"Why are the Bills 4-0? It's Kemp-Roth, incentive-oriented economics applied to the football field."
There are many theories why the Buffalo Bills, the team with the worst aggregate record (51-91) in the American Football Conference during the me decade, are still undefeated in the 1980s and Kemp's is as good as any other.
"Hey,that's not bad," said newly arrived guard Conrad Dobler. "The only way to make money is to win."
Winning, of course, has not come easily in Buffalo since O. J. turned off the juice. Reggie Mckenzie, a survivor of Simpson's Electric Company, watched as bad trades and bad management took the power out of the once potent Buffalo offense. "We won two in 1976, three in 1977, five in 1978 and just missed being respectable, .500, last year," he said.
The Bills were 7-9 last year but dead last in rushing in the NFL. So it was not entirely surprising when one national sports magazine picked the Bills to finish dead last in their division in 1980. The magazine also ranked Coach Chuck Knox dead last in interviews. He was not available for comment this week.
"One looks down on Buffalo," Mckenzie said. "They look down on the name.
Mention it, and some people just get the chills."
Certainly linebacker Tom Cousineau, the Bills' No. 1 draft choice in 1979 did. He opted for the CFL. This summer, all-pro right guard Joe DeLamielleure said he had had enough and was sent packing to Cleveland. All the more reason that the Bills' 4-0 start (their best since 1975) is so startling even to the Bills.
"I'd be lying if I said a lot of us weren't surprised," quarterback Joe Ferguson said. "I think the biggest reason is that we have a lot of young players with a few veterans scattered inproviding the leadership. We made trades for Phil Villipiano, Conrad Dobler and Ron Jessie, who came from winning teams and showed us what to do . . . We used to have problems here from the top of the management on down. Five years ago not one player wanted to be here. Now you couldn't push them out."
Ralph Wilson, owner of the Bills, is the George Steinbrenner of football, a man who hired and fired four coaches in eight years. "When Knox came in (in 1978), he got a total commitment from the top," McKenzie said. "It's a lot better than it was. And it was a lot worse than I realized. He's put together a top quality organization from the coaches to the scouting staff and it shows in the draft."
Cousineau may have snubbed Buffalo, but four other players from the 1979 draft are starters: wide receiver Jerry Butler from Clemson; linebacker Jim Haslett from Indiana (Pa.) University, defensive tackle Fred Smerlas from Boston College and free safety Jeff Nixon from Richmond. "Nixon for President" signs adorn the stadium now that Nixon leads the league in interceptions (five).
"Dallas drafts people you never heard of from schools you never heard of," Ferguson said. "Now we're going to the athletes, not the big-name stars."
This year's draft brought Joe Cribbs from Auburn, and along with him a running game. After four games, Cribbs leads the AFC (289 yards) in rushing, is tied for sixth in receptions (18) and is playing "like a veteran of two or three years," Ferguson said.
"When the Bills picked me up, I was kind of shocked," Cribbs said. "All my friends said there's all that snow up there, and I've never played in snow." So far he hasn't had any problems with his footing. "Walking in O. J.'s shoes? That's a great opportunity."
Cribbs, of course, isn't the only Bill playing in Simpson's shadow. Ferguson has done it for years. In 1976 when Ferguson cracked four vertebrae and was lost for the season, the injury rated a one-paragraph mention in a story devoted to O. J.'s billing opposite Sophia Loren. "I've been here eight years," Ferguson said. "I'm not from the north. I've never been outgoing with the fans. I don't think they cared then whether I was in there or not. They had O. J. Now it has changed because the main star isn't here.
The Bills are finally Ferguson's team. "I have to admit," he says, "it feels pretty good . . . last year when I had to pass so much, people finally started looking to me for leadership."
Kay Stephenson, the quarterback coach said, "It's just human nature that if you're thought of as the guy who hands off the ball to O. J. instead of the quarterback of the Bills, it's demeaning."
Stew Barber, the vice president for administration, says it was more than that. "It stunted Joe's growth as a quarterback," he said. "When it's third and 12 and the quarterback is handing off the ball instead of reading patterns, you don't get the experience you need to develop."
The Bills like to say that Ferguson is the most underrated quarterback in the league, that he has matured. He currently is ranked seventh overall, and second in pass completions with 67.5 percent. In the old days, Stephenson said, Ferguson got rattled by interceptions. Others say he sulked. "Now, he has his emotions under control," Stephenson said. "I appreciate the compliment," said Ferguson, "but I think what has happened is that Joe Ferguson has a football team that can play."
Knox, whose game plans for the Rams were as conservative as Kemp-Roth economics, has instituted the shotgun in passing situations.
But it was the victory over Miami, the first of the year, and the first over the Dolphins since November 1969, that has been the catalyst of the 4-0 start, Dobler said.
When it was over, the overwhelmed fans tore down the goal post and later presented it to owner Wilson ($9,000 cost). "It was the steel belt against the sun belt," Ferguson said, "the working people against the people who sit in sunshine drinking orange juice every day."
Ferguson had finally conquered the juice. He got down on his knees and kissed the AstroTurf. "I've had better kisses," he said. But perhaps, none quite so impassioned.