ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly was among the stars of the ill-fated USFL in 1985 when Buddy Ryan's Chicago Bears defense became one of the most fearsome units in NFL history.
But when the USFL folded the following year and Kelly finally reported to play for the Buffalo Bills, the legendary quarterback and Bills icon soon got a taste of Ryan's defenses. Kelly's introduction to Ryan's 46 defense came on Dec. 27, 1987, when Ryan, as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, held Kelly to 20-of-39 passing for 154 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a 48.5 quarterback rating.
"Everybody knew: When you play a Buddy Ryan defense, you knew that you were in for a battle," Kelly said Tuesday at his 29th annual football camp. "He proved it when he went to the Super Bowl, won the Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears [in 1985]. But he was a great coach."
Kelly's struggles against Ryan's defense were limited to their first meeting. On Dec. 2, 1990, as the Bills were in the midst of their first of four consecutive Super Bowl seasons, Kelly faced little resistance from an Eagles defense that allowed the Bills quarterback to gain 334 yards on 19-of-32 passing, including three touchdowns, one interception and a 113.3 QB rating.
"[The Eagles] were doing all their talking about our no-huddle offense, and I think in the first eight minutes of the game we were winning 21-0 or something like that," Kelly said Tuesday. "I think the game came down close to the end, but I remember Randall Cunningham throwing that Hail Mary up to the end zone, when Bruce [Smith] hit him. The guy caught it and winds up running in for a touchdown at the half."
Ryan was fired by the Eagles weeks later and remained out of coaching until 1993, when Kelly and Ryan, then the Houston Oilers' defensive coordinator, squared off for the final time. The results were again in Kelly's favor; he completed 15 of 25 passes for 247 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 132.8 QB rating.
Kelly believes Ryan's defense was "one of the best" of the era, although the Bills legend said Tuesday that he faced similar challenges over his career from defenses in Kansas City, New Orleans, New England and Pittsburgh.
Kelly and Ryan met for the first time last September when Buddy was on the sidelines prior to his son Rex's debut with the Bills against the Indianapolis Colts.
"He looked like he was hurting a little bit," Kelly said. "That day, we prayed for him. I guess there comes a time in everybody's life when the good Lord decides it's your time. Buddy was a great coach, there's no doubt about it. I think everybody knows it.
"I was reflecting [today] on Rob and Rex. Hopefully before [Buddy] left this world, he rubbed off a lot on his sons, because we're gonna need it. I look forward to this season. But any time you lose a parent, it's not easy."