A Deep Dive on the Bills’ Red-Helmet Era
The red lids aren’t coming back this year, but let’s take a close look at them anyway.
Word recently came down that the Buffalo Bills will not be adding a red throwback helmet this season. I was surprised by that news — in part because I get the impression that there’s been a fair amount of fan demand for the red lids, and also for a few other reasons that I’ll get to later in this article. Since the red-lidded chapter in Bills uni history has been the subject of a lot of interest and discussion lately, I decided to do a deep dive on it (just like I’ve done for the teams with new throwbacks this year), even though it’s not being brought back in 2023.
We should begin by pointing out that although the Bills wore red helmets from 1984 through 2010, the team’s red-helmet epoch is actually comprised of three distinct sub-eras:
1984 through 1986: the basic red shell with a blue facemask.
1987 through 2001: the same helmet logo and striping, but with a white facemask.
2002 through 2010: the same helmet logo and facemask color, but with a new center striping pattern to go with the redesigned jerseys and pants.
The middle sub-era — original striping, white mask — is probably the one most closely associated with the team, because it includes their four Super Bowl appearances. For the purposes of this article, however, we will examine the entire red-helmet epoch.
Full disclosure: I never liked the Bills with red helmets. To me, they’re a blue team, not a red team. Their red helmets always felt incongruous to me. (I felt the same way about seeing a Montreal Expos catcher wearing red catching gear instead of blue.) Hell, I didn’t even like it when they changed to red-topped socks in 1981, back when they still had white helmets:
But regardless of what I think, the red helmets defined an important chapter in Bills history. While they’re not getting the throwback treatment this year, I’m fairly sure it’ll happen eventually, so let’s take an in-depth look at them. As usual, I’ve cobbled together a bunch of fun facts and old photos. Ready to dive in? Here we go.
1. The Ferguson Factor
The folk legend behind the Bills’ 1984 switch from white helmets to red was that they did it to help quarterback Joe Ferguson spot his own receivers downfield. The Bills played the bulk of their schedule against the AFC East, which at the time included three other white-helmeted teams: the Dolphins, Colts, and Patriots. If the Bills’ helmets were a different color, the story went, Ferguson would have an easier time targeting his receivers and, ideally, cut down on his interceptions (a category in which he was routinely among the league leaders). The Bills confirmed this story on their website in 2011.
Did it help? Not really. Ferguson’s completion and interception percentages were both essentially unchanged in 1984, the first season for the red lids:
The ironic postscript is that 1984 turned out to be Ferguson’s last year in Buffalo. He was traded to the Lions in 1985 and later played for the Bucs and Colts. So the guy who inspired the red helmets ended up wearing them for only one year, but the red helmets themselves stuck around for 27 years.