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1986 Buffalo Bills – The Messiah

by Bill Choinski 

The USFL was hemorrhaging money and desperate to stay afloat. Originally designed as a low overhead spring league, flamboyant owners like Donald Trump drove salaries skyward in bidding wars for top talent. Like the AFL 25 years ago, they targeted top college talent and paid hefty prices. All 3 Heisman Trophy winners signed with the USFL during their run. Like the AFL, the product dramatically improved in 3 seasons. But unlike the AFL, owners became greedy and expanded way to fast. A schism developed between the haves and have not owners, with many clubs suffering from mismanagement. Teams folded, moved, and merged in an attempt to stay alive. The biggest was Jim Kelly’s Houston Gamblers merging with New Jersey. Not only did Trump have Heisman Trophy winners Herschel Walker and Doug Flutie, but he also could claim Kelly himself.

Trump and others pushed for the league to move their schedule from the Spring to the Fall in direct competition with the NFL. The crux of this move was an anti- trust lawsuit against the NFL charging the TV and stadium deals were unfair labor practices – so the USFL sued for $1.7 Billion dollars ( to be trebled by law). The USFL was banking on this lawsuit to survive- or at a minimum force a merger- with up to 6 USFL teams. The NFL was far from confident- they had lost all sorts of recent civil trials- from the labor disputes to Al Davis’ suit to move the Raiders to LA. The decision

Meanwhile, the Bills struggled to rebuild. DE Ben Williams retired as the Bills all time leader with 51 sacks and played 150 games (3rd all time). Veteran Center Will Grant and former 1s rd pick FB Booker Moore were also released.

On draft day, Polian again wheeled and dealed with excellent results. Trading a 2nd and a 4th, he picked up a 1st round selection. With his 2 1st round picks, he surprised many in Buffalo selecting RB Ronnie Harmon and grabbed OT Will Wolford with the pick obtained from San Francisco. The Bills already had a full stable at RB with the return of always disgruntled Joe Cribbs , Greg Bell, and solid backup Rob Riddick. Polian selected C Leonard Burton with his 3rd, and FB Carl Byrum with the 5th. Polian displayed his knack of getting quality talent in later rounds. LB Mark Pike and TE Butch Rolle were selected in the 7th.

June and July’s headlines were dominated by the trial. On July 29th, the Jury found in favor of the USFL, but it was a hollow victory. They awarded the USFL $1 in damages. The decision was the death knell for the league. While the USFL vowed to return in 1987 after suspending operations for a year, everyone involved knew the league was done. During the height of NFL training camp, 600 USFL players, including Jim Kelly, were now available.

Polian went to work and signed Kelly 3 weeks later to the richest contract in the league at 5 years, $8 million. On August 18th, Kelly flew to Buffalo to be introduced to the fans…but no introduction was necessary. A victory parade was given to Kelly before he ever touched the turf. Other USFL free agents signed were Center Kent Hull of the Generals, and DB Dwight Drane. Lost in the Kelly mania that struck the city of Buffalo was Polian’s trade of Joe Cribbs to San Francisco for future draft picks.

Jim Kelly made his Rich Stadium debut in front of the largest home crowd ever to watch a Buffalo Bills game. Kelly was superb in his debut, going 20-33 for 292 yards, and 3 TDs without an interception. On his first drive, Kelly rove the Bills 51 yards for the game’s first score. His first TD pass was a 1 yard completion to Greg Bell putting Buffalo up 7-0 6:05 into the game. After falling behind 14-10 at the half, Kelly beat a Jets blitz and hit Andre Reed for 55 yards and his second TD of the game one minute into the 4th. Hank Bullough’s defense could not contain the Jets.

The Jets scored two more TDs, including a Wesley Walker 71 yard TD with 5:24 remaining to put the Jets up 28-17. Kelly Rallied Buffalo by hitting Jerry Butler with a 28 yard strike, followed up with a 21 yard strike to TE Pete Metzelaars. Metzelaars drew the Bills within 4 with a 4 yard TD pass, Kelly’s 3rd on the day, with 3:55 left. The Bills defense could not wrest the ball away from the Jets to give Kelly his final opportunity. The Jets would prevail, 28-24.

The following week, Kelly and company put on an offensive show against the Bengals in Cincinnati. RBs Rob Riddick and Greg Bell combined for 147 of the Bills 179 rushing yards. Kelly was solid again, connecting with Chris Burkett on an 85 yard pass with 54 seconds in the 3rd quarter to put Buffalo up 26-21. After John Kidd’s botched punt attempt resulted in a Safety for the Bengals, Buffalo pushed the lead to 10 when Metzelaars pounced on a Rob Riddick fumble on the goal line. Bengal QB Boomer Esiason directed 2 scoring drives in the final 10 minutes to tie the game and put the contest into sudden death. A Jim Kelly interception in overtime put the Bengals in prime position to salt the game away. Jim Breech’s chip shot FG gave the Bengals a 36-33 win. LB Ray Bentley was signed off waivers following the game.

Kelly earned his first win at home in week 3 in a bizarre game against the St Louis Cardinals.. Buffalo ran only 39 total offensive plays, gaining a mere 10 first downs on 92 yards rushing and 82 yards passing. Even more incredible, Kelly attempted only 10 passes, completing 6. Meanwhile, the Cardinals amassed 381 yards and 25 first downs, but found themselves on the short end of a 17-3 lead. The Cards closed it to 17-10 with a late TD in the dying moments of the game.

The Bills proceeded to drop their next 3 contests. Losses to the Chiefs (20-17) and the Jets (14-13) were particularly hard to stomach because it represented the 3rd and fourth losses of the season in which Buffalo held second half leads. In Both games, the winning points were scored with a minute remaining. Game 6 saw Miami steamroll Buffalo 27-14 in the final Bills appearance in the Orange Bowl. Buffalo’s record in that stadium was a miserable 2-18-1. Buffalo halted the slide with 24-13 win at home over the Colts. Top pick Ronnie Harmon had a big day with 85 yards rushing filling in for the injured Rob Riddick and Greg Bell. But the victory was short lived, as the Bills turned in their worst performance of the year in a 23-3 loss to the Patriots.

Week nine saw the Bills drop a heartbreaking loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. QB Steve Young and Tampa Bay jumped out to a 20-0 halftime lead. Rekindling memories of a great USFL showdown in 1985 between these two QBs, Kelly mounted a furious comeback. Scoring 28 points in the second half on 3 Kelly TD passes and a Ron Pitts punt return, Buffalo trailed 34-28 in the dying seconds. Kelly drove the Bills inside the Tampa 10 yard line only to have Rob Riddick (playing with a cast on his broken wrist) drop the winning TD.

At 2-7, Owner Ralph Wilson was growing very impatient. Spending the money and bringing in the players he did, the Bills were not where he wanted them to be. Wilson didn’t want the same thing to happen to Jim Kelly that happened to his last prized player, OJ Simpson. It took 3 seasons and 3 coaches to find someone who could use the Juice to his potential. Hank Bullough, while a fine defensive coordinator, was proving to be a poor choice as head coach. Following the Buccaneer’s loss, Bullough was relieved of his duties. For the second time in successive seasons, Wilson looked for a replacement coach at mid season.

On election day, Nov 4th, 1986- Buffalo added one more piece from the USFL. Former Kansas City Chiefs and Chicago Blitz head coach Marv Levy was hired to right the ship. One of his first objectives was to immediately improve special teams. Levy broke into the league as George Allen’s special teams coach in the early 1970’s with the Redskins. It was Levy’s special teams unit that produced the only Redskins score in Super Bowl VII. The rebuilding process was immediate, his first act as coach was to pick up Steve Tasker off waivers from the Houston Oilers.

Levy’s debut came at home in a 40 mph wind against the Pittsburgh Steelers. For the second time this season, Kelly would earn a victory while throwing for less than 100 yards. Rob Riddick fuelled the 16-13 win with 108 yards on the ground and the winning TD.

The Bills lost in week 11 34-24 to the Miami Dolphins, as Dan Marino completed a Bills record 39 passes on 54 attempts for 404 yards and 4 TDs. Buffalo managed a 24-20 lead at the end of 3 quarters on Jim Kelly’s 3 TD passes. But Marino led 2 4th quarter drives for TDs to give Buffalo another loss. Jerry Butler caught his 278th and last pass as a Bill in the game, a 25 yard TD that resulted in a severely broken ankle. Week 12 saw the Bills fall in defeat again, this time to New England, 22-19. Buffalo lost their 5th game of the year while holding a 4th quarter lead. A Tony Eason TD pass with 1:40 remaining proved to be the winning margin. Steve Tasker paid dividends in his 3rd game in a Buffalo uniform, blocking a punt leading to the Bills’ first score of the game.

Buffalo defeated Kansas City 17-14. 2 Andre Reed TD receptions highlighted the Bill’s offense. Week 14 saw a match up between 2 former University of Miami QBs when Bernie Kosar’s Browns rolled into town. Jim Kelly won the QB duel with 308 yards and 2 TDs, but lost the war as the Browns won, 21-17. Buffalo closed the season out with two road losses to the Colts (24-14) and Houston 16-7. Buffalo finished the year with a 4-12 record, equal to their victory totals from the previous two seasons combined.

Rob Riddick was the top ground gainer with 642 yards and 5 TDs in Buffalo’s “running back by committee” approach. Six Buffalo Bills registered 100 or more yards rushing for the season. Buffalo’s passing attack was no different. 9 players registered at least double digit receptions and at least 100 yards receiving. Andre Reed led the team with 53 catches for 739 yards and 7 TDs. Chris Burkett led the league in Yards per catch, averaging 23 yards on 34 receptions for 778 yards and 4 TDs. TE Pete Metzelaars and Rob Riddick each added 49 receptions. Jim Kelly finished his freshman season with 3,697 yards, a 59% completion rate, and 22 TDs with 19 interceptions.

On defense, LB Eugene Marve led the team with 159 tackles followed by Darryl Talley with 112 and Steve Freeman with 102. Bruce Smith exploded in his sophomore season, Leading the team with 15 sacks, followed by Sean McNanie with 6.5. Charles Romes led the team with 4 interceptions.

Marv Levy filled out his coaching staff at the conclusion of the year. Retained from the previous staff were DL coach Ted Cottrell, OL coach Jim Ringo, and RB/ST coach Elijah Pitts. Added to the staff was QB coach Bobby Ross, DB coach Dick Roach, and assistant Chuck Dickerson.

1986 Buffalo Bills Statistics    1986 Team Results