BATAVIA – As the present met the past at the Jim Kelly Celebrity Golf Tournament Monday, one thing was clear: the generations have a great deal of mutual admiration.
Understandably, the current Bills, who haven’t been to the playoffs in 15 years and don’t know who their quarterback will be this season, have nothing but the highest regard for Kelly and the others who played in four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s.
What is striking, though, is how effusive some of the players from the era that produced multiple members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame – including coach Marv Levy and General Manager Bill Polian – are in their praise of the present squad.
“I’m buying in,” Hall-of-Fame running back Thurman Thomas said before teeing off in the tournament at Terry Hills Golf Club. “I know I’m not a part of the team, but I’m guaranteeing a playoff spot this year. You can write it down! I don’t know if it’s the sixth seed or the third or whatever, the playoff drought will end this year.”
Much of that optimism stems from the man responsible for the Bills’ entire current team showing up at the tournament: Rex Ryan. The coach stunned Kelly when he informed him of the plan to have all of the players there as both a show of support for Kelly’s charitable effort, which raises funds for the “Kelly for Kids Foundation,” and a team bonding experience.
Kelly and Thomas have visited some offseason practices, and came away impressed with what they saw from the talent acquired during a record offseason of guaranteed money spent – and especially from the way it is being guided by Ryan and his assistants.
Even the uncertainty of who will start at quarterback from among EJ Manuel, Matt Cassel, Tyrod Taylor, and Matt Simms (claimed off waivers last Friday) isn’t enough to dampen the enthusiasm.
“It’s real exciting,” said Hall-of-Fame wide receiver Andre Reed, who will be doing a coaching internship with the Bills this summer. “Just looking at the pieces that they’ve got here, you feel like a little bit of back-in-the-day here. Everybody’s excited, even more excited this year with the hiring of Rex and Terry and Kim Pegula and all that, and the guys they picked up in the offseason. Really excited about that.”
“If there’s somebody in Buffalo who’s not excited about this season, something’s wrong,” Kelly, yet another Hall-of-Fame cog in those dominant Bills team of the ’90s, said in reference to Ryan. “He’s got guys ready. Once you hit the field, we’ve got the nucleus, we have the people it’s going to take. The big question is quarterback. If one of those guys steps up and becomes the quarterback we need, look out everybody, especially the teams in the AFC East.”
In the 18 seasons since his retirement, Kelly can remember watching his share of Bills practices where players “go through the motions” rather than work with any sense of purpose.
“But watching how smooth everything went and how enthusiastic everybody was, I haven’t seen that,” he said. “I felt, ‘That’s how it was when I was out there.’ When we look out there and are reminded of how we prepared, not only physically but mentally, that’s what I love to see, and I hope they continue it.”
Thomas is struck by the team’s swagger.
He knows there is no mystery behind the source. If Ryan did nothing else during the last six years as coach of the New York Jets, he put together teams that talked the talk if they didn’t always walk the walk.
“The level of the confidence with the players around these coaches and around Rex, is so much better than it was the past two years,” Thomas said. “He talks to the guys like they’re men. And it’s a different atmosphere. That’s how Marv talked to us, like we were men. He treated us like men. And that’s what Rex has brought to this team so far. I think the best quote that he’s given that he’s been here is, ‘I’m not going to put a muzzle on my players.’”
It is Ryan’s trust in his players’ ability to absorb what they are being taught that led him to give them their second day off from offseason workouts. The first was for a bowling excursion on May 21, the final day of the voluntary offseason conditioning program.
“That’s why all these players are out here,” Thomas said, looking around at all of the current players at the tournament. “He wants them to be a team, and this is the way to grow that relationship with the players. Because a lot of these guys, even though they’re practicing, whatever, eventually they go their” separate “ways.
“But the more times you’re together as a team, you can talk to each other like me and Bruce” Smith “and Jim and everybody does, and not get your feelings upset about it.”