The Houston Gamblers, one of the United States Football League’s six expansion franchises for its second season, made a major acquisition on June 9, 1983 as prize QB Jim Kelly from the Univ. of Miami signed a contract.
Kelly had been chosen by the Buffalo Bills in the first round of the NFL draft as part of a much-heralded quarterback class that included Stanford’s John Elway and Dan Marino of Pittsburgh. While contract terms were not released at the time of the signing, it was later revealed to be a five-year fully-guaranteed deal for $3.3 million. While they were at it, the Gamblers also signed Kelly’s roommate at Miami, RB Mark Rush, who had been Minnesota’s fourth-round draft pick (he lasted five games with Houston before being released).
“Kelly is more ready to play pro football than some of the others because of the type of offense he was under in college,” explained Gene Burrough, Houston’s general manager.
Playing under Head Coach Howard Schnellenberger at Miami, who utilized a pro-style passing offense, Kelly set school records for pass completions (376), passing yards (5228), and TD passes (31), but his college career was curtailed when he suffered a separated shoulder against Virginia Tech in the third game of the 1982 season. Already given a clean bill of health, but with the USFL season not set to start until February of 1984, he would have that much more time to fully heal.
While the Gamblers were coached by Jack Pardee, the offensive coordinator was Darrel “Mouse” Davis, architect of the “run-and-shoot” offense at Portland State. Houston lost its opening game, 20-17 to the Tampa Bay Bandits, and Kelly passed for 229 yards and a touchdown while giving up two interceptions. But the following week, on a Monday night, the Gamblers blasted the San Antonio Gunslingers, another first-year club, and Kelly threw for 309 yards and a TD while running for two more. The Gamblers got off to a 3-1 start, stumbled for two losses, and then went on to a 13-5 record that placed first in the Central Division. Moreover, the offense was nothing short of sensational, averaging 34.3 points per game on the way to racking up 618 points, which were 79 more than the runner-up, and scoring 79 touchdowns over the course of 18 games.
Kelly significantly exceeded rookie expectations, topping the circuit in pass attempts (587), completions (370), yards (5219), and touchdowns (44), although also in interceptions (26). In addition, he rushed for 493 yards on 85 carries (5.8 avg.) and five TDs. Two of his receivers, Richard Johnson (115 catches, 1455 yards, 15 TDs) and Ricky Sanders (101 receptions, 1378 yards, 11 TDs) finished first and second in pass receptions. For his efforts, Kelly was a consensus first-team All-USFL selection and was named Player of the Year by the league. That the Gamblers fell short in the first round of the playoffs against the Arizona Wranglers took little luster off of the season of accomplishments.
The Gamblers were without “Mouse” Davis in 1985, who became the head coach of the Denver Gold, but it did not slow down Kelly and the offense. In the opening game against the Los Angeles Express and another heralded young quarterback, Steve Young, Kelly had a remarkable performance in a 34-33 come-from-behind win. His 574 passing yards not only far exceeded the existing USFL record but also the NFL mark of 554 set in 1951 by Norm Van Brocklin of the Rams. He went to the air 54 times, completed 35, and five were good for touchdowns.
Kelly maintained high production through another outstanding season until he was sidelined for the last four games with a knee injury, yet he still topped the USFL in pass attempts (567), completions (360), yards (4623), and TD passes (39). He again received consensus first-team All-USFL honors. And while Kelly returned for the postseason, Houston was once more eliminated in the first round.
The 1985 season proved to be the end of the line for the USFL. A planned move to the autumn in 1986 was aborted when an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL led to a favorable ruling but, essentially, no cash award (one dollar, times three), something that was desperately needed by the USFL. The Gamblers had been merged with the New Jersey Generals during the offseason in a move that was to put Kelly in the same backfield with star RB Herschel Walker, but it was not to be. He left the USFL having thrown for 9842 yards and 83 TDs in just two seasons and 32 games.
Kelly went on to the NFL and the Buffalo Bills, who retained his rights. He stayed with Buffalo for eleven years, passing for 35,467 yards and 237 touchdowns, and performing well in a fast-paced, no-huddle offense that was similar to the one he had so much success with in the USFL. The club won four straight AFC Championships between 1990 and ’93 and Kelly, who received consensus first-team All-NFL honors once and was chosen to five Pro Bowls, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002.