ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Coach Jimmy Johnson, who has two Super Bowl rings in part because of quarterback Jim Kelly's collapse in big games, showed again yesterday he's the best NFL coach of his generation, while leaving Kelly down and out once more.
Johnson, who drove the Dallas Cowboys to back-to-back Super Bowl victories in the 1992 and 1993 seasons, employed six rookie starters, played without quarterback Dan Marino yesterday and still inspired his Miami Dolphins to defeat the Buffalo Bills, 21-7, in Rich Stadium before 79,642 angry fans.
"String him up," bellowed one fan after the game, and he wasn't talking about Johnson, who now has his Dolphins at 4-2, tied with the Bills.
The hometown fans, who used to call for backup Frank Reich to replace the unpopular Kelly, groused all week about coach Marv Levy's decision to start Kelly over Todd Collins, who had lifted the Bills to victories over the Cowboys and Indianapolis Colts.
Kelly, who had been sidelined because of a hamstring injury, was intercepted three times, fumbled, was sacked seven times, and was charged with intentional grounding at the most crucial time in the game.
Even before the start of the season, Kelly had irritated Buffalo fans by threatening to sit out the preseason opener unless he received a new contract.
"It seems like no matter what happens, it's set up for me to do something wrong," said Kelly, who has thrown two touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. "What more can happen? I mean, intentional grounding on me, me throwing an interception. When it rains, it pours, and it's coming down in buckets on me."
Kelly has completed 56 of 89 passes for 589 yards with no touchdowns and six interceptions in two Super Bowl losses and yesterday's defeat against Johnson. Yesterday, he looked like an old man waiting to be thumped in the pocket against Miami's kiddie corps.
Despite such a poor performance, which prompted boos from the Buffalo crowd, the Bills were in position to tie the score and send it into overtime in the final two minutes. Wide receiver Andre Reed caught a short pass from Kelly, evaded a defender and advanced 49 yards to the Miami 2-yard line with 1: 55 remaining and Buffalo trailing, 14-7.
What happened next might explain why the Bills blew four Super Bowl opportunities. Buffalo had the ball on the 2 with Thurman Thomas, who had already run in from 19 yards to break O. J. Simpson's franchise record for rushing touchdowns with his 58th, and the call from the sideline was to pass.
A quick passing touchdown would have given the Dolphins the ball back with lots of time to attempt a game-winning field goal. A run, if unsuccessful, would have taken time off the clock, and still allowed for three more passes.
But Kelly went back to pass, looked right, found no one open and then noticed Miami defensive lineman Tim Bowen bearing down on him. A veteran quarterback overthrows his covered tight ends on the right side, but inexplicably Kelly opted to throw to no one on the left side. The referee penalized the Bills for intentional grounding: 10 yards and a loss of down.
Kelly, who is playing in the final year of his contract and looking for Marino-like money (a $3 million raise), threw the ball away in the correct manner on second down. He tripped while trying to hand off to Thomas on third down, resulting in only a 2-yard gain. And on fourth-and-goal from the 10, he threw the ball to Terrell Buckley.
Unfortunately, Buckley plays for the Dolphins.
A week ago Johnson fired safety Gene Atkins for not making plays in the secondary, but Buckley took the interception and returned it 91 yards for a touchdown to give Johnson his biggest victory with the Dolphins.
"I was feeling so good in the locker room, there's no telling what I said to the team," Johnson said. "We had to overcome the thought that we couldn't win without Marino. Obviously we're going to welcome him back with open arms [in two or three weeks], but I think our guys took a giant step forward and became a better football team."
The Dolphins had lost eight consecutive games without Marino as their starter. The Bills, meanwhile, had demonstrated the ability to win without Kelly the past two games, but must now ponder their future: Kelly or Collins?
"I don't know what is going on with the offense," Buffalo linebacker Bryce Paup said. "I know we need to get some urgency in this team and start to get the job done. There are too many 'we will get them the next time' attitudes."
The Bills, while still a threat in the AFC, have been outscored 95-79, primarily because of Kelly's drop-off.
"I should be down on myself," said a dejected Kelly. "I let our team down. I deserved to be booed. I have a sense of urgency with myself: either get it done or get out of there and let Todd take over. I'm man enough to realize if you can't get it done, no matter what the position, it's time to move on to something else."
Pub Date: 10/14/96