1963 Buffalo Bills – Knocking on the Door
by Bill Choinski
The AFL continued to solidify itself as a viable and competitive league. Lamar Hunt moved his 1962 AFL champion Dallas Texans away from direct NFL competition with the Dallas Cowboys. He settled them in Kansas City and renamed the club “Chiefs”. The New York Titans were sold to Sonny Werblin and they also adopted a name change to “Jets”. In Oakland, the AFL welcomed a new coach in Al Davis. Davis would, as coach and future owner and manager, quickly transform the Raiders from laughing stocks into one of the most successful sports franchises over the next 3 decades.
In Buffalo, the Bills found more cornerstone talent in the draft. Defensive end Jim Dunaway was selected in the 2nd round, and future All-AFL safety George Saimes was grabbed in the 6th round. Late round gems included DB Gene Sykes in the 19th round and QB Daryle Lamonica in the 24th rd. Lamonica’s team mate from Notre Dame, RB Ed Rutkowski, also was signed by the club as an undrafted free agent, along with rookie WR Billy Miller. Veteran LB John Tracey was brought in to stiffen the backbone of the defense.
In the previous 3 seasons, the Buffalo Bills were notoriously slow starters out of the gate. Their record in September was a dismal 2-10, and it cost them a playoff shot the previous season. With the league’s best RB in Cookie Gilchrist, a healthy Jack Kemp, and the league’s stingiest defense, many picked the Bills as the Eastern Division favorites. Unfortunately, the same ghosts haunted them again. They went winless in September with 3 losses and a tie. Furthering the woes for Buffalo were the loss of RBs Roger Kochman, Wray Carlton, and guard Dick Hudson.
Chargers 14, Bills 10
Due to a nagging rib injury suffered in a preseason game, the Bills’ main rushing threat was used sparingly in the bills road opener in San Diego. Running short of backfield talent, coach Lou Saban pressed into duty DB George Saimes in the Bills offensive backfield. He played respectably, gaining 40 yards on 10 carries.
Buffalo’s defense played a “bend but don’t break” first half- as Charger’s QB Tobin Rote piled up an impressive 203 yards, but was only able to manage 1 scoring drive. Rote led the game’s opening drive to the Bills 11 yard line, only to have a missed FG thwart them. After a scoreless first quarter, the Chargers broke the ice.
Jack Kemp was intercepted by the Charger’s Bob Mitttinger at midfield in the second quarter. Rote connected on a 21 yard completion to Bobby Jackson, and then hit WR Dave Kocourek for 31 yards to the Buffalo goal line. Bobby Jackson finished the drive with a 1 yard plunge for an early 7-0 San Diego lead. Buffalo responded with a Mack Yoho FG, aided by 45 yards in unsportsmanlike conduct penalties after Kemp was roughed up on a pass attempt.
The Chargers broke the game open late in the second half, when Paul Lowe brokke two tackles and exploded with a 48 yard touchdown run with just 1:23 remaining in the 3rd quarter.
Buffalo would mount a comeback. Kemp mounted a 12 play 90 yard drive to pull the Bills within 4. Fred Brown ran it in from 4 yards out with 6:33 remaining. Saban chose to forgo the 2 point conversion- a decision that could have cost the Bills a chance to tie. Saban later mentioned he wasn’t going to go for a tie if it came to it late in the game anyway. It was a win, or nothing.
The Bills managed to hold the Chargers and they got the ball back. After future Bill and current Charger LB Paul MaGuire intercepted a Kemp pass and returned it to the Bills 8, Harry Jacobs returned the favor picking off Rote at the goal line and bringing it out to the 10. Kemp, on 3rd and 7 from the Buffalo 31, hit Ernie Warlick with a 34 yard strike- and he promptly flipped the ball to Fred Brown on a lateral to gain 17 more to the Charger 18. The Bills were unable to punch it in before time expired.
Raiders 35, Bills 17
After a scoreless first quarter, the Raiders broke the game wide open with 3 TDs in the second. The Bills secondary was shredded by a passing attack tat accumulated 397 yards. Oakland WR Clem Daniels racked up 179 yards on only 3 completions, including a 73 yard TD. Trailing 21-3, Kemp completed his first of two TD passes to Elbert Dubenion on the last play of the half. The second half was no kinder to the Bills, as the Raiders cruised to an easy 35-17 rout. Oakland capped the scoring with a deflected 1 yard interception return. Late in the 4th quarter, Bills rookie Daryle Lamonica would make his debut, connecting on 6 of 11 passes. Cookie Gilchrist returned to the lineup, but gained a mere 19 yards on 10 carries.
Bills 27, Chiefs 27
Buffalo’s frustrations continued in the home opener, blowing a 27-10 third quarter lead to tie the Chiefs. Botched special teams plays cost the Bills 4 critical points, on two blocked extra points and a muffed punt resulting in a safety. A penalty also took another 3 off the scoreboard as rookie Ed Rutkowski failed to substitute, giving the Bills a penalty for 12 men on the field.
After Kansas City opened the scoring on a FG, the Buffalo defense put the Bills up 6-3 when Mike Stratton picked of a Len Dawson pass and returned it 26 yards for the score. Mack Yoho’s extra point was blocked. Dawson redeemed himself with a 31 yard scoring strike to Fred Arbanas and a 10-6 first quarter lead. I
George Saimes’ first career interception set up a Kemp to Bill Miller 9 yard TD pass. Again the extra point was blocked, giving the Bills a narrow 12-10 lead. Buffalo held the Chiefs to 3 and out, and were the beneficiaries of a 2 yard Chiefs punt. Kemp cashed in, capping the 26 yard drive with a 2 yard QB keeper. Daryle Lamonica added a 2 point conversion, pushing the lead to 20-10. Opening the third, Kemp ran in his second TD of the day, on a 9 yard scramble to push the lead to 27-10 with 9 minutes left in the third.
Willie West’s football follies with the punt resulted in a KC safety just a minute and a half after Kemp’s TD. Off the free kick, Dawson connected with Chris Burford for a a 2 yard TD pass to close the margin to 27-19. In the dying moments of the game, Len Dawson led the Chiefs on a 50 yard drive. Burford was the hero again, scoring on a 19 yard TD pass with :40 left. Burford then hauled in the conversion pass to tie the score. Buffalo tried to rally late, with 2 Kemp to Miller passes gaining 35 yards moving them into the fringe of FG range. But Mack Yoho’s 45 yard attempt failed to preserve the tie.
Oilers 31, Bills 20
September closed out in disappointing fashion. For the second straight week at War Memorial Stadium, the Bills squandered an early lead to slip to 0-3-1. The Bills lost 31-20 despite 188 yards rushing, 72 yards on 13 carries by Gilchrist and 167 total yards of offense by rookie first time starter RB Roger Kochman.
Buffalo jumped to an early 10-0 lead. Yoho put the Bills up 3-0 early, and a fumble recovery by Carl Charon was returned 23 yards for a score on the ensuing kickoff . The Oilers answered on their next drive, aided by a big return on the kick to the Buffalo 33. Charlie Tolar ended the drive with a 1 yard TD run to make it 10-7 Bills. On the Bills next play, Kochman took a Kemp screen pass 68 yards setting up a Gilchrist 1 yard plunge for 17-7 margin. Oilers WR Charlie Hennigan closed out the first quarter scoring with a 15 yard TD pass.
Hennigan continued the Oiler onslaught with 2 more TD receptions in the second quarter, giving Houston a 28-20 halftime lead. Hennigan would finish the day with 8 receptions, 123 yards and 3 scores. Buffalo’s attempt at a comeback was hampered by Kemp’s finger injury that knocked him out of the game. Lamonica was ineffective in releif, completing only 5 of 17 with two interceptions. The Oilers cruised to a 31-20 final.
Bills 12, Raiders 0
The Bills began to turn their season around by blanking the visiting Oakland Raiders. No small feat considering the Raiders were one of the league’s highest scoring and explosive offenses. In a complete reversal of the previous meeting, when both teams combined for 938 yards in offense, the Buffalo defense suffocated the Raiders. Oakland was held to 119 yards passing and a meager 24 yards on the ground. Jack Kemp connected with Bill Miller 12 times in the game for a team record, giving Miller 33 receptions after 5 games. He caught the game’s only touchdown, a 24 yard strike from Kemp in the 3rd quarter. Buffalo closed out the day sacking backup QB Tom Flores for a safety.
Bills 35, Chiefs 26
This time around, it was the Bills turn to watch the Kansas City Chiefs squander leads and opportunities in front of a home crowd. Trailing 10-0, Both Jack Kemp and Cookie Gilchrist added 1 yard runs to put the Bills up 14-10. The Chiefs would answer with a 27 yard FG to pull within 14-13. Gilchrist would answer that with his second TD on he day, another 1 yard run. The Bills took the 21-13 lead to the locker room.
In the 3rd, Chris Burford pulled in a 33 yard TD pass from Dawson to close the gap to 21-19. KC’s attempt to tie on the 2 point conversion failed. 18 seconds later, Kemp hit Kochman with a beautiful 63 yard pass to blow the game open. Kansas City did manage to crawl back into the contest with an Abner Haynes 4 yard run, set up by a Kemp interception. With only 1:40 remaining in the game and backed up on the Bills 11, Lou Saban had the perfect play called for the perfect opportunity. Off a Chiefs blitz, “Golden Wheels” Dubenion was locked up 1 on 1 coverage. Blowing past his man, Kemp hit his speedy WR and they connected for the game breaking score, an 89 yard TD. The Bills improved to 2-3-1 with the 35-26 win.
Oilers 28, Bills 14
On the road in Houston, the Bills could not overcome a 21 point deficit. George Blanda’s 2 TD passes and a 1 yard Tolar run put Buffalo in a hole. Jack Kemp hit Bill Miller with a 4 yard pass to close out the half. In the third quarter, Blanda connected with Charley Frazier on an 80 yard strike to push the lead to 28-7. The Bills would threaten, but self destructed with turnovers and mistakes. Ernie Warlick hauled in a 55 yard Kemp pass to close out the scoring , 28-14.
Bills 28, Patriots 21
Backup WR Charley Ferguson was the hero, subbing for an injured Bill Miller. Ferguson capped a wild 4th quarter with a 72 yard TD reception with 28 seconds in the game giving the Bills a badly needed 28-21 win and keeping their playoff hopes alive in front of 27,243 at War Memorial stadium.
Jack Kemp provided the only first half scoring, a 1 yard QB keeper in the second quarter. Patriot’s QB Babe Parilli connected with Tone Romeo to tie the scorelate in the third quarter. In the fourth, Kemp scored two more rushing TDs, both from 1 yard out. John Tracey’s interception set up the second of the Kemp scores. Trailing 21-7, the Patriots mounted a furious comeback late. After Tom Sestak blocked a Pats FG, Kemp was intercepted by Ron Hall who returned it to the Buffalo 25. Harry Crump scored from 3 yads out 3 plays later to narrow the gap. Buffalo was forced to punt, and Parelli hit Art Graham with a 77 yard strike to tie with only 5:49 remaining. Buffalo drove down to the Boston 11 with 2:20 left, but 2 consecutive sacks and a missed FG almost cost the game. The Buffalo defense forced a 3 and out for Boston, setting up the Ferguson heroics- a post pattern that split the defense and went for 72 yards. Buffalo moved to 3-4-1, last in the division but only 2½ games behind the division leading Oilers.
Bills30, Broncos 27
The Bills turned their season around with an unusual home and home series sweep against the Denver Broncos. In Denver’s Bears stadium, the Buffalo offense overcame 4 Cookie Gilchrist fumbles and an injury to Jack Kemp to pull out a narrow but exiting 30-28 win. Buffalo set a team record with 459 total yards in the game.
Gilchrist had his first 100 yard day, getting 125 yards on the ground (160 overall) and 2 TDs. Trailing 14-7 at the half, Daryle Lamonica came in relief of the injured Kemp and engineered 3 scoring drives in the 3rd quarter- the most exciting being a 74 yard bomb to the speedy WR Glen Bass to make it 17-10 Bills. Bass was activated off of the Bills Taxi squad prior to the game. The Broncos gave Buffalo the ball right back on a fumbled kickoff return- setting up Cookie Gilchrist’s first TD on the day.
Denver QB Don Breaux opened the final quarter with his 3rd TD pass of the day, a 43 yard strike to Bob Scarpito. Lamonica wasted no time retaliating, hitting Gilchrist with his second TD on the day, a 35 yard screen pass. Breaux made it interesting closing the Bills lead to 30-28 with a 71 yard TD pass of his own late. Denver missed a 53 yard FG in the closing minutes to preserve the Buffalo win.
Bills 27, Broncos 17
In the return engagement in Buffalo, the Bills again relied on a 3rd quarter offensive surge to put away the Broncos. Jack Kemp shook off a slow start in his return from a pinched nerve to lead the offense. Kemp threw for 3 touchdown passes, the longest being a 58 yard pass to rookie Ed Rutkowski, to put Buffalo up 20-3 at the end of the 3rd. Denver attempted to rally.
Denver backup QB Mickey Slaughter replaced Don Breaux in the second half and drove the Broncos to their first TD of the game. Slaughter victimized the Bills secondary for another long pass play- a 74 yard scoring strike to Bill Groman. Leading by 10, Kemp salted the game away with a 14 yard QB keeper for the score with 2:41 remaining. Slaughter would add a meaningless TD pass in the final :29. The 27-17 win pushed Buffalo above the >500 mark with a 5-4-1 record, a mere ½ game out of the division lead.
Chargers 23, Bills 13
The Buffalo Bills 3 game winning streak came to a halt with a loss to the West division leading San Diego Chargers in front of an AFL record setting crowd of 38,592. Buffalo opened the game giving the Chargers a huge dose of Cookie Gilchrist. In the opening drive the thundering FB broke runs of 22 and 23 yards capping the drive with a 1 yard plunge for an early 7-0 lead. Keith Lincoln quickly killed the enthusiasm with a 46 yard TD run of his own just 3 plays later. The teams exchanged FGs for a 10-10 halftime deadlock.
The Chargers’ Lance Allworth hauled in a 17 yard score to push San Diego ahead in the 3rd. Buffalo answered- as Kemp hooked up with Elbert Dubenion for a huge 53 yard pass play on the next series. Facing 1st and goal from the 5, The Charger defense stiffened and did not allow Buffalo to get into the end zone. Facing 4th and 1- Saban settled for the Yoho field goal and never got closer again. The Chargers kept the ball away from the Bills in the 4th adding 2 FGs and taking the 23-13 win. Boston tied Kansas City giving both the Bills and Pats a 5-5-1 record heading into week 12.
Patriots 17, Bills 7
The Bills and Patriots played this game with heavy hearts and minds, as the game was postponed a week due to the tragic assassination of President John F Kennedy a week prior. The somber mood carried over to the game, as the Bills and Patriots played an emotionless, flat contest in Boston’s Fenway Park. Game temperatures were a frigid 10 degrees.
Cookie Gilchrist opened the scoring with a 2 yard run in the 2nd quarter. In the third, Buffalo was flagged for roughing the Punter giving Boston new life on a drive. They responded with QB Babe Parilli tying the score with a 44 yard pass. Buffalo was forced to punt, and Boston responded with another bi play. Art Graham hauled in a 63 yard pass, setting up Parilli’s 2 yard run. Boston would add a 4th quarter FG to salt the game away. Head coach Lou Saban decided a shakeup on offense was needed- and chose to bench starting QB Jack Kemp for the remaining 2 games against the Jets.
Bills 45, Jets 14
The Bills found themselves needing to sweep the season ending home and home series with the New York Jets. Going into the last two games against the Jets, the Bills stood 5-6-1 and their season looked over. Cookie Gilchrist to this point of the season was having a very average year. After a dozen games, he had only 622 yards and 8 TDs. In the final two games, Gilchrist carried them on his back rushing for 357 yards and scoring six touchdowns. In the first game against the Jets he set the pro football single game rushing record of 243 yards, which stood until 1971.
In front of 20,222 at War Memorial Stadium, Gilchrist had the greatest game ever by a professional football player to date rushing the ball. When the smoke had cleared, he surpassed Jim Brown’s NFL record of 237 yards in 1957. His 5 TDs in the game set an AFL record. The damage could have been worse, as 50 more yards of Gilchrist’s running were called back due to penalties.
Cookie Gilchrist opened the scoring for Buffalo 3 minutes into the game capping the opening drive with a 4 yard TD run. John Tracey got the ball right back for Buffalo recovering a fumble on the ensuing kick. That resulted in a Mack Yoho FG pushing the Bills lead to 10-0. The Jets would answer with a 74 yard drive of their own to pull within 10-7.
Daryle Lamonica, starting in place of the benched Kemp, then highlighted a 53 yard Bills drive with a flair for the dramatic. With the drive seemingly stalled in Jet territory, Lamonica executed a fake field goal and completed a 19 yard pass to Mike Stratton, the Bills stalwart linebacker in on special teams duty. The gamble paid off, with Gilchrist scoring from 1 yard out. The Bills pushed their lead to 24-7 at the half when Lamonica hit Elbert Dubenion with a 23 yard scoring strike with :26 seconds remaining. It was set up by a Ray Abruzzese interception.
In the second half, the Bills fed the Jets a steady diet of more Cookie. Gilchrist would score on 3 more long drives for the Bills. Scoring runs of 1, 19 and 6 yards pushed the score to 45-7. Only a late Don Maynard 23 yard TD catch late spoiled the party for the home crowd.
Buffalo already needed a lot of help to get to the post season. After beating the Jets, they needed the patriots to beat division leader Houston. Houston obliged, dropping their game to Boston 46-28. Houston would collapse completely- going 1-5 to close the season after a 5-3 start.
Bills 19, Jets 10
Buffalo traveled to the Polo Grounds in New York needing a Bills win, a Patriots Loss, and an Oilers loss to force a tie with Boston, and a playoff game. The game plan was simple from the outset- continue to feed the ball to Cookie Gilchrist- the same plan that torched the Jets the week before.
After an early field goal by Buffalo’s Mack Yoho, the Jets answered when Don Maynard beat Bills CB Willie West for a 73 yard touchdown pass. Galen Hall’s pass was deflected and nearly intercepted by Woods, only to have the tipped ball land in Maynard’s hands as he raced to the end zone. The early lead inspired the Jet defense, and they stiffened with the lead through the half.
With the season on the line and Lamonica struggling, coach Lou Saban brought back his benched QB in relief. Jack Kemp returned to direct 3 scoring drives over the last 18 minutes to put the Bills into a tie for the division lead. While the Bill began mounting their comeback, it was apparent the Chiefs had helped the Bills immensely. Boston was clobbered 35-3 in Kansas City.
Kemp drove the Bills to the goal line twice only to be turned away without points. One drive ended at the Jet 5 only to see the clock run out a the half. The Bills opened the second half again driving to the Jet end zone only to get thwarted by an interception. The third time was the charm, as Kemp finished off a 53 yard drive taking it in himself from 4 yards out. Mack Yoho’s extra point was blocked, drawing the Bills to within 10-9. The Jets tried to expand on their lead driving to the Bills 20 yard line before missing on a 34 yard field goal to open the final quarter. Kemp again drove the Bills downfield. 80 yards and 10 plays later, Cookie Gilchrist gave Buffalo the lead they would never relinquish. Lamonica pulled a fake on the extra point and connected with John Tracey to give Buffalo a 17-10 lead with 10:11 remaining in the game. Mack Yoho finished the scoring on a QB sack Galen Hall in the end zone for a safety.
Patriots 26, Bills 8
With the Bills on a roll and the Patriots stumbling, it set up the first ever Buffalo Bills playoff game between the 7-6-1 clubs. The winner would claim the East title and a spot vs. the San Diego Chargers in the championship game.
Playing the game at War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, the Patriots took control from the beginning. Elbert Dubenion lost the ball on the opening kick off giving the Patriots excellent field position. Buffalo LB Ray Abruzzese intercepted Boston QB Babe Parilli to stop the opening threat, but the Bills could not stop the momentum. 3 Gino Capelletti field goals, and a 59 yard Parilli to Larry Garron screen pass gave the Patriots a 16-0 halftime lead.
Starting the second half, Saban chose to shake up the lethargic Bills offense. Jack Kemp was sent to the bench and in came the flashy big play rookie Darryl Lamonica. The Patriots defense had stuffed Gilchrist and held him to a mere 7 yards on 8 carries. After the first 3 possessions of the second half ended in futility, Lamonica showed why he would earn the nickname “Mad Bomber”. With only 1:31 remaining in the 3rd and backed up against his own end zone, Lamonica hit “Golden Wheels” Dubenion on a 93 yard strike ( a Bills playoff record that stands to this day). On the ensuing 2 point conversion try, Lamonica hit Jack Tracy and the once insurmountable 16-0 lead was chopped in half with a full quarter to go.
It was all the noise the Bills could make that afternoon. The Patriots would drive the field twice, capitalizing on Buffalo turnovers (6 total in the game) to add 10 4th quarter points. The Final score was Boston 26, Buffalo 8. The Boston Patriots dominating defense won this game for them, but like the week previous in the drubbing to Kansas City, they were again a no show versus San Diego one week later. They gave up 523 yards and 7 TDs in a 51-10 humiliation at the hands of the Chargers.
For the season, Cookie Gilchrist was the show once again. He finished second in the AFL in rushing yards with 979 and led the league in attempts (232) and rushing touchdowns(12). Jack Kemp proved to be the field general and leader coach Lou Saban was hoping for when he picked him off waivers the season before. His 2,910 yards was second best in the league, and his 8 touchdowns rushing were second in the league to team mate Cookie Gilchrist. Billy Miller was a rookie sensation at WR, leading the Bills with 69 receptions for 860 yards. Elbert Dubenion again led the club with 970 receiving yards off of 54 receptions for an 18 yard average. Not to be out done, TE Ernie Warlick led the club with a 20 yard per catch average on 24 catches for 479 yards. Lamonica handled the punting chores and finished with a respectable 40.5 average. Defensive end Mack Yoho handled kicking duties and finished with 62 points.
The Buffalo Bills sent 8 players to the AFL All-Star game. Returning for the second straight season was FB Cookie Gilchrist,TE Ernie Warlick, G Billy Shaw,and QB Jack Kemp, although Kemp sat out due to nagging injuries. T Stew Barber made his first visit to the game. On Defense, DE Tom Sestak made his second appearance in as many seasons, with LB Mike Stratton and DB Willie West selected as well.