The Buffalo Bills sit high atop the NFL. They were 4-0 after Sunday's surprisingly easy 24-7 victory over the Oakland Raiders, and only Detroit and San Diego could match that record. Yes, these are the same Bills who generated about as much preseason excitement as the new rule regarding injury time-outs in the last two minutes.
Buffalo's right guard, Conrad Dobler, and his matching set of arthritic knees were run out of New Orleans as a medical disaster. The Bills' right linebacker, Isiah Robertson, was run out of L.A. on grounds of instability. Their quarterback, Joe Ferguson, spent the first half of his eight-year NFL career handing the ball off to O.J. Simpson. And their coach, Chuck Knox, spent five years with the Rams, cranking out playoff teams. Let him go, the diehards said. His offense shows as much imagination as a Woody Hayes team operating in a blizzard.
How could anyone get excited about these Bills? Granted, they were inching their way toward respectability in 1979, but still they were the worst team in the NFL at running the ball. And their defense was the fifth worst at stopping the rush. Besides, when the bell sounded four weeks ago, the offense was stripped of Buffalo's only active Pro Bowl player. Guard Joe DeLamielleure, who was traded to Cleveland, and the defense was going with exactly the same group that bombed out in '79.
Now it's 4 p.m. on Sept. 28, 1980, and the fans are blowing horns and tipping up that last can of beer in the parking lot at Rich Stadium, because their Bills have just shut down the Raiders, the No. 1 offensive team in the AFC. No one in the parking lot could quite figure out why the Bills are transformed, but they are. They're suddenly doing it the hard way, with tough defense, with ball control, with third-down conversions.
Buffalo has held three of its four opponents to less than 100 yards rushing. Oakland, coming off a 227-yard running game against Washington, could get only 70 against the Bills. "It's just a matter of a lot of young guys maturing, of a unit learning to play together," says Fred Smerlas, the 23-year-old nose tackle.
No, no, that's coaching talk. Party line. A stiff last year is a stiff this year. You don't just wave a magic wand.
"Listen," Smerlas says. "This year I've learned some moves, some fakes. Last year I just wanted to stand there and wrestle with the center, to club him—like this."
He waves a massive club that is disguised to look like a right arm. Smerlas is an imposing specimen, 270 pounds, thick through the chest, menacing behind a black mustache. "In a year you pick up some moves," he says. "I've learned to swim, to come in with the arm-over. Against [Oakland Center] Dave Dalby today, I was faking the head-butt to freeze him and then I'd swim—you know, swing the arm over to get by him, then take on the guard waiting for me."
The 3-4 defense begins with the nose tackle, and Smerlas is one of the NFL's most underrated and most unusual. He is one of the few, maybe the only one, who plays the whole way without relief. "I'm used to it," he says. "I was 270 coming out of high school. When I was 19 I got up to 305, just lifting weights and eating. At Boston College I played on a defense that was on the field 85 plays a game. One game, against Pitt, we faced 67 plays in the first half. At halftime they packed me in ice and kept pouring water into me. I'd lost 25 pounds. Then I went out and played the second half. I can play dizzy, too. It doesn't bother me."
The 3-4 may begin with the nose tackle, but it must stay solid all the way through the middle. When Tom Cousineau, Buffalo's and the league's No. 1 pick last year, defected to Canada, the Bills had to come up with another middle linebacker in a hurry. They found one in Jim Haslett, a wild man out of Indiana (Pa.) University. They already had a solid guy to play the other middle linebacker spot, Shane Nelson. Haslett had to be their sticker, but until this year his only brush with fame had come in the final game of 1979 when he stepped on Terry Bradshaw's head.