You're Jim Kelly,and a nation of quarterbacks will be in your corner Sunday. If your BuffaloBills beat the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV, you will go down in historyas the liberator, the man who set the QBs free. You run a no-huddle offense,you call your own plays. Sometimes you go 15 or 20 snaps without looking to thesidelines for help. You represent the past, the pre-Paul Brown, pre-Tom Landryera when a signal-caller was a play-caller, too. And you also represent thefuture, NFL coaches being a breed of copycats. What works for you could workfor others. Have a nice Sunday, Jim, say all the poor souls squinting over tothe bench to see what Coach & Co. has for them. Set us free.
This is an article from the Jan. 28, 1991 issue
"Paul Brownwas the innovator because he started sending in all the plays for hisquarterbacks," says Ted Marchibroda, the Bills' offensive coordinator, whodevised Buffalo's no-huddle system. "Now we're the innovators because welet Jim call his own stuff. The game is his. The pendulum has swung."
But can Kellyreally call a whole game himself, with not even a little peek over to the guyswith the headphones?
"He's theboss," says Bills center Kent Hull. "He might not look over to thebench more than two or three times a game, and then only if he gets in a jam.But if things are going right, he won't look to the sidelines the wholetime."
They certainlywent right Sunday in the Bills' 51-3 victory over the Los Angeles Raiders inthe AFC Championship Game at Rich Stadium. The Bills used the no-huddle for thewhole first half and scored on three of their first four possessions, puttingthe game away before the intermission. And that wasn't just anybody they wereworking against. The Raiders had allowed the second-fewest yards in the AFCduring the regular season.
Things were evenmore right at the beginning of Buffalo's first playoff game, against the MiamiDolphins on Jan. 12, when the Bills put points on the board in each of theirfirst five possessions and went on to win 44-34. The mighty Giant defense feltthe bite of that Buffalo attack on Dec. 15, when the Bills put together longscoring drives on each of their first two possessions and won 17-13.
For a change, theAFC entry, Buffalo, comes into the Super Bowl as the team riding the whirlwind,much as the San Francisco 49ers were last year. The Bills are the hot team, andthe hot-team formula—confirmed by the 49ers the past two years, the Giants in1987 and the Chicago Bears the year before that—usually holds up. But for thelast six years the NFC has been the hot conference. This time it's the Giants,with their heroic 15-13 victory over San Francisco in the NFC title game onSunday at Candlestick Park, who have people shaking their heads, wondering howthey did it.
"I'll tellyou how we did it," says Giants coach Bill Parcells. "We did it by nothanding the ball over. We set a record for fewest turnovers in a 16-game season. We don't make it easy for people. Yeah, I know, we've been called aconservative team, but you'll notice that this conservative team is stillplaying."
Conservative,yes, but still able to shut down an offense as potent as the 49ers'—not oncebut twice. San Francisco made only two significant offensive plays in its 7-3victory over the Giants in December. On Sunday the Niners had only one, a61-yard touchdown pass to John Taylor. The rest of the time for the 49ers itwas dink and dunk and hope that the defense stood firm and bailed out theoffense.
But this time itwas the New York defense that rose up and knocked Joe Montana out of the gamewith about 10 minutes left and then got a big play from Erik Howard. Operatingat defensive end for the first time, instead of his normal nose-guard position,Howard knocked the ball loose from Niner back Roger Craig. Lawrence Taylor wasin just the right spot to catch the fumble, and the Giants' offense had justenough left to drive 33 yards and position Matt Bahr for his game-winning fieldgoal. And now New York must face the whirlwind.
"Buffalo'sno-huddle causes problems," Howard said after Sunday's win. "The ideais to not let it get started. You've got to take the Bills out of it on thefirst series. If you stop them on the first three plays, they'll come back andrun a conventional offense for a while."
Actually, Kellyis given a modified script, a selection of plays, to follow at the beginning ofthe game. But when he gets to the line and looks over the defense, the choiceamong those plays is his to make.
"If you lethim get happy about what he's going to call, you're in trouble," saysPepper Johnson, the Giants' All-Pro inside linebacker. "We could tell hewas working from a script, because when they played us, he'd come to the lineand say, 'Play number 1' or 'Play number 7.' If we were successful in stoppingsomething, he'd just come back in a different formation next time and run oneof those same plays. He's smart about it."
Marchibroda,whose conservative approach got Kelly upset a few years ago, says the no-huddleidea came to him in the off-season after the Bills last year had shown theability to pull games out at the end, with their two-minute offense. If itcould work at the end of a game, why not at the beginning? So this seasonMarchibroda opened the gates and the no-huddle became standard for Buffalo.
Lining up behindKelly, like Barry Sanders in the Detroit Lions' run-and-shoot, is ThurmanThomas, the most productive back in pro football. James Lofton, a formerAll-Pro who has three touchdown catches in the postseason, and rookie AlEdwards handle the sidelines, although Lofton can work the slots inside, too.Andre Reed, another Pro Bowl player, is the slot receiver, a position requiringgreat courage because inside is where the big defensive people live. He looksas if he were born to be a slot receiver. And Keith McKeller, an emergingsuperstar at tight end, can also man the other slot.
The Bills'no-huddle offense has been compared with that of the Cincinnati Bengals, butthe Bengals' hurry-up is a fool-'em device, designed to catch the defense with12 men on the field and buy five yards. Buffalo's no-huddle is more deliberateand is designed to score seven points—again and again.
At times it hasthe look of a run-and-shoot, with two wideouts and two guys lined up in slotpositions, but its principles are different. There's a tight end on the field.The offensive line isn't a collection of brush blockers just trying to create alittle crease for an occasional draw play. They're sturdy-legged drive blockerswith fine credentials. Hull is an All-Pro. Left tackle Will Wolford will playin the Pro Bowl on Feb. 2. Left guard Jim Ritcher has been a premium NFLperformer for 12 years. And if the Bills want to hog it out and pound theiropponent, as they did to the Raiders on Sunday, they go behind John Davis andHoward Ballard, 635 pounds of oink on the right side. "Their offense is achameleon," says Giants linebacker coach Al Groh. "It can be anythingit wants to be. It can finesse you, or it can line up and playhardball."
The key to theSuper Bowl will be the Giants' ability to control that chameleon offense, toget people in Kelly's face so he can't stand back and survey the field and lethis crossing receivers clear. Crossing patterns killed L.A. on Sunday. Theyshould not be as effective against New York, which has a rugged pair of insidelinebackers, Johnson and Gary Reasons, who play a lot of zone and clamp on theunderneath receivers and generally make life miserable for them.
The new gimmickthe Giants unveiled for the 49ers was a three-man front featuring Howard andLeonard Marshall at the ends and that emerging nation, 6'6", 275-poundrookie Mike Fox, in the middle. Fox is not burdened with too many complexassignments. His job is to provide the bull rush, to collapse the pocket, todrive people into the quarterback's lap.
Taylor, once themost dominant pass rusher in the game, has been reduced to the role of craftyveteran. He conserves his energy—you might lose track of him for a series ortwo—but then there he is, forcing the key fumble or making the big sack,flushing the quarterback out of his lane, as he did to Montana on Sunday,setting him up for the blind-side hit by Marshall that put him out of the game.Taylor plays by instinct now. He's still a great competitor, but he picks hisspots.
If there was onedisturbing factor in the Bills' blowout of the Raiders, it was that in theearly going, when it was still a game, LA. quarterback Jay Schroeder wasgetting a lot of time to scan the field and throw. Too much time. His problemwas reading the coverage and delivering to the right person.
The Giants' JeffHostetler didn't have that luxury when he faced the Bills in December, afterPhil Simms went down with a severely sprained right arch. He didn't have anyluxuries at all. He came in cold. He hadn't taken the snaps in practice. TheGiants could score only three points while he was running things, but the gamewasn't a true test. Buffalo was still fighting for a division title. The Giantshad already clinched theirs. The edge was off.
Hostetler showeda lot of courage against the 49ers on Sunday, coming back from a scary shot onhis left knee by Jim Burt to march his team down the field for the winningscore. Going into the game, the jury was out on Hostetler, who had started onlyfour regular-season games in a seven-year pro career, but he showed poise underpostseason pressure and the ability to read a defense and deliver the ball tothe right man. Plus, he can run.
Parcells'soffensive concept is interesting. He'll open a game by pounding an opponentthat looks soft against the run, often loading up with two or three tight ends.But against a team with a good run-defense scheme, he'll throw early, to getthe other guys pass-conscious and take some of the zip out of their legs. Thenhe'll come back with the heavy stuff.
It's a sound,low-risk offense, backed up by an even sounder defense. Will that be enough toharness the Buffalo whirlwind that scored 95 points in two playoff games? Idon't think so. We'll go with the hot team. The pick: Bills 24, Giants 17.