New York State In-depth

“This is life changing,” the haunting reminder of Bills’ delay in playing Bengals in the playoffs

Eric Brady

The Buffalo Bills recently beat the Miami Dolphins. So does the music box. The bills from 41 years ago can relate, particularly with the Bengalis coming to town.

That’s because the most painful game delay penalty in Bills history came at Cincinnati in a division round playoff game after the 1981 season.

“I’ll never forget it,” says Lou Piccone from his Williamsville home. “I went from held to zero in a split second.”

Circumstances were then different from those faced by the Dolphins when they pulled a flag late in Sunday’s game at number four and 1 near midfield. (This was after they burned their allotted time-outs to avoid other delay penalties.) The Bills wiped out Miami’s running game no matter what, and then the Dolphins missed in fourth- and sixth-place finishes. The Dolphins were ordered to four game-delay penalties on Sunday; the NFL average that season was five delay penalties…for the season.

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Back then, Piccone clinched the first tee on a pass from quarterback Joe Ferguson in fourth and third place from the Bengals 21-yard line, with the Bills trailing 28-21 with less than three minutes to play. No one heard a whistle over the noise of the crowd. Because of this, the 55,420 crowd at Riverfront Stadium — and both teams — thought the Bills had the ball at 14 with a new set of downs.

“Opening is Piccone — Lou Piccone!” NBC’s Dick Enberg called out the piece. “And a first down!”

Then Enberg hastily added: “And a flag goes down. I think it’s a lag in the game.”

You can watch the entire show on YouTube, but since NBC didn’t sync the snap to the 30-second clock like the networks do now, it’s hard to tell if the show was actually late. Piccone says the Bills later watched a feature film.

“I swear we picked up the ball before it hit the zero,” Piccone says. “A game shouldn’t be decided with a flag when it’s this close. Let the players decide.”

Unfortunately, it should never have been close. The Bills requested a timeout before the game so Ferguson and coach Chuck Knox could confer on the sidelines. This meant that the game clock only started after the timeout. Then a little ruse backfired: Knox tried to confuse the Bengals by sending Piccone and Ron Jessie to the game clock with 14 seconds left. The Bills broke the huddle with 11 seconds left.

“That’s enough time, that’s more than enough time, under normal circumstances,” Ferguson later told reporters. “But I had to shout signals first to the left and then to the right to make sure they (his players) heard them over the noise of the crowd. … Normally you can tell by the pace of the game when you’re running out of time. But after the break, I never thought about it.”

The penalty left the Bills with the fourth and 8 of 26. But instead of betting on first descent, the Bills were betting on everything. Ferguson narrowly brought down Roland Hooks, who flashed across the middle in the end zone. By the time the Bills got the ball back – playing on their own 20 with 24 seconds and no timeouts – it was too late. Just like the piece that wasn’t.

“It was like the fairy godmother wasn’t with us,” Bill’s nose tackle Fred Smerlas said at the time.

Would this game be a penalty in today’s NFL? Maybe not because there is some delay in a delay call. “The acting mechanics dictate that as soon as the back judge sees the game clock expire, he immediately looks at the ball,” an NFL spokesman told Pro Football Talk a few years ago. “If it is snapped there is no foul for delaying the game.”

In other words, there’s just a little give when a game box hits zero. Was that the case then? Hard to say. The rules surrounding the game box evolve over time – from 30 seconds back then to 40 seconds today, for example.

Piccone had entered the fateful game as a full-back rather than in his usual full-back position. That brought him together with a linebacker. He ran a fast out pattern and collected the ball neatly on the touchline, then was pushed wide and rolled over twice. He trotted back to the crush, fully believing he’d made first.

“If we can do that first, we’ll be able to level the game,” says Piccone. “That changes everything.” He pauses. “It changes lives.”

There’s no way of knowing if the Bills would have evened the score or if they would have won the game even if they did. This much we know: The Bengals won against San Diego in the so-called Freezer Bowl the following week and thus advanced to their first Super Bowl, which they lost to the San Francisco 49ers.

Ferguson spoke in a quiet locker room after the loss in Cincinnati. “I take the blame,” he said, “when everyone wants to blame someone.”

nope Blame the Bengal Stripe.

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