There were about 250 of them, ranging in ages from seven to 13, and they had come to Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park last week to learn a little football from the greatest quarterback in Buffalo Bills history. Jim Kelly has been staging this annual summer camp for 33 years — so long that attendees now include not only children of former campers, but even some grandchildren. The current campers know of Kelly mostly through what they’ve been told by relatives who saw him play back in the day.
“If it wasn’t for the parents, the kids wouldn’t know who in the heck I am,” Kelly joked to reporters. “Jim who?”
This generation of young Bills fans worships Josh Allen. And that’s understandable. He’s their Jim Kelly, their franchise quarterback, the sports superhero they hope to be telling their children and grandchildren about some day.
The football — and the torch —has finally been passed in Buffalo, from Kelly to Allen. And the former king of One Bills Drive couldn’t be happier someone’s finally ascended to his throne a quarter century after his last game and so many err apparents. In Allen, the Bills appear to have found the guy who just might complete the mission Kelly and his mates couldn’t during those unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowl appearances — and losses — at the start of the 1990s.
Kelly reached out to Allen shortly after the Bills chose him with the 7th pick overall in the 2018 NFL draft, and the two have formed a special bond. The man with the Pro Football Hall of Fame bust in Canton, Ohio has counseled the young quarterback through some rocky times during his first two seasons, and continued to do so last year when Allen established single-season franchise marks for passing yards (4,544), touchdown passes (37) and regular-season victories (13), while finishing second in the league most valuable player voting. The Bills made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game, but came up short against the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.
Little wonder, expectations are soaring heading into the start of training camp next Wednesday in Orchard Park. Several respected pro football observers have the Bills as their dark horse team to win it all, and the wizards of odds in Las Vegas have made Allen a 10-1 favorite to cop this year’s MVP. The only player with better odds is Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes at 4-1.
“Josh just has to be consistent,” Kelly said. “And I know him well enough to know that the kid can play. If you can get the right material around him, which I think he has, and the offensive line gives him the time to throw, things will be awesome. And talk about my records. I knew before last season started that those records aren’t going to stay around very long.”
Kelly’s single-season marks already have been obliterated, but his franchise standards of 35,467 passing yards, 237 touchdown passes and 101 wins as a starter seem safe for a while. Some overly giddy Bills Mafia members are claiming Allen already is better than Kelly. Sheesh! Talk about a rush to judgment. One season does not a career make. Can we at least wait several more years before making that canyonesque leap?
By the way, comparing Allen’s numbers with Kelly’s is like comparing ancient, leather football helmets to modern, hard-shell, plastic ones. Two totally different eras. Can’t be done. Today’s rules heavily favor and protect quarterbacks and receivers, so it’s a much more pass-happy and safer NFL than it was back in Kelly’s day.
Kelly’s legacy, like most sports legacies, can’t be measured in sheer numbers. His arrival in Buffalo 35 summers ago saved a floundering franchise that was coming off consecutive 2-14 seasons and whose season-ticket sales had plummeted to 19,000. Had he not arrived when he did, we wouldn’t be having this discussion because the Bills would have bolted Western New York long ago.
Let’s just say that Allen has a golden opportunity to carve his own legacy, and he’s off to a great start. On and off the field. The 25-year-old clearly has taken some of the 61-year-old’s advice to heart.
“It’s been great to have someone of Jim’s stature teach me the ropes,” Allen told me during an interview in Batavia last year. “He’s counseled me about football things, like not trying to be a hero on every play and about taking what the defense gives you. But it goes beyond football. He told me to embrace Buffalo and its people and its food and its traditions, and I’ve tried to do that. He’s really helped me develop not just as a player but as a person, too. I couldn’t have asked for a better role model.”
When all is said and done, Allen hopes to be mentioned in the same breath as Kelly. As a quarterback, philanthropist and bodacious Buffalo booster.
“That’s where I want to be,” he said after being drafted by the Bills. “That’s eventually (the goal) of my career, to be regarded in the city of Buffalo like a Jim Kelly. Every quarterback who plays here wants to be in the same sentence as him, just because of what he is and what he (means) to the city.”
Again, Allen is off to a fabulous start. He has people believing that elusive Lombardi Trophy might be within grasp. It’s the same feeling people in these parts had a generation ago, when Jimbo was in Josh’s cleats, and was still a legend in the making.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.