Kelly and no-huddle Bills short-circuiting scoreboards all over NFL


TAMPA, Fla. -- Down, set, huh?

The Buffalo Bills are an hourlong two-minute drill that confuses defenses and short-circuits scoreboards. Their hurry-up, no-huddle offense is like clockwork, and it happens all the time in almost no time.

"We're scoring, so why not keep scoring?" quarterback Jim Kelly said.

For Buffalo, scoring has been a snap all season. Its point-a-minute offense leads the league. The Bills have the league's top-rated passer, Kelly. They have the most productive rusher, Thurman Thomas. They have the league's two top receivers, Thomas and Andre Reed. They have another receiver, Don Beebe, leading the NFL in touchdown catches. They have two kickers, because Scott Norwood's leg keeps cramping from all the kickoffs.

They do not, however, have it all.

They have no huddle.

And no losses.

"I certainly didn't expect us to do this well. Who could?" said Buffalo offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda. "The way it's going, my job is pretty easy. How long it will last, who knows? This is the NFL, after all."

The Bills are, above all else, the NFL's most prolific and diversified offensive team, outscoring the run-and-shoot teams and overwhelming most opponents.

"This is a challenge," said Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Floyd Peters. "I like those. They spread out and say, 'Cover us.'

"It's tough to cover water bugs. In the old days, we'd hit them in the mouth and they'd want to go home. You can't do that now. It's a different league. You're playing basketball in the secondary."

The Bills are 9-1 since using the no-huddle full time and meet the winless Buccaneers today at Tampa Stadium, which is the only place they have lost in that stretch. The New York Giants kept the ball from them for a one-point victory in Super Bowl XXV in January.

The no-huddle gains yards and advantages. The Bills have such talent on their depth chart that they rarely make situational substitutions, and the lack of time between plays keeps opponents from substituting. That combination creates favorable mismatches.

There is also the fact that Kelly is able to make more accurate pre-snap reads because defenses have difficulty lining up between plays. And, of course, the Bills force opponents to play at a higher tempo.

Kelly calls the plays and formations to his teammates at the line of scrimmage between snaps.

The Bills have averaged 33.6 points per game in the no-huddle over two seasons. Kelly has averaged 30 passes per game and completed 68.5 percent. He leads the NFL with 10 touchdown passes this season and has a quarterback rating of 112.7.

"He's right up there with [Joe] Montana, [Dan] Marino, in that group," Marchibroda said.

Thomas, whose versatility makes him just as important, is the top rusher and receiver. He has 51 carries for an NFL-best 334 yards and 25 receptions for 250 yards, and he has produced a league-high 584 total yards. He averages 107 rushing yards per game.

"He's in the same class as Neal Anderson and Barry Sanders," Marchibroda said.

The top wide receiver is Reed, who is second to Thomas with 23 catches for 298 yards and three touchdowns, one fewer than Beebe. "Same thing," Marchibroda said of Reed. "He's there with Jerry Rice and those guys."

The no-huddle is not the same as the run-and-shoot. Unlike the run-and-shoot, the Bills keep their tight end, Keith McKeller, in the lineup.

In fact, the Bills have balance, ranking first in passing offense and fourth in rushing. "Are we talking about the greatest offense ever? I don't know," said former 49ers offensive mastermind Bill Walsh. "We'll have to wait and see what happens over 16 weeks. But, yes, no question, I'm very impressed."

The irony of it all is that Bills Coach Marv Levy once complained before a 1988 playoff game against Cincinnati that the Bengals were gaining an unfair advantage by quick-snapping the ball and drawing penalties on opponents trying to make defensive adjustments. Furthermore, Kelly privately complained early in his career that Levy, known for his Wing-T offense with the Kansas City Chiefs, was too conservative.

But Kelly is not throwing more now. He averaged 30 passes per game during his first season in the NFL. But he is more accurate, completing 70 percent this season.

"We haven't invented the Salk vaccine," Levy said. "It's just players playing together and getting better at it."

Levy attributes much of Kelly's improvement to his increased role in play calling. "I think that's been a factor," he said. "When he knows the full responsibility for what he calls rests on him, there's a tendency to study more. If you're going to be the pilot of the plane, you're going to know all you need to know."

Kelly is a game-tough quarterback with an intense attitude. "I'd say any quarterback can do this, but we have a special trigger man in Jim Kelly because he wants the responsibility," Marchibroda said. "He's our Michael Jordan, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson. When you have a guy like that, you just give him the ball."

The Bills opted for this philosophy after Marchibroda watched Kelly lead the team to touchdowns in its final two possessions to beat the Houston Oilers 34-30 in 1987. Further research showed that the Bills won three games in '89 by scoring on their final two possessions with their two-minute offense.

Therefore, it seems odd that the lone criticism of the offense, voiced by Walsh, is that the no-huddle fails in critical situations down the stretch. He attributes their loss in the Super Bowl to that fact.

Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti, reduced to tears after his unit allowed 44 points to Buffalo in a playoff game, concurs with that theory.

"I thought it backfired in the Super Bowl on them," he said. "When they were ahead 12-3, I didn't see the purpose of doing what they were doing. I'm not criticizing them, because I'd love to be in that position. I guess they stayed with it because they're just so damn good with it. They spread you out, and you've got to go one-on-one with them, so you'd better be good."

The only problem the Bills have had is ball control. "The Giants didn't beat them," Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "They kept the ball away from them."

The Giants had the ball for more than 40 minutes. The Bills continue to have difficulty in that area this season. Their time of possession has been almost six minutes per game less than their opponents'.

"Hey, our objective is to get the football in the end zone," Kelly said. "It's the defense's job to stop them."

The Bills have been too busy scoring to huddle. They're in a hurry to get back to the Super Bowl.

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