1966 Buffalo Bills – Just Short of Super
The New York Giants of the NFL signed Gogolak and stole him away from the AFL, and became famous for the first player to be lured to the old league from the new. This set off an unofficial war between the 2 leagues, and the AFL owners elected Oakland Raider Al Davis as their new commissioner. With costs skyrocketing on both sides and threatening clubs in both leagues, The AFL and NFL sat down to peace talks. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle became commissioner for both leagues, a common draft was negotiated for the following year, and the AFL/NFL championship game was established- to be known later as the “Super Bowl”.
The Bills underwent some major changes as well. Not only did they lose their kicker, but they lost their fiery leader as well. Lou Saban resigned to become the head coach at Maryland. In his place, Joe Collier took the reigns. Collier was a Saban assistant for many years and was the architect of the stifling defense that was the backbone of 2 straight AFL titles. A mere 33 years old, he became the youngest head coach in pro sports that season. Latere that month, FB Billy Joe, flanker Bo Roberson, OT Jim Davidson, and DE Howard Simpson were claimed by Miami in expansion draft.
Leaving with Saban were the great drafts. 4th Rd pick HB Bobby Burnett, 10th rd pick WR Bobby Crockett, and 15th rd pick RB Allen Smith were the only contributions to the roster.
The Joe Collier era got off to a bumpy start. Opening on the west coast at the site of the previous season’s championship game victory, the Chargers exacted revenge to the tune of 27-7. The following week, Hank Stram and his rejuvenated Kansas City Chiefs came to town and handed the Bills a 42-20 pasting on their home field. The prospects of a three-peat were looking slim.
Fortunes turned for the Bills when the expansion Miami Dolphins came to town. The Bills defense (and bread and butter) found their way again. Giving up 69 points in 2 games, the defense would hold Miami to 24. It would be the most points they would give up to any opponent the rest of the way. On the other side of the ball, the offense shredded Miami’s expansion defense. Rookie Rob Burnett and veteran Wray Carlton provided a 1-2 punch in the running game. It ended in a laugher, 58-24.
The win sparked the Bills to a 3 game win streak that got them back in the playoff hunt. Wins over 2nd place Houston and a 29-14 redemption over the Chiefs in Kansas City. After a home loss to Boston 20-10, and a 17-17 tie to the Chargers, Collier’s visions of a three-peat were looking slim. The Bills owned a pedestrian 3-3-1 record and were looking at a second half schedule with 5 of the last 7 games on the road.
Collier’s crew went to work. Reeling off 5 consecutive wins they hit the road to face a surging Boston Patriots club. It was the 3rd time in 4 seasons these two clubs met late with the division in the balance. The Patriots handed the Bills a 14-3 defeat in a tough defensive struggle. The loss left Buffalo at 8-4-1 with one game to play against the Broncos. The Patriots held a half game lead with lowly Houston and the young New York Jets. They dispatched Houston on Buffalo’s bye week 38-14, and had a rare Saturday showdown with the Jets.
Ralph Wilson, the owner of the Buffalo Bills, flew to New York City on the next-to-last day of the regular season to watch the Joe Namath Jets take on the Boston Patriots. Ordinarily, Wilson wouldn’t travel to games that did not involve his team, but this was a special case, and the one-hour flight didn’t seem like much of a hassle. . Very simply, the Bills had no chance to win the division if the Patriots defeated the Jets at Shea Stadium because even a Buffalo victory the next day over the woeful Denver Broncos would leave the Bills a half-game short and send Boston into the AFL Championship Game against Kansas City. Wilson felt the need to cheer on the Jets, and by the time the game ended, Wilson’s voice must have been hoarse. With Namath throwing for 287 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions, the Jets pulled off a surprising 38-28 victory. The following day, Buffalo destroyed the visiting Broncos 38-21. It clinched their third consecutive AFL Championship game appearance and a chance to go to Super Bowl I.
The Bills had allowed seven points combined in its two championship game victories over San Diego in 1964 and ’65, but Kansas City matched that total 1:43 into the game when Len Dawson threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to tight end Fred Arbanas after Buffalo’s Dudley Meredith had fumbled the opening kickoff. Five plays later the score was tied as Bills quarterback Jack Kemp beat a blitz and hit Elbert Dubenion for a 69-yard touchdown as cornerback Fred Williamson slipped, leaving Dubenion wide open.
Kansas City then seized the initiative, took control and didn’t let go. Early in the second quarter, Mike Garrett returned a punt 42 yards, and although a clipping penalty set the Chiefs back to the Bills 45, they scored six plays later as Dawson whipped a 29-yard pass to Otis Taylor on a third-down play to put Kansas City ahead 14-7. The game’s crucial play occurred late in the half as the Bills drove toward a potential tying touchdown. From the 11-yard-line Kemp tried to squeeze one in to Bobby Burnett at the goal line, but safety Johnny Robinson picked it off and raced 72 yards the other way, setting up a Mike Mercer field goal three seconds before halftime.
After a scoreless third quarter, Dawson produced two touchdowns to turn the game into a rout. He directed a 63-yard drive that was keyed by his 45-yard pass to Chris Burford. Garrett then scored on a fourth-down plunge from the one. On the ensuing series, Kemp was sacked and knocked out, he lost the ball and Bobby Hunt returned it to the Bills 21. Three plays later, Garrett broke an 18-yard touchdown run. It was the final score in a 31-7 Chiefs rout. The attendance of 42,080 set a record for the largest crowd to watch an AFL title game.
Rookie RB Bobby Burnett led the team in rushing 766 yards and 4 TDs. He also was second on the club with 34 receptions for 419 yards and 4 more scores. Reliable RB Wray Carlton had 696 yards rushing, 280 receiving and 6 total TDs. Elbert Dubenion recovered from his knee injury to lead the Bills with 50 catches for 747 yards and 2 scores. Glenn Bass was not so fortunate, as his injuries from the season before robbed him of his blazing speed. In what would be his last in a Buffalo Bill uniform, Bass finished with only 10 receptions on the year. He was replaced by rookie WR Bobby Crockett, who finished with 31 receptions, 533 yards, and 3 TDs.
Tom Janik led the star studded Bills defense with 8 interceptions (2 returned for scores) in 1966, He was followed by Butch Byrd with 6 picks, and Hawgood Clarke with 5. Byrd returned one of his for a score on a defense that notched 8 total TDs on returns. Ed Rutkowski and Byrd teamed up to return 2 punts for TDs as well.
For his efforts, Burnett was awarded AFL Rookie of the year honors and was one of 12 Bills named to the AFL all star game. Backfield mate Wray Carlton, QB Jack Kemp, TE Paul Costa, T Stew Barber, G Billy Shaw, and G Joe O’Donnell represented the offense. On defense, The Bills took stalwart DE Jim Dunaway, LB Mike Stratton, LB John Tracey, CB Butch Byrd and S George Saimes.