SI Vault
Paul Zimmerman
September 05, 1984
This was traditionally one of the most ferociously competitive divisions in football, but now it's a two-tiered society. The Bills, the Jets and Colts are the have-nots. Miami is the aristocracy. But this is the year the NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS join the upper crust. All the signs are there.
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September 05, 1984

Afc East

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Joe Ferguson drops back to pass for the BUFFALO BILLS. He looks down-field for Frank Lewis. No Frank Lewis. He's retired. He looks for Jerry Butler. Nope, he's gone for the year with a postop knee. Got to dump it off to Joe Cribbs, but it'll have to be a hell of a throw—all the way to Birmingham, where little Joe was all-USFL for the Stallions.

Ghosts...Rich Stadium is filled with ghosts. Those that were, those that never were: quarterback Jim Kelly, the team's No. 1 draft pick in '83, USFL Player of the Year in '84, 44 touchdown passes and each one a dagger in the heart of every loyal Buffalo fan; Tom Cousineau, No. 1 choice in '79, helping to make the Browns' linebacking healthy.

Prayer, hope, a million maybes—that's the Bills' future for '84. Fergie takes the heat, but what's a guy gonna do with a bunch of minor league receivers? Buffalo has had only one keynote No. 1 draft pick in the last seven years, Butler in '79. Now there's halfback Greg Bell, coming in with a wing and a prayer, off an injury-ridden career at Notre Dame.

Kay Stephenson, the Bills' head coach, feuded with his defensive coordinator of last year, Bob Zeman. Now Zeman's gone, which means that Darryl Talley, a flashy rookie linebacker in '83, will be a regular. As many as 10 rookies could make the club this season, and I'll give you the name of a guy to watch—Rodney Bellinger, a shrimp of a cornerback. A Rod Perry clone.

It's the summer of 1981. NEW YORK JETS middle linebacker Stan Blinka calls a press conference. He wants to be traded. He has started every game for two years, led the team in tackles for two years. He wants his $40,000 salary upgraded. (The year before, the Jets had given wide receiver Lam Jones a record rookie contract of $2 million.) "There are situations in which a contract might be upgraded, but not after a 4-12 year," says Jim Kensil, the president. Keep that quote in mind. It's significant.

Now it's the summer of '83, the year after the Jets played in the AFC championship. Jerry Holmes, the starting right cornerback, is in his option year. He's making $92,500. All spring people have been begging Kensil to get Holmes signed. He says there's time. In September Holmes signs with the USFL. So do two other defensive backs, Jesse Johnson and Johnny Lynn, the nickel. They had been earning, respectively, $71,500 and $77,000. The Jets lose two out of the three. Lynn comes back because the L.A. Express coach at the time, Hugh Campbell, had a case of the fogs and put a buy-back clause in the deal.

It's draft day 1984. No more luxury drafts, like 1983, when the Jets took a quarterback, Ken O'Brien, as a hope for the future. Now it's time for good old need, a cornerback, Russell Carter of SMU. Carter signs a four-year package for $1.2 million, and the floodgates are open. Money is flowing like Hess Oil. Twenty-five veterans' contracts are redone. A new phrase has come into the league—a Gastineau contract. Howie Long wants one, so do Randy White and Too Tall Jones. A Gastineau contract means $3.75 million for five years. The Jets are the NFL's rich boys, and if you can't figure out their new math—pay the big money while holding firm on the smaller contracts—join the group.

That policy isn't the only thing that's weird about this club. The offense sputtered last year. Halfbacks Freeman McNeil and Bruce Harper went down with injuries. The offensive line was banged up. Wesley Walker, the blue-chip receiver, floundered. So who got all the blame? Quarterback Richard Todd. Off he went to New Orleans, leaving the Jets with O'Brien, who didn't take a snap in '83. He has a gun, all right, but in his first exhibition game he was sacked six times. His escape ability seems minimal. Call it a rebuilding year for the Jets.

On the morning of Thursday, March 29, 1984, employees of the Baltimore Colts came to work to find a building stripped bare. They were ushered into an empty conference room where they were told they no longer had jobs. Goodby and good luck. Thus began the glorious saga of the INDIANAPOLIS COLTS.

The news out of Indianapolis? Owner Bob Irsay is given 40 acres of prime real estate and the city will build him a training site. Irsay is sued by an Indianapolis restaurateur over distribution of season tickets. The team had trouble signing its two first-round draft choices, cornerback Leonard Coleman and guard Ron Solt. "I don't expect the people of Indianapolis to pay a player $1 million when he doesn't deserve it," Irsay said.

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