The set-up: After Lou Saban quit on the Bills for the 2nd time during the 1976 season, the Bills went 3-20 over the next two seasons. With the Bills in a free-fall, Ralph Wilson brought in Chuck Knox to try and save this sinking ship. Knox, had coached the LA Rams to five straight division titles and had won 10 games or more during those seasons. As the new coach of the Bills, his first order of business was to trade OJ Simpson, who was in the twilight of his career. The Bills were in full rebuilding mode, going 5-11 and 7-9 in Knox’s first two seasons. However, during those two years, Knox was able to draft a number of solid players.
Ground Chuck was his nickname, so what better player to draft than Joe Cribbs. The Bills selected the Auburn tailback in the 2nd round of the 1980 Draft and he contributed right away. Cribbs was the Bills offensive MVP, as he rushed for almost 1,200 yards, 11 rushing touchdowns and chipped in with 52 receptions-while winning ROY. The Bills best draft came in 1980, as they added Jerry Butler with the 5th pick in the 79′ Draft. Butler became the team’s deep threat, averaging over 16 yards a catch during his first three seasons. On the defensive side of the ball, Knox struck gold in the 2nd round of the draft, as the team selected LB Jim Haslett and NT Fred Smerlas. Both players along with LB Shane Nelson helped form probably the coolest nickname in Buffalo Bills history…THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE. The trio helped the Bills have the #1 defense for the 1980 season. Once a running back entered the Bermuda Triangle, you would never come out!
The Bills finished the 1980 season with a 11-5 record and their first division title since 1966. The 1980 season was a magical run, as the Bills started the season 5-0 and beat Super Bowl quality teams like the Steelers and Raiders. You have to understand, the Bills of the 70’s were a lot like the Bills of the 2000’s, they weren’t really good. So, there was a lot of excitement when the Bills turned it around. However, the excitement turned ugly, as the Bills were knocked out of the divisional round of the playoffs in a 20-14 loss against the Chargers. The game is best remembered for Joe Ferguson playing with a high ankle sprain. If you have ever seen highlights of the game on youtube, his injury is baaaaaaad. I mean, the dude can’t even walk. The heartbreak came when Dan Fouts completed a 57-yard touchdown pass with just 2:02 left in the game.
The following season, the Bills went 10-6 and made the playoffs, where they beat the Jets in the AFC Wildcard. However, just like the season before, the Bills lost against the Bengals in the Divisional playoffs, by a score of 21-28. Ferguson drove the Bills to the Bengals 20 with 2 minutes remaining. The Bills thought they had a 1st down when Ferguson completed a pass to Lou Piccone at the Bengals 16-yard line. However, the play was nullified by a delay of game penalty. With the Bills facing a 4th and 8, Ferguson overthrew an open Roland Hooks, ending the Bills last chance at putting the game into OT.
Even with the disappointment, the Bills still had a young defense, a running back who gained over a 1,000 yards in his first two seasons and a coach who had 6 division titles under his belt.
What happened: The 1982 season would end up being Knox’s last with the team. Because of the USFL being on the horizon, NFL players knew this was the time to try and get as much money from the owners as possible. The two sides wouldn’t budge, as the season was cut short to 9 games due to the player’s strike. On the Bills front, they were dealing with their own problems, as Joe Cribbs and Jerry Butler heldout for bigger contracts. Joe Ferguson even went as far as to complain to the media about how Ralph Wilson wasn’t willing to pay top dollar for talent. No offense to Joe, but he shouldn’t have been talking that year, as he finished with only seven touchdowns and a eye-popping 17 interceptions. So, if you factor in QB play, the strike and holdouts, the Bills finished with a 4-5 record.
As for Knox,there were rumors towards the end of the season that Ground Chuck wanted to hit the ground to Seattle. In Fred Smerlas’ biography (BTW, I think it’s the best biography for a Bills player), he talked about how devastated he and his teammates were when Knox left. They loved Chuck because he was a tough love kind of guy. Smerlas told a story about how Knox would treat the players like men and would get in their faces if they weren’t producing, but he’d also be the type to have a beer bash for his players at training camp. Seriously, he provided the guys with beer for outings.
Now that’s my type of boss!
Knox left because he grew tired of the front office battles with ownership and GM Stew Barber over the loss of his best players. Smerlas talked about how Knox didn’t see eye-to-eye with Barber, because the coach never wanted the team to draft Tom Cousineau with the first pick in 79′ draft. We all know that Cosineau ended up spurning the Bills and going to the CFL. Seems to me that there was a power struggle between the two of them. On January 25th, one day after resigning as Bills head coach, Knox was announced as the new head coach of the Seahawks. He also brought most of the Bills coaching staff with him.
With Knox gone, a lot of the Bills players became even more pissed off with Bills management. Reggie McKenzie was also affected by the departure of Knox, as he demanded a trade to be reunited with his coach in Seattle. Now, the Bills did finish the season 8-8, but with Kay Stephenson at the helm, the team was heading to hell. The following season, Joe Cribbs decided to join the USFL after Ralph Wilson decided not to give him a raise. The team was lost without Knox as they finished the 84′ and 85′ season with a 2-14 record.
Ask any Bills historian or player about Kay Stephenson or Hank Bullough, and you’ll see how their faces will turn into bitter beer faces.
What if Chuck Knox didn’t leave the Bills? Chuck Knox and Jim Kelly? Yup, the offseason that Knox left for Seattle was the same time that the Bills drafted Jim Kelly. Maybe, with Knox having a coaching resume with 7 playoff appearances, and being viewed as a players coach, he might have been able to convince Kelly to not run for the USFL. You also have to understand that at the time, Knox was an awesome coach. Unlike Saban, who couldn’t find success elsewhere, Knox was able to turn around the Rams, Bills and Seahawks. If he, Wilson and the GM were on the same page, he probably would have lasted at least a couple of more years. Maybe, we never hear of the name Marv Levy.
I also get the feeling that having Knox leave, must have had an affect with Cribbs taking off. The Bills still had a young core of players on the team with Cribbs, Smerlas, Haslett and Jim Ritcher. With the coaching change, the young talent of the Bills weren’t utilized in the proper way. The defense fell apart going from 6th in 1982 to 27th in 1984.
It’s just interesting that the two best coaches for the first 25 years of the franchise’s existence, had such a huge falling out with management.