After the longest delay of game—eight weeks—in pro football history, the NFL returned to action last Sunday. The bitterness of the strike was forgotten—temporarily, at least—as attention shifted from percentage of the gross to percentage of completions, from defections to deflections, from payoffs to playoffs. Would the players be ready for 60 minutes of hitting after only four days of practice? What about injuries? What about game plans? What about the fans' plans?
Around the league the answers varied. In St. Louis the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers reopened the shortened season facing hasty elimination from the new 16-team playoffs. They had lost their first two games in September, and a third straight defeat would mean they could practically kiss the postseason goodby. But the Niners profited by their long layoff, showing midseason form as they beat the Cardinals 31-20. The Washington Redskins and the Green Bay Packers, both 2-0 back in September, remained undefeated by winning convincingly over the Giants (27-17) and the Vikings (26-7), respectively. Surprisingly, it was the only matchup of unbeaten teams, Miami vs. Buffalo, that produced what most observers had expected for the league as a whole: a sloppy exhibition lacking everything, including points.
In Buffalo the fans turned their backs on pro football's return. A crowd of only 52,945 showed up in 80,020-seat Rich Stadium to watch the Dolphins outdismal the Bills 9-7 under gloomy, drizzly skies, and you had to go back three years, through 19 home games, to find a punier turnout in Buffalo.
So much for the prediction that the fans, starved for the NFL's brand of entertainment, would come flocking back. So much for letting bygones be bygones. Buffalo is not Tinseltown. There are never any LUV YA BLUE huts in the stands. Skydivers don't alight on the 50-yard line at halftime. Bills fans are show-me people. The team sells only 30,000 season tickets; the rest of the 80,020 go on a let's-see-what-ya-got-for-us basis.
The people of Buffalo clearly didn't expect much from Week 1 of the post-strike season, and they didn't get much:
One touchdown, which came from a fumble.
The lowest scoring game of the 13 played on Sunday.
Nine turnovers, including seven by the home team.
Nine dropped passes and a completion percentage of 41.4 for both teams.
The fans booed Buffalo Halfback Joe Cribbs when he entered the game after five plays. Cribbs had been a holdout; he'd rejoined the team on Friday, and two days of practice were all he'd had since January. But they cheered when he darted for seven yards on his first play, and they kept cheering him because Little Joe had come back in shape. It soon became obvious, too, that Cribbs was one of the few things the Bills had going for them. He carried the ball 21 times for 74 yards—"About twice the work I expected they'd give him," Buffalo Quarterback Joe Ferguson said—and threw one pass that turned out to be the most significant Bills play of the day.