Skip to main content

It's easy to lose perspective here. It's easy to get carried away. Let's just say, coolly and unemotionally, that the National Football League debut of Buffalo rookie quarterback Jim Kelly was nothing short of sensational.

Jim Kelly is Joe Namath with knees.

The Bills lost to the New York Jets 28-24 on Sunday, but it wasn't Kelly's fault. He threw three touchdown passes, exactly one third of the Bills' total production last year. He brought the Bills back twice in the fourth quarter, once giving them a three-point lead and then moving them to within four points, and he might have pulled off some kind of miracle at the end if the defense had held and given him one more shot. But these are, after all, still the Buffalo Bills, and the Jets socked them for 210 yards and 14 points in that final period. All Kelly could do was watch New York eat up yards and minutes.

But Lordy, wasn't the new guy something? Joe Willie with knees.

The resemblance between Namath and Kelly is striking, not technically but emotionally. The same dirt toughness, western Pennsylvania toughness. O.K., knock me down, but I'm gonna get up and come right after you. The Jets gave Kelly the whole package Sunday: They packed eight men up near the line; they showed the rookie quarterback every variation of the old Bear 46 Defense; they sent in rushers in waves—at one point they rushed six defensive linemen—then in long-yardage situations they backed off and rushed only three and played coverages. The Jets got to Kelly plenty, but the damage was done after he had released the ball. Officially New York recorded only one sack.

Kelly was knocked goofy near the end of the first half, when he put his head down and tried to run over a defensive back, and he blanked out; Greg Bell, a halfback, had to call the next play. Mark Gastineau blindsided Kelly and bruised his back. Kelly got his ankle twisted when he fell over Gastineau three series later, and on his last touchdown pass the Bills' quarterback fell as he pulled away from the center, but scrambled to his feet, rolled to his right and, fighting off a rush, threw a four-yard pass off his back foot to tight end Pete Metzelaars deep in the corner of the end zone for the touchdown that brought the Bills to within four points, 28-24, with 3:55 remaining.

"I knew he'd be tough," Gastineau said, "but this was ridiculous."

Bills center Kent Hull wasn't surprised. He remembers Kelly from the USFL days, the 75 sacks he suffered in 1984 with the Houston Gamblers' exciting run-and-shoot offense, his ability to come off the deck and inflict heavy damage quickly and efficiently.

"We sacked him three times when we played Houston in the Meadowlands," said Hull, a former New Jersey General. "The last time, he didn't get up. Everybody thought he had a broken finger. We thought we had seen the last of Jim Kelly, but he went in and got it taped up and came back and threw a touchdown pass that nearly beat us.

"Before I met him I figured he'd sit the year out and hold an auction. But after I met him at the Generals' minicamp this spring, I knew there was no way he could be out of football for a year."

That, of course, was just fine with Buffalo's coach, Hank Bullough. "Jim Kelly," Bullough said, "is our future."

Future of both the team and the franchise. During the giddy three weeks between Kelly's signing of an $8 million contract on Aug. 18 and his first appearance on the field, some people went so far as to suggest he was the future of the city of Buffalo itself. Kelly's impact even reached as far south as West 43rd Street in Manhattan where the The New York Times led its Metropolitan section last Saturday with a story about the euphoria in Buffalo.

Almost two decades before, Namath salvaged a franchise, and he brought credibility to an entire league, and, at the time, his $427,000 contract was more of a bombshell than Kelly's was. But Joe Willie was operating in New York City, and no one went so far as to suggest that the Apple was on the way out until he showed up. In Buffalo it's different. In three weeks Kelly has given a beleaguered city an identity.

Kelly can't reopen the steel mills. He can't bring back the industries that have abandoned Buffalo for the Sun Belt. But he can cut the gloom, he can brighten up the physical and emotional eyesore called the Buffalo Bills, with their back-to-back 2-14 seasons, and provide a lift for so many people in that city.

Jim Kelly is god, read a banner at Rich Stadium on Sunday. I'M IN A JIM PACKED STADIUM, read another. When he rode in a limo through downtown Buffalo on Monday, Aug. 18, after he had signed the contract, hundreds of fans lined the way, waving, cheering. Six hundred people, including New York Governor Mario Cuomo, showed up at a chamber of commerce luncheon a week later, reviving a tradition that had lapsed for three years.

There are Jim Kelly footballs on sale and a deal for a line of Jim Kelly hats is near. Two days before the Jet game, The Buffalo News ran a story about Kelly's signing with Buffalo radio station WGR to do 10-minute Monday and Friday spots for more than $2,000 a week. O.K., so in L.A. or New York it's a yawn, but not in Buffalo, a town where you can still buy a pretty decent home for less than $50,000.

"Actually his radio fee is more," one of Kelly's agents, Greg Lustig, said in the locker room Sunday. "It's a little more than $40,000 for the season."

Though Buffalo is a blue-collar city, no one seems to begrudge Kelly any of his financial rewards, including the $8 million contract, which breaks down to a $1 million bonus now, another million in 1988, and a five-year base pay that rises from $1 million per annum to $1.4 million. If you throw in the insurance policy the club bought him, you're over the $8 million mark.

"He's a good guy, and he's a tough guy," Bullough says. "When he signed the contract people said, 'Boy, he got a lot of money.' I said, 'No he didn't. He got the market value.' If he had waited a year and then let people bid for him, he could have gotten a lot more. Ninety percent of the players in his position would have waited, but he's a football player, and he wants to play."

The Bills figure that Kelly's signing and the excitement it generated covered his bonus for this year and part of his 1986 salary. According to their marketing and sales director, Jerry Foran, they quickly sold 6,500 season tickets—at an average of $120 per. Then there were the extra single-game sales that brought Sunday's attendance to a Rich Stadium record of 79,951—plus the additional ticket sales for later games in '86.

"We averaged 38,000 per home game last season," Foran said on Thursday, "and right now we don't have a game under 40,000. We sold 38,000 tickets in the six days after his signing. We had to hire 21 extra people to work the ticket windows, and we worked in the office until midnight."

The marketing director put the total revenue generated by Kelly at around $1.5 million. "If Sunday's game is exciting, we don't even have to win as long as we're competitive. This could mean our season," Foran said. "Every game could be close to a sellout. We've got 83 ticket outlets all over western New York now. We never used to [have that many]."

"Sunday's game," said Bill Polian, the Bills' general manager, "could be the most important in the history of the franchise. It could be our future."

Kelly came into the Jet game with 19 full practices under his belt and many more meetings—boy what meetings. "We have meetings to set up meetings, and meetings to follow meetings," Kelly said a few days before the game. Even the 20-minute lunch break is a meeting. "Lunch today was a turkey sub. People ask me what I think of Buffalo. What can I tell them? Hey, I haven't even seen it. I've been out once. At night I watch the tapes of practice.

"Sometimes your head starts hurting. You feel that you just can't absorb any more football. So I get out the Tylenol. The whole point is that I don't want to embarrass myself out there—or my teammates. At the University of Miami when I'd make a call it was, say, 70 Texas. Seventy is the protection, Texas the play. With Houston in the USFL it would be something like Rip 60, Z Go. Here? A typical call would be Trey Right Zoom Flare 2-2-2, H Option, F Sail. You're expected not only to read defenses but call the backs' assignments, the line blocking, the protection, everything.

"There are times when I can read a defense, and I know what to audible into, but I have to think about the language. Getting into it is a problem. It's like being in a foreign country and trying to speak the language."

Bob Leahy, the Bills' quarterback coach, said the operation would be modified to fit Kelly. Routes would be lengthened, blocking adjusted to avoid mismatches, such as a back trying to pick up Gastineau, a mismatch favored by the Jet defensive coordinator. Bud Carson, who likes to move Gastineau all over the field, creating all sorts of problems for the opposition's offense.

"Jim Kelly will get a pass rush tomorrow; he can count on that," Carson said Saturday night. "Our guys are anxious to indoctrinate him. This is not the U.S. Football League. I'm sure that someday he's going to be a great quarterback, but when they knock you down in this league, you don't get up right away."

Well, Kelly got up and threw for 292 yards, completing 20 of 33 passes, with no interceptions, for three touchdowns. It's as impressive a debut as any of the Hall of Fame quarterbacks managed in his first rookie start. In his first game, Dan Marino had three touchdown passes, but he also threw two interceptions. If you want to argue that the 26-year-old Kelly is not a true rookie, that his two years in the USFL should count for something...well, he compares very well with the guys in the same situation. Frankie Albert and Y.A. Tittle, after arriving from the All-America Football Conference in 1950, went 7 for 17 and 5 for 12, respectively. Otto Graham, in that landmark 35-10 victory over the Eagles in '50, threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns—but he also had two interceptions.

Kelly was quick enough to avoid the rush on Sunday and tough enough to hang in and wait until the very last moment before letting the ball go.

Most of the Jet defensive linemen got a piece of him, one way or another, but they all came away impressed. "I didn't think he'd be this tough," noseguard Joe Klecko said. "If he was hurt, he sure didn't show it. He's heady, too. He's got quicker moves than you think."

"Most young quarterbacks just tuck the ball away and run when they decide to scramble," defensive end Marty Lyons said. "But when he moved out of the pocket he always had poise and he was always looking downfield."

"It's funny," Kelly said. "I knew I was going to get hit a lot today, but I got hit a lot playing for the Gamblers, too. For some reason, I felt more relaxed here than in the USFL. I felt at home; I want to win for the people here. I've just got the taste of winning so bad in my mouth right now."

Everyone knows Kelly has got a great arm. He is everything that the people of Buffalo dreamed of, and he's even tougher than they had hoped for. Someday, when the Bills' defense catches up, Buffalo will be a contender.

"That," says Polian, "will be next year's draft."



Kelly turned on the town, and almost turned off the jets, with three touchdown passes.



The Jets took their best shots—this one by Barry Bennett—but Kelly came right back, just as he had done throughout his USFL career.



Kelly kept as cool as a winter day along the shores of Lake Erie.



Come on Buffalo, this is going a bit far.