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Joe Ferguson was first local high school QB to throw a lot of passes

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Jerry Byrd

Before Joe Ferguson’s junior and senior seasons at Woodlawn High in 1967 and 1968, no local high school quarterback had thrown a lot of passes.

That changed on the night of Oct. 6, 1967, when Ferguson (who had thrown more than 16 passes in only two of his previous 15 games, and was averaging five completions a game) completed 28 of 48 passes for a state record 317 yards in the Knights’ 28-14 upset victory over an Airline team that was ranked No. 4 in the state.

Airline won the state championship that season, upsetting Holy Cross (New Orleans) 20-6 in the championship game. But Ferguson was on his way to national career records of 6,710 yards passing and 86 touchdown passes.

Later, a parade of quarterbacks at Evangel would throw and complete more passes, but none of them enjoyed more success at the college and pro levels than Ferguson did with the University of Arkansas and the Buffalo Bills.

In pro football, he passed for more than 2,000 yards in five of his last six seasons with the Bills.

In his rookie season at Buffalo, Ferguson completed 73 of 164 passes for 939 yards and four touchdowns. But a year later, when a sore knee limited Simpson to 1,125 yards rushing, Ferguson did a not more passes and the Bills led the American Football Conference Eastern Division race until mid-November.

His second pro season ended with a playoff matchup of former Woodlawn High quarterbacks at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium. Terry Bradshaw turned in what was then his best NFL performance as the Steelers exploded for four second-quarter touchdowns in a 32-14 victory and went on to their first Super Bowl title.

“We’re a young team in the playoffs for the first time,” Ferguson said after that game. “We’ll be back.”

He was right, although it took the Bills a little longer than he expected. In the two years following the playoff loss to Pittsburgh, more than half of the team was traded away. When O.J. Simpson left to spend the twilight of his pro career in San Francisco, he said, “It’s obvious that this team’s future is with Joe Ferguson, not O.J. Simpson.”

In 1977, Ferguson led the National Football League in pass attempts (417) and passing yardage (2,803). But the Bills were struggling. “It looked like management didn’t care what was happening to the team,” Joe said.

When Simpson left to spend the remainder of his pro career in San Francisco, he said, “It’s obvious that this team’s future is with Joe Ferguson, not O.J. Simpson.”

But Ferguson, throwing passes for a team that didn’t have a running threat, was facing a stacked deck.

Bradshaw and Ruston’s Bert Jones were selected Most Valuable Player in the NFL in 1976 and 1978, respectively, but Buffalo wasn’t a title contender. “It was bad for a while,” Joe said, “because it looked like management didn’t care what was happening to the team.”

Then Chuck Knox took over the Bills’ coaching reins, and turned things around by bringing in Auburn’s Joe Cribbs to provide the running threat that had been lacking.

Ferguson finished his pro career with 8,842 yards passing and 62 touchdown passes. Those numbers didn’t match the 11,269 yards and 82 touchdown passes posted by Bert Jones of Ruston High and LSU, but Jones wasn’t playing for the Buffalo Bills.

 

Jerry Byrd is the former sports editor of the Bossier Press-Tribune and an award-winning columnist. You can contact him by e-mail at jbsportswriter@comcast.net