The haze was turning to darkness over Buffalo Sunday, the big electric scoreboard in Rich Stadium read Bills 31, Jets 0, the loudspeaker was blaring a song called We're Talking Proud—every NFL team seems to have an anthem these days—and the fans were yelling, "We want the Bills!"
Oh yes, they yelled that in the old days, too, "We want the Bills"—for false representation, for alienation of affections—but now the fans wanted the players to come out and take a curtain call, as the Bills did last year when they beat the Rams in overtime, when 270-pound Middle Guard Freddie Smerlas and the boys returned to the field and high-kicked with the Buffalo Jills.
The fans got only the cheerleaders this time. Smerlas, the focal point of the infamous Bermuda Triangle (along with inside linebackers Jim Haslett and Shane Nelson), stayed in the locker room, where he was waving a small piece of paper. "This is why we aren't out there!" he growled, his dark eyes flashing, his handlebar mustache bristling. "Seventy percent of my paycheck. That's what was deducted. I broke out in a cold sweat when I looked at this."
"Where do we play next week, out of town?" Haslett said. "Thank God. At least we don't have to pay the New York State tax."
"Don't forget, we have to play the Jets at Shea in October," Nelson said. "That's New York State, too."
"Maybe we could move the team to Tampa or Miami," Haslett said.
Signs of the times. The Bermuda Triangle is now made up of 70-percenters. Each of the trio had his contract upgraded this year, Haslett not without considerable anguish and the threat of NLRB arbitration. That's what happens when you move into the six-figure bracket, fellas, when your achievements are recognized and those low, low wages become semi-respectable salaries by NFL standards. And if the Buffalo defense keeps playing the way it did against the Jets, there's no telling where the payoffs will end. With playoff money for the feds and the state to cut up? With a Super Bowl check to be drawn and quartered? Ah, it's hell being on top.
The Bills, you see, turned in the most impressive performance of Week 1 of the 1981 NFL season, and when the game was finished, when those many hands reached out to pat Coach Chuck Knox on the back in the locker room, he winced slightly and tried to remind everyone within earshot that the season is only one-sixteenth over.
Last year Buffalo's defense shocked the NFL, rising from the depths to become No. 1 in the league. Now it's no longer shocking, but there was still some mild surprise at what the Bills did to the Jets, the Boys of Summer, the darlings of the exhibition season. In running up a 3-1 preseason record, their best in six years, the Jets had turned the ball over only once in the four games. Quarterback Richard Todd had thrown 77 passes without an interception. Their ground attack had produced almost 170 yards a game, and their defense, nicknamed the Swarm, had held opponents to an average of fewer than 14 points a game.
Students of history pointed out that the smoke of August can quickly blow away once the weather turns nippy, that when the Jets had a 4-1 preseason record in '75, they also opened the regular season in Rich Stadium and got blown away by the Bills, 42-14, on the way to a 3-11 season.