Ralph C. Wilson, Jr., a minority stockholder of the Detroit Lions who long has sought a team of his own, is granted an American Football League franchise for Buffalo. Wilson initially wants a franchise in Miami, but he is unable to lease the Orange Bowl. Several friends convince him he should investigate Buffalo, which enthusiastically had supported the Bills of the All-America Football Conference before that league folded following the 1949 season.
Wilson’s former commanding officer in the Navy lives in Buffalo and introduces Wilson to Paul Neville, the managing editor of the Buffalo Evening News. Neville pledges full personal and civic support for a new team, leading Wilson to put up a $100,000 performance bond and to sign a lease on War Memorial Stadium. The city votes to increase the seating capacity from 22,000 to 36,500. Wilson names the team the Bills. Richie Lucas, an All-America quarterback from Penn State, is the team’s first draft choice, and Joe Schaffer of Tennessee is the first player to sign a contract. Garrard “Buster” Ramsey is named head coach. Dick Gallagher, an assistant coach and director of player personnel with the Cleveland Browns, is selected as general manager.
The club’s first training camp is held in East Aurora, New York. On July 30, the Bills lose to Boston, 28-7, at War Memorial Stadium in the AFL’s first preseason game. The team’s first victory comes two weeks later, 31-14 over Denver, in Rochester, New York. In Buffalo’s first regular-season game, the Bills lose to the New York Titans, 27-3, September 11. The Bills record their first regular season victory, September 23, shutting out Boston, 13-0. The Bills have one of the AFL’s best defenses, but the offense finishes last in total yards as neither former Browns star Tommy O’Connell nor Richie Lucas can generate much of an attack. The most pleasant surprise in the 5-8-1 season is the play of rookie fullback Wray Carlton, who scores 11 touchdowns. The Bills have an average home attendance of 16,000.
Denver ruins the Bills’ home opener at War Memorial Stadium with a 22-10 victory. Lou Saban is replaced by Mike Holovak in Boston, and immediately is hired as Buffalo’s new director of player personnel, amid rumors he would be the Bills’ next head coach. Without any one quarterback who can take charge, the Bills finish the season with a 6-8 record.
The rumors prove true: Buster Ramsay is fired, and Lou Saban is hired as head coach. The Bills sign 6-foot 2-inch, 243-pound Canadian Football League star fullback Cookie Gilchrist, who gains 1,099 yards, becoming the AFL’s first 1000-yard rusher. Quarterback Jack Kemp is claimed for the $100 waiver price from San Diego and proves to be a budding star. Houston ruins Saban’s debut, beating the Bills, 28-23. But after a slow start, Buffalo finishes with seven wins and a tie in the last nine games for a 7-6-1 record.
The Bills sign their first two “name” players, Dave Behrman, a center from Michigan State, and Jim Dunaway, a tackle from Mississippi. They also sign quarterback Daryle Lamonica of Notre Dame. The club moves its training camp to suburban Blasdell, New York. Cookie Gilchrist sets an all-time pro rushing record, gaining 243 yards and scoring five touchdowns in a 45-14 victory over the New York Jets. After an 0-3-1 start, the Bills come on strong to tie the Patriots in the East, but Buffalo loses, 26-8, to Boston in an Eastern Divisional playoff game in 24-degree weather.
The Bills continue their fast finish of the year before, recording the league’s best record (12-2) behind the stingiest defense and most productive offense in the AFL. The front four of Ron McDole, Jim Dunaway, Tom Sestak, and Tom Day turn into the league’s best and hold opponents to fewer than 65 yards rushing per game. Cookie Gilchrist leads the league in rushing with 981 yards. Meanwhile, Kemp shares the quarterback job with Daryle Lamonica, who averages better than 20 yards per completion. Flanker Elbert Dubenion catches 42 passes for 1,139 yards, a fantastic 27.1-yard average, and 10 touchdowns. Lou Saban also unveils pro football’s first soccer-style kicker, Pete Gogolak, who scores 102 points. The Bills win their first nine before losing to Boston, 36-28. They clinch the division title in the season finale with a 24-14 victory over the Patriots in the snow at Fenway Park, December 20. The next week, before a standing-room-only crowd at War Memorial Stadium, the Bills win the AFL Championship Game, 20-7, over San Diego.
Cookie Gilchrist, who had demanded extra money after the Bills won the championship, is traded to Denver for fullback Billy Joe. Despite the power of Wray Carlton, the running goes flat, and the passing game is hurt by injuries to Elbert Dubenion and split end Glenn Bass. Nevertheless, the defense remains the league’s best, led by Tom Sestak, linebacker Mike Stratton, and defensive back George “Butch” Byrd and George Saimes, all of whom are named all-AFL. The defense is enough to carry the Bills to another title, with a 10-3-1 record, winning the Eastern Division by five games over the New York Jets. The Bills had lost to San Diego, 34-3, during the regular season, but in the AFL Championship Game, the defense shuts down the Chargers 23-0.
Lou Saban announces he is resigning to accept a position as the head coach at the University of Maryland. Joe Collier, an assistant coach, is named head coach. The AFL All-Stars defeat the Bills 30-19, January 15. Collier’s regular-season head coaching debut is unsuccessful. San Diego beats the Bills, 27-7, September 4. Buffalo rallies to have another good season and defeats Denver in the last game of the year to win a third straight Eastern Divison championship with a 9-4-1 record. Bobby Burnett, a halfback from Arkansas, rushes for 766 yards and is named rookie of the year. Kansas City ends the Bills’ hold on the AFL championship, winning 31-7 in Buffalo before 42,080 at War Memorial Stadium, January 1.
Daryle Lamonica and Glenn Bass are traded to Oakland for Tom Flores and Art Powell, neither of whom create an impact. Playing an NFL opponent for the first time in the preseason, the Bills lose 19-17 to Detroit. Although the defense remains one of the league’s best, the offense is weakened by injuries and by Kemp’s sub-par season. Keith Lincoln, who had been obtained from San Diego, leads the team with 601 yards rushing and 41 receptions, but the Bills still drop to 4-10 and third place.
Jack Kemp is injured and lost for the season, as is Flores. Former Bill Daryle Lamonica cames to town and helps Oakland beat Buffalo, 48-6, in the second game, following which Collier is fired and replaced by Harvey Johnson, the team’s director of personnel. Five quarterbacks shuffle through the lineup, and the Bills finish with the poorest record in football (1-12-1). Elbert Dubenion, the last of the original Bills, retires as a player and joins the team’s scouting department.
John Rauch resigns as Oakland head coach and agrees to a four-year contract to coach the Bills. In the most significant draft in the history of the franchise, O.J. Simpson is selected as the first choice. Four months of intense negotiations follow with the Heisman Trophy winner from USC and his agent. A month after training camp opens, Simpson signs a long-term contract with the Bills and reports for duty, August 9. Rauch gets his first victory as a Buffalo coach, beating Denver 41-28, September 28, after losing two. The Bills wind up the season with a 4-10 record, to finish third in the AFL East.