IT WAS A SHOW business tale as much as it was a sports story.
It's opening night on Broadway, see, but the star gets ill and can't go on. The house is packed and the audience is buzzing with anticipation. Then the announcement is made that the understudy will step out of the chorus and play the starring role. The audience groans.
The understudy is boffo. The audience screams "Encore! Encore!"
Except in show business tales, the understudy goes on to become a star in his own right. His name goes up in lights. He becomes a household word.
Frank Reich was boffo as Jim Kelly's understudy against the Miami Dolphins Sunday afternoon, but Reich is content to slip back into the chorus, to contribute in a nondescript way.
Early in the fourth quarter, as the Bills grasped the Dolphins firmly by the windpipe, Kelly walked over to Reich on the sidelines, hugged and congratulated him.
"Jim, all I want now," said Reich, "is to get this job back into your hands."
Those were not words spoken for effect. False sincerity is not part of Reich's makeup. If all coaches could custom order their backup quarterbacks, most of them would order Frank Reich: skilled, poised, dependable, reliable, self-effacing, light on the ego and ambition held in check.
"My religious faith is the biggest thing in my life," he said. "Before I went out on the field, I got down on my knees to thank Him for giving me the strength to deal with the pressure."
This was the biggest game of Reich's career, a day in which the stakes were enormous. He barely flubbed a line: 15 completions in 21 passing attempts for 234 yards and two touchdowns. He might have passed for four scores had not two been dropped in the end zone.
But the statistics were just part of the Reich story.
"I called a lot of audibles," he said. "More so than any game that I remember."
Changing plays in an attempt to foil a sound defense like Miami's can be dicey. Only 198 of the 80,433 people who purchased tickets failed to show up in Rich. Those who came maintained a constant rumble, nerve-fraying stuff even for the home team. Blockers sometimes become confused, assignments blown in such circumstances.
Reich kept things together, even when the Bills, who were becoming accustomed to scoring on their first two possessions of the game, dissipated Sunday's early chances.
"We were a little frustrated," he admitted, "because we were moving the ball, but not putting points on the board."
Reich took the blame for both aborted drives. On the first, the Bills pushed to the Miami 26, where he fumbled and the Dolphins recovered. On the second, Buffalo reached the Miami 38, but Brian Sochia sacked Reich for an 11-yard loss, nixing the possibility of a field-goal attempt.
"I stepped up into the pocket, decided to run and got careless with the ball," admitted Reich of his fumble. "Ted Marchibroda (the Bills' offensive coordinator) tells us if we're going to run, put both hands on the ball. I didn't.
"On the second, Will Wolford had the guy blocked well enough, but something happened. My legs froze up. I just let myself get tackled."
Those were the only damaging mistakes Reich made all day.
"He had a game like he had against us last year," said Don Shula, the Dolphins' coach. "It was a near-perfect game last year and he did pretty much the same thing today."
The expectation was the Bills would attempt to dominate Miami with their running game, as they did a year ago. That is just about what happened again, with Thurman Thomas gaining 154 of the 206 rushing yards.
Yet the Bills began the game with three passes within the first four plays. The second and third, thrown from the no-huddle attack, gained 16 and 14 yards for first downs.
"Really, it was up to me what we used, rather than scripted beforehand," Reich said. "I felt they expected us to run right at them as we did last year. I thought we had to throw the ball in order to loosen up their linebackers."
The Dolphin linebackers were loosened up, which created opportunities for the running game. By halftime, the Bills had 93 yards rushing. Thomas averaged more than 7 yards on his first seven carries over the left side alone.
Reich is 4-0 as an NFL starting quarterback, beginning with the unforgettable, last-minute victory over the Los Angeles Rams in a Monday night game a year ago.
"I didn't see where they would lose any confidence in Reich, the way he performed for them last year," said Shula, one of his admirers.
What now, for the man who stepped out of the chorus to earn brilliant reviews? Wouldn't he, like any red-blooded quarterback, prefer to be someone's starter?
"I'm just happy to be part of it again," said Reich, demurring.
"Everyone here is thinking about the Super Bowl. I'm sure there are lots of starting quarterbacks who would gladly give up a year of starting for a Super Bowl ring.
"There was a feeling of joy and jubilation after this game, but the focus of the team is on the next game and from thereafter, the playoffs and trying to get into the Super Bowl."
If the Bills make it to Tampa Jan. 27, Reich will have provided an important segment of the transportation.