Sunday, June 27, 2021

DOUG BUFFONE: "A Steadying Influence, Too Often Overlooked"

 By TJ Troup 

Both John Turney and myself have had conversations concerning players from the 1950's through the 1980's that we believe had excellent careers, yet were over shadowed and just did not receive honors or recognition they deserved—and Doug Buffone is sure one of these players. Did he deserve to be All-Pro? Pro Bowl? All-Conference/NFC? 

No is the answer to all of these, but he sure has a strong resume, and film study shows he to be versatile, and a player that you can win with. 

This story is not a history lesson on Chicago Bear linebacking, yet the tradition began in the '40s with Bulldog Turner and continued with George Connor (usually a d-lineman, but strong also at linebacker), Bill George, Larry Morris, Joe Fortunato, and the legendary Dick Butkus. 

Much was asked and expected of Bear linebackers under Shaughnessy and Allen, but entering 1966 George Allen has left the Bears to become a head coach, and Joe Fortunato is in the twilight of his distinguished career; thus Buffone is drafted out of Louisville on the 4th round. 

His rookie season he is the back-up on the strong side to Fortunato, and contributes in the kicking game. Buffone records a takeaway(fumble recovery) in the season-ending victory over Minnesota. Since the Bears were featured on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Pro Football edition, and entered the game against the Vikings with a record of 4-7-2—they were anything but contenders, and the defense missed George Allen. As this tale is told there will be many quotes from publications, and having sources is always a blessing. 

Coupled with my film study hopefully, you will get a clear picture of the roller coaster ride that was the Chicago Bears from 1966 through 1979.

Halas will step down after the '67 season, and coaching the defense is former Bear receiver Jim Dooley. Very little is stated in the publications for the '67 campaign, in fact, some stated that Fortunato would return? Doug Buffone is the starter at left linebacker, and he scores the only touchdown of his career in his eighth start of the season against the Lions in Detroit. 

We all hope to have accurate details on the history of the game, but the Lion scorekeeper on a 2nd and ten play on the Lion sixteen list Ed O'Bradovich as sacking Sweetan and forcing a fumble, when film review shows it is strong safety Richie Petitbon rocketing into the backfield making the hit. Buffone grabs the ball on the one, and tumbles into the end zone in the Bears 27-13 victory. 

During '67 Jim Dooley made an adjustment to George Allen's nickel coverage, and utilized Bennie McRae's tough-tackling as a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive back—this became known as the "Dooley Defense". 

Buffone, Butkus, and the five defensive backs patrolled the secondary, and the Bear defense playing excellent defense the second half of the season to finish with a winning record of 7-6-1. Almost every publication would feature the Bears two superstars in Butkus and Sayers, and might even mention the ongoing attempt to find a quarterback who could pass, and lead the team, and as such many players got very little mention. Street & Smith's, in '67, listed Fortunato as a "venerable statesman", and "reserves are Buffone and Mike Reilly". 

The Chicago Bear season of 1968 is one of the strangest in team history as they went from the basement due to blowout losses to first place with one game to go. The disappointing loss in Wrigley Field to longtime rival Green Bay to close the season will key personnel and coaching decisions in Chicago. Joe Fortunato had spent the '68 season as defensive co-ordinator and linebacker coach, but he did not return for 1969. 

Being in the Coliseum for the Game of the Week in December of '68 between the Bears and Rams remains a highlight in all the games I have attended. Buffone and Petitbon ably assisted Butkus in limiting the Ram offense in the upset of the season. Seemed like everyone got a chance to play quarterback for the Bears in '68, and surprisingly in the draft Chicago took a "snap taker" in Bobby Douglass. No one who knows the history of the game, and the Bears would ever refer to Douglass as a quarterback. 

Again, so much was written about the triggerman position, and then the dynamic duo of Butkus and an injured Sayers—that Buffone is referred to in Street & Smith's in '69 as part of a young linebacking trio that had "youth to last indefinitely". 

The Bear press guide listed Buffone with 93 solo tackles and 68 assists in '69 after a banner year of 126/92 in '68. Though he played well in '69 with three takeaways, and supposedly got three sacks, he would not tell you that this was his best season. 

Since I brought up "sacks"—time to address the folly of the Chicago Bears Media department. Ready? Here goes...Doug Buffone is listed as having 18 sacks in 1967, and 9 in 1968, and folks this just goes to show that teams in that era, and especially the Bears not only made multiple errors in scorekeeping, they have never gone back and corrected those errors? Doug Buffone probably had 3½ sacks in '67 and 4 in '68. He was quick and effective on the blitz, could cover his zone well, was capable in man coverage, and was a strong tackler who just did not miss. Smart, dedicated and consistent as we head into a new decade. 

Watching the 1970 Chicago Bear highlight film over and over shows us not only is Butkus superb at taking the ball away, making tackles, and stripping the ball away from runners, he gets strong support from Doug. Many of Buffone's 4 interceptions in 1970 he drifts into the area where the quarterback is throwing as Doug would read the opposing quarterback's eyes and pilfer the pigskin. 

He did not record a fumble recovery or a sack, and a key reason is that the new Bear's linebacker coach Don Shinnick was a master at teaching outside linebackers pass defense based upon his own career. Though a 6-8 season is hardly anything to write home about, it is a dramatic improvement over '69. Street & Smith's in '70 states "working on either side of Butkus are Buffone and Caffey". Not exactly an endorsement for Pro Bowl honors? 

That is about to change in '71. Dick Butkus is my favorite football player of all-time and could go hours, and pages explaining what set him apart, but in '71 though he plays well, his knee has not responded to the failed surgery, and Doug Buffone begins to get some recognition. His stellar season is highlighted by his tackle totals of 143/76, he intercepts twice, and "breaks up" seven pass plays. 

Working with Shinnick sure helped, but by this time in his career he is an experience pro would just gets the job done in all facets of linebacker play. Street & Smith's in '71 state "(A)ny two outside linebackers would look good on the same team as Butkus-but the fact is that on this club, Doug Buffone and Lee Roy Caffey help make Butkus look good".  

Under Jim Dooley in '71 the Bears find a way to upset teams they should have lost to, and find themselves 6-3 with five games to go. Since they had beaten Detroit, Dallas, and Washington the boys in navy blue & burnt orange just might earn a wild-card berth in the playoffs? 

Where is Jim Mora when I need him? Playoffs? The season-ending five-game losing streak is painful to watch for many reasons (scoring only 29 points is sure one of them). Dooley is dismissed and replaced by the worst hire in Chicago Bear history—Abe Gibron. Fun quotes, and his almost cartoon presence are entertaining, but he just is not much of a head coach. 

The Bears claw their way to a 3-3-1 record at the half-way point, but again fall apart in the second half of the season. Street & Smith's comment in '72 "Chicago linebacking in fact, is strong all the way across from Buffone to Brupbacher". Any linebacker that records tackle totals of 158/96 in a fourteen-game season is doing his job and then some. 

When Doug Buffone joined the Bears in '66 the team had many quality players, but as the team entered 1973 the player personnel department had failed each season to draft what was needed (with the exception of Wally Chambers), and when you add to that Butkus & Sayers are just a shell of what they once were you have hard times for a proud franchise. Street & Smith's in '73 state "Chicago's linebackers tend to make any front four or deep four look pretty good. Gibron will line up Butkus, Doug Buffone and Ross Brupbacher, with Jimmy Gunn in reserve". 

Since Gunn was mentioned let's go back briefly to '72. Bill George coached the linebackers in '72 and with the injury to defensive end Willie Holman the Bears lost their best pass rusher. Some historians have stated emphatically that the Bears have been a 4-3 team virtually their entire history, and this is just damn wrong! 

Watch the film in '72 and you will see the Bears go from a 4-3 to 3-4 team many times during a game and the season. Thus Buffone will learn a new position of inside linebacker, and flourish with this new responsibility, as his tackle totals tell us. 

The game against Philadelphia late in the season the Bears aligned in a 3-4 to start the game. Jimmy Carr returns to coach the Bear defense in '73(he was there in '69), and just does not get the job done. From 3-5 to 3-11 and scoring just 34 points in the six-game losing streak is not the way to keep a job, yet Abe Gibron returns in 1974, and the new Chicago Bear linebacker coach is Bob Lord(he stays one year). 

Street & Smith's states "Doug Buffone give them strength at one outside position". A new publication would find it's way into my library in the early '70s and the Pocket Book of Pro Football edited by Herbert Furlow was a breath of fresh air as the book attempted to at least give some details about players. The '73 book states Buffone and Brupbacher complement him (meaning Butkus)expertly. Buffone is strong against the run". 

1974 book states "Buffone and Gunn played well, but the big question here is how to replace Dick Butkus". Suddenly there is hope in Chicago as Halas makes a hiring that actually saved the franchise. Jim Finks will begin to rebuild this woebegone team, and establish pride again.

Finks and Halas hire Jack Pardee to coach the Bears in 1975. This is a man who has seen it all from his days with the Rams and Redskins. Buffone is about to enter his 10th campaign, and has never been part of a play-off team. Can Finks and Pardee deliver? 

Street & Smith's states in '75 "Doug Buffone and Jimmy Gunn are formidable outside linebackers". The Pocket Book states "Buffone is a quiet veteran who seldom errs"...and the Bear highlight film is title "Bears to Build On". 

Thirty-four players are gone from the '74 team as Finks and Pardee assess the talent, yet here is still is at left or strong-side linebacker...Doug continues to play well. Though his tackle total for '75 is not as strong, he is now coached by Pardee and is asked to read differently and as such records seven tackles for loss, and forces five fumbles. 

He is almost never asked to blitz anymore, thus no sacks, and though he plays his zone area well, he has intercepted just once in both '74 and '75. Though the Bears have not won much during this time period; Buffone's fumble recoveries in these two seasons come in victories as he still has a nose for the ball, and is always hustling. 

Did Jack Pardee deserve to be coach of the year in the NFC in 1976? That can be debated, yet the Bears were by far the most improved team in the league, and the gauntlet of teams they played during mid-season showed that improvement. 

Problem is Buffone is injured in the second game of the season in the win over the 49ers, and misses the rest of the year. The only time he is ever seriously injured. Before writing about Buffone and the '77 Bears, time for some math, or what I call "rivalry math". 

From '66 through '68 the Bears record against the Packers, Vikings, and Lions was 8-8-2. Not great, but at least adequate. 

From 1969 through 1975 the Bears record against these Central division teams was 9-33.....let me repeat that—JUST NINE DAMN WINS, and 33 LOSSES. For the only time in his career, Buffone will be part of a Bear team that goes 5-1 against these rivals in '77, and though they struggled with consistency, this Bear team will saddle their wagon to Sir Walter, and an improved defense of hitters, and earn a wild-card berth. 

Buffone misses the victory over the Chiefs in November, but he has healed from injury and again plays well in the eleven games he starts. He intercepts against the Rams in the key Monday Night game victory, records five pass break-ups and six times he takes down a runner for a loss. Pardee has Buffone playing strong-side linebacker the way he did, and Doug will head to Dallas for the play-off encounter with the Cowboys. 

No team was going to beat the Dallas Cowboys in 1977, let alone the Bears, but the season gave rise to the belief Chicago had arrived to be part of the upper echelon of the league. Jack Pardee leaves, and Neill Armstrong is the new head coach of the Bears, and he brings with him Buddy Ryan to coach the defense. 

Buffone will miss the November loss to the Vikings, but he is there week in and week out in his 13th campaign to play outside linebacker. Having the complete game film of the September 10th victory over San Francisco is a joy to watch since again the Bears shift from a 4-3 to 3-4 defense many times in the game. 

Buffone expertly handles the adjustment, and his two 4th quarter interceptions are plays any linebacker would be proud to show. They certainly were key plays in the Bears win as they began the year 3-0, stumbled and struggled over the next eight weeks, then left hibernation to win four of their final five. The Ryan defense asks outside linebackers to blitz, and though Doug recorded two sacks, this is not the strength of his game at this point in his career. 

Buffone returns in '79 for one last campaign as a reserve, yet he started two games at middle linebacker due to an injury to Tom Hicks. Amazingly he intercepts passes in both the second and third quarters in the hard-fought loss to New England, and recorded 5 solo tackles. 

Much like 1977 the second half of the year is one of resolute toughness by the Bears as they win 10 games and earn a wild-card berth. On the journey to Philadelphia to play the Eagles wonder if Doug reflected back to 1968 when the Bears found a way to win when they had too? 

Buffone recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass in that October victory, and Chicago sure could have used Buffone takeaways against Dick Vermeil's team in '79, but came up short. 

The final four years of his career the Bears won 15 and lost 9 against their longtime rivals, and again had earned respect throughout the league. Doug Buffone at the end of his career had played and started more games than any other Chicago Bear in team history. 

He was consistent, dedicated, and played the game the way we all want to see it played, yet very little notice outside of Chicago. 

Was honored to see him play in the Coliseum a handful of times against the Rams, and of course many times on TV. Watching the film I have on him brought back many memories, some of course positive, and some very painful. Today would have been Doug's 77th birthday. 

1 comment:

  1. Saw Doug play in some 77 games thanks to power of YouTube and he was a bit quiet in them. Probably not at the top of his game by then. He seemed like a true slugger st linebacker though. You don’t see it much in today’s game. Haha here I go sounding like a veteran and I’m only 29!