This is the fourth post in Kurt’s epic quest to identify the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player. For an explanation of his methodology for choosing each franchise’s ultimate franchise player, and then how you and he will choose the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player from that list, click here.
To see all the category page for this series, of which there will be one for every franchise, click here.
We had gone to the birds in our first three installments of MSF’s Ultimate Franchise Player series, first anointing Mr. Cardinal, then Mr. Falcon and finally Mr. Raven.
Today, Midwest Sports Fans turns it up a few notches and proudly proclaims…
Buffalo Bills History and Honorable Mention
The Buffalo Bills mark the first of the Original Eight American Football League franchises, which began play in often empty stadiums in 1960, with the Bills playing in a muddy minor league baseball venue until their current facility opened in 1973.
The Bills are a proud franchise that has had its moments, mainly the earlier days of the AFL and the Marv Levy era of the late-1980’s/early 1990’s. But there have been many lean times as well, especially recently. The Bills remain the only NFL team not to have earned a playoff berth since the year 2000, unless you count the playoff game played on January 7, 2000, following the 1999 season.
Just how much can one stinky, polluted, border town can possibly take? And let’s not get into how absolutely awful the hotels are allegedly up there.
In determining the Bills’ Ultimate Franchise Player, there is an interesting list of suspects to choose from, one in particular in more ways than one…
Shane Conlan (ILB 1987-92)
Conlan was the eighth overall pick of the 1987 Draft after intercepting two passes in Penn State’s National Championship Game win over the University of Miami. He was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1987 and then named to the Pro Bowl in each of the following three seasons.
Finished his career playing three years for the LA/St. Louis Rams.
Billy Shaw (OG 1962-1969)
The only member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who never physically played a game in the NFL.
Unlike other teams in the old AFL, the Bills made their living much more on the run than other teams, and Shaw was an important part of it. He made both the pro football All-Decade team for the 1960’s as well as the AFL’s all-decade team.
In all, he played in the AFL All-Star game eight times and was a mainstay on the Bills 1964-65 championship teams.
Ruben Brown (OG 1995-2003)
Brown started all 136 games he appeared in for Buffalo, before allegedly begging out of the final game of the ’03 season, leading to his departure from Buffalo. After his rookie season, Ruben made eight consecutive Pro Bowls for the Bills and made a ninth Pro Bowl appearance as a member of the Chicago Bears in 2006.
One of the stars of the American Football League, Kemp played in all ten years of the league’s existence and led the Bills to league titles in the 1964 and 1965 seasons. He was an AFL All-Star seven times and the league’s MVP following the ’65 season.
He became a politician post-football and was a Republican presidential candidate. Kemp passed away in 2009, but he could probably still throw his hat in the ring and claim the 2012 GOP nomination. (Or maybe the next #15 to make a Presidential run is still a few years off…)
Kent Hull (C 1986-1996)
The state of Mississippi has been good at providing the Bills franchise with stellar offensive lineman, as Billy Shaw also hailed from that state a generation earlier.
After playing three years in the USFL, Hull became a mainstay for Jim Kelly’s K-Gun offense in the team’s four Super Bowl appearances. Sadly, Hull passed away at age 50 in 2011.
James Lofton (WR 1989-92)
Lofton spent the majority of his 16-year career with the Green Bay Packers, but the former college track standout still had plenty to offer as the Bills’ #2 receiver in their Super Bowl years, averaging 20.3 yards per catch during the 1990 season and being named to the Pro Bowl following the ’91 season.
A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Lofton is ranked #59 on Pro Football Reference’s EloRater.
Joe Cribbs (RB 1980-83, 1985)
Cribbs produced 1,600+ combined yards in 1980, 1981, and 1983 (1982 was the strike season) before returning to his home state of Alabama for a brief stint with the USFL’s Birmingham Stallions. He returned to the Bills for the 1985 season before closing out his career with the San Francisco 49ers.
Joe is an uncle of current Cleveland Browns player Joshua Cribbs.
Steve Tasker (ST 1986-97)
No discussion of the Bills’ Super Bowl teams would be complete without mention of one of the greatest special teams players of all-time.
At 5’9” 183 lbs, Tasker played much bigger as a ferocious hitter on punt coverage, and many believe he deserves Hall of Fame consideration. His career ended ingloriously when he was ejected from the Bills’ 1997 season finale at Lambeau Field after bumping into an official during an argument.
In all, Tasker played in seven Pro Bowls and was MVP of the 1993 game – wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he cared about that game more than most.
Joe DeLamielleure (OG 1973-79, 1985)
You have by now noticed the trend of the Bills producing outstanding offensive linemen over the years.
As a rookie in 1973, DeLamielleure helped paved the way during O.J. Simpson’s 2,000 yard rushing season and wound up as a Pro Bowler in his final five seasons with the team. Joe D’s battles with Mean Joe Greene wound up being legendary, as the two opposed each other eight times. He returned to the Bills for one final season after a stint with the Cleveland Browns.
DeLamielleure was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Doug Flutie (QB 1998-2000)
Flutie’s career path is not unlike what Tim Tebow is going through currently early in his career. After becoming one of college football’s all-time legends, the consensus had Flutie’s lack of height not translating into the NFL level. Flutie got a couple shots with the Bears and Patriots early on, but was not thought of as the long-term answer for either team. Flutie then laid low and played in the Canadian Football League for eight seasons, where that game’s rules were more conducive to his style of play. Flutie ultimately produced prolific numbers, including 6,619 yards passing one year. Bills GM A.J. Smith brought Doug back to the states in 1998, where he had his best season, earning Pro Bowl recognition. Flutie spent five more years in the NFL after leaving Buffalo, and his entire professional career (including his initial stint in the USFL) lasted 21 years, not a Hall of Famer, but quite a unique and colorful career.
Brian Moorman (P 2001-present)
The by-laws of Ultimate Franchise Players stipulates that at least one Pittsburg State Gorilla be mentioned as a candidate, and we have officially now met that criteria.
Moorman is actually one of the better athletes ever to be employed as a punter. He won three straight Division 2 championships in the 400-meter hurdles.
For his 13-year career, Moorman has a punting average of 43.9 yards, which ranks among the best ever at the position.
His career in the NFL lasted 16 years in all, the first 13 in Buffalo, leading the Bills to playoff appearances three times and starting 107 consecutive games. A relatively low career completion % of 52.4 keeps him off my final list of candidates.
But Ferguson was known for longevity, and he even made a comeback in 1995 at age 45 with a short-lived Canadian Football League franchise in San Antonio.
He was seriously ill with cancer in the mid-2000’s but has since reportedly recovered.
Bob Kalsu (OG 1968)
Our inductee as the Bills ‘courage’ candidate for UFP player.
The one-time Oklahoma All-American was the team’s Rookie of the Year in 1968 before serving in Vietnam as part of his ROTC obligation. Kalsu was killed in action on July 21, 1970, and he is the only professional athlete who lost his life in the military during the Vietnam War.
Darryl Talley (OLB 1984-95)
Another mainstay of the Super Bowl era, Darryl ‘U-Haul’ Talley played 12 of his 14 seasons in Buffalo and is the franchise’s all-time leading tackler.
The U-Haul nickname comes from a supposed incident during his regular-season finale with the Atlanta Falcons in 1996, when he allegedly already had his moving van ready to roll in the stadium parking lot.
Phil Hansen (DE 1991-2001)
My esteemed colleague Drew Lange would be all over me if I did not include the North Dakota State alum on this list. Hansen spent his entire 11-year career with the Bills, recoding 61.5 sacks in his career. Hansen was also on two Division 2 championship teams at NDSU.
Cornelius Bennett (OLB 1987-95)
Another anchor of the Bills’ Super Bowl defenses, Bennett was the second overall pick by the Indianapolis Colts in 1987, but eventually settled in Buffalo after a protracted holdout/trade. He recorded 71 sacks in a 14-year career along with 27 fumble recoveries, third on the NFL’s all-time list.
Bennett would later play for the Atlanta Falcons, where he appeared in a fifth Super Bowl.
Frank Reich (QB 1985-1994)
So he was a backup. But one game gets him on the list: The Comeback.
THE FINAL TABLE
Jim Kelly (QB 1986-96)
Perhaps the franchise’s most iconic player, Jim Kelly arrived in Buffalo in 1986 after a two-year USFL stint and would lead the Bills to a 101-59 record in games he started during his career. He completed just over 60 percent of his passes, but surprisingly never had a 4,000 yard season.
The Bills’ ‘K-Gun’ offense became a predecessor to what Peyton Manning would later run in Indianapolis.
To this day Kelly remains heavily involved with the Bills franchise and is interested in becoming part of an ownership group.
Thurman Thomas (RB 1988-98)
Thurman frantically trying to find his helmet before the first offensive play of Super Bowl 26 had to be very much like yours truly trying to find the car keys every morning.
A predecessor to Barry Sanders at Oklahoma State, Thomas would account for over 16,000 combined yards in his Bills career – and in 1991 and 1992 Thomas went over 2,000 yards combined. Thurman was inducted into the Hall of Fame on his second try in 2007. He is ranked #82 on Pro Football Reference’s EloRater.
Andre Reed (WR 1985-1999)
In all, Andre’s career spanned 16 years, with all but 10 of his 951 career catches coming as a member of the Bills. As of this writing, Reed is a finalist in his sixth attempt at election for the Hall of Fame.
One factor that has kept Reed out of Canton to this point is that while he had a long and solid career, there was never one point where he was the absolute best receiver in football.
O.J. Simpson (RB 1969-77)
In real time, in 1973, Simpson’s 2,000 yard rushing season was simply electric. To this day, Juice remains the only NFL player to reach the 2,000 yard benchmark in just 14 games.
Simpson opened the 1973 season with a then-record 250 yard game v. the New England Patriots, and broke Jim Brown’s single-season mark with consecutive 200-yard games to close out the season. Simpson then accounted for 23 touchdowns in the 1975 campaign, and then broke his own single-game record with 273 yards v. the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day 1976.
Like him or not, Simpson was one of the NFL’s signature backs of the 1970’s.
Bruce Smith (DE 1985-99)
The first overall pick of the 1985 Draft, Bruce Smith recorded exactly 200 sacks over a 19-year career, 171 of those during his time with the Bills. Smith recorded double-digit sacks every year between 1986 and 1998 with one exception of an injury-marred 1991 campaign.
While sitting out the first several games of that season, a local writer asked then-coach Marv Levy about a report on Smith’s absence being in actuality a ‘disguised’ drug suspension – Levy nearly killed the writer on the spot.
The NFL’s all-time career sack leader, Smith was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2009. He is ranked #24 on the Pro Football Reference EloRater.
AND THE ‘VERDICT’…
Not surprisingly, the Final Five is dominated by those who played in the Marv Levy era.
Andre Reed is probably the first one to be eliminated. He had a long career but was never spectacular, and his Super Bowl outings (0 TD’s in four games) were underwhelming.
Jim Kelly was an omission from the NFL Network’s Top 100 All-Time list and ranks just outside the top 100 on Pro Football Reference as well.
The entire body of work regarding Thurman Thomas’ career is also impressive, but falls just short here.
That leaves Bruce Smith and O.J. Simpson. On the NFL countdown list Smith is #31 while Simpson is #40. In the NFL’s fan balloting Bruce is #33, Simpson is #44.
There will be no debate from me however.
I’m conducting the UFP Tournament in the same spirit as the NCAA selection committee, and I have declared O.J. Simpson ineligible, either as the Bills UFP or as an at-large bid into the 64-player field. True, in my last installment I named Ray Lewis as the Ravens UFP despite his rap from a decade ago. But this is different in regards to Simpson’s well documented saga and the enormous avalanche of evidence against him in the court of public opinion.
The glove does not fit as far as Simpson getting my nomination goes.
And even without the legal stuff, he’s only the second best player here anyways.
That said, the Buffalo Bills Ultimate Franchise Player is…