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JIM MURRAY

Kelly Hopes Irish Eyes Are Smiling

January 27, 1991|JIM MURRAY

TAMPA, Fla. — "Has anybody here seen Kelly? Kelly from the Emerald Isle!"

That old Irish pub refrain may echo through today's Super Bowl XXV. The question is, will the Giants be singing it? Or will the Bills?

James Edward Kelly is a fine broth of a lad. He rises 6-feet-3 in the air, tips the scale at 220. His eyes are blue and he comes from a long line of working stiffs. So, he's Irish to the core. He can throw the football like a dream.

If I were a National Football League coach, I wouldn't automatically hand the ball to anyone named Kelly. But I'd sure hand it to anyone who said he was a quarterback from western Pennsylvania, as this Kelly is.

I don't know what it is about western Pennsylvania. Maybe the water. But they grow quarterbacks like coal.

They also have a terrible job convincing the football world they belong. Would you believe they had to find Johnny Unitas running a steam shovel on a building site because nobody wanted him at quarterback? Joe Namath never had any trouble but Joe Montana got drafted just before some backup centers.

Would you believe Joe Paterno, no less, thought Jim Kelly would make a fine linebacker? That's the most spectacular instance of miscasting since somebody thought Marilyn Monroe should play a nun. Like asking Fred Astaire to play a cop. In a non-musical.

Kelly had played both ways in high school because that's what you do in East Brady, Pa. You help pick up the locker room towels, too, when it's your turn.

But Jim Kelly was not only geographically suitable, he was also athletically suitable to be a passer. He had thrown for 44 touchdowns in his high school career. You wonder how that made him look like a defensive player to Joe Paterno. You wonder who Paterno thought was better. Sammy Baugh?

Jim Kelly went to Miami, where Coaches Lou Saban and Howard Schnellenberger never asked him to make a tackle, telling him to be a quarterback, not blitz one. All he did was throw 406 completed passes in 646 attempts, put his team in a bowl game and oh, by the way, beat Joe Paterno's Penn State team, 17-14, to get Miami ranked No. 1. Not many linebackers could do that.

By the time he got to the pros, he had two leagues and five teams fighting over him. He opted for the Houston Gamblers of the old United States Football League where he stood out like a diamond in a pile of broken bottles.

Buffalo wisely never relinquished its NFL draft rights. It wasn't only that his name was Kelly and he had the map of Donegal on his face but he could throw the football through a keyhole and, if you asked him to hit a receiver in the numbers, he would ask, "Which one?"

Quarterbacks get you to the Super Bowl. Look it up. Roger Staubach gets you to the Super Bowl. Joe Namath. Terry Bradshaw. Fran Tarkenton. John Elway. And Joe Montana. Especially Joe Montana.

And, now, so does Jim Kelly. The proposition is, will he be another Joe Montana? Or another John Elway?

Getting there is never enough. Kelly will not be throwing into a weak zone or an erratic nickel defense today. Defense is what the New York Giants are all about. They go after quarterbacks like lions after a pork chop. They are insulted by a first down, outraged by a touchdown.

The team motto should be the old cliche, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

The San Francisco 49ers rolled up 353 points. But they only made seven the first time they played the Giants. They only made 13 the next time.

The Giants don't score many points. They don't need many.

The Buffalo Bills rolled up 428 points during the regular season. They scored 30 or more nine times all year. They scored 40 four times and put up 90 points in their last two games. But they scored only 17 head-on against the Giants.

There is a school of thought holding that, although this Kelly is not green, he has not been fully tested in the crucible of crunch football, yet.

Lawrence Taylor, the Giants' man-eating linebacker, the most ferocious thing in nature not wearing stripes, is one who thinks Kelly, the five-year veteran, is going to find out what NFC football is all about today.

"When things are going good, Kelly is good," he growled during his press conference the other day. "We don't plan to let things go good Sunday. Let's see how he handles that."

How good is Jim Kelly? Well, he calls his own plays. If you do not think that is impressive, you don't know the NFL. Quarterbacks stopped calling their own signals back in the days when Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns started calling plays for, of all people, the all-world Otto Graham.

Pro football is a copycat game. The league reasoned that if somebody as great as Otto Graham couldn't be trusted to call his own signals, how could you let Steve DeBerg?

It's unheard-of for a pro quarterback to call his own plays today. Some teams have one coach to call the plays and another to relay them by a complicated sideline semaphore.

Kelly calls his own plays. On the Bills, because of the no-huddle offense, there are a lot of these.

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