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Erik Brady: Joe Ferguson reflects on 1974 game the Bills won without completing a pass

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Joe Ferguson

Bills QB Joe Ferguson threw for 223 yards in an Oct. 25, 1981, game against the Denver Broncos. (Getty Images)

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Once upon a time, the wind and the rain were so bad that the Buffalo Bills ran the ball 61 times on 63 plays.

And won.

The quarterback, Joe Ferguson, threw just two passes. Both fell incomplete.

This was 1974. The other quarterback was Joe Namath. The Bills caught more of his pass attempts than the New York Jets did. Namath completed two passes in 18 tries – and threw three interceptions.

"If this were a golf tournament,” he said afterward, “they would have called it off.”

Oh, and there were no completed passes – zero, zip, zilch – in the game’s first 58 minutes at Rich Stadium. Namath’s two completions, for 33 yards, and two of his interceptions came after the two-minute warning, when the trailing Jets had no choice but to throw into the wind.

All this comes to mind, of course, because the New England Patriots ran the ball down the Bills’ throats on "Monday Night Football." Pats quarterback Mac Jones passed just three times – the fewest in an NFL game since Ferguson’s two – and completed two for 19 yards. New England ran the ball 46 times.

Patriots 14, Bills 10.

The less said about that, the better. Let’s look, instead, to that waterlogged day 47 years ago when it was the Bills who ran and ran and ran. That’s what you do when you have O.J. Simpson in his prime.

Bills 16, Jets 12.

The wind blew off Lake Erie that day at a steady 20 miles per hour, with gusts of more than 40 miles per hour. This was late September, with temperatures in the 60s, so the cold was not an issue, as it was Monday. The problem was, instead, the relentless rain, which came down sideways in the unforgiving gale.

“I’m going to be upfront with you, and a little modest here, but I honestly believe in our game the weather was worse,” Ferguson says by phone from his home in Lake Fork, Texas. “The wind was just as bad, but we had rain coming down so hard. And it was not dropping straight out of the sky. It was coming down at an angle and hitting you in the eye.”

Ferguson figures the footballs weighed at least a pound heavier than normal in all that rain.

“You had to be aware of ball security at all times,” he says. “Just taking the snap clean was an issue.”

He still marvels at being the winning quarterback without completing a pass.

“I made history,” he says. “Or at least the team did. And we won.”

Bills fans stayed until the bitter end of Monday’s bitter loss, but on that day in 1974, half had gone home by halftime. They were simply soaked to the bone. Bills coach Lou Saban, in his postgame news conference, mocked sportswriters, in their dry shoes, for asking about the monsoon.

“You reporters sit up in that press box eating hot dogs and drinking coffee,” Saban said, “and then you come down here and ask, ‘How was the weather?’ ”

It was, um, bad. See for yourself in this YouTube clip. Players plodded through puddles. NFL Films called the field “a synthetic sponge.” William N. Wallace, of The New York Times, wrote: “The goalposts wobbled. Center snaps for punts and placekicks went awry. Punts were great downwind, terrible upwind. The ball had to be held on kickoffs. A new American flag became frayed at its ends.”

Which sounds a lot like Monday night, when an orange flag atop one of the goalposts blew clear off, and members of the ESPN pregame broadcast crew got knocked off their chairs.

The tone was set early in that long-ago game when Bills safety Tony Greene intercepted a Namath pass that got buffeted in the wind and ducked down suddenly.

“Best slider you ever saw,” Namath said later.

Saban watched that play and made up his mind: “We just said the devil with it and stuck with our running game.”

That was fine by Ferguson.

“We had the advantage,” he says, “because we were a good running team.”

Simpson ran 31 times for 117 yards. Fullback Jim Braxton ran 17 times for 84 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown for the winning score. Joe DeLamielleure cleared the way with a pancake block on the right side and Braxton dragged a couple of Jets with him as they splashed across the goal line.

“Jim was the backbone of our offense,” Ferguson says. “O.J. was the star, but Jim was the backbone.”

The drive was set up when Bills linebacker Jim Cheyunski stuffed Jets running back John Riggins for a one-yard loss on a key third-down play. The Jets, who led 12-10, had to punt. It traveled just 26 yards. The Bills took over at midfield. From there, they offered a one-two punch of Simpson and Braxton – and pounded their way to the win.

The Jets knew the Bills were going to run. Still, the Jets could not stop them.

Sound familiar?

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Erik Brady has more than 50 years in newspapers as a paperboy for The Buffalo Evening News, a sports columnist for The Courier-Express and sports reporter for USA Today, where he retired as the last member of the national newspaper’s founding generation.

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