1976 Buffalo Bills – What could have been
Buffalo Bills Owner Ralph C Wilson tried to accommodate his star without success. The Rams wanted him but Ram’s Owner Caroll Rosenbloom didn’t want to destroy his own team in the process. He was concerned about the defensive players Ralph asked the Rams to give up–Mike Fanning, who was pencilled in at tackle when Merlin Olsen retired, defensive end Jack Youngblood, RB Lawrence McCutcheon and two first-round draft picks. Rosenbloom felt Ralph was asking too much, so the Rams announced the trade talks had fallen through.
Meanwhile, head coach Lou Saban made a number if moves to try and shake up the team. He dealt WR Ahmad Rashad to the Vikings for a draft pick. JD Hill was shuffled off to the Detroit Lions. On defense the Bills lost Pat Toomay to Tampa Bay in the NFL expansion draft, and traded Walt Patulski to St. Louis and Earl Edwards to the Cleveland Browns. The Bills’ outstanding CB Robert James never was able to recover from a knee injury from the previous season and retired. Kicker George Jakowenko
replaced a struggling John Leypoldt.
In the 1976 draft, Buffalo had selected one of the better groups of talent in years. To shore up one of the league’s worst defenses, the Bills spent their first pick on CB Mario Clark. Two outstanding linemen were picked up in Rd 2, Ken Jones and Joe Devlin. Because of the losses on the Bills defensive line, and the solid play of the Electric Company, Ken Jones was switched to DE. DE Ben Williams was grabbed in Rd 3, with LB Doug Jilek getting the call in Rd 4. TE Fred Coleman made the squad as a 5th Rd selection. Keith Moody was a suprise rookie who made the team getting on the field on defense as well as a kick and punt returner.
Without OJ Simpson, the Bills struggled through the pre season losing 4 of 6 games. As the N.F.L. exhibition season came and went, his surprise turned to well-disguised anguish. A few days before the start of the regular season, the N.F.L.’s interconference trading deadline also came and went, which effectively ruled out any possibility of Simpson’s being dealt to either the Rams or the 49ers–and at that point, the only team with a chance of landing him seemed to be the Oakland Raiders. On Friday, September 10th, Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson, Jr., flew to Los Angeles to talk with O.J. After the weekend, Wilson returned to Buffalo with the Juice, and OJ had a new 3 year $2.5 million dollar contract.
The Bills opened the season against Miami trying desperately to break the Dolphin’s mastery over the Bills. To this point, Buffalo was 0-for the 1970’s against Don Shula’s squad. While OJ did play, he had only 24 hours to familiarize himself with a team that was in camp for 8 weeks. The rust showed, and the Bills dropped their 13th consecutive game to the fish, 30-21.Lost for the season in the game to a knee injury was FB Jim Braxton. Braxton was a triple threat the season before, as a superb blocker, a change of pace running threat to the Juice, and as a receiver out of the backfield. The following week, last season’s #1 offense struggled to do anything against the Houston Oilers, dropping a 13-3 decision.
Week 3 found the Bills getting back on track with a modest 14-9 win in Tampa Bay, taking advantage of one of the worst teams in the history of the NFL. The expansion Buccaneers would go winless their inaugural season, and manage only 3 passing TDs and 10 offensive TDs for the entire year. The Bills got back to .500 with a return to last season’s offensive form- a 50-17 drubbing of the Chiefs. It was the last bright spot the Bills would enjoy for the rest of the year.
After a week 5 loss to the previously winless New York Jets, Lou Saban abruptly resigned for the second time as coach of the Bills. Ralph Wilson was stunned and hurt by the decision, leaving him without a coach at mid season for the third time in 8 years. Offensive line coach Jim Ringo would assume the helm with dismal results.
A 31-13 loss to the Baltimore Colts was followed up with 26-22 loss to the Patriots. In the Patriot’s game, QB Joe Ferguson was lost for the year with a back injury. QB Gary Marangi would take over. Despite the 2-4 record, Ferguson was having a great season to that point, tossing for 1,086 yards, 9 TDs, and only 1 interception- an NFL record.
Jim Ringo’s debut season as a head coach was quickly forgettable. He finished out the year going 0-9, closing out the season with losses to Miami and the Colts- and the Bills giving up 103 points in the process. The highlight came on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit. Despite falling behind 20-0 in the third quarter, OJ Simpson managed to break his own NFL rushing record with 273 yards. The woeful Bills could only muster 15 yards passing in the 27-14 loss.
OJ Simpson shook off the rust and finished with another NFL rushing title with 1,503 yards on 290 attempts. He was the team’s second best receiver as well, hauling in 22 catches for 259 yards. Simpson would finish with 9 TDs, 14 less than his record setting performance the year before. Bobby Chandler ws the only threat at the WR position, leading the team in receptions with 61 for 824 yards and 10 TDs. Punter Marv Bateman led the NFL with his 42.8 average.
Simpson and Guard Joe Delamielleure made All- Pro honors, with G Reggie McKenzie and Punter Marv Bateman also going to the Pro Bowl.