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Season Ticket: Four and Counting

Wide receiver Lee Evans

Wide receiver Lee Evans

Bills historian Dave Staba contextualizes the team’s 4-0 start:

Winning your first four games, an accomplishment Buffalo achieved with Sunday’s 31-14 win in St. Louis, does not guarantee a great season. Over the nearly half-century since the creation of the current Bills, though, it comes pretty close.

Seven previous editions have opened with at least four straight triumphs. Two won a league championship, two others earned a Super Bowl berth, one reached the conference title game and another remains the subject of the franchise’s most tantalizing what-if discussion.

Only once, in 1975, did a Buffalo team win four games before losing one, yet fail to reach the playoffs.

Blame that one on O.J. Simpson, since it’s easy and fun and he’s otherwise occupied with all that Las-Vegas-hotel-room unpleasantness. As in his 2,003-yard season two years before, the future repeat felony defendant set a National Football League record, this time by scoring 23 touchdowns, yet his team—perhaps drained by the force its superstar’s ego —somehow faltered before the postseason.

The other six 4-0 starters account for most of the franchise’s high points.

After four years of slow starts and general mediocrity, the 1964 Bills thrashed their first four opponents by a combined score of 117-53 and didn’t stop slapping people around until they reached 9-0. The freakishly talented Cookie Gilchrist led an offense quarterbacked by Jack Kemp, with occasional assistance from Daryle Lamonica, while a star-laden defense established itself as the most dominant in the sport. Buffalo finished 12-2, winning the American Football League crown—the biggest prize available at the time—with a 20-7 win over San Diego.

Even without Gilchrist, whose equally outsized personality led to his banishment to Denver by coach Lou Saban shortly after the win over the Chargers, the next season started nearly as well and ended in almost exactly the same fashion. A 4-0 beginning turned into a 10-3-1 season capped by a 23-0 defeat of the Chargers.

Those Bills didn’t make it to the Super Bowl because there wasn’t one yet. The ’91 and ’92 teams should have been so fortunate. They opened 5-0 and 4-0, but ended in much less glamorous fashion, getting walloped by Washington and Dallas, respectively, in the sport’s annual apocalyptic finale.

At least they got there, though, which is more than could be said of the 1988 squad, the first of the great Jim Kelly-Bruce Smith-Thurman Thomas-Andre Reed teams. After sweeping the season’s first quarter and entering its final month at 11-1, the Bills lost three of their last four and, along the way, surrendered home-field advantage for the AFC title game to Cincinnati, a pivotal factor in a 21-10 loss to the Bengals.

Which brings us to 1980. In their third year under coach Chuck Knox, the Bills fully emerged from the post-O.J. Dark Ages by beating Miami for the first time in more than a decade, a goalpost-destroying feat that springboarded them to a 5-0 start.

Blending a strong young defense, solid special teams and versatile rookie running back Joe Cribbs with the maturation of long-maligned quarterback Joe Ferguson, Buffalo won its first division title since 1966 with an overtime win against the Los Angeles Rams.

That victory triggered an iconic moment, as half-dressed players led by Fred Smerlas emerged from the locker room for a curtain call, dancing at midfield to the strains of “Talking Proud,” the now-easily-mocked ode to civic pride that somehow failed to stem the exodus of industrial jobs that was only just beginning.

Thanks to the wonder of YouTube, that season and that song can be relived here.

Of course, it has an unhappy ending. Ferguson sprained an ankle in the regular season’s penultimate game and was still hobbling when the Bills visited San Diego for a first-round playoff game three weeks later. Still, he had the Bills ahead by a point with two minutes left, when safety Bill Simpson infamously whiffed on Chargers’ receiver Ron Smith, who scored the winning touchdown in the most shocking of fashions.

The Chargers were upset a week later by the Raiders, who would have had to travel to Buffalo for the AFC title game had Simpson’s grip been more firm. And Oakland went on to win the Super Bowl rather easily against Philadelphia. So if Ferguson had only stayed healthy, well, you know.

With a quarterback quickly emerging as one of the game’s most poised, a young running back who can run and catch and defensive and kicking-game units that produce game-turning plays on a weekly basis, this year’s Bills most closely resemble the 1980 edition to this point in the season.

All they need now is a theme song.

Dave Staba has covered the Bills since 1990. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com. A full report on Sunday’s game will appear in the October 2 issue of Artvoice.