Share this article

print logo

AFL 1965 champion Buffalo Bills: The story behind one of the franchise’s top moments

This story was published Dec. 26, 2015, 50 years to the day of the Buffalo Bills' 1965 American Football League championship.

Buffalo Bills punter Paul Maguire was at a party with a bunch of the San Diego Chargers players two days before the 1965 American Football League Championship Game.

It was not strange at all that Maguire would be hanging out with the opposition. The Bills spent the week practicing in San Diego. Maguire had spent his first four AFL seasons with the Chargers, and as anyone who knows Maguire can attest, he’s a lively party guest.

“So all night long they’re just telling me how they’re going to wax us,” Maguire said. “I went back to our guys and just nonchalantly went around the locker room and said, ‘Jeez, they’re going to kill us, that’s what they’ve been telling me. You should have heard them.’ Our guys were just absolutely nuts, fired up for that game.”

“The defense was so high all week, I was talking to the kneecaps,” recalled Bills defensive coordinator Joe Collier.

What happened over the next three hours in San Diego’s Balboa Stadium was one of the greatest performances in Bills history.

The Bills shut out the AFL’s most prolific offensive team, 23-0, for their second straight league championship under head coach Lou Saban.

“The Comeback” against Houston in 1993 is the greatest Bills game ever. Most fans would rank the 51-3 victory that put the Bills into their first Super Bowl right behind it. After that? It’s hard to argue against the ’65 AFL Championship as the third greatest Bills game of all time. Saturday marks the game’s 50th anniversary.

Despite beating San Diego in the 1964 AFL Championship, the Bills were seven-point underdogs to the Chargers. Buffalo was playing with a duct-taped offense after losing both star receivers – Elbert Dubenion and Glenn Bass – to injury early in the season. The Bills’ No. 3 receiver, Charley Ferguson, also was out. The Bills didn’t have superstar running back Cookie Gilchrist, who helped them lead the AFL in rushing in 1964. He had been traded in the offseason, and without him the Bills’ run game ranked just sixth out of eight in ’65.

Sports Illustrated picked the Bills to lose to the Chargers by two touchdowns.

“In ’64 we were a complete team both on offense and defense,” recalled Bills quarterback Jack Kemp in an interview with The News in 2005. “In ’65 we had lost Cookie and had so many injuries. We won with defense and a never-give-up attitude in ’65. We won with character in ’65, and that’s what made that championship so special for all of us.”

The offense

The Chargers led the AFL in 1965 in points scored, total yards, rushing yards and passing yards. Their defense allowed the fewest yards both rushing and passing.

Their head coach, Sid Gillman, eventually would be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So would their defensive coordinator, Chuck Noll, who went on to coach the 1970s Steelers to four Super Bowl victories.

The San Diego offense included two other Hall-of-Famers, receiver Lance Alworth and left tackle Ron Mix. Its halfback, Paul Lowe, led the AFL in rushing in 1965 and was named to the AFL all-decade team in 1970. Gillman is the father of the modern passing game. The early 1960s was a time when the majority coaching position still maintained three things can happen when you pass and two are bad (an incompletion or interception).

Gillman’s Chargers led the wide-open style that set the AFL apart from the established, staid NFL. From 1960 to ’65, AFL games averaged 2.2 more points and 30 more passing yards than NFL games.

“The big play comes from the pass,” Gillman said. “God bless those runners because they get you the first down, give you ball control and keep your defense off the field. But if you want to ring the cash register, you have to pass.”

Gillman believed in stretching the field both vertically and horizontally, and he did so by often lining up his receivers outside the numbers. He put five receivers into the pass pattern and sent running backs on downfield patterns. He put the onus on the quarterback to counter the pass rush by hitting a quick outlet (now known as the “hot” receiver).

Gillman was an early proponent of the “best-located safety” principle, which directs the QB to throw to the receiver farthest from either safety. He aligned receivers at precise distances from the offensive tackles so that the distance the QB threw the ball could remain exactly the same on numerous routes. All of this was the foundation of the West Coast offense, which Gillman protégés Don Coryell and Bill Walsh brought to full bloom a decade later.

San Diego had a space-age offense in 1965.

The defense

The Bills caught a break in beating the visiting Chargers, 20-7, for the championship in 1964.

That was the prevailing opinion in San Diego. Alworth missed the game with an injury, and Chargers running back Keith Lincoln was sidelined early in the game due to a thundering hit from Bills linebacker Mike Stratton.

“The first time we played them they had some injuries that hurt them, and we had our nice, muddy field that the fast guys couldn’t maneuver too well on,” recalled Collier, 83, from his home in Colorado. “So we had a couple advantages. The second one, it was a nice sunshiney day in San Diego, and they had all their players. It was a tougher situation.”

San Diego whipped the Bills, 34-3, in the first regular-season meeting in 1965, and the two teams tied the second meeting, 20-20. San Diego outgained Buffalo in the two games, 819-481, and Alworth had combined for 15 catches for 295 yards and two touchdowns.

The 1965 season was Alworth’s greatest. He caught 69 passes for 1,602 yards, a total no receiver would equal for another 30 years – until the 1995 NFL season.

Something needed to change for the Bills, and Collier was just the man to figure it out.

If there was a Hall of Fame for assistant coaches, Collier probably would be in it. His Bills defense led the AFL in points allowed in ’64, ’65 and ’66. He went on to coach the Denver Broncos’ defense for 20 years, helping that team to three Super Bowls.

Collier was the architect of the Broncos’ “Orange Crush” defense in the 1970s, which was ground-breaking in its use of multiple fronts. The “Orange Crush” was the first team to play a base 3-4 front but at times morph to a 4-3 look with the same personnel (called a “3-4 over”). The multiple fronts now used by Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan can trace their origins to Collier’s Denver defenses.

“The guy was outstanding,” Bills cornerback Booker Edgerson said of Collier. “I don’t like to call people geniuses. But he just knew things. He showed you things. He knew what people had the ability to do. Everything that he pointed out during the week would come true, and it made you a better ballplayer.”

Collier was blessed with talent in Buffalo.

The Bills had a dominant front four, with Tom Sestak and Jim Dunaway at defensive tackle and Ron McDole and Tom Day at defensive end.

Sestak, a 6-foot-4, 270-pounder, was named to the AFL all-decade team. Knee problems cut his career short at just seven seasons. If he had played longer, many think he would be in the Hall of Fame.

“I don’t have any problem with that; I think that’s true,” said famed NFL general manager Ron Wolf, inducted into the Hall of Fame last summer. Wolf was a scout for Al Davis’ Oakland Raiders in the 1960s.

“He was a big guy who was a dominant inside player,” Wolf said. “It’s hard for me to come up with a true comparison. One that comes to mind is a guy who isn’t in the Hall of Fame, either, Alex Karras. … But Sestak in his way he was unique. He could do both, control the line of scrimmage and stir it up.”

McDole was a run-first defensive end with the quickness to rush off the edge. He wound up playing 240 games over an 18-year career, which was sixth most in NFL history at the time of his retirement. Too bad sack totals weren’t kept before 1982, because McDole probably had more than 100 for his career. Dunaway was a 285-pound, two-time All-America for Ole Miss who was the No. 3 overall pick of the NFL Draft in 1963. He was a massive run-stuffer. Day was a 252-pound athlete, a converted guard with quickness.

The Bills’ linebacking corps of Mike Stratton, Harry Jacobs and John Tracey played 67 straight games together in the mid-’60s. Stratton is a Bills Wall-of-Famer.

“He was a big tall guy and extremely fast for a linebacker in those days,” Collier said of Stratton. “Tougher than nails and understood defenses. He could do a lot of things. When we were playing the regular 4-3 defense, he was one of our top blitzers.”

In the secondary, George Saimes was the strong safety on the AFL’s all-decade team. He was a great blitzer and the best tackler in the secondary the Bills ever have had. Edgerson was the team’s shutdown corner. Butch Byrd was a punishing, physical corner on the other side of the field. All three are on the Wall of Fame. The free safety was Hagood Clarke.

How good was the defense? The Bills went 17 straight games without allowing a rushing touchdown, from the middle of the ’64 season through the eighth game of ’65. That still is the longest in pro football since 1933.

The game plan

While the 4-3 was the Bills’ predominant defense, Collier was at the forefront of pro football by using the 3-4 intermittently throughout the ’64 and ’65 seasons. Wolf recalls the Raiders doing it a little those years. Maguire recalls Kansas City using it a bit. But it was a rarity. The 3-4 wouldn’t become a base NFL defense until Chuck Fairbanks brought it from Oklahoma to New England in the 1970s.

“I got the idea from watching a couple colleges utilize it,” Collier said. “I think Oklahoma was one of them. There wasn’t anybody in pro football using it at that time. It was frowned upon, so to speak.”

Collier decided rushing three and dropping eight into coverage would be a big part of the game plan. That helped in double-covering Alworth. The Bills were mostly a man-to-man team.

“We played a lot of 3-4 defense with a zone behind it in that game,” Collier said. “We doubled Alworth. If he was on the strong side as a flanker, we’d double him with Hagood Clarke and Booker. If he was a split end, we’d double him with George Saimes and Booker.”

“We put Butch Byrd over Don Norton,” Collier said, referring to San Diego’s other wideout. “I knew Butch could handle Don the whole game by himself.”

Another wrinkle the Bills used was to move Stratton out wide on some third downs to get a chuck on Alworth at the line of scrimmage.

“If they ran certain formations on my side of the field, I would try to go out and take the quick inside pass away from their receiver,” Stratton said. “So that would give the defensive backs time to find out where the receiver was going and have a better chance of covering them.”

It was the undersized, intelligent Jacobs – not Collier – who called every defensive play during the game.

“Nobody signaled defenses back then,” Collier said. “So consequently during the week, me and Harry spent a lot of time together going over calls and situations. Then when the game came, Harry called all the defenses. He was the quarterback, and he did a great job.”

The domination

Bills star guard Billy Shaw – a future Hall-of-Famer – was knocked out on the opening kickoff and sat out the entire first half.

Recalled Maguire from his home in South Carolina: “The defense really realized they had to step it up. I remember going to the bench and Sestak, McDole, Dunaway and Tippy Day all sat together and they looked up and said, ‘Hell, they’re not even gonna score.’ ”

Said Kemp in the 2005 interview: “Would Paul tell an apocryphal story? The answer is no, of course. … It may be true.”

The News obtained a video of the game that includes about three-quarters of the plays. The highlights:

• It didn’t take long for the Bills’ defense to assert its dominance. On San Diego’s second possession, Lowe took a quick toss and ran 47 yards to the Buffalo 44. But on the next play, Stratton blitzed out of a 4-3 front and chased quarterback John Hadl into Day’s arms for a 3-yard loss. The Bills switched to the 3-4 on the next play, and Sestak used his power to shove guard Gary Kirner aside and sack Hadl for an 8-yard loss. End of threat.

• The eight-in-coverage scheme forced the next Chargers drive to stall at the Bills’ 28. Then Dunaway blocked a field-goal try.

• The Buffalo offense unveiled a new wrinkle of its own, a rarely used two-tight end formation. It paid off early in the second quarter. Kemp hit veteran tight end Ernie Warlick on an 18-yard post pattern for a touchdown. It was a sweet moment for “Big Hoss” Warlick, who had been benched the final nine games of the season in favor of Paul Costa. It was a great throw by Kemp.

• Seven minutes later, Byrd returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown to put the Bills ahead, 14-0. Maguire wiped out two Chargers downfield to clear Byrd’s path to the end zone.

• San Diego’s deepest penetration came at the end of the first half when it reached the Bills’ 24. But San Diego had to rush onto the field for a last-second field-goal try, and it missed from 31 yards.

• The Bills used the three-man rush on at least 15 plays. Collier used the nimble McDole to drop back a lot during the mid-’60s. But in this game, Day was always the one dropping back as the fourth linebacker. The video shows eight Bills sacks. Sestak and Day had two apiece. The safety blitz by Saimes was effective, too. He had one sack and several pressures.

• Good schemes are nice. Great players are better. The Bills got good pressure from Sestak, McDole and Dunaway and three sacks when rushing only three men. And the Bills’ front seven made San Diego one-dimensional. Aside from the 47-yard run, Lowe and Lincoln combined for 26 yards on 15 carries, a 1.7-yard average.

• The Chargers did not adjust well to the Bills’ tactics. Hadl continually looked deep downfield for Alworth.

“We just never could get anything going,” recalled Chargers backfield coach Tom Bass, from his San Diego home. “And that frustrated Sid a great deal. Coach was great at a lot of things, but being frustrated wasn’t one of them.”

• The Bills played ball control thanks to a reshuffled offensive line that saw Al Bemiller move from guard to center for injured Dave Behrman and Joe O’Donnell and George Flint sub at guards. Buffalo gained 260 yards. San Diego managed just 223.

• Late in the game, as the Chargers offense huddled, Tracey stood at his left linebacker spot and did the twist. “Come out and we’ll show you some defense,” he taunted.

The Chargers had never seen anything like it. The Bills haven’t had one as dominant in the 50 years since.