Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Review: The 2,003-Yard Odyssey (2024)

By Joe Zagorski

The Buffalo Bills' 1973 season was unique. When did missing the playoffs ever feel so good?

The Bills had been more or less dead from 1967 to 1972, at least as far as the rest of the league was concerned. They didn't come close to a winning record in that time, and had the first overall draft choice twice in that span. At least they picked a good year (1969) to be terrible, as they "earned" the right to draft O.J. Simpson - perhaps the greatest running back in college football history. But those running the team couldn't figure out a way to use Simpson properly, and the Bills still were awful.

Then Lou Saban arrived to coach the team in 1972, and he knew what to do: Give Simpson the ball. A lot. O.J. won the NFL's rushing title for the first time that season, so there was a little optimism going into the '73 season. Simpson magnified those feelings in Week One with a 250-yard day against New England, setting a league record in a victory.

Buffalo went on to a 9-5 record, missing the playoffs by a game. As for Simpson, you might have heard that he finished the season with 2,003 yards to set a one-season NFL record. He still is the only person to reach 2,000 in the first 14 games of a season. Buffalo was never the most glamorous of sports cities, but at that point it had the brightest star in the sports universe playing within its area. 

Simpson's achievement still captures the imagination, since there's only one person who can be the first to reach the 2,000-yard milestone. That makes it a reasonable subject for a book, and Joe Zagorski has jumped into it with both feet with his book, "The 2,003-Yard Odyssey." The problem is that the author seems a little too enthusiastic about the subject to be at all objective. Not many discouraging words are written here, and the relentless praise feels overdone.

The framework starts off well enough. Zagorski reached out to speak with several members of the team, including Joe Ferguson, Dave Foley, Joe DeLamielleure, Reggie McKenzie, and Simpson himself. He also has charts that outline every single one of Simpson's rushing attempts. It's nice to have those quotes and stories as well as that reference material in a book like this. 

But there are some conclusions that don't really add up, and several paragraphs that could have been lost very easily. A little more editing would have been nice too; the number of "admitteds" and "Author's Notes" could have been decreased painlessly. . 

Here are a few of the problems that come up along the way:

* Quite a bit is made here about the team's preseason record of 0-6. That's a little strange, since no one probably can recite anything about those games the moment that preparations for a regular season game begin in September. 

* While the Bills' new stadium is mentioned along the way, its impact on the team and the community is underplayed. At long last, Buffalo had a facility that ranked with others in the National Football League, saying farewell to ancient War Memorial Stadium (born in 1937) in the process. The pride that came with showing off a new home added to the enthusiasm level of the fans and the team. 

* While much is made about the Bills' run-first offense, and deservedly so, Saban didn't really have much choice. His quarterbacks didn't offer much in 1973. Joe Ferguson started most of the games, but he was only a third-round draft choice from Arkansas and wasn't ready for prime time yet. He threw for four touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 12 games, despite having two good receivers in J.D. Hill and Bob Chandler.

Meanwhile, Dennis Shaw had no TD passes and four picks in a back-up role. It's a surprise that Shaw was even on the roster that year. In Chandler's book about his football career, he writes about a 1972 incident between Shaw and some African-American youngsters who were near the bench. That caused a huge problem for the Black players on the team, who had to be talked out of rebelling by Simpson. Therefore, Saban probably should have gone out and found a veteran quarterback for 1973 who could have served as a mentor to Ferguson.

* The book generally moves along chronologically, but the Monday night game with Kansas City is moved back in the narrative for some reasons.  That was a big game for the city, since national television audiences for the Bills in those days were relatively rare.

* In a discussion about the secondary, Robert James barely gets a sentence's notice - even though he had become one of the game's best cornerbacks at that point. He was even a first-team All-Pro in one vote, although usually he finished behind Hall of Famers Mel Renfro and Willie Brown on such lists.

* Walt Patulski's problems on the field in 1973 are outlined, but the fact that he didn't get along with Saban doesn't come up here.

 * Buffalo's weather gets a few shots, particularly concerning a rematch with New England in December. It feels quite over the top. The Bills have had more weather-related problems in the last few years than ever before, simply because the schedule now goes into January and the team has had some success in reaching the playoffs. 

"The 2,003-Yard Odyssey" comes up short of being a clear-eyed look at an interesting season in football history. Those interested in the subject might look to Sal Maiorana's book on that era, "When Buffalo Stood Atop the Sports World" for a more professional accounting. 

Two stars

Learn more about this book from Amazon.com. (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.)  

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