NFL

Jim Kelly Once Beat Steve Young in the ‘Greatest Game No One Saw’

Most football fans remember the game when backup quarterback Frank Reich rallied the Buffalo Bills from a 35-3 deficit to defeat the Houston Oilers 41-38 in a playoff game back in 1993. Most, however, don’t recall the game when future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, the man Reich was playing for in that playoff game, put up 20 points in the final 10 minutes to defeat Steve Young, another HOF quarterback, 34-33. That’s because hardly anyone saw it.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young had Hall-of-Fame careers in the NFL

Jim Kelly and Steve Young are very similar when it comes to football. The two have combined for seven Super Bowl appearances, although Young has won three, while Kelly went 0-for-4. Both played in the now-defunct USFL prior to the NFL and both are NFL Hall of Famers.

Kelly played all of his 11 NFL seasons with the same team, the Buffalo Bills. Kelly was a five-time Pro Bowler. In 1991, he led the league in touchdown passes with 33. During the 1990 season, he led the league in completion percentage at 63.3 percent. He went to four straight Super Bowls between 1990-93 and compiled a 48-13 regular-season record during that stretch.

Young began his NFL career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, spending just two seasons with the team before joining the San Francisco 49ers in 1987. In 1992, Young took over as the 49ers’ full-time starter and began a string of seven straight seasons in which he made the Pro Bowl. Young led the league in completion percentage five years, including four straight seasons beginning in 1994. He also led the league in touchdown passes for times.

In 1985, Kelly and Young met in the USFL season opener

In the season opener of the now-defunct USFL in 1985, Jim Kelly’s Houston Gamblers played a game in Los Angeles against Steve Young and the LA Express. Playing at the LA Coliseum that holds more than 90,000 fans, the place looked empty, as any USFL game would’ve that year playing in a venue that size.

The game was not televised because the league decided it would be better to show the debut of Doug Flutie, a young phenom out of Boston College, who was playing for the New Jersey Generals. The game started out as a dud and was one-sided heading into the fourth quarter with the Express in charge. The atmosphere was ho-hum. “From the press box, it would be so quiet I could hear Young shouting in the huddle,” said former Los Angeles Times writer Chris Dufresne, who covered the Gamblers-Express classic in 1985. “You could almost hear him call plays.” Sports Illustrated called the meeting “the greatest game no one saw.”

The Express held a 33-13 lead with less than 10 minutes remaining before Kelly and the Gamblers put on a show. Kelly threw three touchdown passes in the final 9:447 and finished with 574 yards passing as Houston wound up winning a thriller 34-33.

Kelly reacts to the victory

Kelly completed 35 of 54 passes in the game and hit future Washington Redkins wide receiver, Ricky Sanders, with the game-winning touchdown pass. It was Sanders’ third touchdown reception of the game.

After the game, Kelly said it was the best he’s ever felt after a football game.
“I’ve been in some comebacks before, but never anything like that,” Kelly said. “Pulling out that win was the best feeling I ever had in my life.”

Even when asked about it in 2016, Kelly remembered how great of a game it was, despite the fact not many people witnessed it. “It’s not that often, but when people know about it they bring it up,” Kelly said. “But more people need to know about it. Because it really was a great game.”