BACK IN THE FAST LANE
Two off-the-field occurrences involving Bills quarterback Jim
Kelly have been instrumental in Buffalo's winning three of its
last four games, including victories in the past two weeks over
NFC East front-runners Washington and Philadelphia. The run has
made a drive for a fifth Super Bowl appearance in the '90s seem
like a real possibility.
The first incident came in the wake of Buffalo's 21-7 home loss
to the Dolphins on Oct. 13. The 36-year-old Kelly, playing for
the first time after being sidelined for two games with an
injured hamstring, threw three interceptions and was roundly
booed by the Rich Stadium crowd. Uncomfortable in a standard
pro-style offense that was being used because the coaching staff
thought opponents had caught up to the Bills' no-huddle attack,
Kelly brooded about his future. "After that game I could just
see all of Jim's confidence, his swagger--everything that is Jim
Kelly--wash down the drain with the shower water," said center
and Kelly confidant Kent Hull. "This was Jim's career crisis."
That night Hull and some teammates went to Kelly's house, and
one by one they tried to pull Kelly out of his funk. Hull told
Kelly he would have retired after the 1994 season if Kelly
hadn't been the man under center. Linebacker Chris Spielman, a
free-agent acquisition in the off-season, said Kelly was one of
the reasons he signed with Buffalo. But the comment of Kelly's
wife of six months, Jill, hit the hardest. "This isn't the Jim
Kelly I married," she said. "I married a tough person. I want
that person back." The next day, Hull said, Kelly showed up at
practice his old cantankerous self.
November 18, 1996
The second incident occurred after the Bills lost on the road to
the Patriots 28-25 on Oct. 27, when Kelly expressed his
frustration with Buffalo's two-back, two-receiver scheme. So
offensive coordinator Tom Bresnahan and quarterbacks coach Jim
Shofner handed the play-calling back to Kelly full time. They
also gave him the authority to signal personnel changes so he
can move freely from his beloved K-Gun (three wideouts, one
tight end, one back) to the coaches-preferred Ace offense (two
tight ends, two wideouts, one back). Now Buffalo can change
personnel for either set without huddling, making it difficult
for the defense to make situational substitutions.
In the 38-13 win over the Redskins on Nov. 3, Buffalo piled up
476 total yards. Kelly was 19 of 23 for 206 yards. In the 24-17
win over the Eagles on Sunday, he was a pedestrian 11 of 22 for
112 yards and one score. But he was a maestro directing the
offense against the league's eighth-ranked defense, mixing the
run and the pass nicely during 74- and 64-yard touchdown drives.
"He's like a catcher who knows how to handle a pitching staff,
and he made all the right calls today," Hull said.
"I was trying to force plays in an offense I wasn't that
comfortable with, and I was making mistakes," Kelly said after
Sunday's game. "I knew I wasn't finished."
Added Hull, "Jim's been resurrected. So have we." Try as they
might, opponents just can't seem to kill off the Bills--or their
GUNNAR AND THE GUNNER
It was sunny in Washington on Sunday morning, prompting
five-year-old Gunnar Esiason to exult to his mother, Cheryl,
"I'm going to the game, Mom!" Because Gunnar has cystic fibrosis
and a common cold's congestion can cause problems, Cheryl and
her husband, Cardinals quarterback Boomer Esiason, don't let
Gunnar attend foul-weather games. Boomer was thrilled to have
Gunnar in the stands at RFK Stadium because he was scheduled to
start and, at 35 and demoted to the backup role behind Kent
Graham early this season, he doesn't know how many more starts
he has left. Graham went down with a knee injury in Arizona's
game against the Giants on Nov. 3, and Esiason wasn't going to
let a badly sprained big right toe and the flu keep him out of
the lineup against the Redskins.
"What an absolutely great day, one I'll always remember,"
Esiason said on Monday. "The weather turned overcast, about 40
degrees, fans screaming all afternoon, the grass ripped to
shreds, my family and friends in the stands--and it turns into a
shoot-out. It's like there was divine intervention." All Esiason
did was throw for 522 yards--the third-highest total in NFL
history--as the Cards shocked Washington 37-34 in overtime.
So many players retire before their children can see them shine,
and Esiason took pleasure on the most prolific day of his
13-year career in knowing that his son got to see him at his
best. "To play like that with him there," Esiason said, "well, I
don't know what the future holds, but if ever there was a sense
of closure, this was it."
Bryan Cox was talking retirement after undergoing season-ending
thumb surgery last week. Three days after the operation the
Bears' high-priced middle linebacker told SI that the numbness
he has been experiencing in his right hip and right toes for
more than a year--the result of a bulging disk that is putting
pressure on his spinal column--may drive him out of football.
"I'm not willing to risk hurting myself any further," says Cox,
who after spending his first five seasons with the Dolphins
signed a four-year, $13.2 million free-agent deal with Chicago
last February. "I'm playing with a short fuse right now. If this
problem doesn't disappear, I'm going to have no choice but to
Cox's setback is the latest blow in a season-long run of
disastrous injuries for a Bears team that had realistic playoff
hopes in September but is only 4-6 after a 17-12 loss to the
Broncos on Sunday. Ten players are on injured reserve, compared
with two all of last season. In 1995, 103 games were missed by
Chicago players because of injury; this year the count has
already reached 131.
Quarterback Erik Kramer played four games before being sidelined
for the season with a herniated disk in his neck. The Bears are
also playing without tight ends Chris Gedney (stress fracture in
his right foot), Keith Jennings (broken left fibula) and Ryan
Wetnight (sprained right knee), leaving the starting job to
rookie free agent Bobby Neely. Only Wetnight is expected back
this season. On his first snap as a pro, in a 37-6 loss to the
Packers on Oct. 6, quarterback Steve Stenstrom broke his right
foot when Chicago left tackle Andy Heck stepped on it. Bears
trainer Fred Caito says it's the worst season he has seen for
injuries in his 30 years in the game.
There's a smidgen of good news: A month ago the Bears feared
Kramer's career was over, but his rehab is going so well that
the club will try to re-sign him in the off-season.
Having won five of six interconference games on Sunday, AFC
teams were 24-15 (61.5%) against their NFC rivals this season
going into the Lions-Chargers Monday-nighter. That's the
conference's best winning percentage since it went 33-19 (63.5%)
in 1980. The dominant force: Buffalo, which is 4-0 against the
NFC East this year and 22-6 against the NFC in the '90s....
Auburn coach Terry Bowden's reaction to being on our list of
prospective NFL coaches (SI, Nov. 4): "I'd rather coach in high
school."...Coming off surgery on the right Achilles tendon he
ruptured in the 1995 opener, Cowboys cornerback Kevin Smith has
four interceptions. He autographed the balls he picked off,
adding his thanks, and gave them to four individuals who played
roles in his recovery....The NFL is getting bashed over the
quality of officiating this season, and rightfully so. Now the
league is considering the use of simulators--not unlike those
used by pilots--to aid in off-season training. Officials would
sit in a room surrounded by video of a play and make
THE END ZONE
Steelers punter Josh Miller displays his collection of 150 Pez
dispensers on a windowsill in his Pittsburgh apartment. Miller
started his hobby when he was punting for the Baltimore
Stallions of the CFL. "Some guys collect Mercedes," Miller says,
"but what could I afford on a punter's salary in the CFL?"