Yet the Patriots' 6-2 record was not so surprising to those who set store by the lessons of history—history as written by the Buffalo Bills. Not too many years ago both teams hit bottom. Buffalo had the worst record in football in 1968, won the right to choose O. J. Simpson in the draft and in time began to revive. New England was the worst team in 1970, and chose Jim Plunkett.
It also takes good coaching to turn a disastrous situation around. Buffalo rehired Saban two years ago, and New England followed last year with Fairbanks. When Saban arrived in Buffalo, Simpson had had three so-so years that yielded little more than a steamship ticket to Africa, courtesy of a dissatisfied fan. But the new coach built his offense around the star running back and O. J. responded by leading the league in rushing. The year before Fairbanks took over in New England, Plunkett was the lowest-rated quarterback in pro football and had to undergo surgery on his left knee. Last year he led the AFC in passing yardage.
Saban won four games and tied one his first year. Fairbanks won five in his first. Buffalo made great advances in Sa-ban's second season. The Patriots are doing the same this year. The 1973 Bills had a huge turnover in personnel and ended up with seven new starters on defense. The team's average age was only 24.3. This season the Patriots took a look at 147 football players. Fairbanks has eight new starters on defense, and the average age of his team is 24.9. Eleven of the current Bills preceded Sa-ban. Only 11 of Fairbanks' players were with the team when he arrived. It may not be carrying the analogy too far to suggest that while the Bills are true playoff contenders, the Patriots are one year away.
Saban's success stems in large part from perceptive handling of his personnel, a perfect example being the job he has done with Ferguson. Ferguson was a likely Heisman Trophy candidate after his junior year at Arkansas in 1971, but a new backfield coach there and a new system in his final season took care of that. "I wasn't sure then that I wanted to play football again," he says. But when the Bills drafted him in the third round he decided to "find out if I could play."
Saban immediately handed him the starting job but kept a tight rein on him in 1973 by calling all the plays. " Coach Saban really got it into me that I could play," Ferguson says now, "and having O. J. helped, too. If he hadn't been here last year, it might have been a whole different story. He took a lot of pressure off me and gave me time to gain confidence."
Ferguson threw the ball only 164 times last season and, along with Norm Snead, was the lowest-ranked quarterback in football. This year Saban is still calling the plays but he has shown confidence in the young quarterback by letting him throw more, and Ferguson is second in the league in passing. On Sunday, Saban never lost that faith, even in the almost ruinous second quarter, and it paid off. For the day Ferguson completed 15 of 23 passes for 242 yards and a touchdown.
"We have to take some of the pressure off O. J. now," says Ferguson, happy to repay the debt. "Wherever he goes the linebackers go. If he ran 10 yards out of bounds without the football, they'd go with him."
Simpson, who gained 74 yards in 19 carries against the Patriots, does not mind the attention. Like all the Bills, he can taste the playoffs. "I've had all the individual things," he said recently. "I've gained 2,000 yards, I've been Player of the Year, I've made the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro team. But I haven't won. That is, I haven't won enough to get into the playoffs and the Super Bowl. That's what I want now. One of those rings with all the diamonds."