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1981 Buffalo Bills – Close but no Cigar

by Bill Choinski



Over the past 15 seasons, the Buffalo Bills seemed to have been the victims of a curse. A curse that has afflicted their first round draft picks. Walt Patulski, for example. In 1972 he was the top choice in the land, but never panned out. Tom Cousineau was the number 1 selection in 1979, and bolted to the CFL. Only OJ Simpson, the highest rated college prospect in history, broke that mold. But even recent history has caught up to the Juice. The 1981 NFL draft would be no different for the Bills.

After some draft day wheeling and dealing, Buffalo landed Penn State FB Booker Moore with the 28th selection in the draft. In Rd 2, they grabbed WR Byron Franklin and CB Chris Williams. Late round gems included RB Rob Riddick (9th), and T Justin Cross (10th).

3 Months after his selection, Booker Moore was diagnosed with a rare brain illness, contracting Guillian-Barre disease. The nerve disorder forced the top choice to miss his entire rookie season as he recovered. To replace him on the roster, Knox went back to his old team, the LA Rams, and acquired veteran Lawrence McCutcheon, a former all pro and holder of multiple 1,000 yard seasons. Disgruntled Terry Miller, who’s production never matched his 1,000 yard rookie year, asked to be traded after losing his starting spot to Joe Cribbs. Knox obliged and sent him packing to the Cleveland Browns. Last season’s #1 choice, Jim Ritcher, was looking like a complete bust as well. Knox tried to salvage the young offensive lineman’s career by moving him to guard during Joe Devlin’s mini camp hold out.

Buffalo opened the year the hottest team in the NFL. The New York Jets were obliterated 31-0 in front of a sold out crowd in Orchard Park. The offense was in tune, exhibiting the perfect balance of run and pass. Buffalo managed 182 yards on the ground, 236 in the air, and coasted all the way. QB Joe Ferguson managed 2 TD Passes, and RB Joe Cribbs managed 2 TDs of his own. On Defense, the Bills were living up to their previous season’s #1 overall ranking, shutting out the Jets and holding them to a paltry 231 yards.

In Week 2, Buffalo took their dominant game on the road to meet the Colts in Baltimore. Ferguson remained red hot, throwing for 263 yards and 4 TDs in another romp, 35-3. Baltimore’s offense fared worse than the Jets, managing a mere 73 yards on the ground and 74 in the air.

The timing of the Bills’ schedule was not very good. After a road game, the Bills had only 3 days to prepare for the NFC Champion Philadelphia Eagles on a rare ABC Thursday night appearance. The Eagles beat the Bills 20-14 at their own game, dominating them defensively while moving the ball at will. Wilbert Montgomery managed 125 yards in the win. LB Shane Nelson left the game with an injured knee.

The following week, Buffalo made history again in a loss, their first overtime defeat. The once dominating defense in early September was getting lit up through the air. Travelling to Cincinnati, Bengal QB Kenny Anderson threw for 328 yards and 3 TDs. On the first play of the 4th quarter, Joe Ferguson tossed his 3rd TD of the game to Frank Lewis to give Buffalo a 21-10 lead. Anderson led a furious comeback with 2 TD passes to Steve Kreider. Buffalo managed to send the game into OT with a last second 40 yard FG by Nick Mike-Mayer. Jim Breech salted it away for the Bengals with a 28 yard FG to end the game.

The Bills managed to right the ship in October, going 3-1 and managing to stay within a half game of the Miami Dolphins. Game 5 saw Buffalo take the rematch with the Colts in Buffalo 23-17, followed with a Monday Night Football date with the hated ‘Fins. Before a national prime time audience, Buffalo completely dismantled the division leaders with the perfect half of football. Joe Ferguson was stellar in the first half, with 221 yards and 3 TDs, 2 to Jerry Butler. Only a Fulton Walker 90 yard kick return marred the performance, as the Bills took to the half with a 31-7 lead. They put it in cruise control the second half and took the game 31-21. Don Strock was victimized 4 times on Buffalo interceptions.

The emotional win was coupled by a flat performance against the Jets the next week. Atoning for their opening season loss, New York took it to the Bills 33-14. Buffalo’s defense was exposed for 200 yards rushing in defeat. The Bills closed out October with a great effort from the defense. Buffalo rallied from a 7-0 deficit with 3 Nick Mike-Meyer FG’s, the last providing the winning points with no time left on the clock. After giving up 374 yards to the Jets 7 days earlier, the Bills managed to hold the Broncos to 64yards rushing and a mere 97 through the air. Joe Cribbs was the offensive star of the game, gaining 123 yards and setting up the winning FG with a 13 yard run up the middle.

November was the pivotal month in the season for the Bills. A win at home over the Browns, 22-13, was followed up by two poor performances on the road against NFC East foes. The Dallas Cowboys took a 27-14 win as Tony Dorsett ran for 117 yards. This was followed up with a 177 yard Rushing performance by St. Louis RB OJ Anderson in a 24-0 rout in Busch Stadium. The loss dropped Buffalo to a mediocre 6-5 , in 3rd in the division behind the 7-3-1 Miami Dolphins and the 6-4-1 New York Jets.

Buffalo was looking for an easy win over the 2-9 Patriots at home, who were going through a miserable season with a talented but under-achieving club. Heading into the 4th, Buffalo was nursing a 13-10 lead. Joe Cribbs was knocked out of the game early, and Roosevelt Leaks and Roland Hooks were called upon to fill the void.

Late in the game, QB Matt Cavanaugh hooked up with WR Stanley Morgan on a 65 yard completion to the Buffalo 5. Following the 2 minute warning, Cavanaugh connected again wit TE Don Hasselback to put the Patriots up 17-13. On the ensuing drive, Ferguson was intercepted by the Pat’s Rick Sanford, sending most of the 71,593 in the stands heading to the exits. Using their 3 time outs, Buffalo managed to stop the Patriots forcing them to punt it back to Buffalo.

Taking over at the 27, with 35 seconds and no timeouts, the Buffalo Bills’ playoff hopes seemed dashed. Ferguson could not find any of his wideouts, and fired a bullet down the middle of the field. Roland Hooks made a circus-like one handed diving catch over the middle for a 37 yard gain. With the time winding down, Ferguson managed to line the team up and toss the ball out of bounds to kill the clock with 12 seconds remaining.

36 yards away from the end zone, the Bills called for the Hail Mary. Hooks, along with Jerry Butler and Frank Lewis, lined up to the right of the formation and streaked to the end zone. Waiting for them were 6 Patriot defenders. As Ferguson’s lob came down in the corner of the field, LB Mike Hawkins jumped and appeared to have battered the ball harmlessly to the ground. Roland Hooks was the man to the rescue again, gathering in the deflected pass for his second TD of the game. The sparse crowd that remained in the wet weather were rewarded with one of the greatest finishes in Buffalo Bills history. Hooks finished the game with 156 total yards and 2 TDs, 111 of them through the air.

Buffalo took the momentum generated from the win to reel of 3 more victories in a row. The Redskins came to town and could not stop super sub Roland Hooks, who filled in for the injured Cribbs admirably. His 109 yard, 2 TD performance propelled Buffalo to a 21-14 win over Washington.

With Cribbs back in the fold, Buffalo returned to Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego for another thrilling game. Both teams were in third place in their divisions, hanging on for their playoff lives. The Bills rallied from deficits four different times during the game, withstanding excellent performances from Dan Fouts (343 yards passing, 2 TDs) and Chuck Muncie’s 119 yards rushing . Roosevelt Leaks kept the Bills close during the game with 2 scores, and Joe Cribbs put the Bills in front for good with his 9th TD of he season.

Trailing 28-27 late, the Buffalo defense rallied twice to seal the win. Chuck Muncie was stopped deep in Bills territory on a 4th and inches with 5 minutes left. With 1:52 remaining and the Chargers driving to the Bills 26, Bills veteran safety Steve Freeman forced a Muncie fumble that sealed the victory. During the game, Frank Lewis set a new team record for yards in a season, eclipsing Elbert “Golden Wheels” Dubenion’s 1964 mark.

The Bills took care of business in New England in week 15, holding the Patriots to 204 total yards in a 19-10 win. Joe Cribbs had a career day, gaining 201 total yards, 153 on the ground, and adding the winning TD.

Going into Miami for the last week of the season, Buffalo was 10-6 a half game behind the Dolphins. Winner take all for the division crown, loser had to travel to New York to take on the Jets in the Wild Card game. In a tough , punishing defensive battle, Miami beat out the Bills 16-6.

AFC Wild Card Playoffs
Bills 31, Jets 27

Buffalo began their playoff game much like they did their season, with a fast start at the expense of the Jets. It began on the opening kickoff, as Ervin Parker forced a fumble on the return that Mario Clark returned 26 yards for a score. On the Jet’s first possession, Wesley Walker dropped an easy TD pass on the next drive to force a Jets punt. Ferguson took only 4 plays to strike again, as Frank Lewis caught a 50 yard pass to put the Bills up 14-0. On the very next drive, Rufus Bess intercepted a Richard Todd pass and returned it 49 yards deep into Jets territory setting up a Bills chip shot FG. Phil Villapiano got into the act with another Todd interception in the second quarter. Ferguson found Cribbs for a 28 yard pass, and then capped off the 5 play drive with a 26 yard TD to Lewis again, his second of the day.

The Jets finally found life on the ensuing drive. Richard Todd connected with Mickey Shuler on a 30 yard strike, and the Jets climbed back into the game with a 26 yard FG to close the gap 24-10 at the half. Ferguson, who was riding a hot hand early in the game, struggled in the second half. The Jets turned momentum around with 4 interceptions, keeping them close when ever they seemed on the verge of extinction. With 10 minutes left in the game, Joe Cribbs exploded around the end for a 45 yard run down the sideline, extending the Bills lead to 31-13.

Richard Todd wasn’t done. Todd moved the Jets 80 yards in less than 3 minutes, capping off an 8 play TD drive with a 30 yard pass to Bobby Jones. Following a Buffalo 3 and out, The Jets again drove the field, capped off with a Kevin Long 1 yard TD plunge with 3:44 remaining in the game. The Jets closed the gap to 31-27. Again the Bills failed to get a single first down, and Todd regained possession with just over 2 minutes left. He moved the Jets to the Buffalo 11 yard line with the aid of a pass interference penalty, nullifying a Steve Freeman game winning interception. With 5 seconds left, Bill Simpson- the safety burned by the Chargers late in last year’s playoff loss, became the hero. His second interception on a pass intended for Derrick Gaffney sealed the win and a trip to Cincinnati in the divisional playoffs. Fred Smerlas had a huge game for the Bills as well, with 8 tackles and 2 of the team’s 5 sacks on the day.

AFC Divisional Playoffs
Bengals 28, Bills 21

Cincinnati opened the game strong, scoring 2 TDs in the first 12 minutes. Curtis Alexander opened the scoring with a 4 yard run. On the next Bills possession, Ferguson was picked off by Ken Riley setting up a Pete Johnson goal line plunge and an early 14-0 lead. Cincy took their third possession of the game to the Buffalo 9 yard line, but a sack thwarted the drive, and Rob Riddick blocked a Jim Breech FG attempt.

Buffalo rallied in the second, on a Joe Cribbs score. Set up by a 54 yard Ferguson to Butler pass, Cribbs took it in 3 plays later from the one. In the Third quarter, Cribbs evened the score with a brilliant 44 yard run shedding 2 tackles on the way. The Bengals countered wit Curtis Alexander’s second TD run of the game, a 20 yard rush through the center of the Bills defense.

Buffalo answered Cincinnati again. Buffalo put together 14 play drive that ate up the last 7 minutes of the 3rd. Joe Cribbs was knocked out of the game with a bruised knee early in the drive, but the offense didn’t miss a beat with his replacement, Roland Hooks, who added 25 crucial yards. Joe Ferguson climaxed the 79 yard drive with a 21 yard strike to Jerry Butler. With 14:52 remaining, the score again was tied 21-21.

The see-saw game continued, Cincinnati again answering a Buffalo score with one of their own. Rookie Chris Collinsworth hauled in a 16 yard score to put the Bengals up for good with 10;32 remaining. Buffalo attempted one last rally. Ferguson drove the Bills to the Bengal 20 with 2 minutes remaining. After calling a time out to discuss a 4th and 3, Lou Piccone’s catch at the Bengal 16 for a fist down was nullified by a delay of game penalty. Forcing a 4th and 8, Ferguson overthrew an open Roland Hooks ending the Bills last chance at putting the game into OT.

Despite missing time to various injuries, Joe Cribbs still led the club in rushing with 1,097 yards. His 40 receptions and 603 yards were third overall on the club, and he added 10 TDs. Frank Lewis would lead not only the Bills, but the entire league with 1,244 yards receiving on a club high 70 catches with 4 TDs. Butler followed with 55 receptions for 842 yards and 8 scores. Joe Ferguson had his best season ever, throwing for 3,652 yards, 24 TDs, and 20 interceptions.

On defense, Mario Clark led the squad with 5 interceptions, folowed by Charlie Romes and Bill Simpson, with 4 each. Jim Haslett led the team with 135 tackles, Lucius Sanford was second with 118. Ben Williams again led the team with 10.5 sacks, followed by Ken Johnson and Sherm White with 8 each.

The Bills would send Joe Cribbs, Fred Smerlas, and Frank Lewis to the Pro- Bowl.

1981 Buffalo Bills Statistics     1981 Team Results