The Worst Teams of All Time, Part 15: The 1971 Buffalo Bills

This is a post in an ongoing series, where we examine and poke fun at some of the most ghastly teams ever to take the field.

The AFL Bills had some very successful teams, including two AFL Championships in 1964 and 1965. In 1966, they lost the AFL Championship game to the Chiefs, who went on to get pounded in Super Bowl I. In 1968, the Bills suffered through a terrible 1-12-1 campaign, their worst season to that point. After that, it seemed like it couldn’t get any worse, but in 1971, it did.

Buffalo fell off the cliff to slide to a 1-13 finish, despite having the likes of O.J. Simpson. The Bills finished the year with the worst offense and the worst defense. At the beginning of the season, largely unsuccessful head coach John Rauch resigned, and was hastily replaced with pro personnel director Harvey Johnson to coach on an interim basis.

Dennis ShawJames Harris 2

The two starting quarterbacks, Dennis Shaw (left) and James Harris (right), were never on the mark. Playing in a horrendous offense, the two struggled. Shaw finished with a 51.2% completion rate, throwing for 1,813 yards, 11 touchdowns and 26 interceptions, and was sacked 33 times. He led Buffalo to their only win over New England.

James Harris, meanwhile, completed 49.5% of his passes for 512 yards, 1 touchdown and 6 interceptions in two starts, while being sacked 16 times.

In all, these two combined for 12 touchdowns, 32 interceptions, 3.0 yards per pass attempt and 49 sacks. Good job, guys. Way to carry the team.

O.J. Simpson

Simpson most likely about to be stopped for minimal yardage.

O.J. Simpson finished as the team’s leading rusher, in his fourth season. Although he led the team, his stats were average to be kind. Simpson carried the ball 183 times for 742 (a 4.1 yards-per-carry average) yards and 5 touchdowns. The next highest rusher on the team was Wayne Patrick, who carried the ball 79 times for 332 yards and a touchdown.

Marlin Briscoe

Marlin Briscoe, the former quarterback for the Broncos, led the team in receiving. He recorded 44 receptions for 603 yards and 5 touchdowns. Thanks to the horrible quarterback play, however, he was limited.

In all, the offense combined for only 184 points, an average of 13.1 per game. Extremely low, but even lower when you consider that the AFL was a wide-open, offense driven league. The offense also turned the ball over 48 times. They were shut out four times.

Kicker John Leypoldt led the team in scoring with 39 points.

This would be fine if the team had a defense, like the 1992 Seahawks. But, they did not. The defense finished last in the league, giving up 28.1 points per game. The unit only picked off 11 passes, and didn’t score a defensive touchdown, and surrendered 41 touchdowns to the offense’s 18. Even when the offense played an intelligent game, the defense was there to spoil it, such as a Week 1 loss against Dallas in which the offense mustered 37 points…but game up 49. This was the story for the only other time they topped 30 points, scoring 33 but giving up 38 to New England in Week 9. The unit was also bullied into giving up 178.2 yards per game on the ground, and surrendering 150.5 per game through the air.

The defense’s best day came against Minnesota, when they held them to “only” 19 points. However, it’s hard to win ball games win you don’t score any. Minnesota won in a 19-0 shutout, an epitome of the Bills’ entire season. Buffalo lost by a combined score of 67-0 in two games against divisional rival Baltimore. Other notable losses included a 34-0 whitewash at the hands of Miami and a 20-3 near-shutout loss to San Diego.

So, in all, the Bills were a talentless team led by an interim coach who had no idea what he was doing. The end result was a disastrous season in which Buffalo lost its average game by over two touchdowns, starting 0-10 and winning their only game against New England, 27-20. The team’s -210 point differential is still the worst in team history, and one of the top 40 worst ever.

After the season, changes were in order. The incumbent Harvey Johnson was fired, and no-nonsense Lou Saban was hired to guide the team. After a poor 4-9-1 finish in 1972 in which O.J. Simpson gained 1,251 yards on the ground, the team rebounded to go 9-5 in 1973, behind the NFL’s first 2,000 yard rushing season, courtesy of Simpson. After a slight glimpse of the playoffs in 1975 (a blowout loss to Pittsburgh), Buffalo didn’t return to the post-season until 1980, suffering through a string of incompetent seasons, including a 2-12 black hole in 1976.

Today, the Bills seem to be turning the corner, and are 5-3. They seem destined to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999, and the horrid 1971 season is all but forgotten, a small memory in the minds of even the most elderly Buffalo fans. Hopefully, they won’t be returning to those depths anytime soon.

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