As we count down to June 24th for the unveiling of new 2011 uniforms for the Buffalo Bills we take a look back at the franchise’s uniform history with anecdotes, stories and recollections from those that experienced the history first hand. This latest installment is provided by long time Bills equipment manager Dave Hojnowski, more commonly known to Bills players over the years as “Hojo”. He shares with us one of the major color scheme changes the uniform underwent over the years when the team went from a white to a red helmet in 1984.
Bills quarterback Joe Ferguson is a Wall of Famer and is still the second most prolific quarterback in team history more than a quarter century after his career in Buffalo concluded. But in three of his last four seasons with the Bills ‘Fergie’ was throwing too many passes to the opposition.
In 1981, a playoff year for Buffalo, Ferguson tied for fourth most interceptions in the league with 20. In the strike-shortened 1982 season, he threw a league-leading 16 interceptions in just nine games. And in 1983 he threw a career-high 25 interceptions, good for third-highest in the NFL behind only Green Bay’s Lynn Dickey (29) and the Jets Richard Todd (26).
There have long been rumors that the frequency with which Ferguson was turning the ball over ultimately prompted the Bills to change the team’s helmet color from white to red. Bills long time equipment manager Dave Hojnowski confirms that was indeed the case.
With three of Buffalo’s four division opponents wearing white helmets (Colts, Dolphins, Patriots) like the Bills it made identifying targets in the split seconds afforded to an NFL quarterback all the harder. The team's new head coach thought a helmet color change could help Ferguson.
“We needed to do something to distinguish the white helmet,” said Hojnowski. “We found that with the red helmet it was easier for him to distinguish and that’s the reason why we made the switch.”
"Everyone we played had white helmets at that time," Ferguson said. "Our new head coach Kay Stephenson just wanted to get more of a contrast on the field that may help spot a receiver down the field."
The red helmets didn’t help at all when it came to the win column in 1984 as Buffalo went 2-14 that season. Ferguson’s interceptions did go down on a per game basis for the first time in four seasons. The Bills’ quarterback threw 17 that year, which was just one more than he had thrown in the strike-shortened ’82 season (16).
But it would also prove to be Ferguson’s last season in Buffalo after throwing just 12 touchdown passes against those 17 INTs. He would play in the NFL for five more seasons including the first two after Buffalo with the Lions.
“I always joke with Joe about that helmet change,” said Hojnowski. “After he had left and gone to play for Detroit I told him, ‘Boy you left just in time because the next modification for the helmets was we were going to push a flashing yellow light on top.’ Joe always thought that was really funny.”
While the main impetus behind the helmet changing color for the first time in 22 years was to benefit Ferguson, Hojnowski believes even without Ferguson’s situation that a change may have taken place if not in 1984, very soon thereafter.
“It is a big uniform change,” he said. “I’m not sure, but I think it might have still happened mainly because everyone was wearing those white helmets. It was a way to stand out, especially in the division.”