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A New Namath, But With Knees
Paul Zimmerman
September 15, 1986
Jim Kelly's spectacular NFL debut—a near upset of the Jets by the Bills—reminded some of the glory days of Joe Willie
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September 15, 1986

A New Namath, But With Knees

Jim Kelly's spectacular NFL debut—a near upset of the Jets by the Bills—reminded some of the glory days of Joe Willie

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It's easy to lose perspective here. It's easy to get carried away. Let's just say, coolly and unemotionally, that the National Football League debut of Buffalo rookie quarterback Jim Kelly was nothing short of sensational.

Jim Kelly is Joe Namath with knees.

The Bills lost to the New York Jets 28-24 on Sunday, but it wasn't Kelly's fault. He threw three touchdown passes, exactly one third of the Bills' total production last year. He brought the Bills back twice in the fourth quarter, once giving them a three-point lead and then moving them to within four points, and he might have pulled off some kind of miracle at the end if the defense had held and given him one more shot. But these are, after all, still the Buffalo Bills, and the Jets socked them for 210 yards and 14 points in that final period. All Kelly could do was watch New York eat up yards and minutes.

But Lordy, wasn't the new guy something? Joe Willie with knees.

The resemblance between Namath and Kelly is striking, not technically but emotionally. The same dirt toughness, western Pennsylvania toughness. O.K., knock me down, but I'm gonna get up and come right after you. The Jets gave Kelly the whole package Sunday: They packed eight men up near the line; they showed the rookie quarterback every variation of the old Bear 46 Defense; they sent in rushers in waves—at one point they rushed six defensive linemen—then in long-yardage situations they backed off and rushed only three and played coverages. The Jets got to Kelly plenty, but the damage was done after he had released the ball. Officially New York recorded only one sack.

Kelly was knocked goofy near the end of the first half, when he put his head down and tried to run over a defensive back, and he blanked out; Greg Bell, a halfback, had to call the next play. Mark Gastineau blindsided Kelly and bruised his back. Kelly got his ankle twisted when he fell over Gastineau three series later, and on his last touchdown pass the Bills' quarterback fell as he pulled away from the center, but scrambled to his feet, rolled to his right and, fighting off a rush, threw a four-yard pass off his back foot to tight end Pete Metzelaars deep in the corner of the end zone for the touchdown that brought the Bills to within four points, 28-24, with 3:55 remaining.

"I knew he'd be tough," Gastineau said, "but this was ridiculous."

Bills center Kent Hull wasn't surprised. He remembers Kelly from the USFL days, the 75 sacks he suffered in 1984 with the Houston Gamblers' exciting run-and-shoot offense, his ability to come off the deck and inflict heavy damage quickly and efficiently.

"We sacked him three times when we played Houston in the Meadowlands," said Hull, a former New Jersey General. "The last time, he didn't get up. Everybody thought he had a broken finger. We thought we had seen the last of Jim Kelly, but he went in and got it taped up and came back and threw a touchdown pass that nearly beat us.

"Before I met him I figured he'd sit the year out and hold an auction. But after I met him at the Generals' minicamp this spring, I knew there was no way he could be out of football for a year."

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