The Buffalo Bills were present, but not Joe Cribbs. Across the field at Buffalo's Rich Stadium were the Detroit Lions, but not Billy Sims. Last Saturday night the Bills defeated the Lions 13-10 in a preseason game most notable for the absence of stars the teams could ill afford not to have in uniform. For the time being the fans had to be content with news of the third-year running backs' contract gridlock rather than their exploits on the gridiron.
Cribbs, lest you forget, was the AFC Rookie of the Year in 1980 and became only the second Buffalo back (after O.J. Simpson) to gain 1,000 yards rushing in consecutive seasons. Sims was the NFL Rookie of the Year in '80, and in '81 he rushed for a team-record 1,457 yards and 13 TDs.
Both Cribbs and Sims are represented by Jerry Argovitz, the dentist-turned-player-agent whom Lion owner Bill Ford has called a "lunatic" and a "leech." In a Detroit Free Press reader opinion survey that asked, "Do you think the Lions should renegotiate Sims's contract?" 64% said no. Said one reader, "He ought to get himself an attorney and get rid of that dentist."
However, in Buffalo, many fans agree with Quarterback Joe Ferguson, who believes owner Ralph Wilson's penurious-ness is beginning to affect the team. Wilson lost Receiver Ahmad Rashad to free agency in 1975 and allowed Linebacker Tom Cousineau to go to Canada and now to the Cleveland Browns. Wilson's reputation for sparing the checkbook goes back to the 1960s, before the AFL-NFL merger, when he teased Buffalo fans by drafting luminaries like Paul Warfield and Carl Eller but never seriously tried to sign them. "How can the Bills help but get a Joe Cribbs back?" Ferguson asked last week. "If a player signs a contract," Wilson had said, "he should live up to his word."
"Without Joe Cribbs," argues Argovitz, "the Buffalo Bills are like an airplane without wheels—they can't take off and they can't land. And without Billy Sims, Detroit can't even line up."
Last year Buffalo ran the ball 524 times, and Cribbs carried it 257 times. Cribbs was also Buffalo's No. 3 pass-catcher, with 40 receptions. Sims, too, is a workhorse. Of the Lions' 1,168 rushes in 1980 and '81, Sims made 609 of them. He had 26 of Detroit's 47 rushing touchdowns during that period, putting him just two shy of the Lion career record set by Nick Pietrosante in 1959-65.
In the season before Sims arrived, Detroit was 2-14. With him it has gone 9-7 and 8-8. Since Cribbs signed on, the Bills have gone 11-5 and 10-6, making the playoffs both seasons. In 1979, Buffalo was 7-9.
Cribbs is in the third year of a four-year contract worth a reported $845,000, counting bonuses, a maximum of $240,000 this year. After his second Pro Bowl selection, he inquired of Stew Barber, a Bills' vice-president, "Do you think I'm getting paid my real value?"
"Yes, Joe," Barber said, "because you're getting what it says you get right here in your contract."
The Bills were similarly cavalier with Cribbs in 1980. He was to get a $10,000 bonus if he rushed for 1,200 yards. He missed by 15 yards and got hot when the Bills refused to award him the bonus anyway. Last year Cribbs was replaced on the Pro Bowl team because of an injury suffered in Buffalo's playoff loss to Cincinnati. He asked Barber to send him and his wife to the Pro Bowl in Honolulu just the same, to "represent the Bills." Barber responded that to do so was against team policy. "It's the little things that show the Bills are a no-class operation," Cribbs said last week. "I always have to give in."