The Last Time Bills Fans Awaited A Savior
Before the rise of Jim Kelly's Bills, it was pleasant in Orchard Park.
by Bob Lamb
Bills Daily Correspondent
July 7, 2002
After a dreadful 1984 season (2-14 with wins over the Cowboys and the Colts) most of Bills fandom expected Ralph Wilson's firing pistol to eliminate head coach, Kay Stephenson. Kay was a nice, likable guy and his post-game press conferences always had the same tone; apologetic and soul seeking. Kay was a control freak and acted as his own offensive coordinator so each loss was a personal defeat. But, he wasn't a screamer and everyone had their comfort zone undisturbed by the head coach.
The '84 season was nothing but anguish except maybe for the win over the Cowboys in Week 12 - also the team's first victory of the season. The Bills were bad - scoring a season high 28 points in a losing effort at Seattle but being outscored 454 to 250. Joe Ferguson was at the end of his career. The lockerroom was in turmoil. The public stayed away in droves. Season ticket sales were 19,179 and after a season high 74,391 watched the victory over the Cowboys, 20,693 showed up for the season finale (and victory) over the Colts. Only Greg Bell garnished a major post season award - a Pro Bowl selection. With the season over, only pink slips were expected for most of the coaching staff.
Then, for some unknown reason, Kay Stephenson was given second life. On January 10, 1985, Ralph Wilson announced that Kay would be back for another season. Maybe Ralph realized he had little choice or didn't care. There were no "great" names out in the FA coaching mart. Sam Rutigliano was around, having been fired after a 1-7 start in Cleveland. But the man who had been branded as "the worst game day coach" had previously commented on Buffalo, saying, "Buffalo isn't the end of the world - but you can see it from there." Mike White from San Francisco was available but it was widely expected (and true) that he would return to the 49ers. Hank Stram and Buddy Ryan were mentioned but Ralph showed no interest. Ralph's comment after Kay's retention was, "I think Kay should have the opportunity to continue with the challenge we gave him in 1983. Kay is determined and everyone in our organization is equally determined to bring our team back to the point where it can be competitive for the playoffs every year. I believe Kay has the technical knowledge, the strength of character and the sense of commitment to get the job done." The Bills' General manager, Terry Bledsoe said, "Ralph deserves an awful lot of credit for not making an automatic (firing) decision." Kay chimed in from scouting at the Senior Bowl, "I don't want to make an event out of a non-event, but certainly there are so many things that have to be done and I'm very anxious to get on with that immediately. Hey, I want to get this job done. We're going to get it done."
Kay started right away and two days later there were firings. Don Lawrence (DC), Pete Carroll (yep-him) (DB), Miller McCalmon (ST), Milt Jackson (WR) and Perry Moss (TE) all "left" the club. OL coach, Jim Niblack had already left the team for the USFL, Orlando Renegades. The firings shouldn't have come as a surprise as the Bills' assistants had been given permission to seek other employment when the season ended. Lawrence's defense took most of the blame all season as it didn't get on track until the season end. Special teams play was just horrendous. The wide receiving corp was non-existent after an injury to Mike Mosely and Jerry Butler and the retirement of Frank Lewis.
The new hires that came aboard were to become a building block for the future. Hank Bullough was named DC and Asst. Head Coach. Ted Cottrell was made the new DL coach along with RB coach, Elijah Pitts. Jim Ringo returned for a second stint with the Bills and was named offensive coordinator/OL coach. There was also an administrative hiring of note in June of 1985 - one Rusty Jones.
The Bills faithful had some reason to take heart for the future. The Bills owned the #1 draft pick and sentiment ran high for Doug Flutie from Boston College. 83 per cent of 1.028 fans paid 50 cents to vote for Doug in a Channel 7 telephone poll. "The Magic Flutie" had just appeared on the December 3, 1984 cover of Sports Illustrated. There was also a large, defensive end named Bruce Smith at Virginia Tech who had just won the Outland Trophy. (Well, we all know how that turned out.) The Bills also had the rights to one Jim Kelly and Joe Cribbs.
As the '85 season approached, player house cleaning began. 11 year veteran, Joe Ferguson was unceremoniously traded to Detroit and his backup, Matt Kofler to Indianapolis. Tight end, Tony Hunter went to Los Angeles for Vince Ferragamo and a future draft choice. Defensive end, Don Smith was acquired from Atlanta for a future draft choice. WR, Byron Franklin was traded to Seattle for TE, Pete Metzelaars.
The 1985 season was another test of faith for Bills' fans. Kay Stephenson lasted four games after being outscored 100-46 and with the Bills only scoring on four field goals in the first two "contests". Hank Bullough took over promising hard work by everyone. He said, "I know they've (the fans) suffered a lot of adversity, not winning over the years, and we're hoping to change that." The team won its' first game in Week 7 beating the Colts 21-9 in front of 28,430 of the faithful. The club would win only one other game, shutting out the Oilers and the rest of the season's six games was a run to the bus ending with a 28-0 loss to the detested Dolphins. Vince Ferragamo lasted 8 and 3/4 games and was waived on December 3rd. Bruce Mathison shut out the Oilers 20-0 in his first start but only became the answer to a trivia question - 'Who was the last man to pass a ball before Jim Kelly arrived?'
And that's what it took - Jim Kelly arrived - on August 12, 1986. Some groundwork was already laid in the presence of coaches and players. Besides Bruce Smith there were Andre Reed, Frank Reich and Darryl Talley. There was still a lot of pain and anguish to go through. Other names would be added and then, eventually the maestro who made it all work came along, Marv Levy. But in the dark days of 1984-1986, when you could sit pretty much where you wanted in Rich Stadium, "any" future was hard to imagine. Back then - it took imagination - Today, it's all a memory.
Is a new day dawning ?
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