Could '64 Bills Have Won "Super Bowl" Against Browns?
By Mark Gaughan
The Buffalo News
The old war stories will be traded back and forth when former Buffalo Bills from the team's two great eras reunite for the team's Celebration of Champions next weekend.
Jack Kemp, Jim Kelly and a slew of other ex-Bills will return to Ralph Wilson Stadium for the 40th anniversary of the 1965 championship team and a 15th anniversary of the Bills' first Super Bowl team. Festivities run Thursday through Sunday, highlighted by the unveiling of the team's throwback jersey at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
So it's a good week to chew on a hot stove topic: How would the Bills' greatest AFL championship team, the 1964 squad, have fared against the NFL champion Cleveland Browns?
"We'd have won hands down," former Bills cornerback Booker Edgerson said.
"This is all hearsay and all talk," said Bills Hall-of-Fame guard Billy Shaw. "I've said it many times before of the AFL champions prior to the Super Bowl, that was probably the team that could have really played with NFL champions. I'll say this: We matched up really good with them. I'd have loved to have had that opportunity."
The '64 Browns went 10-3-1 and whipped the Baltimore Colts, 27-0, in the NFL title game. Baltimore had the No. 1 offense and the No. 1 defense in the league. The Browns boasted Pro Football Hall of Famers in running back Jim Brown, receiver Paul Warfield, kicker Lou Groza and coach Paul Brown [Editor's note: Blanton Collier replaced Paul Brown* as coach in 1963. The 1964 Browns were Collier's team.]. The Browns had two other all-league players (tackle Dick Schafrath and linebacker Jim Houston) plus two others who would become repeat all-league picks (receiver Gary Collins and guard Gene Hickerson).
The '64 Bills went 12-2 and whipped the San Diego Chargers, 20-7, in the AFL title game. The Bills had one Hall of Famer in Shaw. Shaw was one of three Bills on the AFL's All-Decade Team, along with defensive tackle Tom Sestak and safety George Saimes. Ten Bills made all-league in '64.
The Bills' defense was superior to the Browns' defense.
Buffalo allowed the fewest rushing yards of any team in AFL history in '64 - 913 or just 65 yards a game. The Bills also had 50 sacks, more than in any season since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.
The Browns' defense was good but not great. It ranked fifth in points allowed. There probably were only two Browns defenders - Houston and defensive end Bill Glass - who could have started for the Bills that year.
Because the Bills were noted for defense, it's surprising to note that the '64 Buffalo team compiled the fourth-most yards of any offense in AFL history - 5,206.
The Bills had great balance, with Cookie Gilchrist leading the running game and deep-threat receivers Elbert Dubenion and Glenn Bass averaging 27.1 and 20.9 yards per catch, respectively.
Kemp had a superb arm and was a great big-game quarterback but ran notoriously hot and cold that year. He threw 13 TD passes and 26 interceptions.
The Browns were quarterbacked by Frank Ryan, who had 25 TDs and 19 INTs. The Browns had a superb offensive line, led by Schafrath, Hickerson and center John Morrow. Warfield was an all-time great, and Collins was a 6-foot-4, better version of ex-Niner Dwight Clark.
If the Bills could shut down Lance Alworth and the Chargers' passing game, they could have shut down Warfield and Collins.
The Bills would have put Edgerson on Warfield and Butch Byrd on Collins and played a physical style. Edgerson and Byrd were great at bump-and-run coverage.
"I think we would have had an advantage with the bump and run," Edgerson said. "The NFL receivers didn't know how to handle it. It took them several years (into interleague games) before they figured out how to handle it. I'd drive Lance to the inside all the time, where you've got (linebackers) John Tracey and Mike Stratton waiting for him. You don't let him get to the outside."
The game would have given Gilchrist a stage on which to perform against Brown, the greatest running back of all time.
Kemp, who will be at the stadium Saturday, is judicious in his assessment of the two teams, but he doesn't hold back when it comes to Cookie.
"Cookie was better than Jim Brown," Kemp said. "Jim Brown is a good friend of mine. But Cookie, in my opinion, was better all around. He could block. He could catch passes. He could tackle. He could kick field goals. He was really one of the greatest all-around football players ever. Jim Brown was the greatest runner."
Could the Bills' great defense have contained Brown well enough to win? That's the intriguing, unanswerable question.
"I think with our ends, Ron McDole and Tom Day, they would have forced him to the inside," Edgerson said. "I didn't see a whole lot of games Jim played. But to me he never was as successful running right up the middle. He'd bounce it outside and he was gone. Cornerbacks didn't want to tackle him. I think we could have kept him from getting outside."
Cleveland's Vince Costello reaches for Jack Kemp in 1964.