Bills History


Quarterbacks don't come any tougher

The Buffalo Bills have had some outstanding quarterbacks in their storied history. Jack Kemp led the Bills to three straight AFL East championships and two straight AFL championships in the mid-60s. Daryle Lamonica, his backup, often came in relief and outplayed Kemp in those championship years. Lamonica, know as the "Mad Bomber" was famous for his long-ball home run touchdown passes and was traded to the Oakland Raiders where he won a couple Super Bowls. Then there was Joe Ferguson, who played 13 years for the Bills and set some franchise passing records in the process. There have been other quarterbacks who have had their day in the sun for the Bills, but none of them nor the greats mentioned above can compare to Jim Kelly.

On Saturday February 2, 2002, Kelly became the very first member of the heralded '83 Quarterbacks Club to be elected to Pro Football's Hall of Fame. He beat out such icons as John Elway and Dan Marino. Marv Levy, who preceded Kelly into the Hall the previous year, will do the introductory speech for Kelly during the August induction in Canton, Ohio.

Jim Kelly stands tall in the pocket as he gets set to send a bullet into enemy territory.
[Photo by Robert L. Smith]

Kelly has to be rated as the best quarterback in the Bills history. His 11-year career with the Buffalo Bills includes 4 straight trips to the Super Bowl and he helped lead the Bills to the best record of any NFL team in the 1990s. No quarterback will ever come along who'll be tougher than Kelly. People would always describe him as a quarterback "with a linebacker's mentality." He would block for his runners without a moment's hesitation and when he ran, he'd put every ounce into making that extra yard. If Kelly threw an interception, he'd take off in that direction and try to make the tackle. In fact, a couple of times he'd make that opposing player who picked off one of his passes pay dearly, as Kelly delivered some punishing tackles.

Kelly had the size to be a linebacker. At 6-foot-3, 218 pounds, Kelly's frame was perfect for that position. When he applied to Penn State, Kelly was slated in to be a linebacker by Penn's head coach Joe Paterno. However, he wanted to be a quarterback and that decision steered him to Miami University for his college career. With the Miami Hurricanes, Kelly made a name for himself and could have been in the hunt for the Heisman Trophy had he not separated his shoulder during his senior year.

Jim Kelly came from a large family in East Brady, Pennsylvania. Because grew up with 5 brothers, Kelly had to fight through the competition to come out ahead. That would prepare him for his football career and his life beyond when he hung up his cleats for the final time.

"I grew up in a family of six boys and I had to be linebacker every day in my house," Kelly recounted his life in East Brady. "It's something you need to play football. You can't go out there and be a pansy.

"Growing up, to tell you the truth, I much preferred giving out the hits to getting them. I don't like to get hit any more than anyone else. But I'll tell you what, when I get hit it fires me up more than anything."

While he competed inside the family framework, he also put family as his top priority in life. His parents would go to almost all the home games he ever played. While with the Buffalo Bills, Jim bought his family a large trailer where they could come to Buffalo and have a tailgate party during the weekends when the Bills were at home. When Jim's mother passed away in the mid-90s, it was a traumatic experience for the Bills' quarterback. It was even more heart-wrenching when it was discovered that his newborn son, Hunter, had Krabbe disease (Globoid-Cell Leukodystrophy) around a year after he retired. He made it a personal fight and campaigned, along with his wife Jill, to help find a cure for this fatal disease. He set up Hunter's Hope, a foundation to seek the cure of this syndrome and raise funds for medical research. So far Hunter's Hope has raised over two million dollars to help find the cure for Krabbes and other Leukodystrophies.

In his battle for his son Hunter, Jim Kelly would gladly trade places with him if it would give his son a normal healthy life. Jim Kelly will always be a fighter and he will do anything to help not only his children but others who are less fortunate. He spent a major amount of time with Kelly for Kids even before Hunter was born. Kelly for Kids is a not-for-profit organization committed to providing funding and support to those organizations that operate for the benefit of specially challenged youth.

Kelly, who was one of the great quarterbacks in the "Class of ‘83 Quarterback Club that included the Dolphins' Dan Marino, Denver's John Elway and the Browns Bernie Kosar, will be remembered as the second most successful of that group. Elway was able to win two straight Super Bowls in his final two seasons with the Broncos. Outside of him, no other member of that ‘83 QB club was able to win a championship. Marino came close in his at the start of his pro career when the Dolphins lost the Super Bowl. Kosar never came close.

"I've had the benefit of playing with him as a red-shirt freshman at the University of Miami and then spent many years competing against him with the Browns, Cowboys & Dolphins," said Kosar. "Besides being a good friend of mine and my family, I have enormous respect for him as a player and I think a lot of young players should emulate his competitiveness and his fire and the way he played the game of football."

In his youth, Kelly reached the national semifinals for the Punt, Pass & Kick competition. He also worshiped Terry Bradshaw and the Pittsburgh Steelers. When he was still in Junior High, Kelly got Bradshaw to give him his autograph.

Terry Bradshaw gives a young Jim Kelly his autograph.

Kelly was a high school standout in both football and basketball. As a senior, he helped East Brady High School reach the state semifinals when he scored 23 points per game along with 20 rebounds on an average. In his high school basketball career, Jim put up over 1,000 points and scored over 30 points in a game 6 times.

It was football, however, that turned the heads of college scouts and won him a number of scholarships to world-class universities. In his career at East Brady, Kelly passed for 3,915 yards and connected for 44 touchdowns. He also was a stud on defense and that's the reason why Paterno was desperate to recruit him as a linebacker for Penn State. Quarterback was the position that Kelly wanted and Miami was the university where he would develop into one of the all-time Qbs in collegiate or professional history.

In 1983, Kelly was drafted as the Buffalo Bills No. 1 pick (their 500th draft choice in their history) as did the Houston Gamblers of the upstart USFL. Kelly made a statement that he cried when he found out that the Bills had drafted him..

"Twelve teams would have a chance to select me before Pittsburgh's turn came," Kelly said in his book Armed and Dangerous . "Buffalo would have two chances (twelfth and fourteenth), and I was praying they'd pass on me both times. Everything I ever heard about the team and the city was negative. The Bills had had a 4—5 record in the strike-shortened 1982 season. They had just lost a head coach with a strong reputation, Chuck Knox, who bolted for Seattle. And after spending my college career in South Florida, I just didn't feel like playing in the snow.

"1 realized Pittsburgh wasn't the tropics, but it was home. I couldn't count the number of times I closed my eyes and saw myself throwing passes for the Steelers in Three Rivers Stadium. Besides, the Bills already had a veteran quarterback, Joe Ferguson, and he wasn't expected to budge for several years. True, Terry Bradshaw was still calling signals in Pittsburgh, but he figured to be out of the picture much sooner. And if I had to sit behind my boyhood hero for a little while, that wouldn't have been such a bad thing."

When it came to Buffalo's turn to draft (12th overall) Kelly was on pins and needles.

"‘No!' I yelled to the TV screen," Kelly recounted in his book. "‘Don't take me. Noooooo!' When the Bills drafted Tony Hunter, a tight end from Notre Dame, I breathed a sigh of relief. The Lions picked next; they took James Jones, a fullback from Florida.'Buffalo was up again, with the fourteenth choice. ‘Please!' I said. "Not me. Pleeeease!'

"NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle stepped up to the microphone and announced, ‘Buffalo selects . . . Jim Kelly, quarterback, University of Miami.'

"I let out a groan. My chin dropped to my chest. I thought, ‘Why did they have to take me?' So the minute I was drafted by the Bills, I began thinking about my options. One was the USFL, where I had already been drafted by the Chicago Blitz. Another was the Canadian Football League, where the Montreal Concordes had a lot of interest in me."

Kelly was wooed by the Bills who offered him $2.1 million over four years, but the USFL came up with an offer to top that and Kelly had his choice of teams. The Houston Gamblers offered Kelly $3.5 million for 5 years with a $1 million signing bonus.

Kelly played two seasons with the Gamblers. In those two years, Kelly set a number of startling records. He tossed for 83 touchdowns, completed 713 passes out of 1,154 attempts for 9,842 yards. Kelly had a remarkable sixteen 300-yard passing games. Three times Kelly threw for over 400-yards and one time he threw for 574-yards. In 1984 alone, Kelly set a USFL record of throwing 44 touchdowns and 5,219 yards. That year he was named the USFL Player of the Year and made the All-USFL team in both seasons in the league. However, in 1986 the league folded and Kelly was now face-to-face with a quandary. For him to play in the National Football League, he had to go through the Buffalo Bills, the team that he said that he'd never play for, the team that he insulted when they drafted him. Now what? Should he sit out or demand to be traded?

"If I go to Buffalo, my receivers and run-and-shoot offense would have to come with me," Kelly said when the USFL folded and he had not yet come to terms with the Buffalo Bills. "That offense the Bills have is terrible. They need something. They need more creativity. And they need more than a quarterback."

When Jim Kelly finally did agree to a contract with the Buffalo Bills, the fans in Buffalo rejoiced. They formed lines along the Kensington Expressway, trying to get a glimpse of Kelly as he came from the Buffalo airport to join the Bills.

"We climbed into the back of a black stretch limo parked right on the tarmac. A full-fledged motorcade, complete with a police escort, was there to take me to the Hilton Hotel for the press conference. As we pulled onto the freeway heading downtown, the limo driver kept yelling, "Look, Jim! Look at that! Look at what they're doing!"

"I looked out my window and I couldn't believe my eyes: People all over the place were waving and holding up signs that said, "We Love You, Jim" and "Welcome Back." I mean, all over. They were along the sides of the road, with their cars parked on the shoulder. They were on the overpasses. They were hanging out the windows of their houses. I was just floored by it all, especially by the fact that I didn't hear one negative thing."

Jim's words prior to joining Buffalo about the Bills offense being more creative came home to roost with the famed no-huddle offense. But it took awhile before the Bills came up with the no-huddle and Kelly's famed K-Gun offense.

Kelly pitches out in a game in 1993.
[Photo by Robert L. Smith]

In Kelly's third season with the Bills (1988), the Bills made it to the AFC Championship against the Cincinnati Bengals. However, Kelly had a terrible time against the Bengals defense, as he threw 3 interceptions while throwing 30 times and completing only 14 and 1 touchdown as the Bills lost that game 21-10. With Jim Kelly at the throttle, the Bills offense had their backs against the wall for most of the second half, or in this case, their own goal line, as they failed to make a first down when they were faced with any third down. The Bengal defense shut the Bills down.

The Bengals got possession of the ball early in the game when Eric Thomas intercepted a Kelly pass and they drove down to the Buffalo one. Icky Woods scored from there and the Bengals took a lead they would never give up.

Kelly, determined to amend for his sins, completed 4 straight passes which included a nine yard pass to Andre Reed, who made it to the endzone. Then the Bills defense stiffened and made the Bengals punt. Kelly continued his march down the field, driving the Bills all the way to the Cincinnati 26. In comes Scott Norwood for a 43-yard attempt. Norwood, who must have been born under a bad star, sailed his kick WIDE LEFT! An omen of things to come in Super Bowl XXV!

The Bengals used the no-huddle offense to befuddle the Bills defense. The no-huddle was designed by Bengals coach Sam Wyche and it used the technique where the offense would line up to run off a play without going to a huddle. Cincinnati had used that offense the entire season and it gave the defense little or no time to send in substitutions. That gave the offense an edge in passing situations and leave defensive players trying to catch their breath. It was the Bills experience defending against this fast-paced offense that would eventually lead them to employing the no-huddle in their offensive scheme.

The Bills would have to go through some tough times after losing the chance to go to the Super Bowl in January 1989 before they turned things around.

After taking the Bills to the AFC Championship in January 9, 1989, Kelly tailed off a little in the next season. The Bills had some problems in the locker room with players arguing and pointing the finger at Kelly as being the cancer on the team. The team was labeled "the bickering Bills" by the media and the name stuck until the AFC wildcard game against the Cleveland Browns that year (1989). The Bills quickly fell behind and Marv Levy gave Kelly the go ahead to play in a two-minute offense in the first half. What resulted was a Jim Kelly that excelled in the fast-paced hurry-up offense. He passed for 405 yards in a see-saw game and led the team down the field in the final seconds of the game. A pass to Ronnie Harmon in the corner of the endzone fell off his fingertips that would have won the game. Kelly's next pass was intercepted on the goal line and eliminated the Bills. This game, however, marked the inception of the no-huddle for the Bills.

It took awhile to get everything in place, including the offensive line and weapons that Kelly could deploy. The Bills did go out and surround him with talent to make it all work. With such giants on the offensive line as Kent Hull and Will Wolford, and great receivers in James Lofton and Andre Reed, Kelly suddenly had the tools to use his talents to the fullest. With great blocking from his offensive line, Kelly was given the time to pick his receivers and get creative behind the line of scrimmage. He was also given the option to make up plays on the run. The no-huddle offense allowed Kelly to call the shots on the fly.

"I'm the only quarterback who calls his own plays," he said. "But that's the way I like it. I enjoy it - that's part of football. I'm the one on the field and I know what plays I like. Any person, be it a football or basketball player, likes to be in control, to be the pivot guy. And in our offense, I feel I'm the pivot guy or point guard. I can do anything I want.

"But - and this is a big butt - I give Ted Marchibroda all the credit. Well, not all the credit, but 90 percent of it . I wouldn't be able to do it without him because he puts in the plays and tells us when to use them. I'm so well schooled and prepared coming into a game that it just comes natural to me."

The no-huddle was a blessing for Kelly's career. Surrounded with great receivers Andre Reed and James Lofton, along with the proficient running/receiving of Thurman Thomas, Kelly had his best year in the NFL in 1990 when he led the league in passing efficiency. His rating of 101.2 was his all-time high and in the two AFC playoff games, he threw even better. Kelly completed close to 70% of his passes and guided them to a playoff record of 95 points.

James Lofton, who's career was resurrected by Kelly when the Bills acquired him said, "I believe that he mirrored the physical Buffalo Bills fans. Hardworking, tough as nails, gritty, determined type of player. Looking at it from a historical standpoint, he is one of the three great quarterbacks from the class of 1983. All three of them have put up Hall of Fame type numbers. It's just a matter of time before his next stop in Canton. Personally, he took an old, washed-up wide receiver and made him an All-Pro again. For that I thank him."

Frank Reich, the Bills perennial bench warmer for Kelly said, "I don't think there's any doubt about it. Jim has been the best quarterback in the league this year (1990). I personally felt the guy should have been MVP of the league. But he's got great people around him, too. When you've got a great quarterback surrounded by a great cast, look out."

Kelly, before he decided to come play for the Bills, once told Reich, "Don't worry, Frank, I will never sign with Buffalo. Your job's secure."

The two quarterback would form a special bond through their playing days that would last even after the two retired from the game.

"I also knew Frank Reich, who would move into the number-two quarterback spot from then on," Kelly related in his book Armed and Dangerous . "We had first met at the Penn State football camp in my junior year of high school. Frank, who was from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, was a sophomore. During our many card games at the camp, I wore a bandanna— which Frank thought was the coolest thing around as I took all his money. The next time we saw each other was in 1985, when I was with the Gamblers. Boomer Esiason, the Cincinnati Bengals' quarterback, had invited me to play in his charity golf tournament and stay at his house. Frank, who had become close with Boomer when they were teammates at the University of Maryland, was also invited to the tournament and to stay at Boomer's house. But Boomer didn't tell Frank I was coming, saying only that there would be a "special guest staying with us." Frank, who had just been drafted by the Bills, was shocked when he saw me there.

"Since then, he has always called me "Special Guest." We became roommates on the road and formed a bond, on and off the field, that is still strong to this day."

After Jim Kelly engineered the 51-3 shellacking of the Oakland Raiders in the Jan. 1991 AFC Championship game, it marked the high point in Kelly's professional career. This was the game in which the Bills signal caller came of age as a big-game quarterback.

With the no-huddle offense as his main weapon, Kelly threw 23 times, completed 17 for 300 yards and two touchdowns. But it was his selection of plays and the crucial timing of his passes that led to the complete dismantling of the Raiders' defense.

"I don't think there was a person on the face of the earth who could have predicted that score," Kelly said. "Unless they were joking, drunk or both. It just wasn't possible for someone to guess we would beat a team that good by 48 points in any game, let alone with the AFC championship on the line. But everything we did, offensively and defensively, fell our way."

"For most of the season, my pass protection was fantastic," Kelly related in his book. "That day, it was the best ever. The great pass rush we had been expecting from Long and Greg Townsend never came close to materializing. My guys didn't allow anyone to get near me. It was also my third consecutive postseason game in which I threw for at least 300 yards."

With all the accomplishments that Kelly achieved during his stellar career, this game may be remembered as his finest moment.

"Last week before the game, I was so pumped up I was ready to play linebacker. When you have as many weapons as I do, and the time to throw, that's what it's all about," Kelly said about the blowout. "Overall, we showed with it takes. It doesn't take just one person behind the center. It takes 10 others on the offensive unit. Again the offensive line rose to the occasion and gave me the time I had."

Even though Jim attempted to spread the credit around to his deserving teammates, it was obvious that he was basking in the afterglow of one of his most outstanding performances in his football career. This marked the culmination of his era in Buffalo. He finally realized 5 years of great expectations. Now at last he had guided his team to the dream land, the Super Bowl.

"I came from a town with 800 people," Kelly recalled his life in East Brady. "There were 23 people on my football team saying ‘God, wouldn't it be great to have the feeling of playing in a Super Bowl and coming out in front of a national audience!' It's something I relish and I thank God it's happening. I was always a Steelers fan. Seeing Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and those guys playing in a Super Bowl, I'd say, ‘Maybe one of these days, I'll get my chance.' Well, my chance has come."

Going into Super Bowl XXXV, Kelly had his mental game down pat. He was saying all the right things and his head was into the fact that winning the AFC Championship wasn't the final goal.

"Everybody's saying, ‘We're going to the Super Bowl," Kelly remarked. "But my goal isn't to go to the Super Bowl. My. Goal is to win it. A lot of teams get the chance, but 20 years down the road, I don't want people to say, ‘Oh, Buffalo was in it. BUT...'

"We have one more river to cross."

Jim Kelly hands the ball off to Kenneth Davis in the Super Bowl XXXV
[Photo by Robert L. Smith]

Super Bowl XXXXV, played during the height of Operation Desert Storm, America's involvement in the Gulf War with Iraq, was the closest and most exciting Super Bowl in history. The Bills were behind 20-19 to the New York Giants as they drove down for the winning field goal with just seconds left on the clock. Kelly spiked the ball to stop the clock and set up Scott Norwood's 47-yard field goal attempt. The kick was long enough, but was wide right by just inches. The Bills came so close but walked away in total shock by the devastating loss.

"We had our chances in the first half," Kelly said. "I think it hurt us when we didn't score when we had to. The first half was the key for us. When we had the football, we had to score and we didn't."

Kelly gave high marks to the Giant defense for being able to stop the Bills no-huddle offense. However, he admitted the Bills offense shot itself in the foot on numerous occasions.

"We had some miscommunication," he said. "Penalties hurt us early. We had some dropped passes. There were some bad calls on my part, as far running and passing. I think in the first half, we stopped ourselves...but you have to credit the Giants' defense. They played very intense."

"It was very frustrating because we know sooner or later we'll put it in the end zone, but we just didn't have that many opportunities," Kelly said about the Giants' offense that ate up the clock in the second half. "Kent Hull kept saying, ‘When we have the ball, we have to score, because we're not getting that many opportunities.'"

When the Bills got the ball on their own 10 yard line with 2:16 left on the clock, Kelly felt that he could get the job done. He had done it so many times before. Coming from behind late in the game had become on of Kelly's trademarks.

"We knew that we had one timeout left. We came out and I told the guys, ‘Hey, this is what champions are made of. Let's play like it - let's be one!'"

"I had to run the ball a couple times and I didn't want to, but our goal was to get to the 30. We got there and it wasn't meant to be (winning).

"We got a taste of what it takes to win and we just have to regroup. What else can I say? But there's always next year. We made it this far, and we worked hard to get here. Fifty percent of your goal was attained. The other 50 percent will have to wait. We have a lot to be proud of."

Kelly's words hit the mark when he said "there's always next year." The Bills would return the very next year, the year after that and the year after that. But they never were able to get as close as they came against the Giants to winning the Super Bowl. One point away and a field goal attempt that Scott Norwood will forever have nightmares about.

The following year, Kelly led the Bills to their second straight appearance in the Super Bowl. The Bills were dead set in their thinking that they would make atones for their Super Bowl XXV loss the year before, when they missed winning when Norwood's kick sailed wide right. They were going to have their heads on straight and had a clear focus of what had to be done. Kelly didn't have his head on straight too long as he was ransacked and suffered a concussion as the Washington Redskins buried the Bills alive 37-24. And the score is much closer than the game actually was.

The Skins took advantage of almost every Buffalo miscue, which included five huge turnovers, and bullied the Bills all over the field. By halftime, the Skins were up 17-0

Kelly talked about going into the locker room at halftime with such a mountain to climb in order to get back into the game.

"By that point, I had already been sacked three times and hurried on several other occasions," Kelly said in his book. "We couldn't figure out what was happening. The Redskins didn't surprise us with their all-out blitz; we expected them to attack us the same way the Broncos had. And all week during practice, we were getting great blitz pickup by everybody. As I said, it was a fantastic week of practice.

"For some reason we didn't carry it over into the game. We, as an offensive team, didn't make the plays we usually make. Sometimes I had guys open and didn't hit them. Sometimes balls were there that we didn't catch. Sometimes blocks slipped away. Overall, though, I just have to give credit where credit's due. The Redskins were very well-prepared. They were the better team that day."

The offensive totals for the Bills were downright dreary. They only averaged 3.5 yards per play, 2.4 yards per carry, and only 3.8 yards in the air (when sacks were taken into effect). The Skins blitzed so hard and furious, and it was the key ingredient to the low Bills yardage.

The Top Guns for the Buffalo Bills were duds. Kelly was stymied in his attempt to get the famous no-huddle offense in gear. He set a Super Bowl record by attempting 58 passes, competing only 28 for 275 yards and a couple touchdowns. Thurman Thomas was even worse. He may have found his helmet, but he never found his legs. He had a measly 13 yards on ten carries.

Kelly, who was hammered into having a "mild" concussion in the final quarter, had a hard time remembering the game.

"I really don't remember too much about it, and maybe it's best that I don't," Jimbo said afterwards. "We, as an offensive team, didn't make the pays we usually make. Sometimes, I had guys open and I didn't hit them. Sometimes, balls were there that we didn't catch. Sometimes, blocks slipped away. Overall, I just have to give credit where credit's due. They were very well-prepared. We were just outplayed. Period."

"The parts of Super Bowl XXVI I do remember, I'm trying to forget about. When I even start thinking about the game, I automatically put my mind on something else. It hurts that much."

At the end of the 1992 regular season, Kelly went down with a knee injury while playing against the Houston Oilers. It was against the same Oilers that Frank Reich had to contend with in the AFC Wild Card game a week later. The Bills fell behind 35-3 in the third quarter, but Reich engineered the biggest comeback in NFL history. When the Bills beat the Oilers 41-38 in overtime, Reich became a super hero and the darling in Buffalo and around the globe.

Jim Kelly goes into a hurry-up huddle in a game in 1992 as he gives his troops detailed instructions
about the next play.
[Photo by Robert L. Smith]

The next game, Reich played a solid game at QB in guiding the Bills past the Steelers in Pittsburgh. Reich was such a hot item that when Kelly announced that he was healthy and ready to resume his role at starting quarterback against the Miami Dolphins for the AFC championship, it ignited such a furor of controversy that it tore Bills fans apart. One side wanted Kelly to start. Others were dead-set that Reich should continue as the starter.

Levy made the decision to start Kelly. That decision caused much debate and put Kelly in a dubious position, that if he failed to win, his name would have been bantered for weeks to come.

"I can't think of a quarterback who entered a game like this with so much unfair pressure on him," Levy said.

The Rochester D & C had a poll about who should start the game prior to the Miami showdown. Reich won hands down, 5-1. That number was probably representative to the overall sentiments on who should have started that game. But as it turned out, Levy made the right decision.

The Bills defeated the hated Dolphins in Miami, 29-10 and put the Bills in the Super Bowl for the third year in a row. Kelly threw 2 interceptions in the first half, but overcame those as he passed 24 times, completed 17 for 177 yards and one touchdown. After those early picks, the game plan shifted to throwing screen passes, which caught the Dolphins off guard. Kelly decided to go to the safer routes and throw the screen when the Dolphins blitzed him. Ten of his completions were to his running backs and he went to the running game more.

"This is without a doubt the sweetest victory I've ever been involved with," Kelly said after the game. "I want to tank my teammates for hanging in there with me all week. Every time I needed an encouraging word, they were there for me."

Bills center Kent Hull knew that Kelly would be on his "A-game" by the way he handled himself the week before the AFC championship.

"Before the game, Jim was his same old self," Hull said. "He was running around the dressing room giving directive: ‘Offensive line, you've got to do this...running backs, you've got to do this...and wideout, when we run this route, you've got to do this.' he was very much in command and usually that means he has a lot of confidence."

"It was like in the beginning of the week, I had to apologize for feeling good," Kelly said about when he announced that his injured knee was healed.

"Everyone knew there was a lot of pressure on Jim this week," Will Wolford said. "If we had lost, no matter how we lost, the finger would have been pointed at him."

"I knew, in my heart, I was in a no-win situation," Kelly admitted. "I realize that if we lost, it would be my fault: and if we won, it would be that I was supposed to win."

Kelly's parents and his five brothers had spoken to him a lot during the week leading up to that game. They all tried to give him the support they knew he needed. But they could not play the game for him.

"I'm nervous before every game," Kelly's father Joe said. "But I was more nervous for that one because I knew Jimmy had to prove himself."

After winning the previous two straight AFC title games, it was an odd position that Kelly found himself in - proving himself.

"When Jimmy threw that first interception, my wife started to cry," Joe Kelly related. "I told her, ‘Don't worry about it. He doesn't get rattled that easy. It takes a lot before he'll get rattled. He has the patience, he can do it.'"

Joe Kelly knew his son completely and he was right on the mark.

Kelly kept all the fuss made about his vaulting ahead of Reich to start the AFC Championship game in stride.

"If it wasn't for Frank playing the way he did in those two games, I wouldn't be standing here," Kelly said.

When asked if he feared that he could falter under the pressure, Kelly replied, "When it comes to football, I have no fear at all."

The question was now whether this turmoil that Kelly had survived would help him conquer the one prize that was evading him - a Super Bowl victory. The opponents blocking Kelly's path this time would be the Dallas Cowboys.

After leading the Bills to what he called his "sweetest victory", Kelly suffered what he will remember for the rest of his life as his most "humiliating defeat." Dallas ravaged the Bills and handed them their worst post-season defeat ever by beating them 52-17. Kelly faltered miserably for the first 23 minutes of the game before he suffered a sprained knee. It was the same knee that he hurt against Houston in the regular season finale. The Bills had 9 turnovers in the game. Kelly threw 2 picks before he left the game for good with the injured knee. In all, Kelly only got to throw 7 times, completing 4 of them for 82 yards. He also fumbled once. Reich came in and didn't do much better, throwing 31 times with 18 completions for 194 yards and one touchdown. He also threw 2 interceptions.

Kelly's fumble and first interception led to Dallas points. With the Bills trailing 14-7, Kelly drove the Bills down to the Dallas one yard line. On 4th and one, the Bills decided to go for it. Kelly rolled to his right and threw the ball right into the hands of safety Thomas Everett, ending the drive.

Jim Kelly celebrates after tossing a TD pass. This was a scene that became all too familiar to opposing defensive backs throughout Kelly's NFL career.
[Photo by Robert L. Smith]

"It was fourth down and if I get sacked it was their ball," Kelly recounted. "I thought ‘Why not take a chance? I knew I had guys back there. I saw Pet (Metzelarrs). I saw Carwell (Gardner) and just started throwing it up hoping our guys come down with it.. If I throw it out of the end zone, it's their ball. If I get sacked, it's their ball. I was trying to make the big play."

Kelly's fumble deep in Bills territory resulted in a Cowboys touchdown. Kelly attempted to pass but it was tipped by Charles Haley and Jimmie Jones picked the ball out of mid air at the Bills 2 yard line and ran into the endzone. It was ruled a fumble, even though the ball was in the air.

"That was a screen play, that I never had time to set up," Kelly commented. "As I was throwing, I got hit, and I never saw what happened after that. All I saw was that he was standing there with the football."

About the knee injury, Kelly said, "It's the same thing that happened to me in the Houston game. Someone fell on me , and it popped out. I think this hurts more mentally (the big loss) than physically. I wanted to be in there."

The old saying goes "If you don't get done right the first time, do it again." Well, the Bills kept doing it over and over again. Maybe the fourth time would be the lucky charm for the Bills. Four straight Super Bowl appearances. Jim Kelly had the monkey on his back and now it turned into a gorilla. He had to do it this time as he would probably never get the chance again.

Once again, the Bills were playing the Dallas Cowboys for the Super Bowl. After being ripped apart 52-17, the Bills definitely had the revenge factor to get motivated. However, things didn't start smooth for Buffalo. A Kevin Williams kickoff return put the Cowboys into Bills territory and Eddie Murray kicked a 41-yard field goal to put the ‘Boys on top at the start. Kelly marched the Bills down the field, but the Dallas defense stiffened, forcing Steve Christie to kick a Super Bowl record 54-yard field goal to tie the game.

After forcing Dallas to punt, Jim Kelly hit Thurman Thomas with a shovel pass, but he fumbled the ball and Dallas got the turnover. Dallas converted that to another field goal, putting them in front 6-3.

But then the Bills no-huddle offense came alive under Kelly's command and drove down the field 80 yards on 17 plays that was capped by a touchdown run of four yards by Thomas. Things really started to look up for the Bills as cornerback Nate Odomes picked off a pass by Troy Aikman and the Bills had the ball again with over a minute remaining in the first half. This time, Kelly could not get the Bills in the endzone and they had to settle for a 28-yard field goal by Steve Christie. As they went off the field, the Bills had the lead 13-6 and had the momentum to carry them to what they hoped to be their first Super Bowl victory. But fate was still against Kelly and the Bills.

In the second half, Kelly could not ignite the offense as he had in the latter portion of the second quarter. The Cowboys walled off Kelly's receivers and the Bills offensive was stymied the rest of the afternoon.

The Cowboys rode Emmett Smith to a 30-13 Super Bowl victory. Smith ran 61 yards of the 64-yard Cowboy third quarter touchdown drive. The final play of the drive was a 15-yard touchdown sprint to give the Cowboys the lead for good.

In the fourth quarter, James Washington turned in another sparkling play when he intercepted a Kelly pass and returned it to the Bills 34. Smith ran 10 yards on a couple of carries, caught a 9-yard screen pass before Aikman hitched up with Alvin Harper for 16 yards to give the ‘Boys the ball at the Buffalo 6 yard line. The Cowboys pushed it to the Bills one and went for it on fourth down. Emmett Smith blasted in for the score and put Dallas up 27-13.

Kelly could not move his troops in his final Super Bowl appearance and he will always be known as the quarterback who lost 4 straight Super Bowls. That didn't hamper his nomination into Pro Football's Hall of Fame, as he was elected on the first ballot. His accomplishments during his fabulous football career obviously overshadowed his failure to bring home one NFL championship to Buffalo.

December 28, 1996 turned out to be Jim Kelly's last game in pro football. The upstart Jacksonville Jaguars upset the Bills 30-27 in the Wild Card game in Rich Stadium. After Thurman Thomas ran the ball five straight times on the Bills first set of downs, Kelly threw to Thomas, who managed to get wide open in the right side of the endzone.

The Jaguars tied the scored when Kelly tried a shovel pass and it was intercepted by Clyde Simmons and he tore down the field 20 yards for pay dirt. When Buffalo got the ball again, Kelly led them 68 yards down the field on 10 plays. Thomas capped off the drive by scoring from the two yard line. The Bills ended a wild first half when Steve Christie kicked a 33-yard field goal and the half ended 17 all.

Christie started the second half where he left off, this time by kicking a 47-yarder to put the Bills up 20-17. With the score tied at 20 (Hollis kicked a 24-yarder), Jeff Burris picked off a tipped pass and went the distance from 48 yards out and things were looking good for the Bills.

Jim Kelly takes off to run during a game in the early 90s.
[Photo by Robert L. Smith]

The Jags came back, however, when Mark Brunell connected with Jimmy Smith from two yards out and tied the score once again. Then the bottom fell out. Jim Kelly, scrambling was hit and got a concussion and fumbled the ball in the process. The Jags recovered the ball at their 42 and Jim was escorted from the field in a daze. Hollis was able to kick the game winner when he was successful with a 45-yard attempt. Kelly had played his last game as a Buffalo Bill, and his replacement, Todd Collins couldn't pass the muster.

Jim Kelly, in his last game ever in pro football, passed 32 times for 175 yards on 21 completions. He had one pick and one TD toss.

On January 31, 1997, Jim Kelly made it official. The Bills held a press conference at the Rich Stadium press conference room and it was a packed house when an emotional Kelly announced that he was finally hanging up his cleats. Several times he got so emotionally choked up that he had to pause to gain composure.

"To leave and not be a part of this team is something that will be very difficult to swallow," Kelly said as teammates Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith and Kent Hull looked on. "I also know in my stomach and in my heart, it's time to move on.

"I don't want to go out the way some other quarterbacks went out. I want to go out with some dignity, with respect from my peers, respect from my teammates. I wanted to retire a Buffalo Bill."

"I shed a couple tears," Thomas admitted afterwards. "Me and Bruce both did. I know how much Jim means to me on and off the field. It'll be a picture stuck in my mind for the rest of my life."

"It has been a great ride," Kelly concluded. "While I do agree with the many who have said this is the end of an era, but to me, it's not an end. To me, my life is just beginning."

Bills Head Coach Marv Levy, who retired almost exactly one year before Kelly, said, "Jim Kelly was the ultimate competitor. Unselfish, maybe the toughest player I've ever coached. We're not going to see the likes of him for a long time."

Kelly's accomplishments on the pro football field will shine through the 4 Super Bowl losses and make him revered as one of the greatest quarterbacks of his era. Not only was he the only NFL quarterback to lead his team to four straight Super Bowl appearances, but he also was the fourth-fastest quarterback to reach 30,000 yards passing.

Kelly's career passing rating of 84.4 made him the sixth best in NFL history, the Jim Kelly-to-Andre Reed combination ranks third all-time with 65 touchdowns. he was one of only five quarterbacks to throw for at least 3,000 yards in eight seasons, he led the Bills to 13 comebacks in the final two minutes of the game and 23 comebacks in the fourth quarter. Kelly was the AFC Offensive Player of the Week 10 times, the all-time high for a Buffalo Bill. In post-season play, Kelly rates even better. He ranks second behind Joe Montana (734) with 545 passing attempts to Montana's 734, second to Montana in completions (Kelly 322 to Montana's 460), and second to the same Montana for yards passing (Kelly 3,863 to Montana's 5,722).

Other NFL rankings:

-13th in NFL history with 4,779 career passing attempts
- 8th in NFL history with 2,874 career passes completed
-10th in NFL history with 35,467 career passing yards
-12th in NFL history with 237 career passing touchdowns

The Buffalo Bills records Kelly owns are remarkable:

-All-time leader in passing attempts with 4,779
-All-time leader in passes completed with 2,874
-All-time leader in yards passing with 35,467
-All-time leader in 300-yard passing games with 26
-All-time leader in career TD passes with 237
-All-time leader in passing percentage with 60.14%
-All-time leader for most consecutive games with at least one TD pass with 18
-Most TD passes in a single game with six touchdowns against Pittsburgh, 9/8/91
-Most passes completed in a season with 304 in 1991
-Most yards passing in a season with 3,844 in 1991
-Most TD passes in a season with 33 in 1991
-Highest percentage of passes completed with 64.14% in 1991

From the football field, Jimbo entered into public broadcasting. He had already been involved in television with his "Jim Kelly Show" on WGR during the football season. Jim latched onto a job with NBC as a color anchor. He went into the studio for the NBC pre-game and post game shows. But when NBC lost the bid to televise NFL games to CBS, he joined ESPN and his good buddy Chris Berman for their NFL broadcasts.

Berman had nothing but glowing words for Kelly's accomplishments on the gridiron.

"The everlasting image of Jim Kelly is one who is mentally and physically tough," said Berman. "Someone whose approach to playing football embodies the spirit and work ethic of the city of Buffalo. He is a combination of a throwback football player of yesteryear and a passing weapon of modern times. We will not see many of the likes of he or the corps that has made the Buffalo Bills as we know it."

Kelly made the news again in the Spring of 2000 when he told a Buffalo television station that he was involved in a plane crash a few weeks before on May 20 in Cold Bay, about 650 miles southwest of Anchorage, on the tip of the Alaska peninsula.. He said that he only suffered "minor cuts and scrapes" after a two-seat plane he was flying in plunged into the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska during a hunting trip.

"We lost total power of the plane and the pilot turned and said, "Jim, brace yourself, we're going down,' " Kelly said. "I had some choice words and pretty much saw everything flash in front of me."

He said that both he and the pilot were able to safely swim to the shoreline. He reported that he had a few cuts to his face and also had a nail ripped off his finger.

"I had to hurry and undo my seat belt and take off my helmet and knock out the windows, which the pilot did. I had to swim to shore, but thank God, I'm still here," Kelly said. He and his brother Pat were on a two-week hunting trip he had won in a charity auction. He did report that he got his bear.

But now comes the controversy. It seems that the pilot has another version of the story. To him, the event was actually a non-event. Jerry Jacques, who was piloting the small craft reported to the National Transportation Safety Board something that contradicted Kelly's recount.

"He said he landed in the tidal zone, in six inches of water," NTSB's chief in Alaska. Jim LaBelle said. LaBelle indicated that the incident did not meet the NTSB's threshold for an investigation because there was no serious injury and the plane, a Super Cub on wheels, sustained little damage. The pilot in his report said the plane lost engine power shortly after departing the beach at Cold Bay, where Kelly and his brother Pat were hunting bears. Jacques' said that he tried to skip the plane along the water but it nosed in.

"I had to hurry and undo my seat belt and take off my helmet and knock out the windows, which the pilot did," Kelly recounted.

The plane was inspected by a Federal Aviation Administration and was declared fine except for propeller damage.

"No damage, no injuries," said Kirsti Dunn, FAA spokeswoman. "It's sort of a non-reportable incident."

Kelly conceded to the different "fish stories." But he strongly argued his side of the story, hinting that maybe the pilot was trying to brush off the accident to keep his record clean.

"I know what happened, I know what I had to say," Kelly said. "I know that when you get out of a plane and you go underwater, it's a little deeper than six inches. I know I'm not a goldfish, I know I'm not that small."

"I think, pretty much, that the pilot had to say that. I talked to him, and I think for his own case and the Federal Aviation Administration, he has his own things that he had to say. I'm just glad I took swimming lessons as a kid."

Kelly also said that the fish story is growing by the minute.

"It got so bad, I've had people coming up to me saying, 'I heard you got your finger ripped off by a nail,"' said Kelly. "I heard so many stories, by that time, who knows what's going to go on?"

There was one thing that Kelly did agree with in the official NTSB report - that there was only slight damage to the plane

"The prop was bent pretty good," Kelly stated. "The front end of the plane was dented pretty good, there wasn't much damage. I think maybe he thought because there wasn't much damage, why report it? When he had to report it, six inches of water sounds a lot better than 10 or 11 feet of water."

As tough as Kelly was as a quarterback, it sometimes was his downfall. He would hate to come out of a game, no matter if he were injured or didn't know what planet he was on. A prime example was in Super Bowl XXVI against the Washington Redskins.

Kelly explained it best in his book Armed and Dangerous :

"I can't be a hundred percent certain, but I think I was sitting in front of my locker, alone, trying to sort a few things out," Jim says in the introduction to his book. "Nothing complicated. Just little things, like my name, where I was and what I was supposed to do next. The first two were pretty easy. I remembered I was Jim Kelly and I was at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. But the third one was giving me trouble.

"I had showered. I had received head-to-toe treatment from the trainers, Ed Abramoski and Bud Carpenter. I had even put on my street clothes without any help. Now if I could only figure out what I was supposed to do next. .

"Finally, Scott Berchtold, the Buffalo Bills' director of media relations, broke through the fog in my head with the answer: It was time to go to the interview area and talk about our 37—24 loss to the Washington Redskins.

"Unfortunately, I did recall what I was doing at the Metrodome on the night of January 26, 1992—I had just finished playing in Super Bowl XXVI. I also remembered the disappointing outcome of the game, which had been over for almost an hour at that point.

"As the two of us began the long walk to the interview area, Scott looked at me kind of funny. I guess I was saying some pretty strange things. He also walked close enough for me to grab on to him if I had to; a couple of times, my feet just started dragging and I stumbled. Mild concussions have a way of doing that to a person.

"Somehow, I managed to make it up to the podium without falling. I asked the small army of reporters to bear with me. I told them that I couldn't guarantee everything I said would make sense, that I couldn't remember a whole lot of details from the game. And maybe it was better that way.

"‘The part I can remember,' I said to the media, ‘I didn't like.'

"One segment that was still fuzzy at the time was the play that left me feeling like my head and my body weren't connected anymore. I had been scrambling for a nine-yard gain in the fourth quarter. As I began my hook slide, cornerback Martin Mayhew hunched down and drove his helmet into the right side of my chest. The force caused me to fall on my left shoul-der, snapping my head so hard that my helmet bounced off the artificial turf.

"Say good night, Jim.

"I wish I could tell you that was my first visit to la-la land. Not by a long shot."

That's the scary part. Jim Kelly never wanted to come out of the games, whether he was semi-conscious, had a torn out knee or any other gridiron injury. At times that attitude hurt the team. The Bills may have lost several games during Kelly's career because of his bullheadedness. Then again, he probably won games playing at less than 50% capacity that other quarterbacks would have lost or given up on. That was the character of the warrior known as Jim Kelly.

Jim Kelly will always bring about controversy wherever he goes, whether it's on a hunting trip to Alaska or a stop in a local pub. He has seen controversy before, but he has also seen tough times. Whatever Jim Kelly does for the rest of his life, you know that he will meet every challenge head on and go down fighting like the linebacker inside of him demands.

Copyright © 2000 Bills Thunder & Rick Anderson, all rights reserved.


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