HE CAME to town like a conquering hero.
Hundreds of fans lined the Kensington Expressway to watch his motorcade go from the airport to downtown Buffalo the day he arrived.
"If I get some help," he said at his first news conference, "I definitely think we can take this team to a championship."
The date was Aug. 18, 1986.
Eleven years, 35,467 passing yards, 237 touchdown passes, eight playoff seasons, four Super Bowls and countless thrills later, Jim Kelly's career with the Bills is over.
With the Jan. 31 announcement, the Bills bid goodbye to the greatest quarterback in their history and, statistics show, one of the greatest quarterbacks in pro football history.
Kelly ends his Bills career high on all of the NFL's all-time passing charts.
He stands eighth all-time in completions, 10th in yards, 12th in touchdown passes and 13th in attempts. He owns the fifth-best completion percentage in NFL history and ranks fifth all-time in passing efficiency. Kelly also holds almost every Bills passing record on the books.
But Kelly's tenure in Buffalo is defined by team success even more than his individual numbers.
The Bills won more games in Kelly's 11 seasons than the franchise won in its previous 20 seasons. The Bills actually have crammed more than 10 seasons of football into the past nine years. That's because they have appeared in 19 playoff games in Kelly's tenure.
Kelly has a 101-59 record as a starter in the regular season, a .631 winning percentage, which is better, albeit slightly, than that of Dan Marino, John Elway or Troy Aikman.
He led the Bills to eight playoff appearances in nine years and six AFC East Division titles.
Kelly, of course, is the only quarterback to lead his team to four straight conference championships . . . and the only quarterback to lose in four straight Super Bowls.
That also is part of both his and the team's legacy -- the great disappointment in the big game.
From Kelly's perspective, that void -- the missing Vince Lombardi Trophy -- does not come close to overshadowing what he accomplished.
"If my career ended," he said earlier this year, "and I didn't win a Super Bowl, yeah, there would be a void. But I'm financially secure. I made a lot of people happy. I set out to be an NFL quarterback, and my dreams did come true."
Life in the limelight
Kelly arrived with great expectations. For the most part he delivered. And he did it with one-of-a-kind style.
He was a modern-day Bobby Layne. Like the star quarterback of the '50s, he was probably the toughest quarterback in the league in his prime, a fiery, go-down-swinging leader who never, never quit.
He had some Joe Namath-like cockiness about him, too, probably to a fault. Kelly had supreme confidence in his ability. He wanted the ball in his hands with the game on the line. Humility? Not one of his strengths. His arrogance turned people off at times. And it wasn't easy for him to accept blame, although he got better at it as he matured.
Like Namath, he loved the limelight -- to a degree. He loved being the millionaire star quarterback, eligible bachelor, product endorser, Letterman guest. On Sunday night after the game, the party was at Kelly's house.
"I'm not a boring person, never have been, never will be," Kelly once said.
He also always had a fair dose of East Brady, Pa., in him. Kelly was and is a blue-collar guy, a little rough around the edges. He's generous. He's intensely loyal to his family, in particular his late mother, at whom his finger was pointed after all those touchdown passes. Media savvy and polish -- it took awhile for him to develop those traits. Kelly is the small-town star jock who became Big Man On Campus and rode his talent and his dreams to the Super Bowl.
Kelly already was a star when he hit Buffalo in '86. Two great seasons in the United States Football League earned him a five-year, $8 million contract from Bills owner Ralph Wilson, making him the highest-paid player in the NFL at the time.
Nine games into his career, his first coach, Hank Bullough, was fired. Enter Marv Levy.
With Levy and Kelly in place as the cornerstones of the franchise, it took then-general manager Bill Polian only two years to build the supporting cast.
The Bills blossomed in 1988, riding a strong running game, a fairly conservative pass offense and the No. 4 defense in the league to the AFC Championship Game, where they lost at Cincinnati, 21-10.
In February 1989, Jim Ringo retired as offensive coordinator and Ted Marchibroda was promoted to the job. Besides Levy's hiring, it was probably the biggest boost Kelly got in his career. The Bills' offense improved from 12th to fifth in the league in '89, the first of six straight years it ranked among the top six in the NFL in net yards.
The '89 season opened with one of Kelly's greatest games. He drove the Bills for two touchdowns in the final five minutes to win at Miami, 27-24. He operated in the no-huddle mode on both drives, and the winning score came on Kelly's 2-yard scramble into the end zone on the final play of the game.
"He was a general out there," guard Jim Ritcher said. "On the last drive, there was no doubt in our minds we were going to make it."
However, the '89 season had its roadblocks. After suffering a separated shoulder in a loss at Indianapolis, Kelly started a controversy by criticizing Howard Ballard for missing a block. It was the birth of The Bickering Bills. Then Kelly endured a late-season, three-game slump. He snapped out of it in a thrilling playoff game at Cleveland, which the Bills lost, 34-30. Kelly threw for 405 yards, his best total ever. It was a hint of things to come.
Super Bowl seasons
In 1990, everything came together for Kelly and the Bills. James Lofton was fully integrated into the receiving arsenal. The team matured. And Marchibroda struck upon the perfect fit for Kelly -- the no-huddle offense.
The no-huddle required an experienced quarterback with great natural instincts for the game; a quarterback who could play by feel, with a spontaneous nature and a strong desire for control. Kelly was the man. With the awesome talent around him and a limited package of plays that allowed for a fast pace, the Bills were prepared to literally chase defenses off the field.
The Bills didn't start using it extensively until the 13th game of the season, against Philadelphia. What a debut. The Bills took a 24-0 lead in the first 13 minutes -- Kelly hit passes of 63 and 71 yards to Lofton and 56 yards to Andre Reed in that span -- and won, 30-23.
"My God, it was unbelieveable!" said dazed Eagles coach Buddy Ryan, one of the defensive geniuses of the game. "There were people running through the secondary and we couldn't tackle them."
In the AFC playoffs, the Bills were unstoppable. Kelly threw for 339 yards and outdueled Marino in a 44-34 victory over Miami. The next week against the Los Angeles Raiders was even better. Five plays into the game, with the Bills' offense motoring downfield, the Raiders' defense had to call a timeout to try to catch its breath and stop the Bills' momentum. It was futile. Kelly threw for 300 more. The Bills won, 51-3. They were AFC champions.
For the first time in franchise history, the Buffalo Bills were going to the Super Bowl.
In Super Bowl XXV, the Bills produced 19 points in 19 minutes of ball possession, but lost to the New York Giants, 20-19. The Giants' defense focused on the pass and slowed the Bills down.
"If I had it to do over again, I'd probably call a few more running plays," Kelly said in his book "Armed and Dangerous."
"But like I said, spending so much time on the sidelines while the Giants moved the ball up and down the field, I wasn't as patient as I should have been."
Not that the loss was Kelly's fault. A much bigger share of the blame belonged to the defense, which could not get the ball away from New York, and, of course, the fact Scott Norwood did not make a 47-yard field goal at the end.
Kelly finished the '90 regular season with 24 TD passes and a career-low nine interceptions. His passer rating was 101.2. He's one of only five quarterbacks in the last 20 years to have a rating of 100 or better for a season.
He and his teammates entered the '91 season on a mission.
In the opener, Kelly again outgunned Marino, throwing for 381 yards in a 35-31 victory. In Week Two, he threw for 363 yards in a 52-34 win over Pittsburgh.
"I don't think we can be stopped," said Don Beebe, after catching four of Kelly's six TD passes. "It's like a runaway train."
The beat went on. In Week 14, Kelly had one of his all-time games. The Bills trailed the Raiders, 27-14, in Los Angeles with 7:20 left. Kelly drove the Bills 67 yards for a fast score. The Bills' defense forced a punt. Kelly got the ball back on his own 36 with 2:36 left. He had the Bills in the end zone with a full minute to spare, and the Bills won in overtime, 30-27.
"With 2:36 left, Jim Kelly can conjure up two touchdowns, make a pizza commercial and sing 'Stairway to Heaven,' " wrote Mark Whicker in the Orange County Register.
Kelly threw for a career-best 33 TDs in '91. But his interceptions rose from nine to 17. The Bills got back to the Super Bowl, but Kelly threw four interceptions and the Bills lost to Washington, 37-24.
That was one of the drawbacks with Kelly. He had a bit greater propensity for the interception than some of the other great quarterbacks in the game. Aside from the '90 season, he was never among the league leaders for fewest pickoffs. His career playoff totals are 21 TDs, 28 INTs. Perhaps it was due to his supreme confidence he could make the big play.
Whatever, Kelly never was overly enamored with statistics. That was particularly evident over the last five seasons. With each season, the no-huddle gradually lost personnel and a bit of steam. Kelly was more than willing to see his passing numbers slide as long as the running game was rolling, which it usually was. The Bills led the league in rushing in both '91 and '92 and ranked eighth, eighth, sixth and eighth in subsequent years. The passing game went from fourth in '91 to sixth to 11th to 10th to 21st to 17th.
Kelly shared in the rushing success more than the average quarterback, of course, since he called most of the plays. The 30-13 win over Kansas City for the '93 AFC crown was a brilliantly called -- as well as designed and blocked -- game by the Bills.
Unfortunately for the Bills, it was followed by a second straight Super Bowl loss to Dallas.
Kelly got the Bills back to the playoffs twice more after the second Super Bowl loss to the Cowboys. Each of the past two years he was good enough to quarterback the team to 10-win seasons. But in '95 the Bills were overwhelmed by a superior Pittsburgh team. And this year was probably the most difficult for Kelly because of his own struggles on the field. His touchdowns (14) were too few, his interceptions (19) too many and the season too short, ending with the surprising loss to Jacksonville at Rich Stadium.
Way back at that first news conference in 1986, Kelly stood at the lectern and was handed a telephone. Gov. Cuomo was on the line.
"Who knows?" Kelly told Cuomo. "Maybe I'll be able to take this team to the Super Bowl and get a call from the President next."The presidential call never came. On almost every other count, Kelly connected.