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1983 Buffalo Bills – Competing vs a Rival League

by Bill Choinski


Frustrations swept the Buffalo Bills organization, from management down to the players. The first to exit the organization was coach Chuck Knox himself- architect of the Bills revival. Knox grew weary of the front office battles with ownership and GM Stew Barber over the loss of his best players, and Ralph Wilson’s refusal to pay top dollar for top talent. Knox engineered one of the great heists in NFL trade history 5 seasons ago, by dealing OJ Simpson to San Francisco for picks that turned out to be DE Scott Hutchison, WR Danny Fulton, DE Ken Johnson, RB Joe Cribbs, and the true prize, Tom Cousineau. But money squabbles never brought Cousineau to Buffalo as he bolted to Canada and later a trade to Cleveland. Joe Cribbs had given the Bills 3 great seasons, but his contract demands and holdouts were a constant distraction. On January 25th, one day after resigning as Bills head coach, Knox was announced as the new head coach of the Seattle Seahawks. He brought most of the Bills assistant coaching staff back with him.
The Loss of Knox sent shock waves through the team. Safety Bill Simpson, LB Isiah Robertson, and backup RB Lawrence McCutcheon, all ex –Rams brought to the Bills by Knox, retired from football. Young defensive standouts Jim Haslett and Fred Smerlas turned bitter toward management. Guard Reggie McKenzie, a charter member of the famed “Electric Company” offensive line and standout player for over a decade, asked for and was granted a trade to Seattle to rejoin Knox. LB Shane Nelson and Safety Jeff Nixon retired unable to recover from a reoccurring knee injuries. Long time reserve WR Lou Piccone was dealt to San Diego, followed by RB Curtis Brown to the Steelers.

After a not so exhaustive search, Wilson selected Bills QB coach Kay Stephenson, a former QB for the Bills in 1969. He won out over such candidates as Bills Defensive coordinator Tom Catlin, and Kansas City Chiefs former coach Marv Levy. Levy eventually took the Chicago Blitz head coaching position in the USFL. Shortly after, Stew Barber was also released. He was replaced by Ralph Wilson long time confidant Pat McGroder.

The 1983 draft finalized the Simpson deal in a roundabout way. Since they traded Tom Cousineau to the Browns, that left them with Cleveland’s #1 pick, 16th overall in the draft, With their own pick they selected TE Tony Hunter of Notre Dame (14th overall) , and with Cleveland’s selection they chose QB Jim Kelly of the University of Miami. In a strange twist, former Buffalo Bills coaching legend Lou Saban had a huge roll in making Kelley a top QB selection on this day. As a top linebacker prospect coming out of high school, Jim Kelly wanted to find a school that would play him at quarterback. Saban was head coach of the Miami Hurricanes, and was one of the few who was willing to take a shot with him as a quarterback. Kelly accepted Saban’s offer, and became one of 6 top quarterbacks to get drafted in the first round. Others were John Elway (1st), Todd Blackledge (7th), Tony Eason (15th) , Ken O’Brien (24th) and Dan Marino (27th). The Bills also picked LB Darryl Talley in Rd 2, and LB Trey Junkin in Rd 3.

Dr Jerry Argovitz, long time player agent for Joe Cribbs in many of his protracted hold outs with the Bills, joined the USFL as an owner. His club, the Houston Gamblers, made a deal with Jim Kelly to make him the league’s second highest paid player at $5 million per year over 4 years, double of what the Buffalo Bills offered. Fearful of losing their other top choice, the Bills were quick to ink Tony Hunter to a gaudy $1.7 million contract that made him the second highest paid Bill on the team behind Joe Ferguson, and the richest TE in the NFL. Following on the heels of the Kelly signing, Cribbs signed a contract with the Birmingham Stallions to begin play in 1984. With that, Cribbs would return for a lame duck season.

Buffalo opened the season with a valiant defensive effort against their old nemesis, the Miami Dolphins. Limiting the Dolphins to a meager 177 total yards ( and only 26 through the air) the Bills kept Miami out of the end zone. The Buffalo offense struggled mightily and failed to produce any points in a 12-0 defeat.

For the second straight game, the Bills defense kept the opposition out of the endzone. Travelling to Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, the Bills held a 10-3 advantage through 3 quarters. QB Ken Anderson was knocked out of the game by a staunch Buffalo defense and was replaced by Turk Schonert . Schonert rallied the Bengals to within 10-6, and had them on the Buffalo 2 at the 2 minut3 warning. On 4th down, Curtis Alexander was denied the endzone and Buffalo held on to the victory. Following the game, Bills kicker Fred Steinfort was released, and Joe Danelo brought in. It was the Bill’s 4th kicker in a calendar year.

Game three back home in Orchard Park turned into the Joe Cribbs show. Kay Stephenson was insistent on using Cribbs to his full potential regardless of his contract situation, and it all came together against the Baltimore Colts. Cribbs scored 3 TDs in the game, the last coming off a Chris Keating fumble recovery late into the 4th quarter. With 4:54 left, Cribb’s 2 yard pass reception put the Bills ahead for good 28-23.

Following his 3 TD performance against the colts, Cribbs exploded for his best rushing game in a Bills uniform. Dueling Houston Oiler legend Earl Campbell, Cribbs beat out Campbell 166 yards to 142. Buffalo built a slim 16-13 lead going into the 4th. Ferguson hit Frank Lewis with a 19 yard TD to put the Bills up 23-13. Oiler QB Gifford Nielsen drove the Oilers to the Buffalo 13, when DE Ben Williams forced a fumble. Dave Kilson picked up the loose ball and drove the final nail in the Houston coffin with an 87 yard TD return with 38 seconds left.

A date with the New York Jets on Monday Night Football didn’t go the way the Bills had hoped. Never in the game, the Jets scored the first 17 points on a 34-10 rout. Buffalo’s hot and cold offense was cold on this night, gaining a total of 216 yards with 4 turnovers.

Game 6 found the Bills in the Orange Bowl, a venue where they have failed to register a win since 1966- Miami’s expansion season. While the Dolphins managed to reach the Super Bowl the previous season, they had serious issues trying to replace their Hall of Fame signal caller of the 70’s Bob Griese. Back up Don Strock wasn’t the answer, and David Woodley was ineffective. The past spring, Dolphin coach Don Shula took a chance on Pittsburgh’s Dan Marino. Woodley started the season at QB, but his erratic play led to his benching after week 5, with rookie Dan Marino getting the nod for his first start ever.

 While Buffalo Bills QB Joe Ferguson struggled during the season, he managed to turn in his best performance ever wearing a Bills uniform on this day. He opened the game with 2 long drives, capping them both off with 2 TD passes to WR Byron Franklin. The brash young Marino responded, tying the game 3 minutes into the second half with a 63 yard TD pass to Mark Duper. Not to be out done, Ferguson again put the Bills out front finding FB Booker Moore on an 11 yard TD pass 1:42 into the fourth. Marino surged the Dolphins into the lead with a pair of TD passes a 2 yard score to Nate Moore, and a 14 yard TD pass too Mark Clayton with 3:06remaining in the game. Trailing 35-21, Ferguson took over 80 yards from the tying TD. Facing a 3rd and 16, Ferguson hit Byron Franklin for 221 yards. Ferguson would find WR Perry Tuttle for 19 yards and Jerry Butler for 16. Facing 4th and goal at the one with ony 23 seconds remaining, Ferguson capped the 13 play drive by finding Joe Cribbs in the end zone for Cribb’s second TD of the game.

In overtime, Marino twice drove the Dolphins into Bills territory in an attempt to win it. Dolphin’s kicker Uwe von Schamann missed FGs of 52 and 43 yards to keep the Bills alive. Ferguson finally put a stake through the heart of the Dolphins, driving the Bills to the Miami 19 setting up the game winner of the foot of Joe Danelo. In victory, Ferguson set a team record for Attempts (55) , completions (38) and yards (407). The victory put the Bills in first place at 4-2.

The Bills took the momentum with them to Baltimore to take on the 4-2 Colts for first in the division. The Colts opened with a 52 yard flea- flicker to grab an early 7-0 lead. But the Bills would slam the lid down on the Colt offense the rest of the afternoon, allowing only 17 more passing yards the rest of the way. Buffalo reeled off 30 straight points to take this contest and the division lead, to the tune of 30-7.

Buffalo then followed the pattern that it set the previous 3 seasons. Get off to a fast start, play mediocre ball down the stretch, and close out the year with a bitterly disappointing road trip. Not helping matters were a spate of injuries that would kill the Bills chances. Jerry Butler was lost for the season with a knee injury. Jim Haslett also missed significant paying time during the year.

The Bills were embarrassed in week 8 to the tune of 31-0 by the Patriots at home. Week 9 saw the New Orleans Saints roll into town. Ferguson hit 4 TD passes to put the Bills up 27-7, only to survive a furious 4th quarter comeback.

After suffering through 3 interceptions 2 weeks previous against the Patriots, Joe Ferguson continued his hot and cold streak with 4 more interceptions in the return engagement against New England in Sullivan stadium. New England again pounded the Bills 21-7as Buffalo fell out of the top spot in the division into a tie for second place.

In what would be the Bills last trip to Shea Stadium, Buffalo rallied from a 14-0 halftime deficit with a thrilling 24-17 win. Joe Cribbs scored the winning TD with 22 seconds remaining after hooking up on a 33 yard TD pass.

At 7-4, the Bills were still tied for first in the division with Miami when the Los Angeles Raiders came to town. The Bills suffered another loss to their receivers when backup Mike Mosley was lost during practice. Once the game started, Joe Ferguson was added to the list getting knocked out with a concussion. The Raiders would take a 24-3 lead on a Todd Christiensen 15 yard catch with 10:52 remaining in the game. Back up Matt Kofler then led the Bills on a furious comeback, which was also greatly aided by the Bills special teams unit. Joey Lumpkin tackled Raider punter Ray Guy before he could get his kick off setting up a Joe Cribbs score. The Raiders muffed the ensuing kickoff giving Buffalo another short field and they took advantage again. WR Perry Tuttle hooked up with Kofler on a 28 yard strike to give Buffalo their third TD in a span of 4:13, as it tied the score at 24-24 with under 5 minutes in the game. The comeback would be for naught, as the Raiders Chris Bahr nailed the winning 36 yard FG on the last play of the game.

Ferguson returned in week 13 against the LA Rams, but suffered 5 second half interceptions as the Rams won 41-17. It was their second loss in a row, and dropped them 2 games behind Miami.The Bills played without Butler, WR Frank Lewis, TE Mark Brammer, and others as the injuries continued to pile up. The road trip continued in Kansas City, as Cribbs had the greatest game in his pro career. Carrying for a personal record 36 times, Cribbs gained a total of 185 yards in a 14-9 win. LB Eugene Marve had an outstanding game as well registering 17 tackles. DB Mike Kennedy provided the winning score on a 22 yard interception return in the final quarter. It would prove to be the final victory of the season. Buffalo dropped a 23-10 decision to the San Francisco 49ers at home knocking them out of the playoffs. That was followed by a lackluster 31-14 loss to Atlanta as the team played out the string. Buffalo finished 8-8 on the year, tied for second in the AFC East.

Joe Cribbs finished the year with 1,131 yards rushing, and was the team’s top receiving threat as well with 57 catches for a team high 524 yards. He also managed 10 TDs on the year. Both WR Frank Lewis (36 rec/486 yards/3 TDs) and Butler (36 rec/402 yards/3tds) saw a significant drop in production due to age and injury. Joe Ferguson finished the season with 2995 yards, a completion rate of 55.3%, 26 TDs and 25 interceptions.

On Defense, LB Eugene Marve registered an amazing 200 tackles, followed by LB Chris Keating with 165 and Steve Freeman with 142. Ben Williams again led the team with 10 sacks, followed by Fred Smerlas with 6 and rookie Darryl Talley with 5. Freeman also led the team with 3 interceptions.

Joe Cribbs and Fred Smerlas were each voted into the Pro Bowl, Smerlas as a starting nose tackle.

1983 Buffalo Bills Statistics     1983 Team Results