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.
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 leader.
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.