TAMPA, Fla. — Perhaps more was expected of Jim Kelly because he hailed from a quarterback holy land, western Pennsylvania, where a few fortunate blue-collar sons broke free of the soot and became Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas and Dan Marino.
Kelly, from East Brady, Pa., had the arm to match but not always the poise or the patience. Because the money wasn't right, he spurned Buffalo's first-round offer back in 1983 for a sideshow, the United States Football League, where he staged some of the greatest shows never seen. As a Houston Gambler in 1985, he lit up the Los Angeles Express for 574 yards passing--a professional football record--at the Coliseum in the company of 80,000 empty seats.
Because the USFL folded, Kelly joined the Buffalo Bills in 1986. Because Howard Ballard, one of his lineman, couldn't protect him, Kelly publicly blamed that tackle for a shoulder injury in 1989. Because of that, tailback Thurman Thomas took Kelly to task on a local television show. Because of that, the team became known as the bickering Bills and Kelly was followed into public drinking establishments and to Sunday picnics, where women accused him of dousing them with beer.
Because he wasn't throwing the ball enough, Kelly complained about Coach Marv Levy's conservative offense.
"Yeah, you get frustrated," Kelly said this week. "You want to give a little more to the offense and to your team. I felt I was kind of tied up at the beginning."
Because of that, the Bills relented and handed over the no-huddle offense to Kelly in 1990. And because of that, the Bills have landed in Super Bowl XXV.
Speaking out hasn't always spelled trouble for Kelly. Sometimes a guy says what's on his mind or pays the consequences. Joe Paterno wanted Kelly at Penn State as a linebacker. Kelly said no thanks and went south to play quarterback at the University of Miami, because he knew quarterbacks made more money.
Kelly, of course, made the right decision, but there were times when the linebacker in him took over and Kelly knocked down walls instead of simply opening unlocked doors.
Kelly said he changed to uniform No. 12 in college because that was the number worn by Super Bowl champions Namath, Ken Stabler, Terry Bradshaw, and Bob Griese.
But Kelly didn't change really, until he met his 30th birthday in 1990, when he grew up to become one of the quarterback of his dreams. Kelly is Joe Namath, whose poster decorated his bedroom wall as a child. Kelly is Terry Bradshaw, the only quarterback who mattered to Pittsburgh in the 1970s.
"I've dreamed about this since I was a little kid, watching the Steelers win all those Super Bowls," Kelly recounted.
Kelly claims to be the same person who had kicked up a thousand dust clouds.
"I haven't changed one bit," he said. "I don't know what you're talking about."
In Week 14 against the Giants, it appeared that Kelly might miss the rest of the season when his own tackle, Will Wolford, rolled into Kelly's left knee, injuring ligaments. When Wolford, also injured on the play, saw Kelly in the training room later, he asked what happened. Kelly painfully explained to Wolford that during the game he "didn't have the heart to tell you that you fell on me."
Kelly, who once felt a prisoner in Levy's ball-and-chain offense, now jokes that his coach is a regular riverboat gambler. When the Bills had fourth and goal last week against the Raiders, Kelly went to the sideline to confer with Levy.
"I said, 'Marv, it's 21-3. A field goal puts them three touchdowns back,' " Kelly recalled. "I said, 'What do you think about kicking the field goal?' He said, 'We're going for it.' So he's sort of opened up now."
Winning solves lots of problems. A year after the Bills had become popular tabloid fodder, they came waltzing into Tampa, arm in arm, looking like the last scene of a Disney movie.
Ballard, the onetime scoundrel lineman Kelly fingered for blame, now says his quarterback's actions were blown out of proportion.
"It didn't bother me," he said. "I don't think it's a problem. It's something that just happened at the moment."
General Manager Bill Polian said Kelly has matured.
"He's gone through the growing pains every NFL quarterback has," Polian said. "Last year was a breakthrough year for him. He's just been outstanding."
Suddenly, Kelly is as controversial as toothpaste. Sure, he was seen out late this week frequenting local Tampa taverns, but he asks what crimes were committed.
"I'm going to enjoy myself just like everyone else," he said. "I'm single, I enjoy my night life, just like everyone else. But there's work to be done. I'll stay focused. This isn't a pleasure trip, this is a business trip."
Kelly dismissed questions about his team's past troubles.
"Last year is last year," he said. "I'm not going to comment on last year. This year we're having fun. That's what it's all about. Winning solves everything."
Linebacker Cornelius Bennett said the exploits of Kelly and others have been exaggerated.