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1979 Buffalo Bills – Back on Track

by Bill Choinski


Knox took the talent he had in 1978 and pushed it as far as he could. While finishing with a mediocre 5-11 record, his version of the Bills showed the ability to hang close with the toughest of opponents. Heading into the 1979 NFL draft, Knox was heavily armed with a plethora of draft picks from the OJ Simpson deal of a year before. Adding to the value of what has to be considered the best trade in team history was the fact that the San Francisco 49ers, the recipient of the former All- Pro back, finished dead last in the league giving the Bills the number one selection of the entire draft. Stew Barber, the Bill’s stand out offensive tackle during their championship years of the 1960’s, was elevated to from the scouting department to GM.
Buffalo picked Ohio State’s Tom Cousineau, two-time All-American, with the first selection. With their second 1st Rd pick, The Bills grabbed Jerry Butler. Round 2 saw the Bills take two very talented and colorful players in NT Fred Smerlas and LB Jim Haslett. Tackle Jon Borchardt was nabbed in Rd 3. Round 4 the Bills again had 2 selections, and opted for DE Ken Johnson and FS Jeff Nixon. With 2 picks in Rd 5, S Rod Kush and QB Dan Manucci were selected. With a solid core of young layers, Knox dealt with his old club, the Los Angeles Rams, to bring in veteran former Pro Bowl LB Isiah Robertson. Undrafted LB Chris Keating and C Tim Vogler made the team as well.

Cousineau and new GM Stew Barber could not come to terms on a contract. After a protracted negotiation, Cousineau and his agent chose to forsake the Buffalo Bills and the NFL and jumped to the CFL’s Montreal Allouettes. Cousineau went on to become the CFL’s defensive MVP in 1979. Another loss on the field was WR Bobby Chandler. During training camp, Chandler came down on his shoulder, severely separating it in the process. He was just 1 reception shy of tying Elbert Dubenion’s record of 296 and 1 yard shy from becoming only the second Bill to amass 4,000 yards.

Knox forged ahead without his prized pick. The Bills opened the year at home against the hated Miami Dolphins. Winners of an NFL record 18 straight gams against the Bills stretching back to 1970, Knox and the Bills held the Dolphins in check in a tight game. Down 9-7 late, Joe Ferguson drove the Bills within FG range. Kicker Tom Dempsey’s attempt sailed just outside the upright- extending the frustration to 19 games for players, coaches, owners, and most importantly, the fans.

The Bills hosted Cincinnati in the second game of the season. Early in the second half, Buffalo’s quarterback Joe Ferguson handed the ball off to Hooks for a 3-yard touchdown. After a little over 10 minutes passed, Hooks carried the ball in from 32 yards for another touchdown. Moving to the fourth quarter, Hooks got the ball and four yards later, touchdown! A short time later, Hooks sliced through the Bengals defense 28 yards to the endzone. Five carries. Four touchdowns! The Bills would steamroll Cincinnati 51-24.

Hooks recounted – “That was a game that I could do very little wrong. It’s kind of like being in a zone, whatever that is. That game, I guess I kind of was in the zone. For some reason, I made people miss. Things seemed like to be in slow motion while I was playing, but when I was looking at game film, I didn’t remember doing some of the things that I had done. I was looking at it and it was, I did that? It was kind of amazing to watch. It was just a day to remember.”

After a disappointing road loss to “Air Coryell” and the high powered San Diego Chargers, Knox was forced to cut his long time friend and FG kicker, Tom Dempsey. The two had been tight going back to their Rams days, but the veteran Kicker had missed 3 extra points and connected on only 1 of 4 FGs in the firt 3 games. His replacement was Nick Mike-Mayer.

Buffalo returned home with an engagement with the New York Jets. Unlike last season, the Buffalo running game struggled as Terry Miller suffered through a sophomore jinx. The Bills offense compensated with a prolific air attack, not seen on the bills since the high flying championship years. Despite the loss of veteran Bobby Chandler, rookie Jerry Butler teamed up with the veteran Frank Lewis to combine for a deadly combo. Butler didn’t take long to prove that he was a quick learner. Against the Jets, in only his fourth game, he caught 10 passes for 255 yards and four touchdowns in a 46-31 Bills win.

After a 31-13 victory on Baltimore, the Bills lost 4 of their next 5 in close tough games. They held the league rushing champ Walter Payton in check in a 7-0 loss, fell for the 20th consecutive time to Miami 17-7, and lost by a single point to the Colts in a rematch. A victory over the Detroit Lions (20-17) and a disappointing home loss to the Patriots (26-6) left the young Bills at 4-7.

In late November, the young defense really came together. Knox employed the 3-4 defense that utilized his roster’s strength- a corps of young, talented linebackers. The Bills featured vets Sherman White and Ben Williams on the Defensive ends, and rookie NT Fred Smerlas in the middle. Covering the two inside LB spots were 3rd year vet Shane Nelson and Rookie Jim Haslett. The trio of Smerlas, Haslett, and Nelson were one of the most effective units in the league. Smerlas would occupy offensive blockers leaving Haslett and Nelson to clean up on tackles. Nelson registered a team record 192 tackles in ’79.

The Bills defense stepped up and propelled the team to three consecutive victories, including a stunning 16-13 overtime road win against the first place New England Patriots. Joe Ferguson found reserve WR Lou Piccone with seconds remaining to force overtime, and Nick Mike-Mayer salted it away in the extra session. The victory put Buffalo over the .500 mark for the first time since the 1975 season and only 1 game out of the division lead.

The schedule did not favor the Bills to close out the year. They faced 3 playoff caliber teams, including the defending Super Bowl champions. Denver defeated the Bills 19-16 in Orchard Park, followed by an emotion filled 10-3 loss in Minnesota, as 20 year NFL veteran Jim Marshall hung up his cleats for the last time in front of the home fans. Pittsburgh closed out the Bills 28-0, leaving Buffalo at 7-9 for the year, 4th in the AFC East.

The Buffalo running attack was split 3 ways between sophomore Terry Miller ( 484 yards, 1 TD), FB Curtis Brown (574 yards, 4 TDs) and Roland Hooks (320 yards, 6 TDs). As the offense could not settle on one back to shoulder the load, the passing attack flourished and had the best year in team history. Joe Ferguson passed for a team record 3,572 yards, a 52% completion rate, and 14 TDs. Frank Lewis led the team with 54 catches and became the fist receiver in 9 seasons to eclipse the 1,000 yard mark, with 1,082 yards and 2 scores. Rookie sensation Jerry Butler finished second 48 grabs for 834 yards and 4 TDs.

On defense, rookie Jeff Nixon won a starting job by week 11 from veteran Tony Greene. He stayed there for the rest of the season and finished the campaign with six interceptions for 81 yards. The most picks by a Bills’ rookie since Butch Byrd totaled seven in ‘64. Nixon was also credited with 61 tackles. Mario Clark was second on the team with 5. Incredibly, 10 Buffalo Bills registered interceptions on the year, as the unit scored 5 defensive TDs, with even Fred Smerlas getting into the act. Joe DeLamielleure was the only Buffalo Bill to play in the Pro Bowl. It was his 5th consecutive appearance as a first team All-Pro as well. As the decade of the 70’s came to a close, he was elected to the NFL’s All- Decade team.

1979 Buffalo Bills Statistics     1979 Team Results