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The 1980 Buffalo Bills: An underdog story

For underdog week, we’re going back 40 years to the Bills’ first post-merger divisional championship

Miami Dolphins v Buffalo Bills Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

At the start of the 1980 NFL season, most people thought the Buffalo Bills would finish as they had for the previous four seasons: with a sub-.500 record and no playoffs. With a 51-91-2 record for the entirety of the 1970s, the Bills held the dubious distinction of having the worst record in the (at the time) newly-minted AFC of the post-merger National Football League. That ranking excludes the Seattle Seahawks, who for you youngins out there, were an AFC NFC team upon their entry to the league in 1976, but were then moved to the NFC West from 1977 until the NFL realigned in 2002 to its present divisional setup.

(Note: I, too, am apparently one of those youngins, as I was unaware of Seattle’s year in the NFC—and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ year in the AFC West—until it was pointed out in the comments by BillyT92679!)

Buffalo boasted a veteran quarterback in Joe Ferguson, who had a pair of solid receivers in veteran Frank Lewis and second-year man Jerry Butler—the reigning AFC Rookie of the Year. Elsewhere on offense, the team was loaded with question marks. While they had their leading rusher from 1979, Curtis Brown, returning, they also spent a second-round draft pick on a promising running back from Auburn named Joe Cribbs. The question marks extended to the offensive line, where future Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure had demanded a trade thanks to conflicts with head coach Chuck Knox. Buffalo also had aging guard Reggie McKenzie, of the famed “Electric Company” line that blocked for another future Hall of Famer, O.J. Simpson, but it was a unit that had allowed 43 sacks in 1979 while paving the way for rushers to average only 3.4 yards per carry.

Where the 1980 Bills appeared to be strong from the outset was their defense, led by nose tackle Fred Smerlas and linebacker Jim Haslett. Those players made up two-thirds of what would be known as “The Bermuda Triangle,” with fellow linebacker Shane Nelson making up the third point of the triangle. While sacks weren’t yet an official statistic, their top pass rusher, Ben Williams, notched 11 on the season. Williams, the first African-American player to be drafted out of Ole Miss, passed away on May 18 of this year at just 65 years old. In 1979, the Bills’ defense ranked No. 8 in points allowed, so the team knew that it was a strength coming into the 1980 season. They improved upon that ranking in 1980, finishing No. 3 in points allowed.

Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated picked the 1980 Bills to go 6-10, one game worse than their 1979 record. In his write-up, he reasoned that the Bills were a once-proud squad wrecked by poor trades (ironically, I assume, he’s referring in part to the Simpson trade, which directly led to Buffalo selecting future franchise savior Jim Kelly in the 1983 NFL Draft), but he had little positive to write about the Bills. Although he liked their collection of young running backs, he reasoned that by trading DeLamielleure to the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo’s rushing attack would be worse. He wrote that the Bills were “patching and groping” to fix their roster, which on offense was only strong at quarterback and wide receiver.

When the Bills opened their season against the Miami Dolphins, everyone expected a familiar outcome. Buffalo had lost the previous 20 match-ups to Miami—literally every game between the two teams in the preceding decade—and most of the contests weren’t particularly close. Buffalo lost those games by an average of 13 points each. Heading into the fourth quarter of the game, though, Buffalo had kept it close, trailing only 7-3.

Then, in the fourth quarter, the Bills managed two touchdowns, one on a four-yard pass from Ferguson to fullback Roosevelt Leaks and another a two-yard run by Cribbs. The defense held, giving Buffalo a 17-7 win—its first victory over Miami since before the NFL merger. The win was unlikely given the history between the two teams, but also due to what actually transpired on the field. Buffalo committed seven turnovers, as Ferguson was intercepted five times and the team lost two of its four fumbles.

That unlikely victory quickly galvanized the Bills, as they rattled off three more wins prior to their Week 5 showdown with the AFC’s other unbeaten team, the San Diego Chargers. The Bills once again trailed heading into the fourth quarter, as the Chargers led 24-12. But, Ferguson threw a touchdown pass to rookie tight end Mark Brammer to draw the Bills closer at 24-19, and after a Jim Haslett interception on the ensuing possession, Cribbs capped off a three-play drive with what would prove to be the game-winning touchdown run. That victory was Buffalo’s first on the West Coast since 1966, as the 1980 club continued to be one that broke some historical ugliness. Through five games, Buffalo was only one win off of SI’s win total they had projected for the season.

Buffalo would go on to win 11 games, clinching its first-ever AFC East Division championship with a Week 16 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. With a five-team playoff system at that time, that meant that the third-seeded Bills would await the outcome of the AFC Wild Card Game between the Oakland Raiders and the Houston Oilers. Thanks to NFL rules at the time, which prevented teams in the same division from playing one another in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, the Bills would host if the fourth-seeded Oilers won, but since the fifth-seeded Raiders couldn’t play against the top-seeded Chargers, then Buffalo would travel out west if Oakland were victorious. The Raiders trounced the Oilers, setting up a rematch between Buffalo and San Diego at Jack Murphy Stadium.

Even though the Bills had defeated the Chargers in their head-to-head match-up, the three-way tie meant that seeding was determined by division record. Thanks to ugly losses to the Baltimore Colts, who finished the year at 7-9, Buffalo’s 4-4 divisional record was worse than San Diego’s (6-2) and Cleveland’s (5-3), hence the lower seed.

In the playoff game, it was the Bills who led late, as the underdog looked poised to overcome the odds. After building a 14-3 lead at halftime, Buffalo allowed a touchdown pass from Dan Fouts to Charlie Joiner in the third quarter that made the score 14-10. That’s where it stayed until the fourth quarter, when Fouts connected on a 50-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Ron Smith with 2:08 remaining to give the Chargers a lead they would not relinquish.

In the regular season that year, Smith had caught only four passes for 48 yards. In his seven-year career, including the playoffs, Smith notched 73 catches for 1,250 yards and 7 touchdowns. On a team with future Hall of Famers in Joiner and tight end Kellen Winslow, an underdog in Smith ending the underdog Bills’ season is fitting.

Cornerback Bill Simpson was the man beaten on the play, and he described it after the game: “We had a dog on, it was man-to-man, and I just got beat. He had run the same route on me earlier in the game and I broke it up. He ran a corner route just before and I intercepted it. That’s life in the NFL, I guess.”

Joe Ferguson played the game with a badly sprained ankle, an injury he had suffered in Buffalo’s Week 15 drubbing at the hands of the New England Patriots. Without his legs under him, Ferguson struggled, completing just 15-of-29 passes for 180 yards and three interceptions. Cribbs, who was named AFC Rookie of the Year, rushed for just 53 yards on 18 carries. For the 1980 season, Cribbs rushed for 1,185 yards and 11 touchdowns. That yardage total is still the highest single-season mark for a Bills’ rookie in team history.

Had the Bills won, they would have hosted the AFC Championship game the following week against the Raiders, a team Buffalo had beaten 24-7 at Rich Stadium that September. Instead, Buffalo’s Cinderella story as the team no one expected to succeed gave way to Oakland’s own Cinderella story, as the Raiders became the first Wild Card team to win the Super Bowl, defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV.

The year was a great one, though it certainly wasn’t a season without controversy. Between, as Zimmerman termed it, “l’affaire DeLamielleure” and some disgruntled commentary from running back Terry Miller (who was upset about ceding playing time to a rookie in Cribbs), there were also some truly bizarre moments.

After Ferguson sprained his ankle, guard Conrad Dobler—whom the Bills had acquired via trade in the offseason, waived, then re-signed prior to the start of the regular season—told members of the media that backup quarterback Dan Manucci had “no pocket presence” and that David Humm should play in Ferguson’s place. Dobler took umbrage with comments Manucci had made about his protection breaking down, and Dobler replied, “I timed it on the film and Manucci had 7.5 seconds—make that minutes—to get the ball off. After a while, you think, ‘Maybe it’s us...’ Then you see the films and you feel better.”

Even stranger still was a November fistfight between linebackers Jim Haslett and Isiah Robertson. The two were arrested at the Pierce Arrow nightclub at around 2 a.m. Haslett’s injury, a cut to his finger, was suffered when Robertson bit him. After charges were dropped, the two staged a friendly re-enactment of the fight where Haslett told Robertson, “Don’t bite too hard, now—it still hurts.”

The Bills used the “Talkin’ Proud” song as their theme that year, and as someone who grew up outside of Western New York, I’m still awed by the lead actress, Terry Licata-Braunstein, and her posture as she struts throughout. The song fed into Buffalo’s underdog mentality, but the team also sang another tune throughout training camp, one that was far less indicative of a team that was headed nowhere. Isaiah Robertson sang about the Bills heading to the Super Bowl early on in the year, and while some may have laughed, he was nearly right.

One final tidbit about this merry band of underdogs. The team’s first-round draft choice that year did not make a start all season, and actually, he only started three games in his first three seasons. However, when that player entered the starting lineup in 1983, he would go on to start every game for the team until Week 8 of the 1993 season. That man, Jim Ritcher, is also the only player who holds the distinction of having played on both the 1980 team and all four of Buffalo’s Super Bowl squads in the 1990s.

Talk proud about these underdogs, fellow Bills fans. Forty years later, they still deserve it.

Statistics pulled from Pro Football Reference, and when more depth was necessary, quotations and additional stats pulled from Sal Maiorana’s outstanding encyclopedia, entitled Relentless: The Hard-Hitting History of Buffalo Bills Football