October 29, 2010

1973: Simpson Reaches 1000 Yards as Bills Beat Chiefs

The Buffalo Bills were making their first appearance on Monday Night Football on October 29, 1973, and a frenzied crowd of 76,071 fans was present at the new Rich Stadium. The Bills, a resurgent club in the second year of Lou Saban’s second stint as head coach, were off to a 4-2 start. They had not posted a winning record since 1966, the year after Saban quit the club following back-to-back AFL Championships, and now they were in the hunt for a playoff spot.

A big part of the resurgence was RB O.J. Simpson, who had underachieved for three seasons before Saban made him the centerpiece of the offense. The result had been a league-leading 1251 rushing yards in ’72 for a 4-9-1 team that was constantly reshuffling the offensive line. Thus far in ’73, the line had solidified and Simpson was chasing Jim Brown’s single-season rushing record of 1863 yards set ten years before. After six games, he had 868 yards on 138 carries (6.3 avg.) and had been held under a hundred for the first time by Miami the previous week.

The Chiefs, under Head Coach Hank Stram, had won the last AFL title in ’69 (not to mention the Super Bowl against the NFL champion Vikings) and been in the playoffs in 1971. They were coming off of an 8-6 record in ’72 that contained too many losses to bottom-dwelling teams and were 3-2-1 start coming into the Week 7 Monday night contest with the Bills.

Things began badly for the Chiefs on their first possession. They received the opening kickoff but, following an incomplete pass, KC fumbled the ball away on the second play from scrimmage. Bills LB Jim Cheyunski (pictured below left) recovered at the Kansas City 15. Simpson set the tone for Buffalo, running four straight times and scoring from a yard out for a quick 7-0 lead.

On the third play of Kansas City’s next possession, Cheyunski made another big play on defense as he intercepted a pass by QB Len Dawson and returned it 31 yards to the KC four yard line. Simpson took it in from there, giving him two touchdowns less than four minutes into the game.

Things got worse for the Chiefs when Dawson suffered a sprained ankle and was forced to leave the game. Pete Beathard, who had started his pro career in Kansas City and was back after spending time with the Oilers, Cardinals, and Rams, took over at quarterback.

The Chiefs got a break in the second quarter when Buffalo’s rookie QB Joe Ferguson fumbled on his own 43 and KC recovered. They scored four plays later on a run by FB Wendell Hayes from a yard out, set up by a screen pass to Hayes from Beathard that gained 27 yards. The score stood at 14-7 at halftime.

The Bills extended their lead in the third quarter, all with field goals by John Leypoldt of 31, 17, and 8 yards. Kansas City was able to take advantage of another Buffalo mistake late in the period when punter Spike Jones dropped a snap in his own territory and the Chiefs recovered at the Bills’ two yard line. Beathard sneaked in for a TD on the first play of the fourth quarter. But against the inspired Bills defense, and with the offense maintaining ball control by handing off to Simpson and FB Larry Watkins, Kansas City was unable to seriously threaten. Buffalo won, 23-14.

The score did not reflect the level of Buffalo’s domination of the game. The Bills outgained the Chiefs with 309 yards to 105 and had 21 first downs to KC’s eight. While both teams had modest net passing totals (67 yards for Kansas City, 63 for Buffalo) the rushing disparity told the story. The Bills ground out 246 yards on 65 rushes to just 38 yards on 17 carries by the Chiefs.

O.J. Simpson led the way with 157 yards on a then-NFL record 39 attempts that included the two scores, while Larry Watkins had 81 yards on 19 carries. As was typical during the season, Joe Ferguson went to the air just 11 times and had six completions for 63 yards with one intercepted. Wide receivers Bob Chandler and J.D. Hill accounted for all of the receptions, each catching three while Chandler outgained Hill with 35 yards to 28.

Kansas City’s two quarterbacks completed just eight passes, but on 29 attempts, with Pete Beathard accounting for six completions in 23 throws for 73 yards and no interceptions. HB Ed Podolak caught three passes for 27 yards in addition to leading the Chiefs with 29 rushing yards on seven carries. Thanks to the long reception on the screen pass in the second quarter, Wendell Hayes gained the most receiving yards with 33 on two catches; tellingly, he was able to run for only five yards on seven carries, including the one short TD. Only one pass was completed to a wide receiver - Otis Taylor for 13 yards – and TE Morris Stroud also had one catch for 13 yards as well.

Kansas City’s Coach Stram said afterward “Any time you're playing a squad that is in an emotional frenzy like Buffalo was – and motivated by their fans – and you give two touchdowns away right at the bat, you're in trouble.”

Players on the offensive line stepped up their game to put Simpson over the thousand-yard mark by the halfway point of the season, and they were successful; his total following the contest was 1025 yards.

“We got 1,000 in the first seven games and we'll go for another 1,000 in the next seven,” Simpson said afterward. It proved to be the case – the former Heisman Trophy winner out of USC not only ended up breaking Brown’s rushing record, but became the first NFL runner to cross the 2000-yard threshold in a season. Simpson totaled 2003 yards on 332 carries (also an NFL record at the time) for a 6.0 average gain and 12 touchdowns. The Bills as a team ran up a then-record 3088 yards on the ground, still the second highest total to date.

Two members of Buffalo’s solidified offensive line were selected to the Pro Bowl – left guard Reggie McKenzie (who also received All-NFL honors; pictured above right) and left tackle Dave Foley. Rookie Joe DeLamielleure (pictured at left), one of the team’s two first-round draft picks, started immediately at right guard and was outstanding (he would remain so, ending up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame). Center Bruce Jarvis was injured during the season and capably replaced by Mike Montler. Right tackle Donnie Green and rookie tight end Paul Seymour (the other first round draft choice and more an extra tackle than a receiver) rounded out the very good unit. The group would come to be known as The Electric Company – because they turned on “the Juice” (Simpson).

The Bills improved to 9-5 in ’73, finishing second in the AFC East but just missing the postseason. Kansas City ended up tied with Denver for second in the AFC West at 7-5-2.