Friday, July 20, 2018

Buddy Ryan's Nose Men

By John Turney
The Buddy Ryan 46 defense began in earnest in 1980 and progressed from there. Prior to that, there were teams that used the same or similar schemes but they we called different things.

One of the key things to the 46 was using two outside linebackers one the same side of the field, opposite the pass rushing end. Another key was having a dominant player over the center since all three interior linemen, the center and both guards were covered. Here is a look at who Buddy Ryan deployed over the years.
When he was the defensive line coach for the Jets he would use a 5-man line at times, moving one of the linebackers in a down position over a guard. That moved right defensive tackle John Elliott over the center.

Elliott, though not known to most fans was a very good tackle, one of the best in the AFL/NFL in the late 1960s recording 32½ sacks from 1968 through 1970 and being named First- or Second-team All-AFL/NFL all three of those years. Perhaps a reasonable modern comparison is to say Elliott was similar to Keith Millard.

In 1976 Ryan moved to the Vikings and coached their defensive lines in 1976-77. The Vikings had long used 5-man lines in certain situations, often with Bob Lurtsema over the center and the rest of the Purple People Eaters would stay in their usual positions.
In 1976, Lurtsema was in Seattle with the Seahawks and Ryan changed things up a little, putting Alan Page over the center.
Again, this isn't the 46 defense but it is the Eagle/Bear front Bud Grant wouldn't allow the scheme that later became the 46 to be used. However, Ryan liked it enough to employ Alan Page in that rile with the Bears in 1980 and 1981.

Here is Page over the center in a precursor to the 46.

After Page retired the man over the nose was Dan Hampton. When Page was still with the club, Buddy Ryan would show Hampton films of Page and say, "This is what we want you do do, someday".

With Hampton the 46 rose to it's greatest heights, with the dominant win in Super Bowl XX.

After the Super Bowl win Ryan was hired as the head coach of the Philadephia Eagles and when he used the 46 defense there it was Reggie White who manned the nose tackle spot.

Ryan was fired after the 1990 season and reemerged in the NFL as the defensive coordinator of the Houston Oilers. 
There, he changed things up in our view. Rather than using his best lineman, Ray Childress, on the nose he used a rushing tackle Lee Williams most of the time. And when Williams was out Ryan used Glenn Montgomery. Both were fin players, Williams, especially had "blue" traits. But neither were the player Childress was. It would seem like, given Ryan's history, that the nose position would be Childress's.  Of course, we didn't see all the 1993 Oilers games, so it's possible Childress did play some at nose in the 46, but if so, we cannot find footage of it.  

The 1993 Oilers defense was very good and it earned a spot for Ryan back in the NFL coaching ranks, this time with the Arizona Cardinals. 
There, the man on the nose was Eric Swann. Another kind of forgotten name, but when healthy, Swann was a very good tackle and even made a Pro Bowl in 1995, Ryans final season with the Cardinals.

Swann was said to have some "Reggie White qualities" at the time, being that big with similar strength and quickness. Well, that was a bit of hyperbole, but he was no match for a center. Swann's bad knees eventually sidelined him but when healthy he was a big tackle who could stack the run and get good push on passing downs.

So there are the primary (not a 100% complete list) players who played over the center in Buddy Ryan's 5-man/46 defenses. One caveat: We are still looking but we cannot find enough footage, post-John Elliott, to see who might have played over the center then. We are not even sure how much the Jets used 5-linemen. The little we can finds suggest Ed Galigher might have played it in 1975.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Top 3-4 Defensive Ends In NFL History

By John Turney
In this case "NFL History" begins in the mid-1970s. Although 3-4 defenses were used, actually quite prevalently in the AFL, we contend the "3-4 era" began in earnest in the mid-1970s. Prior to that, it was used as a change up to the 4-3 schemes of the day and we wouldn't be comfortable calling Jerry Mays, Tom Sestak, or Earl Faison and others, 3-4 defensive ends.

Also, we are very aware that all 3-4 defensive ends didn't play the same scheme—some played two-gaps, others were one-gap 3-4 defensive ends so they had an easier go of it. Nonetheless, these are the players we think played 3-4 defensive end the best over their career.

One more caveat, few players were a 30 end (3-4) for their entire career. They changed when the scheme changed and some started as 40 ends (4-3) and ended as 30 ends and others vice versa. We generally included only players that were in a 3-4 scheme for at least half of their career.

We are aware some may disagree but we attempted to look at each player's career and how it ranked when they were in a 3-4 defense, whether a one-gap or two-gap. We mention sacks, but a lot of that is a reflection or indication of their production in likely passing downs. Some of these players reduced to defensive tackle in those situations, others remained at end. But in those cases their job was to put heat on the quarterback, so sacks are somewhat relevant.

Our views:

1. Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith is one of the aforementioned one-gap 3-4 defense ends. he also moved around on the line, occasionally playing left end, or nose tackle, or 3-technique rather than his usual right end position. Smith not only is the top 30 end, he has a case for being the top 40 end ever, though we wouldn't put him there, he does have the resume to be considered.

Late in Smith's career when he was in Washington he was a 40 end there. With the Bills, on passing situations, players like Cornelius Bennett and later Bryce Paup would put their hand in the turf and played defensive end on the left side completing the 40 look.

What made the Buffalo defense a one-gap defense is those players, Bennett and then Paup were committed to a gap—they were de facto defensive ends rather than being the kind of 3-4 linebackers that flowed to the ball while the three linemen would each be responsible for two gaps.

2. J.J. Watt
If JJ Watt never played another down in the NFL he would still, in our view, be worthy for Hall of Fame inductions. Plagued by injuries the last two seasons he was as dominant as a defensive player can get from 2012 through 2015, winning the AP and PFWA Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2012, 2014 and 2015 while averaging 78 tackles, 17½ sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 10 passes defensed and 2.5 fumble recoveries per year during that 2012-2015 span.

Watt is a left defensive end in the base defense and usually a left defensive tackle in the nickel defense, but can appear anywhere on the line, especially the last several seasons.

3. Lee Roy Selmon
As a rookie Lee Roy Selmon generally was a 3-technique in what was termed a "flop 4-3" defense. It is the same position that was reintroduced to the NFL by Keith Millard and then popularized by players like John Randle and Warren Sapp and is now played by Aaron Donald.

The following season the Buccaneers switched to Tom Bass's 3-4 defense and the way Bass coached the 30 defense it required a lot from the linemen. Bass and coaches like Fritz Shurmur and Bill Parcells/Bill Belichick were three who believed in and taught.required two-gap techniques in their schemes.

Selmon faced an additional challenge in his career in that the Bucs, especially early in his career, didn't go to a four-man line on nickel/dime situations. They got their extra rush from blitzing linebackers which is fine if that linebacker is Lawrence Taylor or Andre Tippett. And while the Bucs had some fine linebackers, none of them had the skills to be a dominant or even excellent fourth rusher. As a result, the Bucs rush was Selmon and three other guys. Bruce Smith, for example, got help from Bennett who could get double digits in sacks as could Bryce Paup, who was a Defensive Player of the Year in 1995 and had 17½ sacks that year. Selmon never had anything like that.

Still, Selmon had 79 sacks in his nine seasons and had 29 forced fumbles. (He also blocked six placekicks in his career). Selmon was the AP, PFWA and NEA Defensive Player of the Year in 1979 and a First-team All-Pro three times (1979, 80, and 82) and a Second-team All-Pro in two additional seasons (1978 and 1984) and was voted to six Pro Bowls. Throw in his Second-team All-NFC selection in 1977 and Selmon received post-season honors in eight of his nine seasons and additionally was "blue" by Pro Scout, Inc in eight of his nine seasons.

Said Anthony Munoz, "Selmon played the run as well as the pass and he was very smart, too. He could be you a lot of different ways". Joe Jacoby stated, "Everybody talks about Lawrence Taylor, but I believe Lee Roy was the first of his size and speed to make teams alter what they were going to do".

4. Howie Long
Later in his career the Raiders moved from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 scheme but Long's role remained the same. He played outside on likely running downs and inside in nickel. But Long made his bones as a left end in a 3-4 base defense and as a 3-technique on the right side on a 40 nickle/dime defense. Yes, he moved around some, like spelling Lyle Alzado at right end, or over the center when the Raiders ran their version of the "46" or "Bear" defense.

Long, like Selmon, has was Pro Scout Inc (PSI) called "base" the ability to say on your feet, to play with leverage. PSI rated Long as the NFL's best defensive end in 1983, 1984, and 1985 and was the second best in 1986 and was also "blue" in most other years in his career.

Long's best pass rush move was his "rip" move which he'd use inside an outside. Long told TV Guide that since he played several positions that he watched film of three players—Lee Roy Selmon, Randy White and Jack Youngblood since those players possessed the skill sets he needed to apply.

5. Elvin Bethea
The Oilers toyed with the 3-4 defense (as did all AFL teams) early in his career. But they didn't commit to it full-time until 1974. Bethea was a very good 40 end (from 1969-73 he averaged 12 sacks a year) though he didn't make many All-Pro teams likely because the Oilers were not a competitive team.

In 1974, at midseason, the Oilers acquired HOF nose tackle Curley Culp and that move sealed the 3-4 deal. Bethea was a Pro Bowler in 1974 and 1975 and should have been in 1976 when he tallied 14½ sacks, a remarkable number for a 30 end. The Oilers blitzed linebackers to get extra rush rather than going with a fourth lineman through 1978, but in 1979 they used Jesses Baker as a fourth lineman as he'd play some inside, some outside and was outstanding. However, it led to Bethea becoming a run-down player the remainder of his career.

Bethea was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2003 and ended his career with 105 sacks. He stayed square in run downs and was considered a fine 3-4 end by scouts.

6. Richard Seymour
A three-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler, Richard Seymour should be knocking on the Hall of Fame's door but so far, he's not made tons of progress. He was someone Bill Belichick coveted on the 2003 NFL draft and was a key piece on the good Patriot defenses that were winning Super Bowls and finishing high in defensive rankings.

Seymour played right defensive end in the Patriots 3-4 and would reduce to 3-technique in their nickel or when they went with a base 4-3. Seymour preferred playing inside, on the outside shoulder of a guard, rather than playing a "tight five" over a tackle, but as a team player, he did what the coaches asked of him. That led to excellent play but not what would be considered dominant stats,

In his career Seymour averaged 49 tackles an six sacks per sixteen games which do lot leap off the screen at you, but like Selmon, Long and Bethea, Seymour was often a "grinder" playing two gaps, drawing double teams and freeing others to make plays.

7. Justin Smith
Justin Smith began his career as a 4-3 defense end, was on on the lean side but seemed to get bigger and stronger every year. In 2008 the 49ers signed Smith to a six-year contract and the following year the 49ers switched to a 3-4 defense.

The 49ers listed Smith as a defensive tackle, which was good for PR and increasing his chances at Pro Bowls, he was a right defensive end in the 3-4 and a defensive tackle in the nickel. Now, we realize that there is a good case for calling 3-4 defensive ends "defensive tackle" but no matter where anyone falls on that question we simply say if one is a defensive end, then all are a defensive end, if one is a defensive tackle then all are defensive tackles. That means we cannot call Howie Long or J.J. Watt a defensive end and then call Justin Smith a defensive tackle. They did the same thing—lined up over a tackle when there is a 3-4 on the field and lined up over a guard when they go to a 40 nickel.

Smith was a powerful player who got a lot of hurries as an inside rusher and who was excellent at stopping the run when the 49ers were using three defensive linemen.

8. Lyle Alzado
Alzado began his career in a 4-3 defense, but in one that moved players around some. The early 1970s Broncos implemented some 3-4 schemes in their philosophy but converted to it fulltime in 1976. That year Alzado was to be the nose tackle but he blew a knee about in the first game so that experiment ended. In 1977 he was back a bit lighter (248 pounds rather than 260) and was a big part in the Broncos Super Bowl run. He was All-Pro in 1977 and Second-team All-Pro in 1978.

Issues with the Denver front office led to his trade to the Browns, where he played three positions for them in 1979, in a 4-3 defense. The next two years he was back to his right defensive end spot in s 3-4 defense, making All-Pro in 1980.

The Browns traded him to the Raiders in 1982 and Alzado was All-AFC and had 7 sacks in nine games, not counting Chris Ward's helmet in the playoffs. He had solid seasons in 1983 and 1984 and then in 1985 he blew out his Achilles and it ended his career. (Not counting his failed 1991 comeback).

9. Ray Childress
Childress almost didn't make the list because he spent so much time as a 4-3 defensive tackle late in his career. Early on he was one of the classic 5-technique on the 3-4 and three-techniques in the 40 nickel/dime. He was great versus the run, and pretty good (not great) as a rusher. The Oilers moved to a 4-3 and it put Childress at left defensive tackle and he became a dominant rusher and a frequent All-Pro.

10. Calais Campbell
Calais Campbell is now in a 4-3 scheme and in 2017 was the PFWA Defensive Player of the Year. He moved around with the Jaguars and played both inside and outside.

When he was with the Cardinals (2008-2016) he was usually a defensive end in the base and a tackle in the nickel, though it was not a two-gap scheme. As a starter with the Cardinals from 2009-16 he averaged 60 tackles, 7 sacks and 5 passes deflected and was a wall against the run to his side.

11. Art Still
If he had been more consistent he would rank higher on this list. Still, for some reason was an up-and-down player in his prime.

He had a good rookie season in 1978 and then excellent in 1979, getting some All-Pro attention. In 1980 Still had 119 tackles, 9 stuffs, 14½ sacks and was the best defensive end in the NFL according to many, including Paul Zimmerman and Joel Buchsbaum.

However in 1981, though he made Pro Bowl, had 1 stuff and 2 sacks. In 1982 he was very good and had solid numbers. In 1983 he went on a fruit and nut diet, dropped wight from 260 to 235 and got pushed around all season. In 1984 back to his normal weight was again stellar with 101 tackles, 8.5 stuffs and 14.5 sacks (numbers similar to 1980). In 1985 he was hurt, missed almost half the season.

In 1986 he was "as good as any defensive end" according to Buchsbaum. In 1987 he fell to 1 stuff and 5.5 sacks and the Chiefs unloaded him to the Bills for a 5th and 8th round pick. In 1988 with new surroundings and playing opposite Bruce Smith had a nice comeback and then the following year, Still's last, he had no sacks in, no passes defensed and only 2.5 stuffs. Certainly, 3-4 ends are not the primary rushers and a low sack total does not always show poor pass rush, but no sacks?

At his best he was as good as any 3-4 defensive end ever with great balance and base, but he just didn't sustain it year-to-year.

12. Aaron Smith
Speaking of low stats we have Aaron Smith. But in Smith's case they are no reflection of his play. He was a great run defender in the Steelers one-gap 3-4. Yes, one-gap. At two different Super Bowls we spoke to the Steelers defensive line coach about the Steeler scheme. Coach John Mitchell was adamant "We are a one-gap scheme". We pushed a little suggesting that in one-gap schemes that in certain situations one player might have to play two-gaps. He smiled and said, "That's for us to know and them to find out". He simply meant to get a free runner or unblocked player someone might have to take two games to free another player, but that one player doing it does not make them a two-gap team.

Smith never got much credit, and played in just one Pro Bowl (2004, he was an alternate called in as an injury replacement) and was also an alternated two other seasons. Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman named him to his 2004 All-Pro team, but essentially that is it.

13. Leonard Marshall
Leonard Marshall was a right defensive end in the base and a left defensive tackle in the nickel. He often had Lawrence Taylor in his hip pocket which would help any player, but Marshall was a good player in is own right. In the Giants scheme, coordinated by Bill Belichick, Marshall did have plenty of two-gap responsibilities, unlike many on this list.

Marshall was a Second-team All-Pro in 1985 and 1986 and was a Pro Bowl those two seasons as well, but was almost as solid from 1987-91 (exception 1990) as well.
"Big Daddy" Hairston is kind of a prototype 3-4 end from his era. He was a right end in base, defensive tackle in sub (nickel/defense) defenses. In 1979 Hairston had 15 sacks and was a Second-team All-NFC selection. He was All-NFC in 1980 and Second-team All-Confernce in 1981 and 1987 as well.

Hairston was a fine rusher, again, often from the inside, ending his career with 95½ sacks and solid versus the run as well.
Julius “The Jewel” Adams was an All-Rookie selection in 1971, but he rarely achieved post-season honors after that. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 1980 and was named one the NFL's top defensive linemen by Pro Quarterback magazine in 1974 and was All-AFC as chosen by the New York Daily News that same season, but other than that, he was limited to honorable mentions by the AP, UPI, etc. in various seasons.

Though he played mostly defensive tackle his first few years he also played at defensive end and it was there Adams settled for the bulk of his career. Adams was a most effective  3-4 defensive end, which the Patriots began using full-time in 1974, though they used it some in 1973. He was stout at the point of attack and had really good athleticism as a pass rusher. In 1974 he forced four fumbles and had 8 sacks to go with 86 tackles and was a major cog in making that scheme work.

He was nicked in 1975 with a foot injury but came back strong the following two seasons. He was out for 13 games in 1978 with a shoulder injury and returned in 1979 to a new role, a designated third down rusher. He and Tony "Mac the Sack" McGee would come in in likely passing downs in the Fritz Shurmur scheme, McGee on the left and Adams on the right. Adams finished with 5½ sacks as part of the Patriot defense that led the NFL with 57 sacks. Adams also led the team with four forced fumbles in 1979, matching his career-high in that category.

The following season, 1980, Adams resumed his starting role and he had a stellar season. He was named to the Pro Bowl and recorded 8½ sacks. Adams continued his career through 1985 and after Super Bowl XX he hung up his cleats ending his career with 76½ sacks.

16. Barney Chavous
Chavous, like all Bronco linemen, moved around in different schemes and calls that the coaching staff preferred, but he was primarily a left defensive end in his career. However, if you catch some Broncos highlights from the mid-1970s you could catch Chavous at left defensive tackle.

Chavous was a Colorado statesman, much like Julius Adams was for New England—a constant that was seemingly always there, at the end of one of those teams' lines. Chavous didn't get any post-season honors in his career, which is a same, he was certainly qualified in 1976 and 1977 and perhaps other seasons as well. He ended his career with 75 sacks and he was part of an Orange Crush defense that was excellent versus the runs, year-in, and year-out.

The Broncos scheme required plenty of two-gap assignments (defensive coordinator Joe Collier shared the philosophies of Fritz Shurmur, Bill Belichick, Tom Bass, etc.) and Chavous was build to do it. He had good base and strength and if pass "showed" he could convert to a rush on the run.

17. Jacob Green
Green began and ended his career in a 4-3 defense but from 1983-89 the Seahawks used a one-gap 3-4 defense and Green did well in it, though stopping the run was not Green's forte. In the mid-1980s the Seahawks would bring in an inside rusher like Mike Fanning or Randy Edwards in the nickel. Later on, they would use Fredd Young and then Rufus Porter as the right defensive end in the nickel scheme so they didn't burden Green in those situations.

Green was, in either scheme, a very good defensive end. He didn't get tons of post-season honors, but he was not ignored, either. It was a competitive era with Selmon, Long, Richard Dent, Reggie White, Chris Doleman, Bruce Smith and others all vying for All-Pro honors. Green was honored in some way every year from 1983-87 all of them when Seattle was a 3-4 team.

18. Doug Betters
In 1983 Doug Betters was the AP Defensive Player of the Year when he had 16 sacks and he followed that up with 14 sacks in 1984. He was a left defensive end in the base and often moved to left defensive tackle in passing situations. He was a rangy player who played hard but was a better rusher than run defender (even though he was a good run defender) but his legacy does include those 1984 and 1984 seasons and in that era he was mentioned in the same breath as the Lee Roy Selmons and Howie Longs which is saying quite a lot.

19. Pierce Holt
Holt came to the NFL as a 26-year old rookie and played until he was 33. He was another of the classic left defensive ends and left defensive tackles in passing situations. In 1992 he was a Second-team All-Pro, a Pro Bowler and an All-NFC pick but was equally good in most of his seasons.

He was signed by the Atlanta Falcons as a free agent in 1993 and had an excellent season as a defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense, but then fell off in 1994 and 1995. Holt was a vital cog in the late-1980s 49er championship teams.
Rulon Jones began his career as a designated pass rusher and he was very good at it. He earned a starting spot in the Broncos defense in his second year and was a solid player who capped his carer as the UPI AFC  Defensive Player of the Year in 1986. He played a lot of defensive tackle in passing situations once Karl Mecklenberg became a viable rusher. 

21. Eddie Edwards
"Fast" Eddie Edwards was, in some ways, like Jacob Green in that he was suited for a 4-3 defense, but was saddled in a 3-4 for much of his career. He ended his career with 84 sacks was was a double-digit sacker in 1981 and 1983. He began his career as a defensive tackle in a 4-3 but in 1980 the Bengals moved to a 3-4 and Edwards, fair against the run, very good rusher made due.

22. Dwaine Board
In the early 1980s Fred Dean got most of the ink among 49er defensive linemen, but Dwaine Board was a big part of the reason the defense was successful. In the 3-4 base defense Board was the right defensive end and he was solid versus the run.

When Fred Dean came into the game when they went to four-man lines he usually took the right end post and Board would play left defensive end. From 1983 through 1986 Board averaged 10 sacks a season as, as we mentioned was solid, though not spectacular on run downs.
Wilkerson has played seven seasons and has been somewhat up-and-down but when "up" was very good. Wilkerson was Second-team All-Pro in 2013 and 2015 and was very good in 2012 and 2014. The past two seasons have been disappointing. Time will tell if he can string together some great seasons and move up on this list.
As we get to the bottom of this list the decisions get more difficult. Things such as how long someone played in a 3-4 defense have to be addressed. Are four years enough? Are half their seasons enough?

Be assured, there as plenty of good players that got left out but are very close to the past few picks we have made.

Ben Williams started in a 4-3 but with the switch to the 3-4 in Chuck Knox's second year he played an undersized end in that scheme. He was very effective in it from 1979 through 1983. He was not quite that effective in his final two seasons. However, he was especially good from 1980-82, receiving post-season honors in 1980-82 (including ranking 2nd in Pro Scout Inc.'s year end list) and he had 10 or more sacks in 1980, 1981, and 1983.

25. John Matuszak
The "Tooz" was the precursor to Howie Long. From 1976-81 Matuszak played left defensive end the base 3-4 and played left defensive tackle in their sub defenses. Long, of course, played right defensive tackle in their sub defenses and also moved around but Tooz was the prototype.

In that role, Matuszak was very effective. In an era when sacks were not official Matuszak racked on some good numbers. In 1976 he had 9½ sacks, he had 9 in 1977, 6 in 1978, and 9 in 1980. Pretty good for a player who was known more for being a big man whose responsibility was to stop the run. Those numbers show he was a big part of the rush.

We give a special mention to Curtis McGriff who was as good a run-stopping defensive end you will ever see. He was a two-down player who was replaced by George Martin on passing downs. On this list we did not include third-down rushers who may have been in 3-4 defenses or run-down only players like McGriff. But if you read the things Bill Belichick said about McGriff you'd know he was quite a special role player for those great Giants defenses of the 1980s and maybe the best run stopping two-gap defensive end ever.

We also had another 10-15 players we could mention but we didn't want to do a top 40 list but a couple who just missed the cut are Mike BellJeff Bryant, and Bruce Clark.

Neil Smith and Vern Den Herder were considered 4-3 ends for this purposes of this exercise since they played less than half their careers in a 3-4 defense.

Here is a concise list of our picks.

1. Bruce Smith
2. J.J. Watt
3. Lee Roy Selmon
4. Howie Long
5. Elvin Bethea
6. Richard Seymour
7. Justin Smith
8. Lyle Alzado
9. Ray Childress
10. Calais Campbell
11. Art Still
12. Aaron Smith
13. Leonard Marshall
14. Carl Hairston
15. Julius Adams
16. Barney Chavous
17. Jacob Green
18. Doug Betters
19. Pierce Holt
20. Rulon Jones
21. Eddie Edwards
22. Dwaine Board
23. Muhammad Wilkerson
24. Ben Williams
25. John Matuszak
26. Mike Bell
27. Jeff Bryant
28. Bruce Clark
Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments section.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Ed Rutkowski's 1968 Season

By Jeffery Miller
The Buffalo Bills were mired in the worst season of their eight-and-a-half-year history, sporting a 1-9-1 record as they prepared to meet the Denver Broncos on November 24, 1968. Making matters more dreadful was the prospect of facing their former coach Lou Saban's team with a quarterback who hadn't started a game at the position since he was in high school. 

The Bills had entered the ’68 season with veteran Jack Kemp at the helm, but a knee injury sustained during training camp forced the team's franchise player to the sidelines for the entire campaign. With newly acquired backup Tom Flores suffering from a sore shoulder, the starting job fell Dan Darragh, a rookie signal-caller from William & Mary. As a precautionary measure, the Bills traded a fifth-round draft pick to the San Diego Chargers in exchange for backup Kay Stephenson. 

The regular season got off to a rocky start with home losses against Boston and Oakland. The 48-6 shellacking applied by the Raiders cost Buffalo head coach Joe Collier his job. Owner Ralph Wilson tapped assistant coach and chief scout Harvey Johnson to fill the role. After losing Johnson's debut to the Cincinnati Bengals, the league's latest expansion franchise, the Bills shocked the eventual world champion New York Jets with a 37-35 upset win at home. The turnaround was short-lived, however, as the Bills fell to Kansas City the following week. With Darragh taking a pounding each week due to a porous offensive line that had itself been depleted by injuries, the Bills rushed Flores back onto the active roster in time for the October 12 contest at Miami. Flores started the game but was pulled when his arm began to stiffen after throwing only five passes. Johnson inserted Stephenson, who also proved ineffective. Next up was Darragh, who actually managed to create a spark that led to a touchdown and closed Miami's fourth-quarter lead to two points. Johnson then sent reserve wide receiver Ed Rutkowski into the game to take the snap on the two-point conversion attempt.  Rutkowski received the ball and rolled, finding Gary McDermott in the end zone with 18 seconds left to give the Bills a 14-14 tie. Voila!

 Ed Rutkowski, Wide Receiver, Buffalo Bills

Now, a little background:  Rutkowski had been with the Bills since 1963, when he was signed as a free agent out of Notre Dame. He was brought in as a defensive back, but a rash of injuries necessitated moving him to offensive halfback, the position he had played while with the Fighting Irish.  After a few more games, the Bills coaching staff moved Rutkowski to wide receiver, where he proved a valuable backup on a Buffalo team that won consecutive AFL championships in 1964 and ’65. In addition to his duties as a receiver, Ed excelled as a kick returner and special teams performer, making him all the more valuable to the team in the days of 35-man rosters. But there was more—Rutkowski was also familiar with the quarterback position, having played it in high school. Johnson and offensive coordinator John Mazur, in the midst of a manpower crisis, began looking for ways to put all of the Golden Domer’s skills to good use. Having him behind center to execute two-point conversions was one way, but once they saw how capably Rutkowski performed in that position, the experiment took on a new purpose.              

The Bills traveled to Boston where Stephenson was given the start, but the Bills lost again, 23-6. A 30-7 loss to the Houston Oilers the following week was so dreadful that Johnson decided to give Rutkowski a more fulsome look at the quarterback position. The sight of number 40 behind center was a surprise to many of the War Memorial faithful, who had no idea Rutkowski had been taking snaps in practice throughout the week. 

“I knew I was going to play sometime during that game,” Rutkowski recalled.  “In a game previous to that, we tied them on a two-point conversion, so I was familiar with that.  Then when guys started getting hurt, they started having me run at quarterback. I was a little unnerved by it, but anxious and excited because that was the thrill of my life, playing quarterback.” 

But the thrill was fleeting, as Rutkowski’s first pass as a pro quarterback was intercepted by W.K. Hicks, setting up a Houston field goal. Johnson allowed Rutkowski to finish the game, and though Rutkowski failed to complete a pass, he gained experience that would prove valuable later on in the season.        

“I threw four passes,” Rutkowski said in evaluating his performance. “One interception, three were incomplete, and I came off the field to a standing ovation.  Jack Kemp was on the sideline and he said, ‘Hey Rutkowski, if only I were Polish, if only I was Catholic, if only I had gone to Notre Dame!’”

A week later at New York, Johnson chose Stephenson as his starter, but a season-ending injury left the banged-up Darragh and disaster quarterback Rutkowski as the only available signal callers.  Benny Russell, the quarterback from Louisville who had spent the 1967 season on the Bills’ taxi squad, was granted a 17-day leave from the Air Force to rejoin the team.  He would be in uniform for the Bills’ November 17 meeting with San Diego.
Rutkowski in the shotgun versus the Chargers
Darragh got the nod against the Chargers, but he again proved ineffective as heavy rains turned the War Memorial Stadium turf into a sea of mud. After Darragh got hurt, Johnson sent in his disaster man.  “It was a real sloppy day,” Rutkowski recalled. “It was like a quagmire out there, which helped me. They had me in a shotgun, so I had more maneuverability. When we got down close to the Chargers’ goal line, I dropped back to pass, and I stood there for about four or five seconds trying to find the wide receiver and I got hit in the back from my blindside. They carried me off the field.  Johnny Mazur, our backfield coach, got me on the phone and said, ‘Look, Rutkowski, if you stand there more than five seconds you become a tackling dummy.’” 
 Buffalo quarterback Ed Rutkowski after being clobbered
by the San Diego defense.
With Darragh and Rutkowski now both hobbled, Russell was forced into action after only three days back with the team.  In his one and only brief appearance with the Bills, Russell threw two passes, completing one for three yards.

Darragh was ruled out for the Bills’ next game, so Johnson tapped Rutkowski for the start against the 4-6 Broncos. “Harvey told me,‘I want you to forget about throwing touchdown passes,’” said Rutkowski. “I said, ‘What do you mean?  Isn’t that the job of a quarterback?’ He said, ‘All I want you to do is keep getting the first downs, and the touchdowns will hit you right in the face.’ Good philosophy.  All you’ve got to do is get ten yards a crack, and if you get enough of them you’re right down in the end zone.” 

Taking his coach’s advice to heart, Rutkowski went out and played a strong game, nearly pulling off a miraculous come-from-behind victory over his former coach, Lou Saban. But it wasn’t to be, as the Broncos turned the tables on the snake-bitten Bills and claimed their own miraculous comeback, overcoming Buffalo’s 18 fourth-quarter points to pull it out with just seven seconds left.

 Buffalo quarterback Ed Rutkowski takes instruction
from Bills offensive coordinator John Mazur on the
sidelines during the Bills-Broncos game.
The Broncos held a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter, but then Rutkowski drove the Bills to the Denver one, taking the ball in himself and cutting the lead to seven. The Broncos reclaimed the 14-point advantage when quarterback Marlin Briscoe connected with halfback Floyd Little on a 66-yard touchdown pass with 30 seconds left in the half. 

The Bills again closed the gap to seven points in the third when Booker Edgerson returned a Briscoe interception 35 yards for the score. But the Broncos made it 28-14 with a 15-yard Briscoe-to-Al Denson strike at 13:30 of the period. In the fourth, the Bills, mustering all of the pride they had left, took control and put themselves within 26 seconds of their second victory of the season.  First, Gary McDermott capped a Bills drive with a two-yard plunge, followed by a Rutkowski-to-Bob Cappadona pass for the two-point conversion to make it 28-22 Denver.  Bobby Howfield then kicked a 42-yard field goal for the Broncos, but the Bills answered back with another McDermott touchdown run, leaving Denver with a shaky 31-29 lead with 1:33 remaining. The Broncos then attempted to run out the clock, but a Little fumble gave Buffalo possession at the Denver 10. Moments later, Bruce Alford kicked an 18-yarder to put the Bills on top by a point with 26 seconds to go.  But these were the Buffalo Bills of 1968, and bad luck was a constant companion.  On the Broncos’ next possession, Briscoe heaved a 59-yard bomb to Little, who made a circus catch at the Bills’ 10-yard line.  A face-masking penalty moved the ball half the distance to the goal, giving the Broncos possession on the five.  Saban then sent Howfield on for the 12-yard field goal try.  The kick was good, and the Broncos breathed a sigh of relief after pulling victory from the jaws of defeat with seven ticks left on the clock.      
Rutkowski at the helm versus the Denver Broncos
Rutkowski recalled a chance encounter years later with Don MacPherson, a Denver assistant coach, in which MacPherson recounted the play-by-play of this game.  “I ran into Don and introduced myself,” Rutkowski related. “He said, ‘You almost cost me my job.’  I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘The year you played quarterback, I was one of the coaches for the Denver Broncos.’  There was a little more than a minute left in the game and I’m at quarterback, and we’re beating them by I think a point.  Saban’s on the [Broncos’] sideline and MacPherson’s up in the press box and Lou’s on the phone with him and says, ‘The kid’s killing us—he’s killing us!  He’s gonna beat us!  He hasn’t played quarterback since high school—he’s gonna beat us!’ Then Saban said, ‘And if he beats us, you’re gone, Mac.’  Mac said, ‘What?!’  Lou says, ‘Yeah, you’re gone.  You’re outta here.’  MacPherson says, ‘Gee all I’m doing is charting the plays.’  Lou says, ‘I don’t care, if he beats us, you’re gone!’ Well, what happened was, Floyd Little caught a pass coming out of the backfield and they kicked a field goal with seven seconds left, and they beat us.  So MacPherson said, ‘Luckily, I didn’t lose my job.’”

Against the Broncos, Rutkowski--in addition to starting at quarterback, added a new job to his growing resume as he took on the responsibility of holding for field goal and extra point attempts.  He even performed the duty of attempting the on-side kick near the end of the game!

The Bills and their new starting quarterback had just three days to prepare for a match-up with the tough Raiders out on the West Coast.  “We played the Broncos on Sunday, and had to play Oakland Thursday—a nationally televised Thanksgiving Day game,” Rutkowski recalled. “So we had Monday off, and we had Tuesday and Wednesday to practice. I got together with John Mazur to put together the game plan.  He said, ‘Look, they’re not gonna think you’re gonna be able to do anything.  Figure they’re gonna run four defenses against us. For each defense, we’re gonna put together four plays, and I want you to memorize them, and we’re going to audibilize an awful lot.’ Actually, it was brilliant on John’s part—all I had to know was 16 plays.  I put together this little notepad, and I took that everywhere—it was like my Bible.   took it with me to the bathroom.”

Rutkowski wasn’t the only Bill playing out of position because of the mounting injuries. The offensive line was a hodgepodge in which nearly every regular either missed time due to injuries or played another position as a result of someone else’s. 

“Howard Kindig was our guy who could play a variety of positions, and one of our guards got hurt,” Rutkowski remembers. “We moved Al Bemiller—our center—over to guard because he had played guard before, and we put Howard at center because most of the time the center was double-teaming with somebody else. So Howard has to learn the center position on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.”

The Bills’ patchwork offense raised a few eyebrows when it took the field for its first possession.  “We get in the huddle and I’m calling the plays,” Rutkowski recalls. “You call a play twice—the first time you call the play the wide receivers break out, the second time you call the play the rest of the guys come up to the line of scrimmage.  And as we’re going up to the line of scrimmage, I’m walking up behind Bemiller and Kindig, and Bemiller’s got his arm around Kindig and he’s pointing out who he should block on the defensive line.”

“I’d tell him to go right or go left, or straight-ahead,” said Bemiller. “He may have known what to do, but by the time we got up to the line of scrimmage, he forgotHeHe.  I knew the line calls and I made all the line calls—that was my job.”

“Al would tell me, ‘It’s on two, get the guy in front of you,’” added Kindig. “This goes on like sandlot football—unbelievable.” 

“Dan Connors is the middle linebacker,” Rutkowski continued. “He’s seeing this, and he doesn’t know if we’re putting him on or we’re serious, so he’s trying to outguess what we’re doing.  He turns around and he’s trying to change the defense, so I would just go on the quick count, catching these guys out of position.  The defensive backs are leaning in trying to hear and Connors has his back turned.”

The first quarter ended in a scoreless stalemate, but the Raiders got on the board 32 seconds into the second with a 39-yard George Blanda field goal. The Bills countered with a 26-yarder from Bruce Alford midway through the period, and the half ended in a 3-3 deadlock.   

The Raiders seized control late in the third quarter, scoring ten points in a 1:17 span, beginning with Oakland defensive back George Atkinson picking off a Rutkowski throw to set up Blanda for a 33-yard field goal 12:52. On the Bills’ next possession, Atkinson picked off Rutkowski again at the Buffalo 33, this time returning it all the way, giving the Raiders a 13-3 lead. But Rutkowski and the Bills refused to give up. After the ensuing kickoff was returned to the Buffalo 19-yard line, Rutkowski engineered a drive that took the Bills down to the Oakland five, keyed by a 41-yard bomb to Haven Moses and a 17-yard scamper by Max Anderson.  From there, Anderson carried the ball off right tackle and slammed into the end zone to make it 13-10. The Buffalo defense then stiffened, forcing the Raiders to punt on their next possession. The Bills took over at their own 21, and Rutkowski again marched them down the field.  He was shaken up along the way but came out only for a brief moment.  He returned to the field and shortly had his team deep in Raider territory. 

“We get down to the one-yard line,” Rutkowski recalled. “I didn’t want to kick a field goal. I wanted to win this damn game!  So we call the play—a naked bootleg—and I fake everybody except George Atkinson.  I’m going in for the score and he missed the tackle, but he got the ball. I swear I saw the ball hit out of bounds, but the ref ruled that it was in bounds and they recovered on the one.”  

The Bills had one more chance to tie it in the game’s final minute, but Bruce Alford’s 48-yard effort was no good. “Alford hits the middle of the crossbar and it bounces back in,” said Rutkowski. “What do we have to do?!  We monopolized about sixty percent of the game.  We were beating the snot out of the Oakland Raiders on national television on Thanksgiving Day, and who’s my rival?  Daryle Lamonica. I was really looking forward to maybe going up afterward if we had won that game and shaking his hand.” 

The worst season in the Buffalo Bills’ nine-year existence came to an ignominious end at the Houston Astrodome with an embarrassing 35-6 loss in which the team managed a record low 89 yards from scrimmage. 

“It was the first time I’d ever played inside of a dome,” said Rutkowski. “It was a weird atmosphere.  It was a closed atmosphere and everything just looked so different.  Domed teams playing against teams that normally play outside definitely have an advantage. The noise factor was something we weren’t prepared for.  It wasn’t a comfortable atmosphere.”

The game started on a promising note, with the Bills getting a 28-yard Bruce Alford field goal to go up 3-0. They extended the lead when Marty Schottenheimer picked off Pete Beathard and returned the ball to the Houston 22, setting up Alford for a 36-yarder, giving the Bills a 6-0 bulge the took into the second. But the Oilers came back early in the quarter, with Beathard driving them 63 yards to the Buffalo one. Woody Campbell then found the end zone to give Houston a 7-6 lead, which they took to the locker room at halftime.

“For some reason,” said Rutkowski, “I got sick from something I must have eaten that night, and kind of had the shakes on the sideline.  I don’t want to make excuses, but it just got to the point where I walked up to coach Mazur and said, ‘John, I’m not doing the team any good,’ and they put Dan Darragh in.”   

Don Trull replaced Beathard in the second half and proceeded to turn the game into a debacle, shredding the Buffalo defense for 117 yards and two touchdowns, en route to an easy 35-6 win.          
The loss to the Oilers left the Bills with a final record of 1-12-1. The Eagles played the New Orleans Saints the next day and won, leaving Buffalo with the worst overall record, and giving them the first choice in the 1969 college draft.         

Rating Rutkowski's performance: 

The games in which Rutkowski saw brief action behind center (Miami, Houston, San Diego) should be viewed as dress rehearsals and therefore will not be included in the overall analysis of his performance. Thus, only the three games in which he started will be used to evaluate Rutkowski's overall performance. The most apt comparison for Rutkowski’s quarterbacking stint is, of course, Tom Matte, who guided the Baltimore Colts for two meaningful games (one regular season and one playoff) after starter John Unitas and backup Gary Cuozzo went down with injuries 1965. 

Rutkowski’s Stats

        Rushing totals:  15 carries, 67 yards, 4.5 ave.

Matte’s Stats

Los Angeles
Green Bay*
           Rushing totals:  33 carries, 156 yards, 4.7 ave.
*Playoff game.

Watching footage of these two in action in meaningful games is quite revealing. Of the two, Rutkowski appeared slightly more poised, and, arguably, more quarterback-like (Note: Matte also started in the Playoff Bowl and looked like a veteran QB, but that game doesn’t count). Both the Bills’ and Colts' coaching staffs infused their respective game plans with plenty of roll-outs, quarterback draws, screens, and other plays designed to deceive opposing defenses or take advantage of their quarterbacks' mobility. As a result, both Rutkowski and Matte averaged over four yards per carry in the games they started under center. It’s telling, however, that Baltimore’s staff trusted Matte to throw just 12 times in the playoff game against Green Bay, and only twice in the season finale against the Rams. Rutkowski, on the other hand, attempted more passes in each of his games than Matte did in total.

Rutkowski finished with a record of 0 wins and 3 losses as a starter, while Matte finished with a mark of 1-1. However, Matte was quarterbacking a playoff-caliber team that included Hall-or-Famers at tight end (John Mackey), wide receiver (Raymond Berry) and halfback (Lenny Moore), with a Hall-of-Fame coach in Don Shula. Rutkowski, on the other hand, was leading a terrible team stocked with rookies and castoffs, many of whom were playing positions in which they had had little or no previous experience. Matte had the better overall Quarterback Rating (44.3 to 34.2), but Rutkowski had the better completion percentage (42.0 to 35.7) and yards-per-attempt (4.3 to 2.9).