The Prodigal QB Comes Home - I
The Game Plan: The Art of Building a Winning Football Team, Bill Polian (2014)
There are parts of Buffalo Bills history that are almost too bizarre to believe. And there's one part that I can say I'm particularly glad to have missed.
It happened in early June 1983, while I was working in the Canadian Football League. Two months earlier, the Bills had made Jim Kelly, the star QB from the University of Miami, the 14th-overall pick of the draft ...
Jim was the third QB selected in the now-legendary Quarterback Class of '83, after John Elway ... and Todd Blackledge ..., Ken O'Brien ..., and Dan Marino ..., who amazingly was the next-to-last pick of the first round.
Jim made it clear from the start he wanted nothing to do with playing in Buffalo. He went so far as to instruct his agents to get the best offers they could from the United States Football League's Chicago Blitz, which had drafted Jim, and the CFL's Montreal Concordes, who also expressed serious interest in signing him. Jim even made a visit to Chicago and, not surprisingly, came away very impressed with the Blitz's coach, the late, great Hall of Famer George Allen.
Nevertheless, the Bills, with Pat McGroder serving as their interim GM ..., were undeterred. They kept negotiating with Jim's agents, Greg Lustig and A.J. Faigin, and finally put together a four-year, $2.1 million deal that Jim was going to sign. Or so it seemed.
Jim Kelly, Miami Hurricane and Houston Gambler
As the story goes, Jim and his agents were in Pat's office, with Jim literally on the verge of putting pen to paper. All of a sudden, a phone call came in and a secretary, sitting outside the office, picked it up. It was from Bruce Allen, George's son and the general manager of the Blitz, asking to speak with A.J. Faigin. For whatever reason, she put the call through.
Allen was on a three-way connection that included the late John Bassett, principal owner of the USFL's Tampa Bay Bandits and one of the most influential voices of his league. About a month earlier, Bassett had invited Jim, his agents, and one of Jim's closest friends and former Hurricanes teammate, FB Mark Rush, to a Bandits game to give them a feel for the quality of play in the USFL. They spent several days at Bassett's plush condo in Sarasota, where they were treated like royalty.
Allen and Bassett told Faigin to hold everything with the Bills, and that Faigin and Lustig should exit the building and meet them at Bassett's home in nearby Toronto to listen to an offer that would blow them away. They walked out, leaving behind a glaring blank spot on the contract where Jim was supposed to have signed his name.
Later that night, Allen and Bassett informed them that the USFL was so determined to land Jim, he could have his pick of any of its teams. Allen said he would gladly trade Jim's rights to the team of his choice and he and Bassett promised that he would receive far more money than the Bills were offering. As a sweetener, they also extended the Pick-your-USFL-team proposal to Mark Rush, who had been a fourth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings, and assured Jim that any USFL club would sign them as a package deal.
The two of them put together their wish list of teams, and to no one's surprise, they were all warm-weather cities: Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, and Houston. Soon thereafter, Dr. Jerry Argovitz, the Houston Gamblers' owner and a dentist, invited Jim and Mark to Houston, where he would have the attractive opportunity to throw passes in the Astrodome.
Before making a contract offer, Argovitz wanted to make sure Jim's shoulder, on which he had undergone surgery after severely separating it during his senior year of college, was fully recovered. Argovitz took Jim to a park and asked that he throw him some passes as he ran routes. Not quite sure of what to make of the owner of a professional football team running pass patterns for him, Jim, who had one of the strongest arms of any QB to play the game, figured he should take it easy to enhance Argovitz's chances of catching the ball.
But Argovitz told him he wanted more velocity on the throws.
"Okay," Jim said. "If that's what you want."
The next pass wound up breaking the ring finger on Argovitz's right hand.
Right after that, Argovitz, after receiving Jim's rights from the Blitz in exchange for four draft picks, signed him to a five-year contract worth $3.5 million, including a guaranteed signing bonus of $1 million. That made him the USFL's second-highest player after RB Herschel Walker.
Jim would go on to have two brilliant seasons in Houston. Working in the runand-shoot scheme, he threw for 9,842 yards and 83 touchdowns. He completed 63 percent of his passes with an average of 8.53 yards per attempt. In 1984, Jim was MVP of the USFL, setting a league record for throwing for 5,219 yards and 44 touchdowns. ...
You could not have lived in Buffalo during that time and been unaware of how the loss of Jim Kelly affected the perception of the franchise. It was viewed as just an absolute, outright stumble. And it felt doubly worse due to the earlier loss of a talented RB, Joe Cribbs, to the USFL because the Bills had allowed it to happen with incorrectly worded language in his contract. So they lost two players who arguably would have reached marquee status because they didn't have enough acumen to get the job done. That was just another example, in the public's mind, of the bumbling Bills.
The Bills became fodder for Johnny Carson's late-night monologue. They were considered such an embarrassment, such a non-professional organization that, at one point, the late Larry Felser, a longtime sports columnist for the Buffalo News, wrote that the city just might be better off without them. That was a stinging commentary from Larry, who heavily influenced sports opinions in western New York.
And the perception by players from other NFL teams and those coming out of the college ranks was: "These guys are minor-leaguers. This is an awful place to play, it's not a good place to work, it's not a good place to live." There was a malaise that surrounded the franchise that resulted from the losses of Jim Kelly and Joe Cribbs. Those weren't losses on the field. Those weren't because of injuries or poor coaching or anything that you could correct. They were because of poor business acumen, the inability to get the job done, or so people assumed.
To be continued ...