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1980 Buffalo Bills – The Bermuda Triangle and a Division Crown

by Bill Choinski

Chuck Knox had rebuilt the Buffalo Bills in the post- Simpson era through the draft and acquiring veteran leadership. In 2 short seasons the Bills went from laughingstocks of the league to a dangerous opponent. To continue the process, Knox engineered a pair of trades involving 2 of the Bills long time veterans. WR Bobby Chandler expressed a desire to move back to the West Coast to be closer to his family. One week prior to the draft, Knox accommodated Chandler by dealing him to the Raiders for veteran linebacker Phil Villapiano. Also demanding a trade, All-Pro guard Joe DeLamielleure held out most of the offseason and training camp. Shortly after ending the hold out, Cleveland landed him for a pair of 2nd round draft picks. Filling Joe DeLamielleure’s spot, Knox dealt a draft choice to the New Orleans Saints to pick up colorful and controversial guard Conrad Dobler. Dobler had earned a reputation in the league as a tough, gritty, even dirty player associated with leg whips, cheap shots, and a real mean streak.

Veteran losses included DE Phil Dokes and Tony Greene. Greene was released in camp after a nine year career and 38 interceptions, second all time on the Bills behind the legendary Butch Byrd. Center Willie Parker was also released. To help bolster a running game that hit hard times in 1979, the Bills picked up FB Roosevelt Leaks off waivers from the Colts.

The 1980 NFL draft saw the Bills trade down with Seattle in the first round and still get the player Knox coveted, center Jim Ritcher. With the second round pick, the Bills again found gold with RB Joe Cribbs of Auburn. TE Mark Brammer made the team as a 3rd round pick, as well as Ervin Parker- LB in the 4th. Punter Greg Cater was selected in the 10th.

Through the preseason, Bills fans were on edge as the Bills underwent a series of holdouts. Joe DeLamielleure (before he was dealt), CB Mario Clark, WR Lou Piccone, and DE Sherman White all sat out for better deals. Meanwhile, the Bills dropped 3 of 4 preseason games to the Eagles, Lions, Oilers, while defeating only Green Bay. But as camp closed and the season opener at home to Miami loomed, the veterans eventually returned.

10 years of frustration and 20 straight defeats were on the lone when an aging veteran Miami Dolphin team came to Orchard Park. 79, 598 fans, the third largest crowd in team history, were on hand as the Bills fielded their best overall team talent -wise in a decade.

The game was a defensive battle with both sides guilty of sloppy ball control. Joe Ferguson suffered through one of his worst days ever tossing 5 interceptions. Added to the Bills woes were 2 more fumbles. Meanwhile, Miami fared no better. Bob Griese began showing his age, completing 11 of 18 with 2 interceptions himself. The Miami ground game was stuffed by Knox’s stifling defense, limiting the Dolphins to a mere 90 yards on the ground and forcing 2 fumbles. The Dolphins were held to 200 net yards for the entire game.

With both teams playing like they were on quicksand, Bills safety Jeff Nixon picked off a Griese pass late in the second quarter setting up a Nick Mike-Meyer FG to give Buffalo a 3-0 halftime lead. Buffalo opened the second quarter but went 3 plays and out. On the ensuing punt, Kim Bokamper partially blocked the Greg Cater kick setting up the Dolphins on the Bills 21 to the groans of “Here we go again” from the hometown crowd. Miami took little time in the second half reclaiming the lead. After a 17 yard Steve Howell run put the ball on the Buffalo 4 yard line. Griese hit WR Tony Nathan on the next play for the TD.

Deep into the 4th quarter down 7-3, the Bills finally put together a decent drive. Ferguson shook off his 5 interception day and drove the Bills 68 yards in seven plays. During the drive, Ferguson hit standout WR Jerry Butler on a 29 yard strike that put the Ball on the Miami 11 yard line. Dolphin DB Glenn Blackwood had smothered Butler all day, grabbing two interceptions and limiting Butler to a single 7 yard reception in 55 minutes of football. But Butler finally escaped the clutches of Blackwood and set the Bills up for their first touchdown. Ferguson threaded the needle with a 4 yard TD pass to newcomer FB Roosevelt Leaks with 3:42 remaining. Rich Stadium erupted with noise.

On the very next series for the Dolphins, backup QB Don Strock replaced Griese, who was feeling the effects of a pounding by the punishing Bills defense. On Strock’s first play, he was intercepted by LB Isiah Robertson who returned it to the Miami 11 yard line. On 3rd and goal from the 6, Ferguson’s pass to WR Frank Lewis was stopped inches from the goal line. Coach Knox, showing supreme confidence in his defense, chose to punch it in on 4th down. Rookie Joe Cribbs, who unseated Terry Miller as the starting RB, lunged in to the euphoric roar of all in attendance. With 3:02 remaining, the Bills scored their second TD in 100 seconds for a 17-7 lead.

Strock came back into the game for one more effort. Eight plays later, Jeff Nixon intercepted his 3rd pass of the game to seal the victory. As time expired, the sell out crowd stormed the field tearing down the goalposts. One of the goalposts was passed through the stands and delivered by the frenzied crowd to Ralph Wilson’s private box. Wilson called the victory the greatest in team history, surpassing the 1964/65 AFL title games.

The victory propelled the Bills to a 5 game undefeated streak to start the season. In week 2 at home, Buffalo scored 20 consecutive points in the second and third quarters as the Bills defeated the Jets, 20-10. Jeff Nixon continued his excellent play returning a 50 yard interception for a score to cap the victory. Week 3 saw the Bills on the road in the New Orleans Superdome. While the defense were the catalysts in the first two games, Buffalo finally got their offense on track. Joe Ferguson became the Bills all time passing leader with a 295 yard 3 TD effort, with two scores to Frank Lewis. Jerry Butler added 133 receiving yards as well. Joe Cribb’s second TD of the game salted away a 35-26 win.

Week 4 saw the Oakland Raiders come to town. Buffalo cemented their place as the NFL’s #1 defense by dominating the Raiders, who went on at season’s end to win the Super Bowl. The Raiders were held to 179 total yards, the second time in 4 weeks an opposing team was held to 200 yards or less. Joe Cribbs added TDs 4 and 5 in a 24-7 rout. Jeff Nixon set up the last TD of the game with his league leading 5th interception in only 4 games.

The Buffalo defense had earned the nickname “Bermuda Triangle” because of the dominating play it received from the three players up the middle. Nose Tackle Fred Smerlas, and LB’s Jim Haslett and Shane Nelson gobbled up running backs. Flanking Smerlas at the DE positions were veterans Sherm White and Ben Williams. The other starting LB’s were Lucius Sanford and Isiah Robertson. The secondary featured Mario Clark and Charles Romes at the corners, with Bill Simpson and Jeff Nixon at the safety positions.

Week 5 was the measuring stick for the Bills. They traveled out to San Diego to meet the AFC’s only other undefeated team, the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers featured QB Dan Fouts and the high powered “Air Coryell” offense, which was shattering league passing marks. The Buffalo defense proved their mettle in this game limiting the Chargers to a mere 214 passing yards and 300 overall. After San Diego jumped out to an early 14-3 lead, reserve safety Rod Kush blocked a San Diego punt that Luscius Sanford recovered for a score.

San Diego added another TD in the 3rd, putting the Bills behind 24-12. Rod Kush came to the rescue again in the 4th quarter. Forcing a fumble on one series, and tackling Charger’s punter Rick Partridge on the next, it set up a Ferguson to Brammer 9 yard TD pass with 10 minutes remaining in the game. On the ensuing drive, Dan Fouts was intercepted by LB Shane Nelson, setting up the winning TD by Joe Cribbs. Buffalo won 26-24 and became the NFL’s sole undefeated team at 5-0. Unfortunately, both Kush and Nixon were knocked out of action due to knee injuries.

Week 6 saw Buffalo taste defeat for the first time, on a rainy and windy day at Rich Stadium. Baltimore pulled off a 17-12 upset win picking off a Joe Ferguson pass in the end zone as time expired. Week 7 saw the Bills drop the rematch with the Dolphins in Miami 17-14.

With first place on the line, 5-2 Buffalo met 6-1 New England on the windy Rich Stadium turf. In their best defensive effort to date, Buffalo held the Patriots to a mere 148 total yards in offense in a 31-13 win. Joe Cribbs registered his first game breaking the century mark rushing, with 118 yards and his 8th and 9th TDs on the season. Week 9 saw Buffalo drop their 3rd game in 4 tries when they fell 30-14 to the NFC West leading Atlanta Falcons. Buffalo Blew a 14-0 lead giving up 30 consecutive points.

Week 9 was almost a repeat of the Falcon game a week previous. At Shea Stadium visiting the cellar dwelling Jets, Buffalo again jumped out to a 17- 0 lead on rookie TE Mark Brammer’s 2 TD catches. The Jets hung tough, scoring 2 TDs in the 4th quarter to tie the score at 24. A spectacular 31 yard Ferguson to Frank Lewis scoring strike with 6 seconds left sealed the victory.

Buffalo put on another defensive clinic in Riverfront Stadium where the Bengals hosted the Bills. Buffalo registered 4 sacks on Bengal QB Kenny Anderson as the Bills held their 2nd opponent of the season without an offensive score in the 14-0 win. Coupled with the Patriots loss in LA, Buffalo moved to 8-3 and in sole possession of the division. Pittsburgh was the next to fall, as the defending Super Bowl champions were dominated by the Bills defense. The Steelers could only manage 239 total yards in a 28-13 loss. Joe Cribbs chipped in with 110 yards, as buffalo managed 178 rushing and 201 passing against the “Steel Curtain” Pittsburgh defense. Buffalo faltered in the rematch with the Colts in Baltimore, as they swept the season series from the Bills with a 28-24 win. Buffalo scored on their first 2 possessions of the game but surrendered 28 of the game’s next 31 points.

In another watershed game for the Bills, Chuck Knox’s former club, the Los Angeles Rams came to town. For the second home game in a row, the Bills hosted a Super Bowl team from the season before. In a defensive struggle, Steve Freeman’s 47 yard interception return of a Pat Haden pass was the Bill’s only touchdown on the day. While Buffalo managed to hold the Rams to a mere 34 yards rushing and 215 on the day, they did manage an 80 yard scoring drive late to knot the score at 7-7. Heading in to OT, Buffalo’s defense shut down the Rams, and Buffalo marched down field for Mike-Mayer’s game winner. The win gave Buffalo a 2 game lead in the AFC East with 2 to play. Incredibly, the fans would not leave Rich Stadium following the home finale. The team re-emerged from their locker rooms and celebrated on the field to the delight of the home crowd.

The previous week’s jubilation came crashing back to earth one week later. Visiting the Patriots, New England needed a victory to stay alive in the race. A fore-runner to the events of the day, Curtis Brown was tackled at the Bills’ own 2 yard line on the opening kickoff, and it went down hill from there. Joe Ferguson was knocked out of the game with a severely sprained ankle and the Bills offense stalled with relief appearances by Dan Mannucci and David Humm. New England walked all over Bufalo with a resounding 24-2 defeat. The Bills offensive line, enjoying a stellar season giving up a mere 12 sacks in 14 previous games, were over run by the Pat’s pass rush. Humm and Manucci were sacked 8 times.

Buffalo needed to travel to San Francisco and win to clinch the AFC East – the Bill’s first division title in 14 seasons. In the quagmire of mud making up the Candlestick Park turf, Buffalo slogged it’s way to an ugly 18-13 win behind a gutty performance from the injured Ferguson. Joe Cribbs responded with his best game as a Bill, with 128 yards. Lost in the game was LB Shane Nelson with a broken wrist. The victory sparked a wild celebration back in Buffalo. 4,000 diehard and hearty Bills fans greeted the Bills’ charter flight in 14 degree weather at 4 AM.

AFC Divisional Playoffs
San Diego 20, Bills 14

Buffalo drew San Diego 2 weeks later in the AFC playoffs. Opening the game with a 3-0 lead, The Chargers offense was held in check for the entire first half of the game, much as it was when Buffalo first met the Chargers in week 5. Buffalo’s offense struggled as well, as the gimpy Ferguson, still hobbled with the severely sprained ankle, was re-injured on the Bills’ 5th play of the game. Out for only a series, Ferguson returned but was immobilized. Only sacked 12 times all season, Ferguson went down 3 times and tossed 3 interceptions.

Buffalo got on track with a 72 yard, 12 play grinding drive capped off with a 4 yard Roosevelt Leaks TD. Buffalo’s punishing defense forced a Charger turnover late in the half when Charles Romes leveled San Diego wideout Charlie Joiner forcing a fumble. Buffalo recovered in Charger territory. Buffalo made it 14-3 with 16 seconds left in the half on a 9 yard Frank Lewis TD catch.

Charger’s potent offense came alive in the second half. Their opening drive marched down the field in 4 plays consuming 70 yards capped off with a 9 yard Joiner TD pass. With the score 14-10, the Bills defense regained control. With Ferguson limping in the pocket, the Chargers concentrated on stuffing Joe Cribbs and the running game. Cribbs was held to a mere 53 yards on 18 attempts. The Chargers added a Rolf Benirschke FG at the opening of the 4th quarter to narrow the score to a single point. Buffalo missed cashing in on a late opportunity in the 4th. Scott Hutchison forced a fumble on a Charger punt return with 6 minutes remaining, but Joe Cribbs was denied on a 3rd and inches. Nick Mike-mayer then failed to connect on a 49 yard FG.

Bill Simpson was a huge factor in the Buffalo secondary all game long. He had forced two turnovers in the game and was a factor in holding the Charger air attack in check for over 55 minutes. In the waning moments of the game, San Diego was at midfield on 3rd and 10 with 2:06 left. On the previous play, Charles Romes nearly sealed the win, but dropped an interception. This time, it was unheralded WR Rod Smith. With only 4 catches all season long, Smith just beat out Simpson over the middle and coasted for a 50 yard score.

Buffalo tried to Rally with the injured Ferguson, but came up short. Driving to the 48, Ferguson was intercepted by Glen Edwards killing the Bills’ chances.

Joe Cribbs Became the second rookie rusher for the Bills in 3 seasons to lead the club with a 1,182 yard season, a club record for rookies. A dual threat out of the backfield, he was second on the team with 52 receptions and 3rd with 415 yards receiving. His 12 TDs were also tops on the team. FB Curtis Brown was second in rushing behind Cribbs with 559 yards and 3 scores. Jerry Butler Led the team with 57 receptions and 832 yards, with 6 TDs. WR Frank Lewis also had 6 TDs, with 648 yards.

The defense finished the season ranked #1 in the NFL, giving up a paltry 256 yards and 16 points per game. Led by LB Jim Haslett’s 135 tackles, they featured one of the better front seven defenders in the league. Steve Freeman led all DB’s with 7 interceptions. Jeff Nixon, lost for the year after a knee injury in week 5, was second with 5 picks. Ben Williams led the team in sacks with 11, followed by second year sensation Fred Smerlas with 6.5

The Bills sent seven to the Pro Bowl. On Offense, The Bills sent RB Joe Cribbs and WR Jerry Butler. Representing the OL were G Reggie McKenzie and LT Ken Jones.On Defense, The Bills sent Ben Williams, Fred Smerlas, and Jim Haslett.

Coach Chuck Knox was named the NFL Coach of the Year by the Associated Press.

1980 Buffalo Bills Statistics     1980 Team Results