Jim Kelly endured his share of sacks and criticism during his Hall-of-Fame career, so the last thing he wants to do is pile on a fellow member of the quarterback fraternity. But when asked to assess the state of the Bills, the man who set the standard for Buffalo QBs can’t help but start with the position he knows best.
“If you look at the solid teams around the league, you’ll see that they are really established at the quarterback position,’’ Kelly said. “We are still a question mark.’’
And have been for quite some time.
In the dozen-plus seasons since Jimbo’s retirement following the 1996 campaign, Buffalo’s quarterback situation has been about as stable as the Balloon Boy’s parents. Ryan Fitzpatrick is the 10th different player to start at the position, and you get the sense he won’t be the last as this never-ending search to find a worthy successor to the greatest field general in franchise history stumbles on.
So far, we’ve seen a steady stream of err apparents.
That said, Kelly isn’t necessarily ready to give up on Trent Edwards, the bruised and beleaguered Bills signalcaller who, at times, has resembled the bungling reincarnation of Rob Johnson, J.P. Losman and Todd Collins, among others.
“I’m really pulling for Trent because I know how hard he works and I believe he has the talent to get the job done,’’ Kelly said. “Yeah, he hasn’t been performing well, but when you have as many changes as the Bills have had on the offensive line, especially at the two tackle spots, it’s pretty rough on a quarterback.’’
It also didn’t help when the Bills attempted to force a no-huddle approach on Edwards and a woefully inexperienced offensive line that wasn’t ready to run it.
“The no-huddle takes a lot more quick thinking by everybody,’’ said Kelly, who ran that attack as well as anyone ever has while leading the high-octane Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s. “When you have linemen jump off-sides nine times (as Buffalo did during its 6-3 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 11) you realize it’s time to scrap it and start huddling-up again so everybody can get on the same page.’’
Kelly believes the Bills can still make something of this season. But, in order for that to happen, several players are going to have to ramp up their play, including their high-priced wideout Terrell Owens.
“T.O. has to step it up; he’s got to start catching the football,’’ Kelly said. “He’s dropped too many balls and that hasn’t helped. But you need to stick with him and keep throwing to him because he’s a guy who can get hot and carry a team. He’s done it before. He can do it again.’’
Kelly, of course, knows a thing or two about carrying a team. He led the Bills to a 109-66 record, eight playoff appearances and four AFC titles in 11 seasons. By contrast, the 10 QBs who have started since No. 12’s retirement have combined for a 90-109 mark and just two playoff berths. Yes, there have been some encouraging moments – most notably when Doug Flutie and Drew Bledsoe were behind center – but for the most part the search for a successor has been an exercise in futility.
Kelly was considered a franchise savior when he signed with the Bills after the USFL went belly-up in the summer of 1986. He brought instant credibility to a franchise that was coming off back-to-back 2-14 seasons and seemed in danger of leaving town because of fan apathy. Interestingly, as Bills fans fret over the long-time future of the team in western New York, many are looking to Kelly again. The man who will turn 50 on Valentine’s Day said he has a group willing and able to buy the team. But, out of deference to owner Ralph Wilson, Kelly hasn’t pursued the matter.
“This is still Mr. Wilson’s team and I don’t think it’s right for me to press this,’’ he said. “I have the utmost respect for Mr. Wilson. God bless him for keeping the Bills here for 50 years when there’s no doubt he could have easily made more money by moving the team someplace else.’’
The angst felt by Bills fans has intensified in recent weeks with news that billionaire Ed Roski will finance the construction of a football stadium near Los Angeles and has identified seven NFL teams, including the Bills, he plans to contact about moving to the nation’s second largest city. Despite the news, Kelly isn’t worried. His confidence is bolstered not only by the financial wherewithal of his potential ownership group, but also by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Kelly believes Goodell, who grew up near Jamestown, will not allow the Bills to leave western New York.
“I know people think otherwise, but Goodell does care about that stuff,’’ he said. “He’s not going to allow that to happen on his watch. He is a class act and I think he’s going to be around a long time as commissioner, and that’s good news for the Bills.’’
These days, Kelly keeps himself busy working for Hunter’s Hope, the foundation he and his wife, Jill, founded in memory of their late son, Hunter Kelly. Thanks to their lobbying efforts, several states, including New York, have vastly expanded their new-born disease screening programs. The Kellys’ efforts at early diagnoses has saved lives and improved the quality of life of many children.
“It’s tremendously rewarding to have parents come up to you and tell you that their child is alive because of what we’ve done,’’ Kelly said. “We have a lot of work still to do lobbying congressmen, legislators and assemblymen in getting all 50 states involved in these newborn screening programs. But we are making progress every day.’’
More than a dozen years removed from his last game, Kelly remains a man on the move. When he’s not working on the foundation, he can be found spending time with his wife and two daughters, appearing at autograph shows or making speaking engagements around the country. In his spare time, he likes to hunt and fish. In recent months, he has hunted deer in Colorado and elk in Wyoming, and has gone deep sea fishing near Miami.
“I’m an outdoors freak,’’ he said, chuckling.
He’s also a Bills freak.
“I’m hoping at some point to become even more involved with the team,’’ he said. “I’m a Buffalo Bill through and through and I want to do whatever I can to help them succeed.’’
A nationally recognized sports columnist and best-selling author, Scott Pitoniak is pursuing new challenges after 35 years in the newspaper business. He hopes one day to write the great American novel and hit a baseball over the wall at Yankee Stadium. In the meantime, he runs his own website – ScottPitoniak.com – and blogs about sports and life’s other adventures.
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