1987 Buffalo Bills – Teamsters, Turmoil and a Trade
The rebuilding of the defense meant the departure of some long time fan favorites. After missing most of the previous season with a broken leg, LB Jim Haslett was released. Steve Freeman, after 12 seasons of yeoman work in the Bills secondary, was granted a trade to the Minnesota Vikings. Lucius Sanford, a 10 year veteran, was also let go. Charlie Romes, also of the rookie class of 1977, was traded to Kansas City. On the offensive line, another 10 year veteran , Ken Jones, departed the team. Safety Martin Bayless was cut early in camp.
In the 1987 draft, Bill Polian swapped positions in the first round for the 3rd consecutive year. Dropping 5 spots and picking up a 2nd round pick from the Houston Oilers, Polian still was able to select the man he coveted, Penn St LB Shane Conlon. With 2 second round picks, Buffalo selected CBs Nate Odomes and Roland Mitchell. FB Jamie Mueller was picked up in Rd 3, and DE Leon Seals was tabbed in round 4. Polian continued with late round success by selecting TE Keith McKeller in round 9 and OT Howard “House” Ballard in round 11. Ballard decided to return to school and join the Bills for the 1988 season. LB Scott Radecic was signed as a free agent. USFL veteran WR Trumaine Johnson was acquired via trade with San Diego.
With all the player movement, the NFL’s second strike in 5 seasons loomed on the horizon again. The 1982 strike lasted 7 weeks and completely derailed the Buffalo Bills momentum as a playoff contender during the Chuck Knox years. At the heart of the issues were the NFL Player’s Union demand for unfettered free agency. Unlike the 1982 strike, the NFL owners were ready with a contingency plan- replacement players.
With a full training camp under his belt, Jim Kelly and the new look Buffalo offense under Ted Marchibroda were ready to take on the league. In the home opener against the New York Jets, Kelly didn’t disappoint a sold out crowd. Trumaine Johnson hauled in a 26 yard scoring strike to draw first blood. New York then put up 17 unanswered points on two Ken O’Brien TD passes. In the final 17 minutes of the game, the two clubs combined for 5 TDs, as Buffalo would fall short 31-28. Kelly had an impressive day, tossing for 3 TDs and 305 yards.
Week 2 saw more of the same offensive fireworks. The Houston Oilers came in and shot out to a 20-13 3rd quarter lead. In the final 8:37 of the game, The Bills outscored the Oilers 21-10, the game winner being a 10 yard Kelly to Harmon TD with 57 seconds left. Kelly again was on fire throwing for 297 yards and 3 more scores. It was his first come from behind win. And it would be the last game Kelly and the Bills regulars would play for a month.
Gene Upshaw, head of the NFLPA, called for a strike following the Monday Night game in week 2. Following through with their contingency plan, all 28 teams scoured the country for any available talent. They came from the CFL, NFL, USFL, and from “parts unknown”. Some high profile NFL players crossed the line to join rosters. The Bills brought back former players QB Dan Manucci, Center Will Grant, and WR Reggie Bynum. Prominent Ex-Bills Jim Haslett and Ken Jones signed up as replacement players for the New York Jets. The idea was not popular with players or fans. Buffalo’s replacement team was dubbed the “Counterfeit Bills”. In the first week, many of the regular Bills players were involved with ugly incidents between themselves and the replacements. Cars were pelted with eggs, replacement players were harassed and jeered to the yells of “scabs” both at the stadium arriving for practice and at the replacement’s hotel. The picket lines were a bonanza of sorts for fans, as players entertained and mingled with hundreds of autograph and picture seekers.
The Indianapolis Colts were better prepared than some other clubs when it came to signing quality replacements. Veteran QB Gary Hogeboom and regular WR Walter Murray toyed with the Counterfeit Bills as if football were child’s play. Less than a minute into the second half, Hogeboom completed his 17th pass, his 5th for a TD- en route to a 47-6 rout. Manucci was replaced by Willie Totten at QB. Totten was the division II record holder for TD passes in college- most of them going to his much more famous team mate at Mississippi Valley State, Jerry Rice. Hogeboom was replaced by Colts coach Ron Meyers before he could shatter many of the team records held by legend Johnny Unitas. Attendance was 9,800.
The following week, more regular players trickled across. In Buffalo veteran FB Carl Byrum came across. The Buffalo defense improved tremendously, holding the Patriots to a mere 14 points despite 5 Bills turnovers. Most teams employed a basic high school offense, and due to Totten’s ability to run the ball effectively he was instilled as the starter. The Counterfeit Bills dropped their second game 14-7 despite driving to the Patriot’s 32 and 22 yard lines respectively in the final minutes of the game.
Rookies Leon Seals and Keith McKeller, along with Rob Riddick and Mike Hamby were the next to come across and report. Bigger names began to defect from the union across the league, including the Giant’s Lawrence Taylor and the Patriot’s Doug Flutie. The league gave the regular players until 1 PM Wednesday to report or get locked out of the following week’s games. Gene Upshaw ordered an end to the strike, but most of the regulars did not report in on time.
With the hopes for any shot at the post season on the line, the locked out players became fans and spectators themselves, rooting on the Counterfeit Bills in their upcoming battle against Lawrence Taylor and the New York Giants. In a comical mistake filled game that featured 9 turnovers (7 by the Bills) 258 yards in penalties, and 5 missed field goals, Buffalo managed a 6-3 overtime win. The aptly named Tim Schlopy won the game with a 27 yard FG with 19 seconds left in OT. The Counterfeit Bills notched their only win, pushing the Bills record to 2-3 and keeping them in the race.
When regular play resumed, Buffalo and Miami picked up right where they left off. Dan Marino opened the game with 3 consecutive TDs to give Miami a 21-0 lead. Not to be outdone, Kelly responded with a 17-0 run in the 3rd quarter to draw the Bills within 4. Fuad Reviz pushed the Miami lead to 7 with a 46 yard FG with 11:48 remaining in the game. Steve Tasker forced a fumble on a Miami punt return giving the Bills the Ball at the Miami 32. Rob Riddick tied the score at 24 with a 1 yard run with 7:13 remaining.. On the ensuing kickoff, Buffalo special teams struck again, as Ray Bentley forced another fumble on the kick return. Kelly hit Riddick for his 3rd TD on the day on a 17 yard pass and Buffalo owned the lead with 4:04 to go. Dan Marino responded in kind, engineering an 11 play 81 yard drive. Along the way, they converted a 4th and 10. Marino to Clayton for a 12 yard TD tied it up with 1:08 left. Winning the OT coin flip, Kelly drove the Bills 65 yards for the game winner, a 27 yard FG off the foot of Scott Norwood. The victory put the Bills into a 4 way tie with the Colts, Jets, and Pats with everyone sporting a 3-3 record. Miami was just 1 game behind at 2-4.
If the roller coaster season didn’t have enough drama and excitement to it already, the Bills and GM Bill Polian pulled the trigger on one of the biggest blockbuster trades in NFL history. Indianapolis had difficulty in signing the second overall pick of the NFL draft in LB Cornelius Bennett. In Los Angeles, disgruntled RB Eric Dickerson, the league’s most prolific rusher since Earl Campbell and OJ Simpson, wanted a trade out of Los Angeles. Buffalo shipped out their first in the 1988 draft, along with their first in and second picks in the 1989 draft and RB Greg Bell for the dynamic linebacker from Auburn. The Colts took the Bills package, added 2 more first round picks, a second , and RB Owen Gill and sent it to the Rams for Eric Dickerson.
Washington put a reality check into the Bills week with a 27-7 thumping. Week 8 saw the defending AFC Champion Denver Broncos come to town. Bennett got into the game a s a pass rush specialist and was impressive in his first football action in over 10 months. Bruce DeHaven’s special teams unit put on a clinic. Rob Riddick and Steve Tasker each blocked Denver punts for safeties. Riddick, Harmon, Bynum, and FB Jamie Mueller combined for a 258 yard rushing effort. The Bills recovered 2 Bronco turnovers deep in Buffalo territory late in the game to seal the win. The victory put the Bills in a 5 way tie in the AFC East, with every club in the division sporting a 4-4 record.
The Bills continued with a see-saw effort. The Bronco win was followed by a loss to the Browns, 27-21. The Jets fell to the Bills 17-14, followed by a dominating 27-0 win at home against the Dolphins. Buffalo played a mistake free game, rushed for 229 yards, and passed for 217. Buffalo put up 21 points in the second quarter and walked away with only their second season sweep of Miami since Miami’s expansion season on 1966.
Bills WR Andre Reed dueled it out with the Raider’s James Lofton in a 34-21 Raider win in LA. Reed had his best game as a Bill with 7 receptions for 153 yards. Lofton responded with 6 receptions for 132 yards and a score. The Bills next stop was the Indianapolis Hoosier Dome. Buffalo stuffed Eric Dickerson and held him to 19 yards on 11 caries. The Colts were held to a mere 130 yards the entire afternoon as Buffalo rolled to an easy 27-3 win. Bruce Smith dominated, registering 2½ sacks, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery for the Bills’ final TD.
On the precipice of their first return to the playoffs in over 5 seasons, Buffalo came out flat against the Patriots, dropping a 14-7 decision and all but getting eliminated from post season action. Stiff Rich Stadium winds and a stifling defense had Jim Kelly on the run with his worst game as a pro. Completing only 13 of 31 attempts, the Bills netted only 64 yards through the air and 84 on the ground. Sean McNanie recovered a fumble and returned it 14 yards for a TD for Buffalo’s only points. The Bills had 2 great chances late in the game, but turnovers deep in Patriot’s territory killed any hope of a rally. Buffalo dropped to 7-7 with the loss.
In the season finale cut short by one game due to the strike, Cornelius Bennett had a monster effort in a 17-7 loss against the Philadelphia Eagles in Veteran’s Stadium. Bennett had 16 tackles, 4 sacks, and forced 3 fumbles. But the Bills offense was flat, failing to gain over 200 total yards for the second straight week.
The Buffalo Bills managed to gain 1,840 yards as a team rushing, but didn’t have a single player eclipse 500 yards for the season. Ronnie Harmon led the club with 485 yards rushing., and fell 1 reception short of the team lead with 56, for another 477 yards, and 4 total TDs. Jamie Mueller was second on the team with 354 yards and 2 TDs. Rob Riddick led the team with 8 TDs off of 376 total yards from scrimmage. Andre Reed posted 56 receptions for 752 yards and 5 TDs, Chris Burkett posting nearly identical numbers with 56 catches for 765 yards and 4 TDs. Jim Kelly managed to throw for 2,798 yards, completed 59.7% of his passes, and had 21 TDs with only 11 interceptions.
The Bills defense showed a vast improvement with the changes in personnel implemented by Polian and DC Walt Corey. Bruce Smith led the club again with 12 sacks, Followed by Bennett’s 8½ . Both players averaged a sack per game they played. Shane Conlon led the team with 114 tackles. Safety Mark Kelso led the team with 6 interceptions, followed by Ron Pitts with 3.
Steve Tasker and Bruce Smith were voted to the Pro Bowl. Shane Conlon was named to the second team of the AP All-Pro squad, and won the AP defensive rookie of the year. Jim Kelly and Chris Burkett were also named to the team. With 5 tackles and 2 sacks, Bruce Smith won MVP honors at the Pro Bowl. Jim Kelly scored the game’s only TD in the AFC’s 15-6 win over the NFC.