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1971 Buffalo Bills – Worst Team Ever

by Bill Choinski


1971 was a disaster from the get go. Johnny Rauch resigned under severe pressure. Owner Ralph Wilson was watching his best player misused as a decoy, a misfired attempt to convert him into a WR, and wasted on punt and kickoff returns. In 3 previous years as a coach for Oakland, he won games with a devastating vertical passing attack. The Bills were ill equipped for this style, and RB sensation OJ Simpson did not fit that kind of offense.
Prior to the 1971 campaign, after eight seasons with the Bills, two-time Pro Bowler DE Ron McDole was traded to Washington. Two months after the deal, head coach John Rauch started a local controversy when he said, ‘(McDole) has not played what I would call winning football for the last three years.’ He was also not very complimentary towards punter/linebacker Paul Maguire, who was released. Team owner Ralph Wilson defended the veterans which reportedly led to Rauch’s resignation on July 20th.

Also Missing from the roster was Butch Byrd, long time fixture in the Buffalo secondary and he team’s all time interception leader. He followed ex team mates George Saimes and Booker Edgerson to Denver.

This late into the summer, the Bills were hamstrung on their choice of coach. Wilson again turned to his chief scout, Director of player personnel Harvey Johnson. Johnson played relief coach 3 seasons earlier in 1968, taking over when Joe Collier resigned 2 games in to that season. Johnson’s record was a dismal 1-10-1.

The 1971 draft was a very productive one. Well before Rauch stepped down he tried to stock his squad with more offensive weapons to fit into his passing attack. Talented WR JD Hill was taken with the 4th overall pick in the draft. TE Jan White was selected in the 2nd Rd, and in the 3rd Rd the Bills grabbed C Bruce Jarvis and a bruising multi- talented FB from West Virginia, Jim Braxton. In the 7th round, the Bills got another gem, USC’s Bobby Chandler, WR. Undrafted FA DB Tony Greene and Kicker John Leypoldt joined the squad as well.

The season got off to an exiting start. The Dallas Cowboys, fresh off their Super Bowl loss to the Baltimore Colts last January, came to town. In what turned out to be the highest scoring game in the NFL that year, The Bills gave Tom Landry’s Doomsday defense all they could handle. The Cowboys prevailed 49-38, but the Buffalo Bills seemed to be an offensive team to be reckoned with.

It turned out to be a cruel hoax. The Bills offense were held without a touchdown in six games, four of them shutouts. They would average only 13 points a game, while their opponents managed 28. Injuries to offensive linemen Dick Cheek, Julian Nunamaker, Jim Reilly, Paul Costa, and Joe O’Donnel made the season a hellish nightmare for Simpson and last season’s Rookie of the Year winner Dennis Shaw. At one point in the season, Coach Harvey Johnson had to start 5 rookies or second year players at once. At one point, Simpson once was quoted as saying “I would look into the huddle, and I didn’t know who these guys were. It was like we had to make introductions to each other in the huddle!”

Dennis Shaw regressed from a great rookie season the year before, and he became a turnover machine. He led all QBs in the league with 26 interceptions. His erratic play resulted in the quick hook on many occasions in favor of second year QB James Harris.

In week 11 against the New England Patriots, the offense was sparked by the return of top choice JD Hill to the line up. Hill went down with a serious knee injury in a preseason game with Detroit and missed the Bill’s first 10 losses. However, in his first game, Hill caught three passes for 82 yards and two touchdowns as Buffalo beat the Patriots 27-20 for its only victory of the year.

The Bills finished with their worst season ever, and Harvey Johnson was at the helm for both of them. The Bills finished 1-13 and dead last in the entire league. In 26 games as head coach for the Bills, Harvey Johnson’s record was a pitiful 2-25-1. 8 days after the conclusion of the season, the Buffalo Bills and their fans received an early Christmas present from Ralph Wilson. On Dec 24th, Lou Saban was hired as head coach and director of football operations.

OJ Simpson led the squad with 742 yards rushing and 5 TDs. Marlin Briscoe led all receivers in receptions (44) , yards (603), and TDs-5. In a truly forgettable season, no Buffalo Bills represented the team in the Pro Bowl.

1971 Buffalo Bills Statistics     1971 Team Results