1975 Buffalo Bills – OJ Paves the Way
Another missing ingredient from the 1960’s was the great drafts. Other than plucking guards Reggie McKenzie and Joe DeLamielleure in the second rounds of the ’72 and ’73 NFL drafts, he had very little luck. 1975 brought a pair of Nebraska linebackers with the Bills first 2 picks- Tom Rudd in Rd #1 and Bob Nelson in Rd #2. 5th Rd LB John McCrumbly made the squad, and the Bills did find a diamond in the rough in Rd #10 with RB Roland Hooks. DE Mark Johnson also made the team as a 12th Rd selection. Rookie safety Steve Freeman made the team as an undrafted free agent.
Injuries robbed the Bills of talent early and often in the preseason. Ahmad Rashad was lost before the season opener with a knee injury that forced him out of the line up for the year. On August 23, before a national TV audience in a pre season game against the L.A. Rams, 3 time Pro- Bowl CB Robert James played his last game as a Buffalo Bill. He suffered a career ending knee injury after intercepting a Ron Jaworski pass. Safety Doug Jones suffered a similar fate, out for the season with a bad knee as well.
Buffalo exploded out of the gate to start 1975. The offense averaged 37 points per game in September behind the running of OJ Simpson, the smash-mouth change of pace with Jim Braxton, and an aerial attack provided by a maturing Joe Ferguson at quarterback. WR Bobby Chandler emerged as a solid replacement to the fallen Rashad, with WR JD Hill adding a deep threat component. Their first victim was the New York Jets as they demolished them 42-14 before a sold out throng of 80,000 in Rich Stadium.
The Bills showed the league they were for real the following week, exacting revenge against the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in Three Rivers Stadium. OJ Simpson and the Buffalo offense shredded the Steelers 30-14. It was the Steelers who suffocated the Bills offense in the divisional playoffs the season before. This version of the Steel Curtain defense was much more formidable than it was the previous year. They would hold opponents without a TD in 7 of their 14 games, and outside of the Bills, would hold their opponents in the first half of the season to a mere 6 PPG average.
Denver was next on the schedule and they had no solution to stop the Buffalo juggernaut. The Bills disposed of the Broncos 38-10. Week #4 saw Buffalo meet up with a vastly improved Colt team under new coach Ted Marchibroda. While this Colt team had stumbled out of the gate to the tune of 1-2, their offense was sparked by 2nd year QB Bert Jones and the workhorse RB Lydell Mitchell. In another entertaining barn burner, The Bills squeaked out a 38-31 win.
While Simpson had an unprecedented year rushing the ball in 1973, 1975 was his finest- and probably one of the best seasons any running back has ever had in NFL history. While finding the end zone a personal best 12 times in ’73, he was on a pace to double that. Two seasons ago OJ was one dimensional- 2,003 yards on the ground, only 12 catches for 70 yards in the air. This season Saban used his ultimate weapon to the fullest- using him on screens and dump-offs in the passing game as well. And Simpson wasn’t the only threat in the backfield either. Besides paving the way with excellent blocking, FB Jim Braxton was a dangerous runner and receiving threat. Braxton would wind up scoring more TD’s in this season than OJ did in his marvelous 1973 campaign.
Unfortunately, the hot start came a price to the Bills defense, particularly the secondary. Already missing standout CB Robert James and Doug Jones, Saban was forced to press into service rookies Steve Freeman and Royce McKinnie. Nagging injuries further depleted the secondary’s effectiveness.
Monday Night Football and Howard Cosell came to Buffalo in week 5. The struggling New York Giants managed to hold the powerful Bills attack in check as they pulled a major upset in a 17-14 win. The game was memorable for some disturbing off field events that drew national attention. Drunken fans were rampant in the stands, with one nearly plunging to his death when he crawled out 100 feet over the field on a guide wire used to support the nets behind the goalposts. The game was delayed nearly 15 minutes as the fan rescued.
The following week, the 4-1 Buffalo Bills hosted the Miami Dolphins in Orchard Park. It was the second season in a row that these two teams would meet up tied for the division lead. While the Bills offense got on track, Miami exploited the porous defense. Miami would extend their mastery of the Bills to 11 straight games going back to 1970.
Two more losses in the next 3 games doomed any playoff chances for the team. A 24-23 win over the Jets was followed by a second shootout with the Colts. This time it was the Colts that would prevail, 42-35. Week #9 found Buffalo in Cincinnati on Monday Night Football again. In the pouring rain, OJ Simpson managed 197 yards- including a highlight reel TD run still shown on MNF classic footage today. Bengal QB Ken Anderson torched the depleted Bills secondary for 447 yards in a 33-24 win.
Going 1-4 over the past 5 weeks left the Bills at 5-4 chasing teams they had lost to for a playoff spot- Baltimore (5-4) and Miami (7-2) in the AFC East, and trailing the Steelers (8-1), Bengals (7-2), and Oilers (7-2) for a wild card. With only 1 wild card available in the AFC and 5 weeks left in the season, the Bills were all but finished.
Keeping everyone’s attention in the last month of the season was Simpson’s assault on the record books. Now in his sights was Gale Sayers’ record of 22 TDs in a season. Not only was Simpson battling history for the record, he had the Viking’s Chuck Foreman as serious competition. Best of all, they were scheduled to meet in the season finale in Buffalo.
To get to that showdown, Buffalo waxed the struggling Patriots 45-31, then beat an excellent St Louis Cardinal team 32-14. The Bills lost it’s 12th consecutive game to the Dolphins in the Orange Bowl 31-21, leaving Saban’s team at 7-5 and mathematically eliminated from post season competition. A horrid official’s ruling negated a Mercury Morris fumble and clinched a Miami victory (and triggered a tirade by Bills coach Lou Saban still occasionally shown by NFL Films-“They’re killing me Whitey- they’re killing me!”). Another victory in New England (34-14) set the stage for an exciting showdown in the home finale.
Ten Years previous, there was a duel of this magnitude between Jim Brown (in his last season), and Gale Sayers (in his rookie season). Brown managed 21 TDs in 1965, Sayers managed 20 TDs- with an additional 2 on punt / kickoff returns, giving him the record of 22. Simpson and Foreman were in hot pursuit- after 13 weeks OJ held 21 and Foreman 18.
Heading into the game, the Vikings were enjoying their best season ever. At 11-2, they had wrapped up their division by Thanksgiving. Chuck Foreman was having a stellar season, leading the club in rushing and receiving. Viking coach Bud Grant was determined to get Foreman the record, and he had the team to do it. These were the pre-dome Vikings- and they were accustomed to the frigid December weather Rich Stadium had to offer.
Chuck Foreman was fed the ball all day and the weak Buffalo defense could not stop him. The Vikings running back scored four times to Simpson’s one, putting both even with Sayers at 22. Simpson broke the mark on a brilliant 64-yard jaunt after catching a short pass from backup QB Gary Marangi in the third quarter. But before Foreman could answer, a snowball did what 11 Bills defender could not, and that was sideline Foreman. A fan in the stands showed remarkable accuracy with a snowball, hitting him in the face and forcing him to the sidelines with blurred vision. The Vikings would cruise to a 35-13 win, but the Juice would take the record.
The Bills would finish out 8-6 under Saban, 3rd in the AFC East. The Buffalo offense led the league by a wide margin in scoring (420 points- 30 PPG average) and 5,450 yards gained (390 Yards per game Avg).
OJ Simpson dominated the NFL rushing race and finished with his second best season ever, with 1,817 yards, a 5.5 yard average, and 16 TDs. He finished third on the club with 28 receptions and 426 yards for 7 TDs, giving him 2,246 total yards from scrimmage (173 more than his record 1973 season!). Jim Braxton had an incredible year in the shadow of the Juice as well. The talented fullback chipped in an amazing 823 rushing yards, 272 receiving yards, and 13 TDs of his own. This backfield combination had what has to be considered one of the best years in NFL history- producing 3,338 all purpose yards and 36 TDs, in 14 games! That equated to 236 yards per game and 2.5 TDs each week.
Joe Ferguson had a career year as well, completing 53% of his passes f0r 2,426 yards and 25 TDs with 17 interceptions. Leading the team in receiving was Bobby Chandler with 55 catches for 746 yards and 6 TDs. JD Hill added 36 catches for 667 yards and 7 TDs. Defensively, DB Dwight Harrison led the team with 8 interceptions, with Tony Greene adding 6 more from his cornerback spot. Only kicker John Leypolt struggled, missing 6 extra points and a couple of key FG attempts during the season. Having missd 4 extra points the previous season, he was sent packing at the end of the year.
For their efforts, OJ Simpson and Joe DeLamielleure were selected to represent the Buffalo Bills in the Pro-Bowl.