Jim Kelly, 36, just returned from a hamstring injury John Elway, 36, is bothered by a sore shoulder; and Dan Marino, 35, is out with a fractured ankle. Is the Class of '83 dismissed?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Booed, embarrassed and besieged, Jim Kelly was well past denial, running smack up against resignation, when he faced a large media contingent Sunday in the bowels of Buffalo's Rich Stadium.

What the Buffalo Bills quarterback said shocked reporters more than the intentional grounding penalty he drew on the goal line in the game's final minutes, or the interception he threw shortly after that.

What Kelly said was, if he doesn't get the job done, he should be replaced by Todd Collins.

"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," he said.

For the quarterback with the linebacker mentality, for the man who endured four Super Bowl losses and came swaggering back for more, this was as close to raising a white flag as anything he had done in 11 NFL seasons.

"It was a very emotional moment," said Kelly's brother and agent, Dan. "He was very disappointed in his play. He understands if you can't do the job, you have to let somebody else do it.

"But he doesn't feel like he can't do the job."

There is no graceful way to grow old in the NFL, not if you're a quarterback from the famed Class of '83 that produced six first-round draft picks and no Super Bowl titles.

Only three from that elite class are still playing -- two if you consider that Miami's Dan Marino, the last quarterback taken in the first round but the most accomplished of the group, is out with a fractured right foot.

Long gone are Ken O'Brien, Todd Blackledge and Tony Eason, who played in a Super Bowl with New England.

Indeed, John Elway of the Broncos may prove to be the last man standing from the Class of '83. But he still pays a steep price for his football fame. Typical of his 14-year career in Denver, Elway this week had to deny that the Broncos were covering up a serious shoulder injury.

"At times my shoulder hurts, but everything hurts at times," Elway said in response to the cover-up story. "Every time I get a bruise, should it be reported?"

Elway always has made headlines in the NFL, beginning with the time he said he'd rather play baseball for New York Yankees

owner George Steinbrenner than football for Baltimore Colts coach Frank Kush, on through his three Super Bowl losses.

But recently, the news on the Class of '83 sounds more like a siren. Three years after he ruptured the Achilles' tendon in his right leg, Marino broke a bone in his right ankle setting up to throw on the carpet of the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. There was no contact on the play. Marino stayed on the field to finish a field-goal drive, limping badly.

It was not the best of omens for the certain Hall of Famer, who holds 25 NFL passing records in his 14th season in Miami.

"The first thing to go, usually, is the legs," said Don Strock, quarterback coach for the Ravens and one of Marino's closest friends. "Look at Kelly -- he's had knee and hamstring injuries, Dan his legs. The different guy in the group is Elway, who is supposed to have a shoulder problem.

"All of them are getting a little older. They've thrown a lot of footballs, taken a lot of hits. Time is always a factor."

Among the three of them, Marino, Elway and Kelly have thrown 17,267 passes and completed 10,161 (that's 58.8 percent) for 818 touchdowns and 568 interceptions.

"They're all on the same page," said Strock, who played 17 NFL seasons and came out of a 1973 class of quarterbacks that included Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, Baltimore's Bert Jones, Buffalo's Joe Ferguson and Philadelphia's Ron Jaworski. "They all have a little air about them, a cockiness, the way they carry themselves. They lead by example. They're vocal guys, but they lead by example.

"What makes them winners is they're not afraid to lose. They come after you. They're a special breed. I would venture to say, knowing all three, they hate to lose playing even tiddlywinks."

That's what makes their Super Bowl record so tough to take. Collectively, they're 0-for-8. Kelly lost four in a row, Elway dropped three, Marino one. There is not much time left. Elway and Kelly are 36, Marino 35.

History shows that the odds no longer are in their favor. Not since 1983 -- when these guys were rookies -- has a quarterback that old won the Super Bowl. Oakland's Jim Plunkett was 1 1/2 months away from his 37th birthday when the Raiders beat the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII.

More critical than age is the injury factor. Joe Montana, who won four Super Bowls for San Francisco, appeared almost brittle in his final years before retiring, at the age of 38, in 1995. Terry Bradshaw, a four-ring man with Pittsburgh, went out at 36 with elbow problems. Washington's Joe Theismann, then 36, left on one particularly punishing sack by Lawrence Taylor. And Joe Namath bowed out with aching knees at 34.

It was in a concession to age and injury that Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson gave Marino a three-year contract extension worth $17.9 million in April, then logically proposed a three-year timetable to win the Super Bowl.

Elway, who faces the Ravens Sunday, received a five-year extension (for $29.5 million) last April as well, and has hinted he may play only two more seasons.

"If he keeps on working out like he's doing right now," said Denver coach Mike Shanahan, "I wouldn't be surprised physically if he can play for four more years. But I think it really

comes down to mentally, how much longer he wants to play."

In Buffalo, Kelly's career as a starter could be numbered in days. He has thrown only two touchdown passes and 11 interceptions in four games, including Sunday's dreadful 21-7 loss to the Dolphins. The Bills are 2-2 in those games. With Collins at quarterback, the Bills beat Dallas and Indianapolis.

Not surprisingly, Buffalo fans have come down on Collins' side, and coach Marv Levy is trying to stave off the wolves.

"Until I say something otherwise, he's our starter," Levy said. "I think it's unfair or unsettling for me to discuss it. The day will come -- it might come three years from now -- when Jim isn't our starting quarterback. To even discuss the tremendous number of scenarios that could exist, I think, is inappropriate for the head coach."

Larry Felser, a Buffalo News columnist, leaves no doubt he thinks Kelly is washed up.

"Last year he was still-life," Felser said. "This year, he's a statue. He's looking for pass rushers, not pass receivers."

The word spreading through the NFL is that Kelly, after 11 NFL seasons and three in the U.S. Football League, has grown gun-shy. He has accounted for 12 of the Bills' 13 turnovers this season. And in his past four games against Jimmy Johnson-coached teams, counting two Super Bowls, Kelly's offense has committed 17 turnovers.

Telling, perhaps, is the fact that Levy will shelve the Bills' K-gun offense (hurry-up, no-huddle) as his base attack and go with two-back and H-back looks. Kelly, who has started all 151 NFL games he has played, operates best out of the K-gun.

His confidence shaken to the core, Kelly will start against the 0-7 New York Jets this week. The only certainty, it seems, is that the clock is running.

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Breaking down the Class of '83

Fourth-quarter passing

.......... AFC rank ..... Rating ... Comp-Att ... Yds ... TD ... Int

Elway .... 14 ........... 47.0 ..... 17-29 ...... 168 ... 1 .... 4

Kelly .... 13 ........... 47.9 ..... 19-35 ...... 257 ... 1 .... 4

Marino ... NA* .......... 81.3 ..... 4-10 ...... 29 .... 1 .... 0

Third-down passing

.......... AFC rank ..... Rating ... Comp-Att ... Yds ... TD ... Int

Elway .... 3 ............ 93.8 ..... 34-52 ...... 444 ... 4 .... 3

Kelly .... 1 ............ 56.6 ..... 19-38 ...... 237 ... 1 .... 2

Marino ... NA* .......... 122.9 .... 15-24 ...... 225 ... 2 .... 0

Leading passers

.......... AFC rank ..... Rating ... Comp-Att ... Yds ... TD ... Int

Elway .... 5 ............ 84.7 ..... 128-203 .... 1386 .. 11 ... 8

Kelly .... 13 ........... 46.3 ..... 74-131 ..... 849 ... 2 .... 11

Marino ... NA* .......... 102.9 .... 48-76 ...... 678 ... 5 .... 2

* -- Marino does not meet minimum number of pass attempts to qualify for rankings.

Pub Date: 10/18/96

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