1986 - Influx of talent
4-12 record, fourth of five in AFC East, 12 of 14 in AFC, 26 of 28 in NFL
In August of 1986, the USFL suspended operations. I don't know about other teams in the NFL but the USFL really cut the legs out from the Bills by taking Pro Bowl running back Joe Cribbs and number one draft pick Jim Kelly for two 2-14 seasons. What the USFL took from the Bills it would give back two-fold. Jim Kelly immediately began contract talks with the Bills and was signed two weeks later. Center Kent Hull was also signed that day from the USFL's New Jersey Generals and linebacker Ray Bentley also joined the Bills from the USFL. Kelly flew to Buffalo after signing his contract and received a police escort to One Bills Drive. The 1984 USFL MVP was greeted as a hero in Buffalo where fans were starved for success. With his rights returned to Buffalo and the very public feud between the two sides, the Bills traded Joe Cribbs to San Francisco the day after signing Hull and Kelly. To add to a very busy two days veteran Bills defensive end Ben Williams retired. To add to the influx of talent the Bills selected Ronnie Harmon in the first round of the draft. Although he would never gain more than 550 rushing yards in a season, Harmon's catching ability made him a solid contributor during his four years in Buffalo. In the second round the Bills selected tackle Will Wolford who would protect Kelly and open holes for Bills running backs for three Super Bowls in the early nineties. In round 7 the Bills selected DE/LB Mark Pike, a role player on the Bills for twelve seasons. Before the season safety Mark Kelso was cut by the Philadelphia Eagles and signed by the Bills, too. In the final preseason game of the year Jim Haslett broke his leg. He would sit out the '86 season with the injury and never play for the Bills again.
In the final home game of 1984 the smallest crowd in Rich Stadium history at just under 20,700 fans saw the Bills win their second game in a miserable year. In the first game of the Jim Kelly era a sellout crowd of 79,951 saw the "rookie" throw for 292 yards and three touchdowns in his debut - a 28-24 loss to the Jets. Nothing like high expectations. Two weeks later on September 21, Kelly earned his first NFL win while ending the Bills' eight-game regular season losing streak in what was ironically Kelly's lowest throwing totals for the year. After beginning the year 2-7 Ralph Wilson fired coach Hank Bullough. Bill Polian and Wilson hired Grey Cup winner and former USFL coach Marv Levy to be the team's head coach. It's the last time Wilson has fired a coach mid-season. Levy's only previous head coaching stint in the NFL came as the top man in Kansas City where he tallied 31 wins for a 42% winning percentage. Let's say the only fans that were thrilled were the ones who knew about his success with the CFL's Montreal Alouettes. Levy's Bills stormed out of the gate winning two of his first four games on the bench and losing one by less than a touchdown. On the year the Bills lost seven games by a touchdown or less. Another mid-season move was the acquisition of Steve Tasker. Tasker was placed on wavers by the Houston Oilers and was plucked up by the Bills for his special teams ability. It was an insignificant move at the time but Tasker would quickly prove to be a valuable asset.
At the very least Kelly turned the offense around. By himself Kelly eclipsed the season totals for both Bills QBs the year before throwing for 3,593 yards (third-highest total in team history at the time) and 22 touchdowns (fourth-highest in team history at the time). The Bills in general climbed in every offensive category hopping up eight spots from the basement to number 20 in points scored, up six to 19 in yards gained and 15 in passing yards, and up three spots to 21 in rushing yards. Running back Robb Riddick rushed for a career-high 632 yards for the Bills that year and caught 49 balls for 468 yards to top a thousand all-purpose yards. Second year receivers Chris Burkett and Andre Reed led the Bills with 778 and 739 yards and Reed's seven TD receptions led the team. The defense was once again in the bottom of the NFL ranking 20 in scoring defense, 24 in total yards allowed, 27 against the pass and coming in dead last in turnovers. A couple positive notes for the defense was a vault into the top ten in rushing yards allowed where they ranked ninth and fifteen sacks for Bruce Smith (fifth in the league). Darryl Talley led the team with 116 tackles. Once again with the terrible team record, no Bills were selected to the Pro Bowl.