This week, as the Buffalo Bills seek their first playoff win since 1995, Jim Haslett remembers how it went when the team tried to win its first playoff game since 1965. That was in a divisional-round game in San Diego following the 1980 season.
“We had the best team in the league that year,” Haslett says. “We should have won the Super Bowl.”
The Bills led the Chargers, 14-13, as the two-minute warning approached. That’s when Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts threw a 50-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Ron Smith, who’d caught all of four passes all year.
“Joe Ferguson was hurt,” Haslett says. “Otherwise, we win that game easily.”
Ferguson, the Bills' QB, reinjured an ankle early in the game and had to play hobbled as Buffalo lost a heartbreaker, 20-14. Had the Bills won, they would have hosted the Oakland Raiders the next week for the right to go to Super Bowl XV. As it was, the Raiders went on to win a championship that Haslett will always believe should have been Buffalo’s.
He was a linebacker on Chuck Knox’s Bills teams that seemed on the brink of a title during the 1980 and 1981 seasons. Haslett and nose tackle Fred Smerlas were best friends, or maybe partners in crime, during that freewheeling era.
“Me and Freddy, we got taken in the second round” of the 1979 draft, Haslett says. Their names would be paired in Bills’ lore ever after, like peanut butter and jelly or Gilbert and Sullivan.
“It’s fair to say we enjoyed ourselves,” Haslett says. “On the field — and off.”
Take, for instance, this on-field tale:
“We were playing Miami and they had a great center, Dwight Stephenson,” Haslett says. “And Dwight kept blocking me and I kept telling Freddy, ‘Keep him off me,’ and he’s yelling back at me, and we start swinging at each other, and the referee told me it was the first time he ever saw two guys on the same team fighting. That’s the kind of friends we were.”
As for off-field stories, well, most can’t be told. As Smerlas told Sports Illustrated in 2001, when Haslett was coach of the New Orleans Saints: “I know he’s a coach and a family man now, but any troublemaking that anyone has done in football, he has done it, too.”
Haslett earned NFL Coach of the Year honors in 2000 for leading the Saints to their first playoff win in franchise history. He has a decorated NFL coaching career as head coach (New Orleans), interim head coach (St. Louis Rams), defensive coordinator (Saints, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington) and linebackers coach (Saints, Los Angeles Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals).
Haslett’s coaching career began at the University at Buffalo, where he was an assistant coach from 1988 to 1990. He’d retired from his playing career after spending the 1987 season with the New York Jets.
“I didn’t really know I wanted to get into coaching until the last couple of years when I was hurt a lot,” Haslett says. “So I tried it at the University of Buffalo and I’ve done it ever since.”
He sat out of coaching this season while recovering from his latest foot surgery, which required six screws. He’s lost count of how many surgeries he’s had on that foot, but he figures six or seven, going back to his Buffalo days.
“It’s like any business in the world,” he says of football. “They all have their pluses and they all have their minuses.”
Haslett hopes to be back coaching in the NFL next season.
“My goal was always to come back and coach in Buffalo,” he says, “but I was always under contract when situations came up. I just think that the fan base there is the best in the NFL. The people are genuine. They love their football team, and it’s a great city to live in.”
Haslett, who was born in Pittsburgh and still carries a Western Pennsylvania twang, famously kicked a helmetless Terry Bradshaw in the head at Three Rivers Stadium in the last game of Haslett’s rookie season in 1979.
“Terry wasn’t wearing his chin strap, and he took off and ran, and Steve Freeman ripped his helmet off,” Haslett says. “And all I can think is, ‘If we’re going to win this game, we have to get rid of this guy.’ Didn’t work out that way.”
Haslett got ejected. The Bills lost, 28-0. And Haslett was often reminded of that play when he was defensive coordinator for the Steelers in the late 1990s.
“Those people don’t forget,” he says. “They remember all that stuff. I still take crap for it. But it’s one of those things. You’re young and you make a mistake and you have to live with it.”
The Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl that season. Now, Haslett thinks it’s past time for the Bills to win one.
“That city deserves a championship,” he says. “Of all the cities that haven’t won a Super Bowl yet, that city deserves one. As I said, it’s the best place to play in the country. They love football, they love their team, and I hope they win it.”
Erik Brady has caught up with notable alumni all season for BNBlitz.com. Find his previous pieces by clicking here.