Most football fans have experienced memorable moments, championships, games, and even bitter losses in the postseason over the last 87 years. But, many people only remember the champion or the runner-up in the last game of the NFL season, the NFL championship or Super Bowl. The December 18, 1932 playoff game featuring the Portsmouth Spartans (now known as the Detroit Lions) and the Chicago Bears was a memorable event as the NFL’s first postseason game with the Bears winning 9-0. In this special 32 part series, I will analyze each NFL team’s best championship season and the one season where they finished just short of claiming the NFL’s ultimate prize. The first team to be analyzed is… the BUFFALO BILLS!
The 1964 Bills: Buffalo’s First Professional Championship
In 1963, the Buffalo Bills reached the American Football League playoffs for the first time under second year head coach Lou Saban after starting their season 0-3-1, but rebounded to finish the season at 7-6-1. After getting a chilly reception from the Boston Patriots in the divisional playoff, the Bills used the 1964 offseason to upgrade their team by signing 1961 AFL All-Pro wide receiver Bill Groman from Denver, center Walt Cudzik from Boston, defensive lineman Dudley Meredith from Houston, defensive back Charley Warner from Kansas City, and 1962 AFL All-Star punter/linebacker Paul Maguire from San Diego.
But, Lou Saban also used the 1964 AFL Draft to grab key rookie running backs Bobby Smith from Texas State and future Dolphins MVP Joe Auer from Georgia Tech. The Bills 1964 draft also produced future AFL All Stars Joe O’Donnell and Tom Keating (teammates from Michigan; O’Donnell was an offensive lineman, Keating was a defensive lineman), defensive backs Butch Byrd (Boston University) and Hagood Clarke (Florida), and kicker Pete Gogolak (Cornell, future NY Giants all time leading scorer).
With these new additions in place, the 1964 Bills dominated the American Football League with a 12-2 record after a 9-0 start with two game sweeps of the Chiefs, Broncos, Jets, Oilers, and the defending AFL champion Chargers. Saban’s Bills had the AFL’s #1 ranked offense and #1 ranked defense led by AFL rushing champion fullback Cookie Gilchrist, AFL All-Star wide receiver Elbert Dubenion, AFL All-Pro defensive lineman Tom Sestak, rookie AFL All-Star Butch Byrd, AFL All-Pro linebacker Mike Stratton, and AFL All-Pro safety George Saimes.
Despite their impressive regular season, the Bills still had a tough challenge ahead in their first AFL Championship Game hosting the defending AFL champion San Diego Chargers. But, the 1964 Chargers were not as dominant as their previous Western Division title teams and they were missing a key offensive talent in future Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Lance Alworth. However, the Chargers took an early 7-0 lead before another key player was lost to injury. Midway through the first quarter, San Diego’s AFL All-Pro running back and 1963 AFL Championship MVP Keith Lincoln received a jarring hit from Buffalo’s AFL All-Pro linebacker Mike Stratton, which caused Lincoln to leave the game with broken ribs. Without their two offensive stars, the Bills took advantage and scored 20 unanswered points with two rushing touchdowns from quarterback Jack Kemp as well as running back Wray Carlton along with two field goals from kicker Pete Gogolak to bring home Buffalo’s first professional championship trophy with a 20-7 victory in the 1964 AFL Championship.
Strengths: Rushing and receiving attack. The 1964 Bills averaged 145.7 rushing yards/game and scored 25 rushing touchdowns with fullback Cookie Gilchrist as well as backup quarterback Daryle Lamonica leading the way with six touchdowns each. Rookie running backs Joe Auer, Bobby Smith as well as Willie Ross combined to score seven touchdowns and quarterback Jack Kemp also scored five touchdowns himself behind a young, but talented offensive line led by AFL All-Star TE Ernie Warlick, AFL All-Pro left tackle Stew Barber and future Pro Football Hall of Fame left guard Billy Shaw.
The Bills also had a pair of talented wide receivers in Glenn Bass (a 23rd round pick from East Carolina in 1961) as well as AFL All-Star Elbert Dubenion (a 14th round pick by the Browns in 1959 from Bluffton College) who combined for 85 receptions for 2,036 yards and scored 17 of Buffalo’s 19 receiving touchdowns. Bass also had the AFL’s longest reception in 1964 (94 yard touchdown in Week 5 vs. Houston) and Dubenion had the highest yards/reception average in the league with 27.1 yards on 42 catches.
Weaknesses: Passing attack and turnovers. Despite having the AFL’s no. 1 rushing offense and #3 passing offense, the 1964 Bills led the AFL with 52 turnovers including a league-leading 34 interceptions (26 from Kemp, 8 from Lamonica). Kemp’s AFL All-Star selection also overlooked a disappointing season, in which he completed under 50 percent of his passes with only 13 touchdowns and 2,285 passing yards. Serving as Kemp’s backup, Daryle Lamonica contributed with six touchdowns and 1,100+ passing yards, but finished the season with a lower completion percentage than Kemp’s!
The Bills running attack also had trouble holding onto the football with 32 fumbles during the 1964 AFL season (lost 18 of them) as Jack Kemp, Daryle Lamonica, and AFL rushing champion fullback Cookie Gilchrist committed 19 combined fumbles. However, even with their turnover issues, the Buffalo Bills did not turn the ball over in the AFL Championship Game versus San Diego after committing at least one turnover in every regular season game!
BILLS DEFENSE/SPECIAL TEAMS
AFL All-Stars: DT Tom Sestak (AFL All-Pro), LB Mike Stratton (AFL All-Pro), CB Butch Byrd, S George Saimes (AFL All-Pro)
Strengths: Rushing defense. The 1964 Bills had the AFL’s no. 1 rushing defense and held their opponents to only 65.2 rushing yards/game (913 total yards, fewest rushing yards allowed in AFL history). Led by AFL All-Pro defensive tackle Tom Sestak and AFL All-Pro linebacker Mike Stratton, the Bills allowed only four rushing touchdowns during the 1964 AFL season (last rushing TD allowed was in Week 6 vs. Kansas City)! The Bills defense also recovered 15 fumbles during the regular season and did not allow a single 100-yard rusher all season long!
Weaknesses: Passing defense and overall special teams. Despite having the AFL’s no. 1 ranked defense in scoring and yards allowed, the Bills passing defense was ranked 4th in the league, but led the AFL in completion percentage (held quarterbacks to 46.6 percent) and sacks (50, sacks were not an official individual statistic until 1982). The 1964 Bills also allowed the 3rd lowest quarterback rating in the league (60.9), but only had 28 interceptions (6th in the league). AFL All-Pro safety George Saimes as well as rookie AFL All-Star cornerback Butch Byrd teamed up to grab 13 interceptions during the regular season and Byrd added another interception in the AFL Championship Game to finish the year with a team leading eight interceptions.
The 1964 Bills also had the AFL’s 4th ranked special teams unit, but kicker Pete Gogolak was the league’s 2nd leading scorer with 102 points and punter Paul Maguire had the league’s 2nd highest yards/punt average with 42.7 yards on 65 punts. Hagood Clarke, a rookie defensive back from Florida, also contributed with a 53 yard punt return touchdown in Week 3 against the San Diego Chargers and led the league with 33 punt returns in 1964. However, Gogolak only made 65.5 percent of his field goals (19 of 29 FG’s) and Maguire wasn’t invited to the AFL All-Star Game despite his impressive yards/punt average.
UP NEXT… THE STORY OF THE 1990 BUFFALO BILLS!