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Last year Bills quarterback Jim Kelly had his best NFL season and came within a dropped pass of leading Buffalo to the AFC Championship Game. In March he signed a fully guaranteed contract worth an average of $2.86 million a year through 1996, when Kelly will be 36. The new deal is the richest in NFL history.
So now, when Kelly reflects on the past year, why doesn't he think happy thoughts? "I think the average person in my shoes would have had a nervous breakdown over what I've been through," he says.
Kelly's story is the classic case of a big fish in a small metropolitan pond. Although the Bills have become the premier team in the AFC East since his arrival in '86, Kelly has always left the crowd wanting more. Compared with other quarterbacks with a minimum of 25 starts during the past four seasons, Kelly ranks fourth in passing yards (12,901), fourth in completion percentage (.592) and fifth in touchdown passes (81). More yards than Bernie Kosar, better accuracy than Dan Marino, more touchdowns than Elway. But the Bills had only one victory in three postseason games during that period.
Here's why Kelly would like to forget the '89 season: He has had to live down some insensitive remarks he made last October, when he criticized right tackle Howard Ballard for allowing Jon Hand of the Colts to get by him and deliver a hit that separated Kelly's shoulder. With Frank Reich playing in place of Kelly, the Bills won three straight; when Kelly returned, Buffalo slumped to a 3-5 finish and some fans wanted Reich back in the starting lineup. In the midst of the losing spell, running back Thurman Thomas said the team could use a new quarterback. The Ballard and Thomas incidents estranged Kelly from his teammates, as did the late-season rumors that he was going to get a huge new contract. When Kelly signed that contract, the heat from the fans and local media was turned up. In April, Kelly was dragged into court by a woman who said she needed a root canal after being struck in the face by a water balloon thrown by him at a picnic in 1987. The case was dismissed after a highly publicized trial. Two months later, Kelly went back to court to sue his former agent, Greg Lustig, for defrauding him over a five-year period. Kelly's brother and new adviser, Dan, estimated the quarterback's losses to be $2 million.
Kelly says he thinks 99% of the people in Buffalo still love him and that the vast majority of his teammates like him. "I truly believe everything's fine now on our team," he says. "I think some of the problems come with expectations. I understand the pressure. I'm supposed to throw 40 touchdowns, and if I don't, I've messed up. I've got to live with it.
"I think my problems here have been blown out of proportion. I'd rather think about—and I know the team feels this way—how we turned it around late last season [beating the New York Jets 37-0 in the regular-season finale]. We grew as a team. I remember watching the Cleveland playoff game on tape and seeing all the guys on our sideline holding hands as we went down for the final drive. I honestly think we won't have any problems within the team this year."
"I like Jim," Ballard says now. "There isn't anything bad I can say about him."
"I'm really pleased with Jim's attitude this year," linebacker Ray Bentley says. "I think Jim has finally found his role and his niche within the social structure we have on this team. I think everyone's been able to relate to him very well this year."
It's August, and everyone's happy. The challenge for Kelly—and his team and city—will be to feel this way in January.
Why is John Robinson looking so smug?