#42: What if Jim Kelly didn’t go to the USFL?


The Set-up: The Bills had just endured a strike shortened 1982 season, going 4-5 and missing the playoffs for the first time since 1979. The Bills had a nice 1-2 punch with Joe Cribbs and Roosevelt Leaks, who both combined to rush for over 1,000 yards in just nine games. As a team, the Bills had the Ground Chuck {Knox} approach down, rushing for 1,371 yards, which ranked #1 in the NFL. However, Joe Ferguson didn’t exactly set the world on fire. At the age of 32, Ferguson looked to be a shell of his former self, passing for just 7 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. His QB rating for the season was 56.3, which ranked 29th in the NFL. Yuck. The Defense played well, as they allowed only 17.1 points a game, which ranked 6th best in the NFL. However, with Fergie in the twilight of his career, the Bills needed a QB.

What happened: Going into the 1983 NFL Draft, the Bills had two first round picks at the 11th and 13th spot. The Bills used their first pick on Tony Hunter, a tight end from Notre Dame. Wait?! What? We actually spent a first round pick on a tight end!? Are you kidding me!? Did someone fool Ralph by telling him we were drafting a wide receiver? Wait….Who the hell is Tony Hunter?

(After a quick google search)

Oh, no wonder why the Bills hate drafting a tight end! This dude lasted for only four years in the NFL. OK, back to Jim Kelly. So, with the 13th pick, the Bills selected arguably the greatest player in franchise history, Bruce Smith. Opps, I mean, Jim Kelly. However, there was one problem: Jim Kelly didn’t want to come here. In Kelly’s biography, “Armed & Dangerous,” (which has to be the worst cover and title for a player’s book in the history of literature) Kelly wrote that when the Bills picked him, he cried. No, they weren’t tears of joy or tears of finding a strip club opened at 3am. It was because he was upset about coming here and not going to Pittsburgh or LA

However, even though Jimbo was sad, all signs still pointed to him signing with the Bills. However, as Kelly described in his book, a stupid secretary for the Bills ruined it.

At One Bills Drive, both parties had agreed to a contract. Kelly was about to put his Herbie Hancock (Tommy Boy reference) to the piece of paper. However, a secretary ran in and told Kelly that he had a urgent message. Kelly took the call and it was the USFL offering Kelly a ridiculous contract to play with the Houston Gamblers. Kelly accepted. For the next three years, the Bills record was as followed: 8-8, 2-14 and 2-14. Yeah, it really sucked to be a Bills fan.

In the BIG state of Texas, Kelly was riding high in the Run & Shoot offense, where he threw for like 40 touchdowns a season. During that time, whenever someone brought up Buffalo to Kelly, he would just play the Willis McGahee card and totally crapped on the city (Per his book). He said he didn’t really mean it, but was just trying to throw ill will towards Buffalo, so that they would trade his rights. 

Then, three years later, the USFL folded because Donald Trump was a moron (OK, there were others, but it’s better to blame him), so Kelly had to return to the NFL. Now, per Kelly’s book, Bill Polian was very instrumental in bringing Jimbo to Buffalo. Of course, giving Kelly the highest paid contract in NFL history is a decent negotiating tool. After that…the rest was history.

What if Kelly didn’t go to the USFL? Well, you can probably kiss Bruce Smith goodbye. As I wrote earlier, the Bills were terrible for a two year stretch and in 1985, the team earned the first pick in the draft after going 2-14. Even though there were some fans who wanted Doug Flutie, Bill Polian said it was between Smith and Ray Childress, who actually had a nice career. If Jim Kelly came to Buffalo, he would have been going into his 2nd year during that 2-14 season. In 1984, the Bills had four QBs throw a pass during that year. Um, yeah, not exactly QB stability going on there. The quarterbacks combined to pass for 18 touchdowns and 30 interceptions, with a QB rating of 56.3. I’m not a football expert, but while Kelly was throwing for 40 touchdowns in the USFL, I kind of think he would have given the Bills a littlllllle better quarterbacking. Playoffs? Hell, no. More than 2 wins? Probably. So, there goes Bruce Smith.

Now, keeping with the 85′ Draft, guess who the Bills picked with their first pick in the 3rd round? Now, since Kelly was killing it in the USFL, the Bills decided to draft a QB. Yup, they went for Frank Reich. I don’t know about you, but I kind of doubt the Bills would have used a 3rd round pick on a QB, after they just drafted Kelly in the 1st round two years earlier. So, does no Frank Reich equal out to no Greatest NFL Comeback?

Oh, and of course, the Bills used their 4th round choice on Andre Reed. I mean, if the Bills finished 5 slots better, is Reed even there? That’s two Hall of Famers and a guy who spearheaded your 1992 playoff run, who are out of the picture. 

Now, what about Kelly’s play? Kelly has always talked about how beneficial it was for his NFL career to come from a 4-wide receiver offense in Houston. It showed, as Kelly threw for 22 touchdowns during his rookie year. However, in 1984, there’s no way in hell he gets that offense in Buffalo. Also, the Bills were piss pour from 84-85. Maybe playing on that sort of team would have been detrimental for Kelly’s growth. I’ve always said, when a rookie QB starts on a team that is absolutely garbage, it hurts their production. Maybe Kelly would have gone the route of Tim Couch or David Carr, who had the talent, but got beat up too much while playing for crappy teams. Now that’s probably a long shot. However, as a rookie or 2nd year player, I doubt Kelly throws for 40 touchdowns.

What about Marv Levy? Hey, if Kelly is playing in Buffalo and he’s getting better as a QB, maybe Ralph or Bill Polian don’t fire Kay Stephensen or Hank Bullough. Normally, you don’t fire your head coaches when the franchise has just drafted a QB in the first round.

Bottom line: Maybe Kelly going to the USFL was the best thing for the franchise.


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