All he had to do was snap the ball.
How can you not snap the ball?
That’s the way Fred Smerlas described Chuck Knox a few days after the Bills lost to the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1981 AFC Divisional playoffs. In Fred’s book, By a Nose, he described walking into a room that resembled a serial killer’s lair (dark film room), where Knox had been replaying the play in which Joe Ferguson didn’t snap the ball in time to beat the play clock. Trailing, 28-21, with less than 3 minutes remaining in the game and the Bills facing a 4th and 3 at the Bengals 20-yard line, the Bills had to get a 1st down to extend the game and drive.
Here’s how Sports Illustrated described what happened next:
Buffalo drove to the Bengal 20 where, on fourth-and-three, with 2:58 left, it took a time-out. Then with the 30-second clock ticking and the Bills still huddling, wide receivers Lou Piccone and Ron Jessie were sent into the game. “Why they weren’t sent in earlier I don’t know,” said Ferguson. But Buffalo Coach Chuck Knox said he always sends in the players late in such a situation so the defense doesn’t have time to adjust to the new personnel.
In defense of Knox, the Bills got exactly what they wanted—Piccone, who lined up in the backfield, isolated with a linebacker on a short sideline pattern. The ball was snapped and Ferguson passed to him from the shotgun for an apparent first down near the 10-yard line, from where the Bills, who were moving the ball easily, could be expected to score the tying touchdown. But Buffalo was called for delay of game. Faced with a much more difficult fourth-and-eight from the 25, Ferguson overthrew Hooks in the end zone. That was Buffalo‘s last good chance.
Seriously? You never see a play like that happen. Sure, the play clock will run out, but the whistle will usually beat the development of the play by a couple of seconds. This was live action without the element of letting your guard down. BTW, how on Earth do you let the play clock hit zero coming out of a timeout? How? Oh, right…welcome to Buffalo sports. Yes, these strange nightmarish events seemed to happen during the early 80’s just as they did during the 90’s and 2000’s.
The biggest question that seems to be asked is whether it was Fergie’s fault (his center said he looked down at the ball with 12 secs left on the play clock) for not calling hike in time or Knox’s for sending out new players for the last second? 12 seconds does seem like a long time for the QB to snap the ball and just coming out of a timeout to boot? I blame Fergie.
The crappy ending ruined a fun back-and-forth affair in which the Bills trailed 14-0 in the 1st quarter but were able to tie up the ball game on the legs of Joe Cribbs (90 yards on 15 carries for two touchdowns) and some gutsy throws from Joe Ferguson. Cincy then scored on the next drive with Buffalo answering to tie it up at 21. Ken Anderson then marched the Bengals on a 78-yard drive which culminated in a 16-yard touchdown pass to Chris Collinsworth to give the Bengals the lead.
What if Joe Ferguson didn’t let the play clock hit zero?
Well, it would have been a first down. After that, who really knows? I didn’t watch the game because I was only 19 months old and was probably in a crib somewhere. SI seemed to think of it as a foregone conclusion that they would score a touchdown to tie the game and send it to OT. Keep in mind the Bills were without Joe Cribbs, who was hurt late in the 3rd quarter. The Bengals had an awesome offense in 1981, scoring 26 points a game (3rd in the NFL) while the Bills were ranked 20th. So you have to think Cincy would have an advantage in scoring in OT or even before the 4th quarter ended.
In any event, the reason why this makes the “What if?” category is because it was a heartbreaking loss that ended in a tragic Buffalo kind of way. That’s really what this list is based on. It is a mix of disappointment and team-changing moments. This had to be up there in disappointing moments for Bills fans. I can only imagine what it would have been like if it happened today in the playoffs. McFadden’s would have rioted twice, once in celebrating the 1st down and a 2nd time when the play was no good.
If the Bills had won the game, they would have traveled to San Diego for a repeat match-up of the previous year’s divisional playoff game in which the Bills lost. However, the Bills did beat the Chargers earlier in the ’81 season in SD by a point. So anything is possible. I think what sticks out most is that this was the game that pretty much closed the door on the Chuck Knox teams. The Bills finished with a 4-5 record during the strike-shortened 1982 season and Knox quit right after that. The Bills ended up going through a foul stench stretch of crappy football, winning only 8 games from 1984-1986.
Yup, it only took one second for one door to close, opening a trapdoor to the NFL cellar. The Bills didn’t make it back to the playoffs until 1988.
This is a series I started doing last year. Be sure to check out the archives.