Saturday, July 7, 2018

Ed Rutkowski's 1968 Season

LOOKING BACK
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

Opponent
Comp.
Att.
Pct.
Yds
Yds/Att
Tds
Int
Rating
Denver
17
38
44.7
161
4.2
0
2
35.1
Oakland
10
25
40.0
160
6.4
0
2
28.7
Houston
7
18
38.9
24
1.3
0
0
47.0
34
81
42.0
345
4.3
0
4
34.2
        Rushing totals:  15 carries, 67 yards, 4.5 ave.

Matte’s Stats

Opponent
Comp.
Att.
Pct.
Yds
Yds/Att
Tds
Int
Rating
Los Angeles
0
2
0.0
0
0
0
0
39.6
Green Bay*
5
12
41.7
40
3.3
0
0
50.0
5
14
35.7
40
2.9
0
0
44.3
           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).  

5 comments:

  1. ....sure enjoyed the article Jeff! Every team needs players that are versatile and team oriented, and boy oh boy was Eddie R. that kinda guy. Look forward to your next article.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Coach! Been working on this one for a while.

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  2. Good article Jeff! Love this site.

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  3. Nice article and research Jeff!

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