October 4, 2011

1970: Dennis Shaw Leads Bills Past Jets in First Start

The Buffalo Bills were entering a restructured NFL due to the 1970 merger, but they were still a team that had been struggling since last winning the AFL Eastern Division in 1966. John Rauch, who had led the Raiders to the league championship in 1967 but had fallen out with that team’s managing general partner, Al Davis, came to Buffalo in ‘69 and the team suffered through a 4-10 season. While prize rookie HB O.J. Simpson was a rising talent coming into his second year in ’70, QB Jack Kemp had retired to enter politics and left a void behind center – an especially big problem considering Rauch’s preference for a pass-oriented attack.

Third-year veteran Dan Darragh performed poorly in the first two losing games of the 1970 season, and the quarterback who relieved him, rookie Dennis Shaw out of San Diego State (pictured above), was given the starting assignment for the Week 3 contest against the New York Jets on October 4.

The Jets were just two years removed from a Super Bowl-winning season in 1968 and had followed up with a 10-4 record to win the Eastern Division again in ’69. Under Head Coach Weeb Ewbank, and with QB Joe Namath directing the offense, New York was a veteran team that came into the contest at Buffalo as a 14-point favorite.

There were 46,266 fans jamming War Memorial Stadium. The Jets took an early lead three minutes into the game when rookie CB Steve Tannen, the team’s first draft choice out of Florida, blocked a Paul Maguire punt and ran 41 yards for a touchdown. However, on the ensuing kickoff the Bills evened the score when Simpson, after initially bobbling the ball, returned it 95 yards for a TD.

New York’s offense took the field for the first time, and following a running play that gained a yard, Namath went to the air and threw a bomb to TE Rich Caster for a 72-yard touchdown (it was Namath’s 100th career TD pass). Tannen made another big play as he intercepted a Shaw pass at the Buffalo 43 that set up a 22-yard Jim Turner field goal and the Jets led by 17-7 at the end of the first quarter.

The Bills responded with a field goal of their own, of 10 yards by Grant Guthrie. With 31 seconds left in the first half, Namath connected with WR George Sauer for a 25-yard touchdown. The second quarter scoring wasn’t over, however, as 30 seconds later, following a six-yard run by Shaw and a 13-yard pass to WR Haven Moses, Buffalo finished off the half with a 40-yard field goal by Guthrie. Still, the Jets held a 24-13 lead at the midway point.

In the third quarter, Shaw passed to WR Marlin Briscoe in the end zone for a 19-yard TD, cutting New York’s lead to 24-20. Namath responded by throwing to Caster for a 53-yard gain to the Buffalo 11 and HB Emerson Boozer followed up with a touchdown run from six yards out.

Now into the fourth quarter, Shaw set up a touchdown with passes of 45 yards to Briscoe and 27 yards to Moses. Simpson finished off the drive with a one-yard scoring run and, with the extra point, New York’s margin was cut to four points at 31-27.

The Bills went for an onside kick and it succeeded when FB Bill Enyart recovered at the New York 47. Simpson carried the ball twice for 22 yards. Shaw’s second scoring pass, of 25 yards to Briscoe, then put the Bills in front with 7:20 left in the game. They held on to win by a final score of 34-31 as Turner missed field goal attempts from 33 and 38 yards, either of which would have tied the game.

Buffalo led the Jets both in total yards (401 to 337) and first downs (20 to 11). However, the Bills also turned the ball over five times, to none by New York, and Shaw was sacked five times while Buffalo’s defense didn’t get to Namath at all.

Dennis Shaw completed 12 passes out of 21 attempts for 317 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions apiece. Marlin Briscoe (pictured at left) and Haven Moses both had big days, each catching four passes with Briscoe gaining 120 yards and scoring two TDs and Moses accumulating 118 yards. O.J. Simpson ran for 99 yards on 21 carries that included a touchdown and also caught three passes for 63 yards.

Joe Namath went to the air 26 times and also completed 12 passes, for 228 yards and two scores with none intercepted. Rich Caster had four receptions for 138 yards and a TD, while Emerson Boozer also caught four passes out of the backfield, for 40 yards; he gained just 11 yards rushing on 8 carries that included a touchdown. FB Matt Snell led the Jets in rushing with 88 yards on 22 attempts but suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in the fourth quarter that knocked him out of action for the remainder of the season.

Steve Tannen had an uneven performance – while he scored on the blocked punt and had an interception, he was also the victim on both of Briscoe’s scoring receptions. The normally-reliable placekicker Jim Turner had a dreadful day – in addition to missing the two crucial three-point attempts in the fourth quarter, he was unsuccessful on five field goal tries overall after succeeding on his first attempt.

“I play the type of game where I think we can score on every play,” the ever-confident Dennis Shaw said afterward. “You can't play conservative ball against the Jets.”

Shaw went on to put together a solid rookie season, completing 55.5 percent of his passes (178 of 321) for 2507 yards with 10 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. He received Rookie of the Year honors from the Associated Press. The team, however, remained in the doldrums and finished at 3-10-1 for fourth place in the AFC East. Despite the promising start, Shaw’s career steadily declined thereafter - he lasted just four seasons in Buffalo and six overall.

Things got worse for the Jets, too. In addition to losing Snell, two games later Namath was also lost for the rest of the year with a broken wrist. By that point, New York was 1-4 and, while they rallied for three straight wins in November, the Jets ended up at 4-10 and just ahead of Buffalo in third.