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This Bill was overdue

Joe Ferguson's precision passing has Buffalo at unexpected heights

Quickly now, who's the hottest quarterback in the NFL? We'll give you a hint. In the last two games he has thrown for eight touchdowns, 649 yards and a .694 completion percentage, and only one of his 85 passes over that span has been intercepted.

Give up? O.K., here's one more stat that may help you: He's tied with Philadelphia's Ron Jaworski among active quarterbacks for most consecutive starts, 94. Still don't know? Well, the answer is Joe Ferguson, whose three-touchdown pass performance in last Sunday's 30-7 win over Baltimore put the Buffalo Bills at 5-2 and all alone atop the AFC East.

Ferguson's 21-for-30 afternoon, following a huge day in Miami's Orange Bowl the week before, showed one thing: When conditions are right, when the rush isn't standing him on his head and the Buffalo winds aren't turning his passes into ducks, Ferguson can bring it as well as any quarterback in the league.

On Sunday, Coach Frank Kush, whose scrappy young Colts had been on a three-game win streak, gave Ferguson a tribute: "He did a remarkable job reading our coverages, just remarkable." The week before, Miami's defensive coach, Bill Arnsparger, had sought out Ferguson on the field after Buffalo's 38-35 overtime win and gripped his hand. "I'm proud of you," he said. "You did one helluva job."

Now, when a coach has the No. 1 pass defense in the league and a guy has just shredded it for 419 yards and five TDs, you'd figure that congratulations would be the last thing on his mind. But Arnsparger has a long memory, plus a very warm feeling for the underdog, which is what Ferguson has been for a good part of his 11-year NFL career.

That's right, he has been around 11 years. He was the rookie quarterback from Arkansas who handed the ball to O.J. Simpson in the Juice's 2,003-yard season of 1973. He was there when Lou Saban and then Jim Ringo and later Chuck Knox spent long hours trying to firm up the Bills' running game, because everyone knows you don't get anywhere trying to throw the ball in those 30-mph Rich Stadium winds.

His last few years have been marked by a series of grim vignettes. In a 1981 playoff game in San Diego, Ferguson, practically immobilized with a severely sprained ankle, had the Bills in front with two minutes left, only to see the win go down the drain on Dan Fouts' touchdown pass to Ron Smith. In a playoff game in Cincinnati a year later, Ferguson waved his hands for quiet and then completed the fourth-down pass that could have gotten the Bills back in the game, only to have the play nullified because the 30-second clock had run out.

The Bills drafted a quarterback, Matt Kofler, in the second round in 1982. Then they went for another one, Jim Kelly, in the first round this year. "Best player on the board," Kay Stephenson, the Bills' new coach, said of Kelly, but the 33-year-old Ferguson was getting another message. "I figured I had another two years, tops, in Buffalo," he says.

He had a miserable 1982. The Bills won their two games before the strike and then two of their seven after it. Ferguson's poststrike statistics read two TD passes, 15 interceptions. "I got too emotionally involved in the strike," he says. "I honestly didn't think we'd even have a 1982 season. When the settlement came, I'd given up. I had my bags packed for Shreveport. I have a family—my wife had just had a baby—and I was just so relieved I had a job. But in the back of my mind, and this was the real scary part, was: Do I have a job next year?"

The whole Buffalo operation was looking shaky. Ferguson and others sounded off after the season about how Knox's conservative play-calling had crippled the offense. Knox washed his hands of the whole mess and went to Seattle. Kelly opted for Houston of the USFL; he'd been picked with the draft choice the Bills had acquired from Cleveland for Tom Cousineau, another No. 1 choice they couldn't sign. Joe Cribbs, Buffalo's fine little halfback, signed with Birmingham of the USFL for 1984.

Stephenson, who'd been one of Sid Gillman's bright young quarterbacks at San Diego, in 1967, was watching his club come apart before the first whistle blew. It was time to return to strength, to the old guard. Ferguson had started every game for six years. He was the man.

"We went into the season with the same plays and the same basic formations we'd used in the past," Ferguson says, "but different ideas on how to use those plays. Instead of trying to grind it out, we would be flexible. I had more leeway on my calls. When I'd go to the sidelines Kay would ask me, 'What do you want to run?' "

It didn't catch on right away. The Dolphins sacked Ferguson six times in the opener and shut out the Bills 12-0. Three wins followed, but then the Jets bombed Buffalo 34-10 on national TV. The last time the camera caught Ferguson, he was being driven off in a golf cart, dazed by a shot to the head.

Miami was next. The last time the Bills won at the Orange Bowl was in 1966, when Ferguson was a sophomore at Woodlawn High in Shreveport, La. This time the Bills flooded the field with wide receivers, sometimes using four at once. They took out their running backs and stationed Tight End Mark Brammer in the backfield to pick off blitzers, and the 235-pound Brammer swatted them away like flies. Ferguson wound up completing 38 of 55 passes for those 419 yards and a handful of team records.

It was easier against the Colts. Buffalo's offensive line kept Ferguson unsacked. In the first quarter, when the Colts blitzed a weakside linebacker and a safetyman, the Bills sent Split End Jerry Butler on a pick and slid Cribbs out behind him, putting Baltimore's strong safety, Nesby Glasgow, in an impossible coverage. Ferguson neatly dished the ball to Cribbs for a 14-yard score. That was touchdown No. 1.

No. 2 came early in the second quarter. With second and goal on the four, the Bills set up in their goal-line offense of three tight ends. Ferguson froze the linebackers on a play fake, and Brammer slipped behind them on a crossing pattern to take Ferguson's pass for the score.

No. 3 came in the same period, a 20-yard pass to Frank Lewis out of a three-wide receiver set. Ferguson looked for Cribbs over the middle, saw too much traffic in the area and found Lewis in the corner. A field goal late in the quarter put the game away at 24-7. During one stretch in the second period Ferguson went 11-for-11. Sometimes the Bills had used four wide receivers, sometimes three, sometimes none. But Ferguson was always on the money.

"It's tough for a young secondary like ours, seeing those four wide receivers flying down the field," said Glasgow, a five-year veteran, which makes him an elder statesman on the Colts. "They can all run, they can all catch, and when you don't put heat on Ferguson, he'll kill you."

"I love the way our offense is working now," Ferguson said. "I'm as happy as I can be about it. It gives me a chance to play the game."

He deserves it.


Ferguson had three TD passes in Baltimore.


Ex-quarterback Stephenson is more likely to ask, "What do you want to run, Joe?"


Cribbs will leap to the USFL in '84 but not before rolling up big yards in '83.


Cribbs buffaloed Baltimore on this 14-yard touchdown catch.