October 9, 2011

1983: Ferguson Passes for 419 Yards & 5 TDs as Bills Beat Dolphins in OT

The Buffalo Bills were 3-2 under new Head Coach Kay Stephenson as they took on the Miami Dolphins on October 9, 1983. To be sure, the Bills had lost badly to the Jets the previous Monday night, but had run the ball effectively with RB Joe Cribbs in the three preceding wins. 33-year-old QB Joe Ferguson (pictured above), coming off of a poor year in a tumultuous ’82 season for the whole organization, was playing well.

On the other hand, the Dolphins seemed to be in trouble. The defending AFC Champions were also 3-2 (including a 12-0 win at Buffalo in the opening game), but Head Coach/GM Don Shula was concerned about the offense. QB David Woodley had performed badly in the second half of the previous year’s Super Bowl loss against Washington and was having difficulty in ’83, especially after a knee injury removed WR Jimmy Cefalo. Rookie first draft pick Dan Marino out of Pittsburgh had relieved Woodley in the previous two games and was now drawing his first starting assignment against the Bills.

There were 59,948 fans present at the Orange Bowl, and they saw the home team get a break on the opening kickoff when Buffalo RB Robb Riddick fumbled and LB Rodell Thomas recovered for the Dolphins. Miami had the ball at the Buffalo 17, but two plays later a pass by Marino was tipped and intercepted by FS Steve Freeman to snuff out the threat.

The teams traded punts back and forth as neither offense was able to move the ball until the Bills took over at their 16 with 5:14 remaining in the opening period. Ferguson connected on back-to-back passes covering 18 and 11 yards to WR Frank Lewis and then 18 yards to Cribbs to advance to the Miami 37. Buffalo continued to methodically move down the field, finishing off the 11-play drive with a 10-yard Ferguson pass to WR Byron Franklin in the end zone for a touchdown. The score was 7-0 after a quarter of play.

Following another Miami punt, the Bills took possession with good field position at their 48 yard line. They scored again in five plays, highlighted by a 21-yard Ferguson pass to Lewis and a second TD throw to Franklin, this time covering 30 yards.

Marino was again intercepted, but following a Buffalo punt the Dolphins put together a long scoring drive. The rookie quarterback completed three passes as the team moved from its 14 yard line to the Bills’ six. On a third-and-five play, Marino’s pass to WR Mark Duper was broken up, but an interference call gave the Dolphins a first down at the one (it also removed Buffalo CB Charles Romes from the game, who was ejected when he argued the call). FB Woody Bennett powered in for a TD and the Buffalo lead was cut to 14-7.

With just under five minutes remaining in the first half, Ferguson came out passing and completed a 25-yard throw to WR Jerry Butler, who made a diving catch, and then followed up with a 14-yard gain to the Miami 27. However, the drive came up empty when Joe Danelo’s 27-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright. Buffalo’s seven-point margin stood at halftime.

The teams traded punts to start the third quarter. On Miami’s second possession, Marino threw to Duper (pictured below), who took off down the sideline, eluded two Buffalo defenders at the 15, and continued on to the end zone for a 63-yard touchdown.

With the score tied at 14-14, RB Van Williams returned the kickoff 40 yards to give the Bills good field position at their 47 yard line. Helped along by a 37-yard pass interference penalty, Ferguson capped the 53-yard drive with an 11-yard scoring pass to FB Booker Moore that again put Buffalo in the lead at 21-14.

Miami responded with an 80-yard, six-play drive that culminated in a trick play when Clayton, taking the ball on a reverse, fired a pass to Duper who caught it at the Buffalo 23 and ran the rest of the way for a 48-yard touchdown. Uwe van Schamann’s extra point again tied the score at 21-21.

The Bills came right back on a 63-yard drive that extended into the early fourth quarter and was highlighted by a Ferguson pass to Cribbs that gained 26 yards to the Miami 25. The veteran quarterback found Cribbs again in the middle of the end zone for a four-yard TD on a third-and-goal play, and Buffalo was once again in front by a touchdown. But both offenses were seemingly unstoppable. The Dolphins drove down the field, with Marino throwing to Clayton for a 39-yard gain to the Bills’ 13, and while the rookie quarterback fumbled the snap on two successive plays, he finished off the possession with a one-yard scoring pass to WR Nat Moore on a rollout. With the successful PAT, the score was once more tied at 28-28 with 7:35 left in regulation.

The back-and-forth scoring barrage was interrupted on Buffalo’s next possession when Ferguson was intercepted by CB Fulton Walker near midfield. Seven plays later, Marino passed to Clayton for a 14-yard touchdown (his first in the NFL), and it was the Dolphins taking the lead at 35-28 with just over three minutes to go.

Taking over at their 20, the Bills advanced as Ferguson completed his first two passes, to Cribbs for ten yards and TE Mark Brammer for six. However, following a sack by safety Mike Kozlowski, Buffalo faced a third-and-16 situation. Ferguson kept the drive alive with a completion to Franklin for 20 yards and then followed up with a 19-yard throw to WR Perry Tuttle that put the ball at the Miami 37 at the two minute warning.

Forced to scramble, Ferguson completed a pass to Butler for a 12-yard gain. Two pass completions later, the Bills had a first-and-goal at the Miami 8. A first pass was thrown away to stop the clock, and a second intended for Cribbs was underthrown and incomplete. On third down, Ferguson completed a throw to Butler who was stopped short at the one, forcing the Bills to use their last time out with 28 seconds on the clock. On the fourth-and-goal play, Ferguson threw his fifth touchdown pass to Cribbs, and with Danelo’s successful extra point, the game was tied once more at 35-35 and went into overtime.

The Dolphins got the first possession of the extra period and Marino immediately completed a pass to Duper for a 31-yard gain. However, the drive stalled at the Buffalo 35 and von Schamann’s 52-yard field goal attempt was wide to the left.

The Bills went three-and-out and punted. Greg Cater’s kick bounced over Clayton’s head at the 13 and, forced to chase it down, he lost 11 yards on the return which caused the Dolphins to have to take over at their two yard line. Still, Miami’s offense moved the ball effectively, and in 14 plays got to the Buffalo 25. But once again, von Schamann was wide on his field goal attempt, this time from 43 yards.

The Bills took over with 5:15 to go in the overtime period, and on a critical third-and-ten play Ferguson connected with WR Mike Mosley for a 35-yard gain to the Miami 29. Following three running plays, it was time for Danelo to attempt a game-winning field goal, and he was successful from 36 yards. Buffalo came away with a dramatic 38-35 win.

Both teams rolled up plenty of yards, with the Dolphins holding a slight edge (488 to 483) as they also did in first downs (31 to 28). Miami was more effective on the ground (153 yards on 43 running plays to 76 yards on 23 carries for the Bills) while Buffalo had the advantage in net passing yards (407 to 335). Each club turned the ball over twice. The Bills were flagged a whopping 15 times, compared to four penalties called on Miami.

Joe Ferguson had an outstanding performance, completing 38 of 55 passes for a career-high 419 yards with five touchdowns and one interception. Joe Cribbs (pictured below) led the Bills in both rushing, with 49 yards on 11 carries, and pass receiving, with 9 catches for 93 yards and two TDs. Jerry Butler also caught 9 passes, for 89 yards.

Dan Marino, giving a hint of things to come, was successful on 19 of his 29 passes for 322 yards and three touchdowns, against two that were picked off. Mark Duper gained 202 yards on his 7 catches that included two scores. RB Andra Franklin led the running attack with 65 yards on 17 attempts.

Buffalo topped out at 5-2 with a win the next week, but went 3-6 the rest of the way to finish third in the AFC East with an 8-8 record. Miami, on the other hand, lost only once more and won the division with a 12-4 tally. The Dolphins were beaten by Seattle in the Divisional round of the playoffs.

Dan Marino was a big part of Miami’s surge as he completed 173 passes (58.4 %) for 2210 yards with 20 touchdowns and just 6 interceptions. Mark Duper had a Pro Bowl year, catching 51 passes for 1003 yards and 10 TDs. Mark Clayton’s scoring reception against the Bills was his only one of the season as he caught just six passes and was used primarily as a punt returner (his touchdown pass was the only one of his 11-year NFL career). All three would rise to greater heights in 1984.

Joe Ferguson’s season reflected his team’s overall inconsistency. He was in the league’s top ten in pass attempts (508) and completions (281) and ranked fourth in TD passes (26, along with Joe Montana of the 49ers and Cleveland’s Brian Sipe) but third in interceptions (25). He averaged only 5.9 yards per attempt in throwing for 2995 yards, and his career descended thereafter. But in a dramatic game at the Orange Bowl, he turned in a memorable performance.