By Dr. Ken 


The Buffalo Bills have one of the most loyal fan bases in the nation and in the absence of a playoff appearance in fifteen seasons, they need to. There was a time when the Bills were feared, especially their defense. The majority of Bills and NFL fans who know a bit about history, no doubt immediately place their thoughts upon the Bills teams that ascended to four consecutive Super Bowls. Although these terrific teams lost, no other modern day National Football League team can claim four consecutive appearances and those 1990 through ’93 seasons are certainly a high water mark in Bills’ history. The successful years continued through 1999, with playoff appearances in 1995, ’96, ’98, and 1999. Unfortunately, the well has been dry since and that era’s heroes like Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Cornelius Bennett, and Mark Kelso are long out of their uniforms.


For older fans, the glory was perhaps greater in the 1964 and ’65 seasons when the Buffalo Bills won the American Football League Championship. By 1965 the AFL crown was seen as a prestigious reward for a hard fought season rather than a throw-away accolade in a lesser league. That the Bills did it in what was considered to be “National Football League style” with a ferocious defense and ball control offense made many fans who were either previously negative or neutral towards the AFL, take very positive notice. Bills linebacker Mike Stratton’s December 26, 1964 championship game tackle on the San Diego Chargers Keith Lincoln gained the moniker “The Hit Heard ‘round The World” in Buffalo’s 20-7 victory. The 1965 team underwent a number of changes but still featured defense with a capital “D” and a hardnosed attitude. The Chargers, who were always a dominant and offensively strong team in the first years of the AFL, were convinced that the Bills had won on a fluke in ’64 and were very much determined to beat the Eastern Division Champions soundly on their home field. San Diego was again on the short end of the title game score, this time in a 23-0 conquest by Buffalo. Despite the departure of head coach Lou Saban prior to the 1966 season, the Bills just missed out on a Super Bowl I appearance after losing to the Kansas City Chiefs 31-7 in the AFL Championship Game.

Bills TE Paul Costa was a tough performer and played the latter part of his career as an offensive tackle

The wheels began to come off the wagon in ’67 as injuries and age began to catch up to the Buffalo contingent and the 4-10 final slate reflected that. This proved to be the team’s worst record to date as an AFL franchise yet the fans continued to be among the most supportive across the NFL and AFL. They saw the positive in Keith Lincoln’s first season as a Bill with his team leading 1159 rushing yards. They saw the injuries to receiver Art Powell, running backs Bobby Burnett and Lincoln, and great guard Billy Shaw which required a shuffling of the offensive line that would have made a Las Vegas casino owner proud. They were less critical than the press which noted that “Buffalo’s offensive unit sometimes plays as if an invisible shield had been constructed across the opposition goal line.” In ’67, the Bills failed to score a touchdown in fourteen of the season’s first fifteen quarters and it would have been difficult to ignore the offensive failings. Only the defense continued to battle successfully and the 1968 pre-season predictions were summarized with the comment that “Buffalo’s good defense should enable the Bills to finish third again, but the team is absolutely arthritic when it has possession of the ball, despite such stars as split end Art Powell, guard Billy Shaw and halfback Keith Lincoln.”

The author, as a fan of the American Football League, has been well versed in the history of the Bills because I was fortunate to be old enough to witness all of it as a teenager and young adult. I was however, quite surprised and extremely impressed that new Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan, quite a bit younger than me, knew and appreciated the history of his team as well as I did. Fortunate enough to recently spend time with Coach Ryan, it was less the championship years of 1964 and ’65 that had made an impression on him than it was 1968. Ryan’s father, James David “Buddy” Ryan is best known as the defensive coordinator and architect of the great Chicago Bears defenses of the mid-1980’s that took the Monsters of The Midway to their Super Bowl victory but fewer fans know him as a significant contributor to the 1968 New York Jets team that altered the course of football history.

NY Jets Defensive Line Coach Buddy Ryan giving sideline advice to Head Coach Weeb Ewbank as Joe Namath surveys the action

As a former high school and college coach, Buddy’s first season in the professional ranks was the ’68 season, serving as the Jets defensive line coach. As much as his actual coaching of technique and scheme, the elder Ryan coached attitude and motivation and of course, the Jets victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts caused a shift in attitude towards the AFL and its acceptance among most football fans. Because it was his father’s first season as a professional coach, as an AFL coach, and as a championship team coach, the 1968 season has become a touchstone for Rex Ryan.

Running back Gary McDermott of Tulsa University wore number 32 for the Bills in 1968, later ceding it to OJ Simpson

His appreciation for football history and especially that of the American Football League was complete and impressive. I was pleasantly surprised that when examining the iconic Robert L. Smith photograph of Stratton’s 1964 Championship Game tackle, Ryan immediately and accurately identified every player in the photo, including those buried in the background. Of course, 1968 was one of those Bills seasons that was perhaps better forgotten once it reached its conclusion as a 1-12-1 catastrophe. Yet this was a signature season for Coach Rex Ryan.

Going into 1968, Bills Head Coach Joel Collier was confident the team would rebound. Quarterback Jack Kemp had deteriorated in ’67, both statistically and physically, but he was still the team leader with seasoned ability at age thirty-three. No one could be sure if running back Bobby Burnett would recover from his serious knee injury and when exposed to the expansion draft, he was taken by the new Cincinnati Bengals. However, six of the Bills first seven draft choices for ‘68 were offensive players and included first round pick Haven Moses, a talented receiver out of San Diego State who paid off with an AFL All Star Game appearance in ’69. With stalwart backs Wray Carlton and Lincoln aging, Arizona State’s Max Anderson and Nebraska’s Ben Gregory were tapped to be the new young wave. The defense was expected to play at its usual tough, effective level. Ron McDole, Tom Sestak, Jim Dunaway, Harry Jacobs, Paul Maguire, and John Tracey were respected veterans. Defensive back Tom Janik had tied for the lead in the AFL with ten interceptions in ‘67 and was surrounded by Butch Byrd, Booker Edgerson, and George Saimes. Collier predicted that ten or twelve rookies would make the final roster and they did but the 1968 season proved to be the worst ever for the Bills, ending with that inglorious 1-12-1 mark.


Rookie Max Anderson, running behind the great Billy Shaw, was a solid rookie in the disastrous 1968 season

The reasons were many and because the Bills were division rivals of the Jets his father coached for, Coach Rex Ryan knew that a combination of age, injuries, six rookie starters, and a number of poor coaching decisions produced a season that could only be described as a disaster. After losing the first two games of the season, the second a September 15th, 48-6 whipping from Oakland, Head Coach Collier was fired. Harvey Johnson was elevated to the head spot but he was actually a personnel administrator and negotiated quite a few of the contracts with the current Bills players. This made for an uncomfortable situation that was made worse when other assistants quit and replacements were quickly brought in. Thus, replacing the head coach and a third of the existing staff after two games, Johnson could manage only a victory and a tie in the season’s remaining games. Ironically, that victory was a 37-35 upset over Buddy Ryan’s Jets! If there was a positive aspect to the ’68 season, it allowed for the first pick in the 1969 draft and placed the Bills in position to acquire OJ Simpson. The ’69 season’s record of 4-10 was far from a rousing success but certainly an improvement over 1968 and the foundation was started for the terrific rushing attack of Simpson and The Electric Company of the effective 1973 through ’75 squads.

Of course, Rex Ryan knew the history of the Buffalo Bills helmets, discussing the humorous fact that the team’s founder and owner Ralph Wilson had been part owner of the Detroit Lions and brought a “Lions’ theme” to the new club with Detroit’s former defensive coach Buster Ramsey as his first head coach, and the Lions’ colors of silver and blue. The evolution of the Bills helmet and all of the great players that wore them were within Coach Ryan’s bank of knowledge and this respect of his team’s history has made him motivated to add a highly successful chapter to it.