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1974 Buffalo Bills – Balance and a Return to the Playoffs

by Bill Choinski

In 1973, the Buffalo Bills were forced by a number of conditions to go with a one-dimensional attack. OJ left, OJ right, OJ up the middle. A porous defense, a rookie QB, and 2 young WR’s didn’t give Head Coach Lou Saban any options- so to the tune of an NFL record 332 attempts, the Juice stampeded to his record 2,003 yard season. Saban’s goal was not to turn the Bills into a respectable club, it was to make a champion.

To accomplish this task, he needed to attain more balance on offense. The Bills were held to a mere 4 TD passes all season long, and a credible air attack was needed to prevent teams from stacking the line against Simpson. Saban dealt 1970 NFL Rookie of the Year Dennis Shaw and HB Steve Jones to the St. Louis Cardinals for WR Ahmad Rashad. To help shore up the defensive line he also made a deal with the Dallas Cowboys to land DE Pat Toomay.

In the 1974 NFL Draft, Buffalo spent 4 of the first 5 picks on offense. TE Reuben Gant was selected in the 1st Rd, LB Doug Allen in the 2nd, and QB Gary Marangi in the 3rd. WR/RB Gary Hayman was picked up in Rd #5, and RB Doug Calhoun in Rd #10.

The team made a significant design change to their team logo. The standing red bison that adorned the team’s helmets since the 1962 season was retired for a modern look. The design had a charging blue bison with a wide red streak jutting back from the bison’s horns. The Helmets remained white, with grey facemasks. The uniforms themselves went relatively unchanged from the previous season.

The Buffalo Bills opened the season with, what ABC Sports producer Roone Arledge dubbed “Mother Love’s Travelling Freak Show”. Monday Night Football came to town with a date with John Madden’s Oakland Raiders- a team that owned the night during the 1970’s.

Showing the balance that Saban was striving for, OJ Simpson (12 carries-76 yds) and FB Jim Braxton (19 –68) shared the load in the backfield. QB Joe Ferguson opened the scoring with a 4 yard pass to JD Hill in the 2nd quarter. Oakland then scored 13 unanswered points, on the strength of 2 George Blanda FG’s and a 15 yard run by Raider HB Clarence Davis.

Heading deep into the 4th quarter, the game was a tight to the vest defensive battle, with both clubs moving the ball well on the ground. With 1:56 remaining in the game, Ferguson capped of a late drive as he found WR Ahmad Rashad in the End Zone for an 8 yard TD pass. With a 14-13 lead, the Bills looked like they sealed the victory by forcing a Raider turnover deep in Oakland territory.

Disaster struck the Bills, when Jim Braxton coughed up the ball trying to kill the clock. Raider Safety Skip Thomas scooped up the loose ball and streaked 29 yards into the end zone with 1:15 remaining, giving Oakland a 20-14 advantage. The game rested in the hands of second year QB Joe Ferguson, who only had 4 TD passes in his entire rookie year, but had two on the night so far. Ferguson moved the club down the field quickly, as he hit Ahmad Rashad for the second time in 90 seconds- with a 33 yard TD strike. With a 21-20 lead, the Raiders still had life. An architect of many comebacks, Raider QB Ken Stabler moved the Raiders to the Buffalo 33. George Blanda’s 50 yard kick to win missed, and the Bills took their opener in wild style, Buffalo 21 Oakland 20.

Because of the Monday night contest, the Bills were left with a short week to prepare for the defending 2 time Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins. In a close battle, Miami pulled out a 24-16 win in Orchard Park for their 9th consecutive win over the Bills.

In the following six weeks, the Bills put together solid defense with a balanced offense. Simpson still carried the load, but the Bills spread the ball around to their other weapons. Victories over the NY Jets (16-12), Green Bay (27-7), Baltimore (27-14), New England (30-28), Chicago (16-6), and New England again (29-28) left the Bills with a 7-1 record and a 1 game lead over the Dolphins in the AFC East. It was the best start in 10 seasons for Buffalo, when Saban’s 1964 Championship team opened 9-0.

Simpson began to show the wear and tear of a running back that had roughly 1,000 carries over three seasons. OJ played through a nagging knee injury that was slowing him down, but not stopping him. A week before the rematch with the Dolphins in the Orange Bowl, the Bills stumbled at home against the Houston Oilers 21-9, holding them to three John Leypoldt FGs.

Miami exacted their 10th straight win, 35-28 over Buffalo in an offensive show rare for these two conservative offenses. The Victory gave Miami an 8-2 record, good for a 1 game lead over the 7-3 Bills. Buffalo victories over Cleveland (15-10) and Baltimore (6-0) drew Buffalo back into a tie with Miami for the division lead. At 9-3, Buffalo also held 2 game leads over the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos for the lone AFC Wild Card spot. It was a cushion the Bills needed, as they stumbled on their final road swing of the year in New York to the Jets (20-10) and to Chuck Knox’s Rams in Los Angeles (19-14). Miami took care of business on a high note, and won the AFC Eastern division with an 11-3 record. 9-5 Buffalo would travel to meet the Pittsburgh Steelers in Three Rivers Stadium for their first playoff game in 8 seasons.

After a Roy Gerela FG opened the scoring for the Steelers in the 1st quarter, Buffalo returned the favor. Joe Ferguson hit his TE Paul Seymour for a 22- yard TD to give the underdog Buffalo Bills an early 7-3 lead.

Pittsburgh dominated the second quarter blowing the game open. Steeler QB Terry Bradshaw lit up the Bills for 143 yards in the quarter engineering 4 TD scoring drives. Bradshaw hit RB Rocky Bleir for a 27 yard score, then drove Pittsburgh to the goal line on the next 3 possessions. Each drive was capped off with Franco Harris TD runs of 1, 3, and 1 yards. The only thing that went right for Buffalo was 2 blocked extra points. The Steelers went into the half sporting a 29-7 lead.

Ferguson and Simpson hooked up mid way through the 3rd quarter on a 3 yard TD pass to bring the Bills to within 15. The Steelers took control of the game by running the ball an incredible 51 times for 235 yards. Ball control and Chuck Knoll’s stingy Steel Curtain defense locked down OJ Simpson and held the star RB to 49 yards on 15 carries. Gerela’s 4th quarter FG made the final Pittsburgh 32, Buffalo 14. It was an unspectacular performance for what would turn out to be his only playoff appearance. The Electric Company, Buffalo’s famed offensive line, held the Steelers to no sacks in the game, despite the Steelers leading the league with 52. Pittsburgh went on to win their first Super Bowl over Minnesota 3 weeks later.

Simpson finished the year second in the entire NFL with 1,125 yards and a mere 4 TDs, losing out on the NFL rushing title to Denver’s Otis Armstrong. FB Jim Braxton chipped in 543 yards and 4 TDs of his own. Ahmad Rashad led all receivers with 36 receptions for 433 yards with 4 TDs. JD Hill led the team with 572 receiving yards on 32 receptions, with 6 TDs. Joe Ferguson emerged from the year as a solid starting QB, completing 51% of his passes for 1588 yards, 12 TDs and 12 interceptions.

Defensively, Tony Greene had a breakout season leading the Bills with 9 interceptions, with Robert James second with 3. LB Dave Washington managed 2, and scored 2 defensive TDs.

For their efforts, Robert James and OJ Simpson were the only Bills selected to the NFL Pro Bowl.

1974 Buffalo Bills Statistics     1974 Team Results