Best of the Firsts, No. 14: Jim Kelly
As part of our offseason coverage, we’re taking a look back at some of the best first-round draft picks since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. We’ll work our way up the draft board, starting with the best selection made with the No. 32 pick and ending with the top No. 1 pick. Track all the choices here.
The No. 14 Pick: Jim Kelly, 1983, Bills
His Credentials: Inducted into NFL Hall of Fame in 2002, five-time Pro Bowl selection, three-time All-Pro, led Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances, ranked No. 18 all-time in passing yards
Others in Consideration: Darrelle Revis (2007, Jets); Jeremy Shockey (2002, Giants); Eddie George (1996, Oilers); Ruben Brown (1995, Bills); Randy Gradishar (1974, Broncos)
Go ahead and remember Jim Kelly for how he and his Buffalo teammates fell short in four consecutive Super Bowls. Let’s be totally honest: It’s a difficult legacy to overcome.
But to compact Kelly’s entire career down to the results of Super Bowls XXV, XXVI, XXVII and XXVIII would be to horribly and unfairly simplify what he accomplished. If Scott Norwood’s field goal had hooked through the uprights in that first title game, we might look at Kelly in an entirely different light — after all, you know how many other quarterbacks have started four straight Super Bowls? None.
From 1986 until an injury ended his 1996 campaign, Kelly was a remarkable force in Buffalo’s no-huddle offense.
Kelly topped 3,000 yards passing in eight of his 11 seasons, led the league with 33 touchdowns in 1991 and finished his career with 35,467 yards through the air.
“He inspired others with his work ethic and with his indomitable competitive spirit,” former Bills coach Marv Levy said while introducing Kelly at the QB’s Hall of Fame induction. “He exuded confidence and he transmitted that quality to all his teammates. He was a morale builder, a man who truly loved the game.
“He was a man who prepared, who dedicated himself to excellence and yes, yes, there were times when he loved to have some fun, and he was fun to be around.”
Kelly struggled through injuries in his final season, 1996, but still managed to throw for 2,810 yards and get the Bills into the playoffs. His last game came in the playoffs that year — Kelly completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 239 yards in a 30-27 loss to the Jaguars.
Rather than fight through another season — possibly with another team, given that the Bills appeared ready to move on — Kelly hung ‘em up.
”I don’t want to go out the way some other quarterbacks went out,” Kelly said when he announced his retirement in an emotional press conference. “I want to go out with some dignity, with respect from my peers, respect from my teammates. I wanted to retire a Buffalo Bill.”
There’s no doubt he did that. Kelly will always be synonymous with the Bills franchise, and the same goes for his long-time teammates, Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith.
Kelly’s career was far more than a run of heartbreaking Super Bowl appearances. He may not have won a title, but his Hall of Fame career easily earns him a spot on our list.