1961 Buffalo Bills – Finding Their Way
by Bill Choinski
The AFL went under some changes in their second season. League runner up Los Angeles moved 100 miles south to become the San Diego Chargers. The NFL clobbered the AFL in average attendance, especially in the dual market cities of Dallas and New York. Competition for the fan dollar is what prompted the Charger move. The NFL also regained the edge in signing the top collegians. The high scoring Oilers and Chargers met again in the championship game, with the same result- a Houston title.
With 4 of the first 5 picks in the 1961 Draft, the Buffalo Bills drafted the cornerstones of their offensive line for the next decade. Ken Rice (1st rd) , Future Pro Football HOF inductee Billy Shaw (2nd rd), and Stew Barber (4th Rd) all won starting jobs. Al Bemiller was found in the 7th. San Diego castoff WR Glenn Bass joined the club and gave a speedy compliment to Elbert Dubenion at the wide out position. Rookie FB Art Baker (3rd Rd) complimented Wray Carlton in the backfield and provided a pounding power running game.
The missing component was the quarterback. The 4 QB rotation from year 1 spilled over into the 1961 season. Holdovers Johnny Green, Richie Lucas, and Tom O’Connell were ineffective. Added to the mix were NFL castoffs Warren Raab (Lions) and M.C. Reynolds (Redskins) and they weren’t much better. Reynolds eventually won the job by default.
Working against the Bills was the AFL schedule. The Bills had the advantage of playing 7 of their first 9 games in Buffalo at “The Rockpile”. Had this been a veteran club, the Bills could have seized early season momentum for a possible playoff push. But with the youngest roster in the league (Their oldest player was O’Connell at age 29) the early home field advantage was wasted. The Bills were only 3-6 after playing their last home game of the season on November 5th.
One week before the Bills embarked on their long road trip, Ralph Wilson hired a new director of player personnel, recently fired head coach of the Boston Patriots, Lou Saban. Ramsey’s struggles early on with the extended home stand left him in shaky standing with Wilson. He had his coach in waiting if the team did not dramatically improve.
The rookies began to gel on the long 5 game road trip to wind up the season. Victories in Dallas, Denver, and Oakland gave the Bills a 3-2 record to close out the season, but it was not enough to save Buster Ramsey’s job. After an 11-16-1 record, Ramsey was not brought back. Lou Saban was elevated to head coach at the end of the season. It began one of the stormiest marriages in football- rivaling that of Hollywood’s Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.
Rookie Glenn Bass led the team in receptions (50) and reception yards (765).WR “Golden Wheels” Dubenion led the team in scoring with 48 points off 8 TDs. Rookie Art Baker led the ground attack with 498 rushing yards followed by Carlton and his 311 yards. Reynolds led the QB carousel with 1,004 yards, 2 TDs, and 13 INTs. Sophomore Johnny Green followed up with 904 yards 6 TDs and 5 INTs.
Defense again was the strong suite of the club. Rookie T Stew Barber was switched to linebacker and won a starting spot, contributing 3 interceptions with one returned for a score. Billy Atkins led the team and the league in interceptions with 10, and was also the team placekicker and punter. His 44.5 yard punting average led the league as well. The Bills finished at 6-8, one half game better than the previous season. It was not good enough to get them out of the AFL East basement, where they finished 4th. They finished tied for 5th out of 8 teams in the league.
The Bills sent 5 players to the inagural AFL All-Star game in 1961. On offense, the Bills sent both their tackles, Harold Olson and rookie Ken Rice. On Defense, DB/P Billy Atkins, LB Archie Mastos, and DT Chuck McMurtry made the trip to San Diego.