Skip to main content

Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly put up some pretty good numbers during his 11 seasons in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills. The five-time Pro Bowl quarterback racked up better than 35,000 passing yards, threw for 237 touchdowns, and compiled a regular-season record of 101-59. He guided the Bills to four straight Super Bowl appearances.

Kelly earned himself a trip to Canton, Ohio. While he shined in Buffalo, his numbers as quarterback for the Houston Gamblers of the USFL were eye-popping.

As the USFL gears to kick back up again after playing three years from 1983 to 1985, we take a look back at Kelly’s monster season when he was named the league’s MVP in 1984.

Jim Kelly initially spurned the Buffalo Bills to play for the USFL’s Houston Gamblers

Jim Kelly, quarterback of the Houston Gamblers, talks to his offensive line during the USFL Western Conference game against the Los Angeles Express on Feb. 24, 1985, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles, California. | Stephen Dunn/Allsport/Getty Images.

Kelly played two seasons for the Gamblers, beginning in 1984. After playing four years at the University of Miami, the Buffalo Bills selected Kelly with the 14th overall pick in the quarterback-heavy 1983 NFL Draft. Kelly was no happy camper.

After the Baltimore Colts selected John Elway with the No. 1 pick and he refused to sign with them, Kelly’s agent as the former Hurricane is there were any teams he didn’t want to play for. According to Chris Brown of, Kelly said there were three teams.

“My agent looked at me after Elway got picked and the problem that arose from it and he said, ‘Hey Jim, is there anywhere that you don’t want to play?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, I don’t want to play for the Minnesota Vikings,'” said Kelly. “‘I don’t want to play for the Green Bay Packers, and I don’t want to play for the Buffalo Bills.'”

The Bills had two first-round selections — picks No. 12 and No. 14. At 12, they selected tight end Tony Hunter, and Kelly breathed a sigh of relief. Two picks later, they called his name.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Kelly said. “Within minutes, the phone calls came, and with me being politically correct, I was saying how excited I was to be a Buffalo Bill. And when I hung up I said, ‘We need to call the USFL and see what other options we have.'”

Jim Kelly signed with the USFL and dominated with the Houston Gamblers

Kelly nearly signed with the Bills, but he received a phone call from the USFL. The Chicago Blitz owned his rights, but the league called him with an unprecedented offer right before he signed with Buffalo.

“We were about ready to sign the contract with Buffalo,” said Kelly. “But there was a representative from the USFL on the phone and they said, ‘Tell Jim to not sign anything. We’ve got an offer he cannot refuse.'”

The USFL wanted Kelly in the league. Kelly received an offer that allowed him to play for the team of his choice. He elected to play for coach Jack Pardee in a warm climate.

“Going to Houston and the Astrodome, and Jack Pardee was the head coach, and I heard they were going to bring in Mouse Davis to run the ‘Run and Shoot’ and throw the football,” said Kelly. “So for a quarterback playing in a dome, no wind, no rain, elements are perfect every week at home. It was a no-brainer.”

Kelly thrived in Houston. In his first USFL season, he completed 370 of 587 passes for a whopping 5,219 yards. He threw 44 touchdowns. Former NFL wide receivers Richard Johnson and Ricky Sanders were Kelly’s top targets. Kelly guided the Gamblers to the West Division crown with a 13-5 record, but they lost in the quarterfinals of the playoffs.

Kelly also rushed 85 times for 493 yards and five touchdowns. He was third on the team in rushing. The Gamblers led the league in points scored with 618, and Kelly was voted MVP of the league.

Kelly bounced back with a similar year in 1985


Marcus Dupree Doesn’t Dwell on What Could Have Been

Kelly showed the 1984 season was no fluke. He bounced back nicely with a similar year in ’85. The league had a different look as it dipped from 18 teams to 14. The conferences were no longer split into two divisions each. Each conference had seven teams, with the top three making the playoffs.

Kelly and the Gamblers finished 10-8 and in third place in the West. Again, they fell in the quarterfinals.

The Gamblers again showed their explosiveness on offense as Kelly went 360-for-567, throwing for 4,623 yards and 39 touchdowns. The Gamblers dismantled after the 1985 season, and Kelly hooked on with the New Jersey Generals. He never took a snap with the team as the league folded after its third season.

Kelly went on to enjoy life in Buffalo. He became a fan favorite with his leadership, which was highlighted by his tough-as-nails play.

Everything worked out for Kelly in the NFL, and it all began with an MVP season in the USFL.