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1965 Buffalo Bills – Resiliency and a Repeat

by Bill Choinski

1965 was a watershed year for the AFL. The Jets signed Joe Namath to an incredible 4 year $400,000 deal. Fans flocked to watch their new star in droves an attendance soared. The league that was struggling to keep their franchises solvent just a few seasons before, voted to add a 9th club, the Miami Dolphins for the following season.

The Buffalo Bills traded Cookie Gilchrist to the Denver Broncos before the start of the 1965 season. For all the natural abilities and talent that Gilchrist had, his irrational behavior during the Bills loss to the Patriots made him impossible for Coach Lou Saban and the Bills organization to deal with. In return, the Bills received the AFL 1964 rookie of the year in RB Billy Joe. Joe was almost a carbon copy physically to Gilchrist, at 6’5″ 250 lbs. But Joe didn’t possess Gilchrist’s ability to strike fear into opposing defenders, his blocking skills, or his ability to catch a ball out of the backfield. It would be running back by committee.
The 1965 draft was a bit of a disappointment. Players to make the squad were 7th Rd pick LB Marty Schottenheimer, 10th rd selection WR Floyd Hudlow, and 12th rd pick TE Pete Mills. Former Denver Bronco Tom Janik replaced veteran Ray Abbruzzeese in the secondary who departed for the New York Jets.

The 1965 season defense of the title began against the nemesis Boston Patriots. Boston was the main nemesis to the Bills over the past 3 seasons, costing them playoff appearances, a playoff game, and they were the opponent during the Cookie Gilchrist meltdown. Boston would soon realize that 1965 was not to be their year. With dependable RB Wray Carlton assuming the bulk of the workload, the Bills snuffed out the Patriots 24-7 on opening day. The AFL’s best defensive unit smothered the punchless Patriots in front of a War Memorial home opener sell out crowd.

The Following week saw Cookie Gilchrist and his new team, the Denver Broncos come to town. War Memorial Stadium was sold out. That was something Denver never had done before Cookie put on a Bronco uniform. When Cookie Gilchrist came out and played against his former team, the Buffalo fans start chanting, “Lookie, lookie, lookie, that’s our Cookie!” While Cookie went on to lead the league in rushing that season, the Bills defense dominated the game. Many defenders, still miffed at Cookie Gilchrist’s actions the season before, stuffed the bruising fullback. The Bills destroyed the Broncos 30-15.

In game three vs the Jets, the Bills criused to an easy 33-21 victory. Namath was still a QB in training and had yet to win the starter’s job. With the Bills on cruise control en route to a 33-21 win, Kemp hit Elbert “Golden Wheels” Dubenion with his first TD of the season. Unfortunately, New York CB Willie West fell awkwardly on to Dubenion and tore up his knee. Dubenion was off to his best start ever, amassing 18 receptions for 281 yards in just 3 games. He was on a record pace of 84 catch, 1,400- yard season. But the knee injury necessitated season ending surgery. Without their leading rusher from 1964, the Bills were now without their best receiver.

The black cloud followed the Bills the following week against the Oakland Raiders. With Dubenion out, the Bills main out, and a weak running attack, the Bills were relying heavily on speedster WR Glen Bass. Enduring double coverage, Bass took a pounding. On a leaping reception attempt, Bass tore up his ankle ligaments. Glenn Bass was now finished for the season. He to was on a pace for records, amassing 18 catches for 299 yards in less than a quarter of the season. Lou Saban was down to reserves Charlie Ferguson and Ed Rutkowski at the WR slot. Buffalo’s staunch defense carried the team to a 17-12 win and a 4-0 start.

The Bills offense was in a full state of anemia. San Diego came in to town and exacted revenge for their loss to the Bills 10 months previous in the title game. The offense stunk, the defense had their worst outing of the season in a 34-3 drubbing. The only thing going in the Bills favor was the dilapidated state of the Eastern Division. Behind the 4-1 Bills were the 2-3 Houston Oilers riding a 3 game free-fall, and the winless New York Jets and Boston Patriots.

Desperate for offense, Saban tried to work a deal with Oakland for WR Bo Roberson, who was playing out his contract and about to lose his position to future Hall of Famer Fred Biletnikoff. While the deal initially was for the proverbial “Player to be named later” Saban sent the Raiders reserve Tackle Tom Keating and reserve guard George Flint at the conclusion of the season. Roberson stepped in and became the top target for Kemp.

In a league where teams routinely put up 30 points per game, the Buffalo defense put a choke-hold on the opposition. Following the San Diego debacle, the Bills would limit the opposition to 15 points a game the remainder of the season. From this point on, the Bills were 6-2-1. During this time, Jack Kemp proved himself as the AFL’s Most Valuable Player, despite such ailments as a separated shoulder, a bruised knee and a twisted ankle. Kemp led the Bills to their second straight Eastern Division and AFL title in spite of all these injuries. He also was a much more consistent performer. The burden was heavy on Kemp, as the running game was cobbled together with Carlton, Billy Joe, Bobby Smith and Donnie Stone. Erratic play in 1964 drove Coach Lou Saban to play musical QBs between Kemp and the flashy young Daryl Lamonica. But Kemp’s stellar play entrenched him as the undisputed Bill’s field general.

The Bills were 5 and 1 after the Kansas City game and their closest pursuers, the Houston Oilers, were 2 ½ games behind. So Buffalo now had time to experiment and get its offensive gears in tact. From this point on, the Bills would put it in cruise control. dropping only 2 more games over the second half of the season. During this time, Jack Kemp proved himself as the AFL’s Most Valuable Player, despite such ailments as a separated shoulder, a bruised knee and a twisted ankle. Kemp led the Bills to their second straight Eastern Division and AFL title in spite of all these injuries.

In the second game with the Oakland Raiders, Kemp pitched the Bills to a 17-14 victory. The winning touchdown came with only seven seconds remaining. The The following week’s game against the San Diego, Kemp drove the field in the waning moments to salvage a hard fought tie. With 79 seconds remaining, Kemp took the Bills from their own 25 to the San Diego 22,with no time outs left, to set up the Bills’ field goal. Pete Gogolak nailed the attempt with only 6 seconds left to give the Bills a 20-20 tie with the Chargers.

The second best team in the division was the raw New York Jets at 4-7-1. While the Bills cruised, more injuries beset the club. On defense, Safety Gene Sykes was lost for the season and his replacement Hawgood Clarke was hobbled with a bum leg. A third starter for the Bills at WR, Charlie Ferguson, was lost for the season with a torn hamstring.


AFC Championship Game
Bills 23, Chargers 0

On the day after Christmas, the Buffalo Bills went on the road to San Diego to defend their title against last season’s runner up Chargers. With home field, the Chargers were installed as seven point favorites. They were ranked first in passing offense, first in rushing offense, first in passing defense, and first in running defense. The Buffalo Bills were second in rushing defense, but seventh in total offense. San Diego coach Sid Gillman was so confident of his victory, he told a Buffalo News reporter “You know, there is no way we can lose this game on Sunday…We’re going to win this game because Kemp has the maturity of a 10-year-old girl.” Added to Lou Saban’s list of headaches, Bills Center Dave Behrman was added to the long list of injuries due to muscle spasms in his back.
A testament to the Bills toughness, they strangled the Chargers offense. A scoreless first quarter included a blocked Charger FG attempt by Tom Sestak and Mike Stratton. 5 minutes left in the half, Jack Kemp hit his 3 time All- Pro TE Ernie Warlick with an 18 yard strike. After a quick 3 plays and out drive by Charger QB John Hadl and crew, the Bills special teams would come up huge again. Butch Byrd would return the ensuing punt 74 yards, and within a span of 2:30 the Bills struck for 14 points.

The momentum swing broke the mighty Chargers. The struggling Bills offense managed to string together 3 Pete Gogolak field goals in their first 4 possessions of the second half. This game of keep away helped the Bills defense keep The AFL’s best offense limited to a paltry 223 total yards. It was total domination. It would also be the final year of crowning 2 champions in pro football in America. Starting in 1966, the AFL and NFL would pit their champions against each other in what would come to be known as the Super Bowl. Had the game been moved up a year, they would be facing Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers.
In what could be described as the finest moment in Bills history, it would also be the last game Lou Saban would coach in Buffalo for seven seasons. Just a week after winning the second straight league title, Saban shocked the sporting world when he announced that he was resigning his position as Bills head coach. Saban, was 44 at the time, stated that he was “disillusioned” with pro football. He quickly found employment as head coach for the University of Maryland.

RB Wray Carlton led the running back by committee in charge of replacing the departed Gilchrist. Carlton managed 592 yards and 6 TDs, followed by Billy Joe, with 377 yards and 4 TDs. The receiver corps was a mess with injuries to Bass, Dubenion, and Ferguson. Traded to Buffalo in week 5, Bo Roberson still emerged as the #1 receiver with 46 catches for 703 yards and 3 TDs. The biggest surprise was the emergence of rookie TE Paul Costa. Costa was second on the team with 401 yards on only 21 catches, and led the team with a 19 yard average. His stellar play pushed veteran Ernie Warlik to the bench by the end of the season.
The Defense was stellar again and produced 30 interceptions. FS Hagood Clarke led the team with 7 playing half the season on one good wheel. Nickle back Charlie Warner, CB Butch Byrd, and CB Booker Edgerson each had 5 picks, and SS George Saimes managed 4. Warner also was deadly on the Bill’s special teams, with 2 kick off returns for touchdowns and a league leading 26 yard per return average. Pete Gogolak continued to provide stability in the kicking game, hitting all 31 PAT’s and 28 of 46 FG attempts.

In 1965, The AFL changed their All-Star game format. Instead of East stars versus the West stars, for this one season only the league pitted an all star team against the defending champions. The Buffalo Bills lost the all star game affair 30-19 as Joe Namath was named the game’s MVP.

1965 Buffalo Bills Statistics