I won't soon forget the last time I saw Jim Kelly in uniform.
Turns out it was the last time anyone would see him in the
Buffalo Bills' colors. At Rich Stadium there's a steep tunnel
from the field up to the two locker rooms, Buffalo's to the left
and the visiting team's to the right. With about two minutes
left in the Bills' surprising 30-27 playoff loss to the
Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 28, I began walking down the tunnel
toward the field to see the last few plays. Kelly had left the
game in the middle of the fourth quarter with a concussion, and
now a cart with a woozy Kelly riding on the back sped toward me.
After the cart stopped between the locker rooms, Kelly got off
unsteadily and took two steps toward Jacksonville's door. "Jim,
Jim," one of Buffalo's trainers said, grabbing Kelly's arm and
guiding him to the Bills' locker room. I remember thinking, Jim,
it's time to go.
Five weeks later, just shy of his 37th birthday, Kelly did the
right thing, the classy thing. He stepped to a podium in the
Bills' cavernous practice facility last Friday and said, "I am
officially announcing my retirement from the NFL and the Buffalo
Bills." As esteemed as Kelly will be for his 11 years of leading
the Bills' offense--he completed 60.1% of his passes for 35,467
yards and 237 touchdowns, mostly out of a no-huddle attack--now
he may also be remembered for knowing when his time was up, for
gracefully leaving his sport in an era when too many aging and
ailing athletes foolishly prolong their careers or duck in and
out of retirement.
This is final. Kelly will get a golden parachute from Buffalo,
$1 million for 1997, sources say, to be a consultant and
community backslapper, and he'll no doubt wind up in a network
broadcast booth. Did he need to hopscotch around the league,
making a few extra million while his career went into a steep
decline? No. Did he need to put the Bills on a guilt trip,
demanding to be richly compensated--as John Elway and Dan Marino
have been recently--for past glory? No.
Kelly knew that if he wanted to continue to play, he'd have to
publicly battle with owner Ralph Wilson for a new contract. The
Bills already were snug against the salary cap for next season
even without the $5 million or so Kelly would have demanded and
without having renegotiated the contract of 1996 NFL Defensive
Player of the Year Bruce Smith. Chances are, Wilson would have
divorced Kelly, and it would have been ugly. It wouldn't have
been pretty, either, to watch Kelly go begging for a job in
Kansas City or Oakland or some other foreign port, learning a
new offense at 37 when he'd had to master only one system in his
February 10, 1997
"I didn't like it when Joe Montana went to the Chiefs," Kelly
said after his emotional press conference. "Maybe I'm
old-fashioned, but I just think it's right that Elway plays his
whole career in Denver and Marino plays his whole career in
Miami. I wanted to go out with dignity."
That's how Kelly handled his last on-field crisis, too. After
Ted Marchibroda left as offensive coordinator in 1992, Kelly
often clashed with offensive coaches Tom Bresnahan and Jim
Shofner, and the conflict intensified this year. Marchibroda had
given Kelly more freedom than any other NFL quarterback in the
past decade to call plays, shuttle personnel in and out of the
game and, in general, be a commander on the field. Thinking that
the rest of the league had finally caught up to the Bills'
no-huddle, Bresnahan and Shofner started last season calling all
the plays and making all the substitutions from the sideline.
After a 28-25 loss to the New England Patriots dropped Buffalo
to 5-3, Kelly was in a deep funk over having had his authority
snatched away. "This isn't the Jim Kelly I married," his wife,
Jill, told him. "I want that person back."
Kelly met with Bresnahan and Shofner and respectfully told them
they were killing an offense that for years had been the scourge
of the NFL. "Let me do it my way again," he said. "I promise
it'll work." So they gave him control of the offense again, and
the Bills went on a four-game winning streak, during which they
averaged 32 points a game. But Kelly pulled a hamstring in
November--that happens to 36-year-old quarterbacks--and he
struggled the rest of the year.
As one of the 36 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors, I've been
asked recently whether Kelly, who steered Buffalo into four
straight Super Bowls, is a future Hall of Famer. Probably, I
say, though I want to reserve judgment; I don't believe five or
six guys who played the same position in one era should be in
the Hall, and Kelly must be measured against Elway, Marino,
Montana, Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Phil Simms and Steve Young. A
fiery guy who played hurt and willingly shared the spotlight on
a star-laden team, Kelly sustained the dominance of his team's
attack longer than most other quarterbacks have. He was the
brains--and the arm--behind it, the man dropping the bombs. And
I'll tell you this: The way he went out is no small plus on
Kelly's side of the ledger.