1985 Buffalo Bills – The Cornerstone
In early February, Bills GM Terry Bledsoe suffered a major heart attack. In his absence, Bill Polian- Buffalo’s director of player personnel along with chief college scout Norm Pollom, split the duties for signing players. It turned to be a fateful move, finally in the Bill’s favor.
Since Buffalo had the first pick in the draft, the duo went to work immediately to attempt to lock up Bruce Smith 2 months before the draft. The Outland Trophy winner stated in February that he would give the Bills 1 week to sign him to a respectable offer or he would defect to the Baltimore Stars of the USFL. Losing Tom Cousineau in 1979, and Jim Kelly in 1983, the Bills were in no mood to lose another high profile draftee. Shortly thereafter, Polian got his man as Smith signed a 4 year , $2.6 million deal.
During the 1985 draft, the Bills were very active wheeling and dealing in an attempt to rebuild their offense. First, the Bills made a deal to trade their #1 overall pick in the Supplemental NFL draft to Cleveland, so that the Browns could obtain University of Miami QB (and former Jim Kelly understudy) Bernie Kosar. Cleveland originally gave Buffalo LB Chip Banks, a 3rd rd pick in 1985, and a 1st and 6th round pick in 1986. Banks refused to report to Buffalo, so he was returned to the Browns for their #1 in 1985.
Long time starting guard Jon Borchardt was dealt to Seattle for a draft pick. Polian then wove more magic trading down with Green Bay for an additional 2nd round pick. Other deals included trading leading WR Byron Franklin to Seattle for TE Pete Metzelaars, and WR Preston Dennard getting shipped to Green Bay. On the day of the NFL draft, QB Joe Ferguson was dealt to Detroit- ending a 12 year association as the Bill’s starting QB. He left holding nearly every Buffalo Bills passing record. After the draft, The Bills dealt TE Tony Hunter to Los Angeles for QB Vince Ferragamo. 7 year vet Chris Keating was released after holding out most of the offseason. Buffalo acquired LB Anthony Dickerson from Dallas to replace him. QB at Kofler was sent packing tot he Colts.
Pollom and Polian went into the draft heavily armed with 9 picks in the first 5 rounds. They completed a draft that would go down as one of the best in team history. With their two 1st rounders, they picked Smith and CB Derrick Burroughs. In round 2, the Bills picked up OL Mark Traynowicz and WR Chris Burkett. Round 3 saw QB Frank Reich and LB Hal Garner come Buffalo’s way. WR Andre Reed and OT Dale Hellestrae were products of the 4th round. 7th round selection Ron Pitts, son of Bill’s RB coach Elijah Pitts, also made the team. Kicker Scott Norwood was brought in from the USFL to settle a shaky kicking game, that saw 6 different kickers over he past 3 seasons.
On the USFL front, Joe Cribbs finished his second season with the Birmingham Stallions with 1047 yards and 8 TDs. Disappointed in the direction the league was headed, and still squabbling about contracts, Cribbs intimated he would like to return to Buffalo if his contract demands could be satisfied. After more tense negotiations, Cribbs broke off talks.
In Houston, Jim Kelly continued to tear up the league. Kelly again broke a pro football record by throwing for 574 yards and 5 TDs in rallying his Houston club from a 33-13 deficit to the LA Express, led by QB Steve Young. Late in the season, Kelly suffered a season ending knee injury. He still managed 4,623 yards and 39 TD passes in his shortened season. The injury did dash the hopes of Bills fans who were wishing Kelly into a Bills uniform to start the 1985 season. Kelly, who was adamant about not signing with Buffalo, began to warm up to the possibilities.
The USFL was in financial trouble, and the gamblers missed a few weeks of paychecks. In desperation, the USFL decided to move their schedule out of the spring and into the fall in a direct head to head conflict with the NFL. The USFL brought suit against the senior league, citing unfair business practices and anti-trust protection. The future of the league rode on the decision.
The Bills opened the 1985 season with another loss, 14-9 to the San Diego Chargers. Ferragamo was impressive in his debut, throwing for 377 yards. Jerry Butler, after missing 21 months of football, was triumphant in his return, with 140 yards on 4 receptions. Despite the fireworks, Ferragamo could not get the Bills into the endzone. All time Great G Joe DeLamielleure and RB Mike Pruitt, two Cleveland Brown castoffs, joined the Bills.
Buffalo wound up losing 6 straight to open the season. Losses to New York (42-3) , Patriots (17-14)and Vikings (27-20) cost Kay Stephenson his job. Hank Bullough was elevated from defensive coordinator to head coach. The Colts destroyed Buffalo 49-17 in Bullough’s debut. A rematch with the Patriots had the same result as the first, a 14-3 loss.
Bullough’s first win came during Joe Cribb’s return to the Bills. Signing a 4 year deal 2 weeks prior, Cribbs’ return was anything but triumphant. Cribbs carried for a modest 42 yards but was a victim of 2 fumbles. However, the Bills defense stepped up and kept the Colts to 3 FGs. Both teams were offensively offensive, with both teams passing for under 65 yards in the game and rushing for under 125 yards. The Bills managed only 13 1st downs, 1 better than the Colts.
The Bills followed up with 2 more losses, to the Eagles (21-17) and to the Bengals (23-17). Joe Cribbs irritated players and management alike with his constant contract complaining. Week 10 saw the Bills register their second (and last) win of the year. Vince Ferragamo was benched in favor of Bruce Mathison, the 5th different Buffalo Bills starting QB in 2 seasons. Buffalo beat the Oilers convincingly, 20-0. Joe DeLamielleure retired before the season closed out. In December, the Bills waived Vince Ferragamo. Buffalo finished the year 0-6, with a 2-14 record for the second straight season, dead last again in the NFL.
Terry Bledsoe, recovered from the heart attack, was fired at the conclusion of the season and replaced by Bill Polian.
Greg Bell finished the year as the team leader in rushing with 883 yards and 9 total TDs. He also finished as the Bills top receiver, with 58 catches for 576 yards. Joe Cribbs, the late season entry, still managed 399 yards and a TD. Andre Reed emerged as a top receiver, second on the team with 48 catches for 637 yards and 4 TDs. Jerry Butler finished as the top receiver yardage wise with 770 yards and 2 TDs.
On Defense, Jim Haslett again led the team with 143 tackles. Rookie Bruce Smith shook off a slow start to finish strong with 6.5 sacks, tops on the team. Charles Romes led the defense with 7 interceptions.