Tuesday, July 7, 2020

ROBERT JAMES: Buffalo Bills Playoff Team of '74.

By TJ Troup
For those of you who actually forked out $50.00 (way overpriced) for my book on pro football in the decade of the '50s this story will follow a similar format.

So before detailing my thoughts on Robert James, let's start with some background.

During the 66 games played before 1973 the Buffalo Bills won just twelve times. Lou Saban's time in Denver brought mixed results, and in a sense, he is returning home to Buffalo. He is heavily involved in trading for players who can help his team win, and the draft will hopefully bring in some young talent.

Saban's staff is top-notch with Stan Jones working with the defensive line, and Bob Shaw with the receivers. Two men though stand out on his staff. Jim Ringo is going to teach and build one of the best offensive lines of the decade of the '70s, and defensive coordinator/linebacker coach Johnny Ray has never received the credit he deserved for the revitalization of the Bills defense.

During the debacle of '71 Buffalo allowed 4,604 yards, while in 1974 the defense allows 3,489 yards. Basically an improvement of 79 yards a game; very impressive.

Lou Saban after missing the playoffs in '73 is convinced his team after tasting victory will be hungry for more. Sources always are vital for me in telling the tale and have three that were sure helpful—Pocket Pro Football, Street & Smith's, and finally Prolog.

What those dedicated men have written coupled with film study takes us to the Buffalo receiving corps. JD Hill and Ahmad Rashad are the starting wide receivers and are capably supported by Bobby Chandler. This group runs sharp routes, have the moves to get open, and all are glue-fingered. Buffalo maybe a running team, and these men will block, yet the Bills are very capable of completing passes.
Those passes are thrown by Joe Ferguson. He has excellent footwork, and a strong arm (even throwing off his back foot). He is mobile enough and sure has his moments on roll-outs to the right. His accuracy is adequate (51%), but the most important aspect to his passing game is throwing 12 touchdown passes in '74 after just 4 in '73.

Ferguson is impressive throwing the ball in the red zone. Jim Braxton is a load of a fullback. Powerful with just enough speed to motor past pursuing linebackers, he is an accomplished pass blocker who picks up the blitz well.

We all know he can lead block for Simpson, and every opponent must begin their defensive game plan with that fact in mind. OJ Simpson coming off an incredible season delivers again in '74. No one expected another 2,000 yards, and while 1,125 is quite a drop-off he still can the focal point of the offense.

The offensive line received lots of fanfare with the catchy nickname; and these men were consistent, versatile, and resilient since they missed so little time in the line-up. Foley and Green at the tackles, DeLamielleure and McKenzie at the guards, and Montler at center (Bruce Jarvis is the best back-up center in the league). Size, quickness, technique, and a combative attitude make them a very fun group to watch.

Though rarely stated, an offensive line on the practice field has only so many minutes to work on two skills......pass protection, and run blocking. The emphasis, of course, is on the run, and at times the Buffalo line struggles in pass protection (Vern Den Herder had 4 sacks in one game), yet they are more than adequate protecting Ferguson.

The very flawed ESPN Encyclopedia lists the All-Pro voting; with McKenzie getting some consideration and Joe D. honorable mention. Tackle Paul Seymour is a load as the starting tight end, and keeps Reuben Gant on the bench. Seymour can catch a pass, but that is an afterthought with the weapons available.

Every tight end must be able to master the "reach block" on the sweep, and as big as Paul is he can make this difficult block. Drive blocking comes easy for him. Larry Felser writing for both Street & Smith's and the Pocket Handbook states emphatically the job these men did as a group and individually.

We are at a point in this era where the run is again paramount, and Buffalo can, and will run the ball. When Lou Saban watched film of the Buffalo run defense for 1971 he must have felt sick to his stomach----2,496 yards. That must change yet in '72 only slight improvement to 2,241. Not only is the scheme vital to stopping opponents from running the ball; you must have some tough hombres who can shed blocks, and fill running lanes.

During 1973 a marked improvement to 1,797 yards, and though Buffalo allows slightly more in '74 with 1,878 opponents ran the ball more and as such the per carry average improved to just 3.8 a carry.

Buffalo's depth at linebacker was instrumental in this team earning a playoff berth. Rich Lewis at right linebacker, and steady John Skorupan at left linebacker played well the first half of the year, but injuries forced adjustments, and coach Johnny Ray's group made all the necessary adjustments. Big play rangy Dave Washington takes over at left linebacker and Doug Allen at right linebacker.

During the second half of the campaign, Buffalo aligned in the 3-4 for three games with Bo Cornell at right outside linebacker, and Allen moving to inside linebacker. There are men who just know instinctively how to pursue, shed blocks, and tackle.

Undersized Jim Cheyunski came in a trade and was the glue to the defense. "Chey" as I call him was just a damn tackling machine. Film study shows him demonstrating proper technique and you can see his heart and desire for the game. He will at times be driven back due to his lack of heft, but not often. Cheyunski is also rock-solid in zone pass defense.

When a defense is aligned in the 3-4 there is going to be the "blitz". Cornell, Washington, Allen, Skorupan, and Cheyunski are credited with 7 1/2 sacks total. Not near what other teams get on the blitz, but Buffalo does not blitz a lot. The most improved area of the team from the debacle of '71 is the defensive line.

Walt Patulski never lived up to being drafted so high, but he played his best football in '74. Improved at both stopping the run, and rushing the passer; Walt contributed to the team success. Surprisingly Dave Costa is not mentioned in any of the publications, but he was very valuable to this team. Costa takes over for Bob Kampa in week three and starts nine games (not three as listed at the Pro Football Archives).

Costa had success in Oakland, and in Denver, and he may not have much left, but boy oh boy did he give effort in '74 at right defensive end. Dave shed blocks, sealed inside running lanes, and tried to rush the passer(only 2½ sacks). Dave went to the bench when Buffalo aligned in the 3-4. Mike Kadish has finally matured into a standout d-tackle and '74 is by far his best year. His tremendous strength was always an asset, but now he sheds the block, and is versatile enough to align on the center(nose tackle) in the 3-4.
Earl Edwards story is fascinating, and without a doubt, the best trade Lou made (running back Randy Jackson and a 3rd round pick), and while he played well in '73 he is even better in '74. Edwards has the physical gifts to play both tackle and end, and does both for the Bills during the year. Kadish and Edwards combine for 14 sacks to give Buffalo the in your face pass rush all defensive coordinators want.

While neither man gets any all-pro recognition that is understandable since this is the era of the d-tackle. Don't believe me? Look at the number of elite d-tackles who suited up in 1974—a legendary who's who. Kadish & Edwards might not get the recognition they deserved, yet no doubt the guard attempting to block them had to prepare and give maximum effort. Many pundits stated the d-line was the key to Buffalo defensive success, and they are partially correct.

The defensive passer rating is a tool that tell us how a team played TEAM pass defense. Ranking dead last in 1971 was Buffalo at 84.2 (league average is 62.2).  Ranking 5th in 1974 was Buffalo at 51.6 (league average is 64.2). What brought about the dramatic improvement?

Dwight Harrison came in a trade and delivered at right corner. He was more than adequate as both a zone and man-to-man defender. Neal Craig also came in trade, and though at times inconsistent he always displayed athleticism and the ability to make a big play (which he does in '74) so the strong safety post is taken care of.
Tiny Tony Greene is the consummate versatile pro. He can play corner if he has too(and did at times in his career), but he is at his best at free safety. Tony is not a big hitter due to his lack of size, but is a willing, and capable tackler. He is lightning quick and can accelerate on the proper angle to the ball. Greene entered 1974 with just four lifetime interceptions, and then ranges far and wide to pilfer 9 balls during the year. He is rewarded with unanimous All-Pro recognition. Tiny Tony was a difference maker. 

Earlier in the season "the Hawk" (swirling winds) and rain in the game against Joe Namath and the Jets took the league back to the 1940s as the teams combined to complete just 2 of 20 passes (Buffalo 0 for 2) with the Buffalo pass defense intercepting three.

That leaves the headliner for this story. John Rauch must have known during 1969 that he just did not have much of a team in Buffalo, and by 1974 only two men from that '69 team are still suiting up for the rabid loyal Buffalo fans—OJ Simpson, and undrafted Robert James.  Am convinced that running track at a small college is an eye-opening experience(have been there), and Robert James was an outstanding sprinter at Fisk College. His speed is going to help him survive at the most difficult position in football—left corner.

Watch James come up and defend the sweep; textbook. He might not be Night Train Lane, but at 184 lbs. he does the job. Dropping into zone and playing the ball is a major part of being a left corner, and James does this expertly.

The most important physical gift of a corner is the hips as the receiver attempts to "eat up your cushion" and jet right by you deep. Robert James smooth backpedal and then opening his hips to run with the receiver up the sideline is just so difficult—think not, try it sometime (also been there).

Against Green Bay, Robert James put on a clinic on how the corner position should be played. He earned a pro bowl berth in both 1972 and 1973 and recorded just one interception each year. The voters did notice, and at this point in his career, he is the best in all of football. Unanimous First-team All-Pro.

Was so fortunate to be in the Coliseum for the last game of '74 to watch this playoff-bound team take on a strong Rams team. So many were there to see Simpson return to the Coliseum (I get it), but I was there to watch Earl Edwards, Jim Cheyunski, Tony Greene, and ROBERT JAMES.

The game that day was a smog-filled snooze fest, but so what, got to see the Rams eke out a win against Buffalo. Robert James career ended in August of '75 with a horrific knee injury against these same Rams. Not sure he was going to be a Hall of Famer, but sure would have enjoyed watching him play many more years, and yes today is his birthday.

Finally, as stated at the beginning like my book on the '50's....we have a game of significance: Buffalo is 6-1 and New England is also 6-1 (only defeat at the hands of the Bills). Two John Leypoldt field goals sandwiched around a mini Mack Herron touchdown gives us a 7-6 score after one hard-fought quarter. When Joe Ferguson fumbles the ball to the Patriots at his own thirty-one-yard line; Plunkett quickly capitalizes with another td toss to Herron.

Herron's quickness got him open against Dave Washington. Ferguson drives the Bills to a score as Ahmad Rashad scores from the twenty-five. The Patriots in front of the home crown respond and with just over a minute left in the half score again on Sam Cunningham's 31-yard run after Ron Bolton intercepted Ferguson. Wait a minute, the Bills can drive the field now with a 2-minute offense? Ferguson is intercepted again, but reserve linebacker Merv Krakau intercepts Plunkett, and trundled to his own thirty-seven yard line.

So does Buffalo have a 1-minute offense? They do as Simpson scores from the one with just 39 seconds left in the half after Ferguson completes to Hill and Rashad for 57 yards. New England 21 Buffalo 19. Since the Patriots scored 28 in the loss two weeks earlier, and already have 21.....there needs to be some decisive defensive half-time adjustments by the Bills.
The Patriots have a 4th down and inches to go situation in the middle of the 3rd quarter, but elect to pass, and Plunkett's misguided aerial to Sam Cunningham in the flat is intercepted by long-armed Dave Washington, and the big man dashes 72 yards to get the lead back for the Bills. Eddie Hinton returns the kick-off 53 yards, and with just over 3 minutes left in the 3rd quarter Herron scores for the third time today. New England 28 Buffalo 26 at the end of three.

On the first play of the 4th quarter, Leypoldt drills home a 47-yarder and the Bills have the lead. Can the Buffalo defense hold for an entire quarter?
Jams (#20) covers Otis Taylor in 1971
Yes, they can. Simpson fumbles and the Patriots have one last shot at the win as John Smith lines up for a 46 yard attempt. Jeff Yeates gets his big paw up and blocks the kick. Final first place Buffalo 29 New England 28. Buffalo only needs to win two of their remaining six games, and that is exactly what they do, and earn their first playoff berth in eight years. The season ends with a decisive victory by Pittsburgh on their way to a Super Bowl title, but no doubt the Buffalo Bills and Robert James have joined the elite teams in the league.


  1. I had to look up James after Simpson talked about him during the 1985/86 Pro Bowl broadcast.

    Simpson commented that James was strong and with his ability to jam the receiver, he felt that small receivers like Clayton and Duper wouldnt have gotten off the line of scrimmage against him, without the rule changes. I was blown away ...

  2. Mr. James was my high school assistant principal in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Very quite man. Other than a framed piece of art showing him in his Bills uniform, you would have never known he was a professional football player, let alone a great one. I didn’t learn how good he was until decades later. Thanks for the write up.

  3. Great stuff as always, Coach. I remember reading about Robert James in Street & Smith's and other preseason magazines. He was described as an excellent corner who quietly went about his business of shutting down receivers.

  4. These Bills were competitive in 73-74-75, but could not move up to the next level. Ferguson was an interception machine. The wildcard appearance at 9-5 in 1974 was a gift of fate; in those days it almost always took 10 wins minimum to make the playoffs.

    The defense went to total crap after 1974. James had the knee injury and was done. Cheyunski was sent to the Colts (to be part of their turnaround from 2-12 in 74 to the playoffs in 75). They wasted the top two draft picks on Nebraska linebackers Tom Ruud and Bob Nelson who both held out and then turned out to be garbage. So despite having the top scoring offense in 75, the defense was stupendously horrible and they finished 8-6 and out of the playoffs.

    And that was the end of the second Lou Saban run in Buffalo. Simpson held out in 76 and after a 2-3 start, Wandering Lou was gone and they fell straight to the cellar until Chuck Knox arrived in 78.