The Buffalo Bills are the class of the American Football League. The tipoff was the eagerness with which the other clubs awaited the Bills' late cuts at the end of summer training. "We know almost anybody we pick up from Buffalo is going to be good. We grab them the way we used to grab cuts from the NFL," said one AFL coach. The junior league, starting its sixth season, has three teams that are capable of playing and doing well in the NFL. Those three are Buffalo, San Diego and Kansas City. With another good receiver, another good running back and another good defensive back, the Bills would rate right up with any team in the NFL. As it is, they will win in the East again and take their second AFL championship in a row.
In Jack Kemp and Daryle Lamonica, the Bills have a solid, if somewhat unusual, combination for the vital quarterback assignment. Kemp is the leader, the No. 1, a boyish, enthusiastic athlete with a strong passing arm. But there are times when he is erratic. When Kemp is not moving the club, in comes Lamonica, who is bigger than Kemp and has exceptional poise and, in his third season, is the top home-grown quarterback in the league. Lamonica moved into some tough situations last year and did brilliantly as a relief pitcher. He and Kemp should be even better this season.
While the Bills rely more on ball control than on the passing game, they can use the pass effectively when they choose. Last year Kemp and Lamonica threw less than any other quarterbacks but still gained 3,187 yards passing, third highest in the AFL. Flanker Elbert Dubenion caught 1,139 yards worth for an average of 27 yards per reception. Split End Glenn Bass had touchdown catches of 94 and 84 yards. Tight End Ernie Warlick is aging and is not a quality short receiver. He will be pressed by Paul Costa, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound rookie from Notre Dame.
The key to Buffalo's season, however, will be the performance of Billy Joe, the fullback obtained from Denver in trade for the fantastic Cookie Gilchrist. Joe's history is peculiar: he had a poor senior year in college, was Rookie of the Year in the AFL, then had a poor season in 1964, when he was bothered by a calcium deposit in his foot. That ailment is cured. Joe has taken off 20 pounds (down to 230) and is faster than ever. He is not a quick starter, but Buffalo's outstanding offensive line can hold the holes open for him longer than Denver's line could, and in the open field Joe is a more dangerous runner than Gilchrist. Joe is not in Gilchrist's category as a pass blocker, but, for that matter, neither is anybody else. Wray Carlton, 220, is an expert at that job and is an underestimated runner. Bobby Smith, Joe Auer and Willie Ross are capable running backs who can stride right in if Joe and Carlton are hurt.
Buffalo's offensive line—built up through the years by Coach Lou Saban, General Manager Dick Gallagher, Scout Harvey Johnson and the wallet of Owner Ralph Wilson—is superior to some in the NFL. The guards are Billy Shaw and Al Bemiller, the tackles are Stew Barber and Dick Hudson, and the center is Dave Behrman, No. 1 draft choice in 1962, who is back after a knee injury and could play center or guard. Ohio State All-America Jim Davidson is a top rookie prospect. Buffalo's defensive line is also a powerful unit. Tom Sestak, 270, may be the best tackle in the league. Jim Dunaway, the other tackle, is excellent but will have a hard time defending his job from Tom Keating. The ends, Ron McDole and Tom Day, are big and quick. Rookie Remi Prudhomme might have replaced one of them but is out for the season with an injury.
Buffalo has four veteran linebackers, including the tough and mobile Mike Stratton on the right side. Rookie Marty Schottenheimer of Pitt could be a starter. One good linebacking sub is Paul McGuire, the league's leading punter. With side-footer Pete Gogolak for kickoffs and field goals, the Bills have one of the AFL's soundest kicking games. Buffalo's defensive backs lack size, but George Saimes, only 5 feet 10, is a fine safety and an All-AFL selection. The strong side safety will be either Ray Arbruzzese, Hagood Clarke or Gene Sykes. Butch Byrd was a good corner back as a rookie. Charley Warner and Booker Edgerson are competing for the other corner. The Bills' main virtue is not in pass defense, but the rush from the front four takes much of the stress off the deep defenders. With the temperamental Gilchrist gone, the Bills should be a more cohesive team. The Eastern Division is improved, but Buffalo will win it.
Buffalo's Jack Kemp, a fine but occasionally erratic quarterback, steps out behind Wray Carlton.