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Bills' Backup Quarterback Values Security

February 01, 1993|ALAN GREENBERG | THE HARTFORD COURANT

Jim Kelly greases his hair and combs it straight back, so the world can see every inch of his unremarkable mug. The Buffalo Bills quarterback who has the GQ looks, Frank Reich, lets his hair fall forward, across his forehead.

In the conservative community of pro athletes, where 30-year-old bachelors are an anomaly, Kelly, who turns 33 on Valentine's Day, is still playing the field, in and out of bars and fast cars. Reich, 31, is ensconced with his wife and two daughters and his Bible.

Kelly sticks his chest out and crows about his career. Reich leans forward, inward, and ponders his own, a moral dilemma that seems to bother others more than it does him.

With back-to-back Super Bowl losses under his belt, and a tendency to force passes into tight coverage, Kelly could be voted most likely to cause the Bills to lose their third consecutive Super Bowl. But where others note past failures, Kelly sees only success.

In Kelly's world view of black-and-white absolutes, starting quarterback -- starring quarterback -- is less his position than the lifelong role he was born to play. Kelly has been the starter on every team he has played on since he was 9 and, in his mind, he rules as much by divine right as statistics. Jim Kelly doubts the sun will rise before he doubts his greatness.

What Frank Reich doubts most is his ability to undo his second-string image. He recalled a sociology course he took at Maryland. There, Reich says, he learned about "the label theory. You become what you are labeled. The stigma of being a backup has really stuck. It has permeated throughout the league."

But in the few chances he has been given, Reich has done things that have permeated not just the league, but the minds of teammates. In the next-to-last game of the 1990 regular season, with Kelly having been injured the week before against the New York Giants, Reich (15 of 21 for 234 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) led the Bills to a victory over the Miami Dolphins in a game that decided the AFC East champion and assured the Bills of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Of course, the game that made Reich famous was four weeks ago in the AFC wild card game, when he engineered the greatest comeback in NFL history as the Bills wiped out a 35-3 third-quarter deficit and defeated the Houston Oilers in overtime, 41-38. Reich completed 21 of 34 passes -- four of them for TDs -- for 289 yards, with one interception.

In the divisional playoff against the Pittsburgh Steelers, with Kelly still sidelined because of strained knee ligaments, Reich completed 16 of 23 for 160 yards and two TDs (no interceptions) in a 24-3 Bills victory.

Kelly was healthy enough to play against the Dolphins in the AFC Championship Game, but wasn't necessarily the people's choice. Start Reich, said a lopsided majority of voters in a call-in poll conducted by a Rochester, N.Y., newspaper. Bills players said they could win with either quarterback.

Coach Marv Levy went with Kelly, who was mediocre (17 of 24 for 177 yards, one TD, two interceptions) in a 29-10 Bills victory marked more by Kelly's inability to get the Bills into the end zone despite five Dolphins turnovers -- Steve Christie kicked five field goals -- than anything else.

Unless Kelly is injured Sunday, Reich will only enter the game to hold for kicks. Last year, Kelly tied the Super Bowl record, set by Denver's Craig Morton in 1978, by throwing four interceptions against Washington. Even if Kelly does that again, Reich doesn't expect he'll be called to the rescue.

Reich isn't bitter about his situation. He doesn't feel cheated. He says he is content.

It bothers him a little, what people might think that says about him. Backups aren't supposed to be content. Especially backups with a portfolio of successes.

"I'm having so much fun being proud to be a pro football player," Reich said. "I don't want to sit here and gripe and complain."

One of Reich's problems is that he's an exceptionally nice guy. Another is that he was used to being a backup before his eight seasons in Buffalo.

At Maryland, where he understudied Cincinnati's Boomer Esiason, Reich wasn't the starter until his senior year, and even that was abbreviated by a shoulder injury that forced him to miss four games. In his first game back in the lineup, Maryland trailed Miami 31-0 when Reich led one of the greatest comebacks in major college history, leading the Terps to six consecutive second-half TDs and a 42-40 victory.

Wouldn't Reich want to quarterback an NFL team he could call his own?

"It's hard for me to explain without getting into my (religious) beliefs and values and my faith," Reich said. "Football is very important to me, but it's third on my list. God is No. 1. Family is No. 2. Having my name in the headlines and making $3 million a year isn't my goal in life.

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