said—and threw one pass that turned out to be the most significant Bills play of the day.
It came in the third quarter, with Buffalo leading 7-6 and looking very much as if it were going in for the touchdown that would put the decision away. Don't laugh. An eight-point lead in this game would have looked huge. The Bills had a first down at Miami's 11. They'd moved well on the ground. Their offensive line was getting off the ball smartly, and Cribbs was following his blockers and getting a lot on his own, too. There was nothing wrong with his timing.
"I felt all day we could run on them," said Right Guard Jon Borchardt, the best of the Buffalo linemen against Miami. "Hell, every time we ran a trap play we picked up eight or nine yards."
Instead, the Bills tried a gimmick play, a halfback option pass, Cribbs sweeping right and throwing to Fullback Roosevelt Leaks. Two men were in Cribbs' face when he let the ball go. It was a shotput, a slow-motion pass—"Let's face it, I am not a quarterback," he said later—and Miami Linebacker A.J. Duhe grabbed the interception in the end zone.
"It was a last-minute thing," Duhe said. "I just had to get on my horse when I saw the ball in the air."
It was the fifth Buffalo turnover of the day, but the curtain didn't come all the way down for the Bills until the fourth quarter, when they tried another gimmick. This was on a flanker reverse, with rookie Robert Holt carrying the ball, which he fumbled. Mike Kozlowski, Miami's nickel back, recovered and ran it 30 yards, down to the Buffalo 12, and the question was: Would the Dolphins screw up the chance for a go-ahead field goal or not? Their offense held, and Uwe von Schamann's 21-yard kick gave Miami its two-point victory.
Ferguson had already thrown four interceptions, but he still had one more left in him—and that was it for the Bills.
"Any consolation from this game?" someone asked Ferguson afterward.
"Yeah," he said, "we scored a TD." Actually, he scored it himself, scooping up a Cribbs fumble and running it in from the seven.
"I feel bad for the interceptions, bad for our defense, as well as they played," Ferguson said. "Some were bad throws, some came from missed timing. The rain was a factor in the second half. Maybe Miami was in a little better condition than we were. They worked out hard every day during the strike. It was tough to keep people in Buffalo. But conditioning wasn't a factor. We outplayed them. We just gave the game away."
"How long before this team gets back to normal?" he was asked.
"A week, maybe two, I don't know," he said. "The Miami game is always a big one for us, but this time, well, the intensity just wasn't there during the week. I'm not talking about today. There was plenty of hitting out there. But even myself, I just wasn't up for Miami the way I usually am. I found myself thinking about whether the players would ratify the contract instead of thinking about Miami."
The caliber of play was deep freeze. Both offenses played it close to the vest, running the ball decently at times, throwing mostly safe, short passes and completing few of them. There were only two sacks in the game, one on each side.
"We didn't get to the quarterback because they were throwing one-and two-second patterns," said Buffalo Middle Guard Fred Smerlas. "As soon as they got the ball, whoosh, it was gone."
A two-time Pro Bowler, Smerlas had no tackles and no assists, which he blamed on a lack of timing, not fatigue. "I'd be thinking through a move rather than doing it," he said, "thinking instead of reacting, getting myself in bad position and getting blocked."
Miami Coach Don Shula said he saw some "great defense out there." He said he replaced Quarterback David Woodley with Don Strock at halftime because Strock had more experience, would handle the lousy weather and the overall strangeness of the game better. He said it was a "big win for us" and "puts us in great shape because all three wins were in the conference." He said all this with a straight face, and because he is Don Shula no one burst out laughing. All the victory meant was that the Dolphins are a cinch to reach the playoffs. And all the loss meant was that the Bills probably have to win three of their next—and last—six games to qualify themselves.
"It's like the NHL," said Buffalo Guard Reggie McKenzie. "If you can't make the playoffs in this setup, you have a major rebuilding job ahead of you. You have to evaluate your entire program."
It was a game to get through with as few injuries as possible. On Saturday Buffalo Coach Chuck Knox was asked if it might make sense to rest the varsity for a quarter or so. "I'll be watching for signs of fatigue very closely," he said. "If anyone shows them, I'll get him out of there." What he didn't say was that the Bills are in the business of selling tickets on a game-to-game basis, and what's good for the health of the squad might not be good for the box office.
While Shula kept rotating his backs and receivers, Knox stuck more with his regulars. The sad result was that he lost his two starting wide receivers to injuries as a result of the herky-jerk nature of the offense. Jerry Butler pulled a thigh muscle in the third quarter, stretching for an overthrown pass, and Frank Lewis sprained a knee on the slippery turf when he tried to come back for an under-thrown one in the final period. The Bills' injury roster also listed Defensive End Ken Johnson (sprained knee) and Inside Linebacker Jim Haslett (pulled hamstring), while the Dolphins lost their left defensive end, Doug Betters, with a broken thumb. It was a normal quota of casualties for an NFL game.
Haslett was one of the few players on either team who would admit he was tired—that's right, tired—from being out of football eight weeks and in it for only five days, including one game. The rest of the locker room quotes were like something out of The Manchurian Candidate, everyone saying the same thing the same way: "Tired? Why no, I didn't feel tired." But Haslett broke the streak. "Let's face it," he said. "I'm beat."
So were the Bills. And the fans.