When Kelly reported to the Bills in August of 1986, fans gave him a hero's welcome, lining the streets from the airport to downtown Buffalo. In his NFL debut before a sold out Rich Stadium crowd, Kelly offered a prelude of what was to come. Although the Bills fell 28-24 to the New York Jets, Kelly performed like a seasoned veteran completing 20 of 33 passes for 292 yards and 3 touchdowns. Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated referred to him as "Joe Namath with knees."
Bills head coach Hank Bullough was impressed by what Kelly was able to do after just three weeks of being a member of the young squad. "No one can learn the play book in three weeks," he said with reserved praise.
Unfortunately for the coach, his future was not as bright as his quarterback's. Midway through the 1986 season, Bullough was replaced by future-Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy.
The Bills, under Levy's direction and Kelly's arm, underwent a swift reversal of fortunes. The young team climbed from 4-12 in 1986 to 12-4 in 1988, winning the AFC East crown before falling 21-10 to the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC championship game.
The following season the Bills opened with one of the most dramatic comebacks in team history. Trailing the Miami Dolphins 24-13 with 5:17 remaining in regulation play, Kelly orchestrated two dramatic touchdown drives, the second coming on a two-yard quarterback keeper as time expired. The exciting comeback and Kelly's physical "take-charge" approach, turned out to be just the beginning of a season that included many such heroics.
Kelly's tough style of play seemed to mirror that of Buffalo residents' self-image of being hard-working blue-collar types, who won't give up without a fight. "Tough as nails," was how one teammate described him. Even a shoulder separation in week five of the 1989 season couldn't sideline the gutsy quarterback for very long, missing just three weeks. And when he returned he picked up right where he left off - piling up yardage and victories - as the team again finished first in the division and advanced to the playoffs.
In the 1989 Divisional Playoff Game, a 34-30 loss to the Cleveland Browns, Kelly turned in yet another all-star performance, passing for 405 yards and four touchdowns. Even in a losing effort, Kelly's effective use of the "hurry-up" offense during the later part of the game served as a prelude to the future.
Levy and Bills offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda, inspired by Kelly's remarkable ability to direct his team in the final minutes of a game, decided to make the hurry-up drill part of the team's regular offense in 1990. And so was born the Bills' "no-huddle" offense.
The "no-huddle" was used sporadically through the first part of the 1990 season. But by season's end, it was the featured offense and Jim Kelly was doing something no other NFL quarterback of the day was doing - calling his own plays. It was something Kelly loved to do and he appreciated his coaches' confidence.
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"Imagine being a quarterback and having your coaching staff allow you to call your own plays," Kelly remarked. "That doesn't happen. Ted Marchibroda and Marv Levy allowed me to do that…I had full rein of the offense up until we got inside the 3-yard line. And a lot of times I'd pretend like I didn't see guys running in from the sideline. I would hurry up and get the guys to the line of scrimmage so Marv wouldn't send the big guys in," he half-joked.
"We're out of it completely," insisted Marchibroda. "The whole ball game is Jim's." Kelly didn't disappoint as he led the Bills to their first of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances in 1990. That year he became only the fifth player to maintain a quarterback rating over 100 (101.2) since the rating system was implemented in 1973. In the AFC championship game, Kelly's "no-huddle" Bills were near perfect, thumping the Los Angeles Raiders 51-3. "I don't think anyone can stop it," Raiders future Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long lamented after the game. Unfortunately for the Bills, though, the New York Giants found a way to slow it down just enough to squeak out a 20-19 win in Super Bowl XXV.
The Super Bowl XXV loss was the first of four such disappointing finishes. Yet, again and again, and against what at times seemed to be impossible odds, the Kelly-led team regrouped to give it another shot.
Although the Bills never came home with the championship trophy, it's not the losses that football fans now seem to recall. It's the "never say die" attitude of Jim Kelly and the resilient Bills that has emerged as "the real story."
"Jim will go down as one of the finest quarterbacks in the NFL," predicted Marchibroda in 1997, when Kelly announced his retirement. "He gave us everything he had. He battled on every play. Jim's a leader, a tough guy and a winner."
Jim's teammates agreed. "Without a doubt, I think he is the most competitive quarterback to ever play in the National Football League," stated Bills center Kent Hull. "He's like a hero," chimed in teammate Mark Pike.
Marv Levy offered equally laudatory praise when assessing his friend and former player. "Jim Kelly was the ultimate competitor," he proclaimed. "Unselfish, maybe the toughest player I've ever coached. We're not going to see the likes of him for a long time."
Without a doubt, Kelly's pro football résumé at the time of his retirement was a long and storied one. It seemed only one entry was missing. Five years later, however, after the mandatory waiting period, the void was filled. Jim Kelly, who spent his high school lunch hours throwing a football in his backyard, was accorded pro football's highest honor, election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.