1987 - A Positive Step
7-8 record, fourth of five in AFC East, 10 of 14 in AFC, 15 of 28 in NFL
After 1987 longtime Buffalo Bill wideout Jerry Butler retired, starting safety Steve Freeman was traded to the Vikings, and Jim Haslett left to join the Jets. Freeman had started all but one game for Buffalo in his eight years as starter and was traded for what was termed "past considerations". The Bills had a very underrated draft in 1987 but Bills fans will be familiar with many names. First round pick linebacker Shane Conlan was a force at linebacker for six years with the Bills. In the second round the Bills picked cornerback Nate Odomes and in the eleventh round selected tackle Howard Ballard. Other players selected in the draft were defensive end Leon Seals (fourth round) and K-Gun namesake tight end Keith McKellar (ninth round). There was also a lot of turmoil in the Bills' front office. In early May John Butler was hired as director of player personnel and college scouting after spending two years as a scout for the Chargers. Longtime Buffalo scout and standout Bills receiver Elbert Dubenion was unhappy he was overlooked for the job and left to take a scout position with the Atlanta Falcons later that month. To replace Dubenion, Bill Polian added Chargers director of pro personnell A.J. Smith to the scouting department in June. The personnel department that would lead Buffalo through the 1990s was now in place.
For the second time in five years, games would be lost due to labor strife. The players were fighting for the right to change teams via a free agency system and threatened to walk out. In anticipation of the season-opener the NFL owners announced that the season would go on with or without a players' strike with the best players available. The Bills started strong losing to the Jets by a field goal in week one and beating the Oilers in week two before the players association went on strike. Most Bills players reluctantly joined their brethren. "We don't want to strike. We're here to play football, but it seems like our backs are against the wall," Fred Smerlas said. The players officially went on strike after the Jets' 43-24 victory over the Patriots on Monday Night Football. The league canceled the game against the Cowboys scheduled for September 27 and would resume the following week with replacement players. The replacement Bills got blown out in their first game - a 47-6 spanking from the Colts. The following week they gave up over 200 yards rushing to the Patriots who beat them 14-7. On October 15 NFLPA Director Gene Upshaw called off the Players strike. However, regular players were locked out for one more week and the "scabs" would get to play one more game. The reigning defensive player of the year Lawrence Taylor did not join the lockout and led the New York Giants into Ralph Wilson Stadium for the replacement players' last horrah. In an epic showown both teams gained over 300 yards of total offense but combined for just two fourth quarter field goals - one apiece. Despite Buffalo's seven (SEVEN!) turnovers the Bills won on Orchard Park native Todd Scholpy's overtime field goal. The teams combined for 26 penalties and 48 incomplete passes not to mention the nine combined turnovers. Following the lockout the Bills went 5-5 to finish the year 7-8. The lockout wins and losses were counted just the same as the regular wins and losses. Following a Week 13 loss to the Bills, the Colts closed out the year with two straight wins and the Bills finished with two straight anemic losses. The Colts finished the year as the AFC East champs and the Bills were left to wait for 1988.
A rare mid-season blockbuster trade bolstered the Bills defense in 1987. On October 31, the Bills traded their 1988 first round pick, their first and second picks in the 1989 draft, and running back Greg Bell for rookie linebacker phenom Cornelius Bennett. (The trade also sent future Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson from the Rams to the Colts.) Bennett teamed with Conlan and Talley to form a formidable linebacking corps. Even Scott Radecic enjoyed a career year in 1987, his first with the Bills. Bennett finished the year with 8.5 sacks, second only to Bruce Smith's twelve. The rookie Conlan led the team with 114 tackles and free safety Mark Kelso started all twelve non-strike games leading the team (and ranking second in the league) with six interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Despite the presence of Jim Kelly, the Bills offense continued to be in the middle of the pack or worse. The offense ranked 24 in points scored, 16 in yards gained, 18 in passing yards, 17 in rushing yards. They runed the ball over more than 24 other team in the league with a plus-minus of -12 thanks largely losing 24 fumbles. The defense fared only slightly better finishing twelfth in points and yards allowed.
On the year, several Bills received major honors. AFL Championship cornerstone Tom Sestak was placed on the Bills Wall of Fame. The three time All-AFL defensive tackle died earlier that year from a heart attack. Defensive end Bruce Smith and special teams ace Steve Tasker were named to the Pro Bowl squad along with quarterback Jim Kelly. Kelly ranked fourth among quarterbacks in completions, attempts, and completion percentage, eighth in passing yards and passing touchdowns, and was tenth in passer rating. The Bills also placed three players in the top ten in receptions. Andre Reed led the team with 57 catches followed closely by Chris Burkett and Ronnie Harmon who both had 56. UPI named Bruce Smith their defensive player of the year. Shane Conlan was named Defensive Rookie of the Year by the AP. Joining Conlan on the UPI all-rookie team were LB Cornelius Bennett and CB Nate Odomes. In the very last game of the year, Bruce Smith was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Pro Bowl for recording five tackles and two quarterback sacks in a 15-6 win. Jim Kelly led the only touchdown drive of the game - an 89 yard push capped by a one yard plunge by number 12 himself.