Is it any wonder that the most popular tune on one Buffalo radio station last week was a charming number called Piss 'Em Off and Go for Four? Who knew better than the Bills and their fans that America was not eager to see Buffalo go for a fourth straight Super Bowl loss—the grand slam of ineptitude. And yet, behind running back Thurman Thomas's 186 rushing yards and three touchdowns, the Bills walloped the Kansas City Chiefs 30-13 to advance one more time to the Avenue of Broken Dreams, excuse us, the Super Bowl. "There are some people who say, 'You deserve to win a Super Bowl,' " said Bill quarterback Jim Kelly the day before the game. "I agree with them."
He should, because his reputation is most closely linked to Buffalo's persistent failure to win the big one. To be sure, the Bills have other stars. But Thomas is a running back, and running backs, well, they just run. Defensive end Bruce Smith and linebacker Cornelius Bennett are defensive guys, and after all, they can't do more than slow down the other team. Kelly is the man at the controls. In his three Super Bowl appearances he has been sacked eight times and has thrown six interceptions and only two touchdown passes. He had no time to throw in those games, but don't we always feel that it is the mark of a great quarterback to get the job done, even if he has to crawl to victory?
In truth the Bills are one of the best NFL teams of all time. They have more victories in the 1990s (58) than any other team, and their winning of four consecutive APC championships, from '90 through '93, is unprecedented, as will be their fourth straight Super Bowl appearance. Indeed, Buffalo only comes a cropper in games that are assigned Roman numerals. "People have said to me, 'What if you had won three Super Bowls, and you were going for four?' " says Kelly wistfully. "There would be those great teams like the Packers in the '60s, the Steelers in the '70s, the 49ers in the '80s. And us."
During the week before the game against Kansas City, the Bills juggled their obsession with earning respect for themselves with the need to respect Chief quarterback Joe Montana—or Roy Hobbs, as they privately called him. "From The Natural," explained Buffalo publicist Scott Berchtold. "Remember in the movie when Robert Redford says something like this to Glenn Close, "When I walk down the street, I want people to say, There goes Roy Hobbs, the best that ever was'? That's Joe."
January 31, 1994
Kelly would love to be remembered that way, too. But if he is famous now, it is mainly because of those three failures in the Super Bowl. A sturdy 6' 3", 226-poundcr with creaky knees, a sore hip and questionable speed, Kelly no longer has a cannon arm or a lightning release. He needs time—serious protection from his line—to do what he does best, and that is to lead. He has excellent field vision, an accurate and smooth throwing motion and perhaps the best touch-passing ability of any quarterback in the league. And beatings do not faze him. "Mental toughness," he says with a laugh. "That comes from growing up with five brothers beating on you."
On Sunday, Kelly quickly earned some respect when, midway through the first quarter, he hit wideout Andre Reed with a perfect strike down the left sideline to beat defensive back Bruce Pickens for a 28-yard gain. Kelly had audibled to this streak pattern when he had seen the Chiefs in man-to-man coverage on the outside receivers. "My job was to beat whoever was on me deep," said Reed in the locker room afterward. "It was definitely a big play. It got us going." Two plays later, on third-and-eight, Kelly audibled again when he saw K.C. coming with a blitz, and Thomas took the ensuing handoff and darted up the middle for a 12-yard score and a 7-0 lead.
The beauty of the Bill offense is that when it's cooking it gives fans the kind of nonstop action usually found only in quality basketball games. Explained tight end Pete Metzelaars, "Jim will call a play, but then he'll improvise, saying, 'Run this play, but give me this pattern.' Our whole offense is an audible."
While Kelly and Buffalo were earning respect, Kansas City was searching for something to feel good about, especially after the third play of the third quarter when Montana threw to tight end Keith Cash and was nailed from behind by Bill defensive end Phil Hansen. The force of the blow drove Montana forward into the paths of Bruce Smith and nosetackle Jeff Wright. Montana's helmet smacked the turf like the tip of a snapping towel, and Old Joe, whose body looks a bit like the "before" picture in those Charles Atlas ads, was done for the day. "Everything went white," the legend said afterward. With Mr. Fourth Quarter lounging on the Chief bench, lost in his private world of cotton puffs and cumulus clouds, the Bills knew the game was in the bag.
Kelly might have preferred to beat Montana even up, but the victory was nonetheless sweet. Over the years, Kelly has reined in his hotly competitive nature so as to avoid offending teammates who may not be capable of performing at his level. Kelly hated the dissension-laced Bickering Bills of a few years ago, recognizing that real success would never accrue to a group of malcontents.
A few years ago he might have had a fit on a play like the one on Sunday in which he hit tackle-eligible John Fina in the end zone with a perfect pass that bounced off the large man's gloved fingers like a cue ball off a tiled wall. "That may quell the talk about making me a tight end," said Fina later, without fear of retribution.
Kelly now tries to bring the Bills together, usually in the basement bar of his suburban house or in the VIP room at his downtown nightclub. Black or white, offense or defense, starter or sub—all the players are welcome when the drinks are on Jim. After the Bills" Jan. 15 playoff win over the Los Angeles Raiders, about 20 players showed up at Kelly's Irish Pub, the quarterback's basement locale, and Kelly spent a good part of the night serving beers and snacks and even lugging in stacks of wood for the fireplace. The joking and chatter were warm and bonding, to the extent that even Bruce Smith, pool cue in hand, could be kidded about his sorry eight-ball skills.
Upstairs in his bedroom Kelly pulled out a snapshot of himself with Lee Trevino at a celebrity golf outing last summer. "You want to know about pressure," he said. "We teed off with about 5,000 people watching us, leaving a tunnel about 15 yards wide. I asked everyone if they'd please move. I was afraid I'd kill someone. Then I dribbled one. Oh, man."
If Montana is unflappable because he has been to the peak, Kelly is not because he has not. Montana has an almost Zenlike calm about him; Kelly is burdened by the discomfort of pure, unfulfilled desire.
At 33, Kelly realizes that he has to win the big game to be sated. Last Saturday he sat in his office at Jim Kelly Enterprises, a 30,000-square-foot complex in downtown Buffalo, pondering the future. Below him was his restaurant and huge nightclub. Kelly employs 285 people in his Buffalo ventures, and he loves to do what people think he can't. "We knew this area needed something to bring people together," he said. "This used to be a bank. I remember everybody saying we'd never get people to come downtown to a place like this." He laughed at such shortsightedness.
And the Super Bowl?
"Think of the players who've never even been there!" he said. "Warren Moon, O.J. Simpson, some great ones." Kelly leaned forward in his chair, ready to say something. But he said nothing.
The silence was loud, indeed.