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The First 23: Comparing Trent Edwards to Jim Kelly

We'll begin this post by stating the obvious: the 2009 Buffalo Bills will only go as far as starting quarterback Trent Edwards can carry them.

Now that that's out of the way, let's get on with the more interesting discussions - whether or not Edwards is going to be any good.  (If you're asking ESPN's Ron Jaworski, he's on board the Edwards Express.)

Is it fair to compare a young quarterback entering his second full season as a starter to a Buffalo-area icon and first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback?  Absolutely not.  So we feel it's important to note that we're not comparing Edwards to Jim Kelly here; rather than using this as a straight-up comparison between the two, we'd prefer to look at it from the angle of how each player fared through 23 games, where Kelly went from there, and where Edwards can go from his current point.  (And hey - as Kelly stands alone in terms of competent modern-era quarterbacks that began their careers in Buffalo, he's the only Bill that we can accurately compare Edwards to.  Unless you're up for an Edwards-J.P. Losman comparison.)

Before we get started, it's important to note that Kelly's data comes from his first 23 NFL starts.  At that point in time, Kelly was at a different point in his professional career than Edwards is now.  Kelly already had two years of professional experience in the USFL; when he made his twenty-third start for the Bills, he was 27 years old.  Edwards got 16 of his 23 starts in before turning 25.

Kelly v. Edwards - First 23
Com. Att. % Yds. YPA TD INT QBR W-L
Jim Kelly (1986-1987) 457 738 61.9 5,413 7.33 35 27 84.8 8-15
Trent Edwards (2007-2008) 396 643 61.6 4,329 6.73 18 18 79.1 12-11

Clearly, Kelly was a far more prolific passer early in his career than Edwards has been - he threw for double the amount of touchdowns and had a far more efficient YPA figure.  Like Edwards, Kelly ran hot and cold like any young, talented quarterback - he had weeks where he was unstoppable (like his first NFL start, where he went 20 of 33 for 292 yards and 3 TD), but he also had weeks where he was far worse than pedestrian (in a home loss to New England in 1986, he completed 13 of 26 passes for 166 yards and 2 INT).

Kelly was also better more frequently than Edwards.  Kelly had more 250+ yard passing days (11 to Edwards' 5) and more multiple-TD games (10 to Edwards' 3), but also more multiple-INT games (8 to Edwards' 4).  Chalk that up to more prolific offensive talent, a different mindset, and different head coaches - again, we're not comparing the two players, just their situations.

Even with Kelly putting up monster numbers in some cases and stellar numbers for an inexperienced NFL player, the Bills were just 8-15 in his first 23 starts - a time period which included a coaching transition.  Edwards is 12-11 through two seasons as a starter; while he has struggled far more often than he's been productive, the Bills remain above .500 with him in the lineup.

One more quick note: Edwards has quickly developed a reputation for being injury-prone due to the fact that he's missed six games in his first two seasons.  It took the Bills 29 games to get to start No. 23 for Edwards, but it took 26 to get to No. 23 for Kelly - he missed three games himself early in the 1987 season.

What happens next?
Again, you can compare the stat lines all you want, but we want to focus more on what happens next.  For Kelly - already a pretty prolific thrower in his own right - things got much better from a team standpoint.  If Edwards can follow this trend, Buffalo should be in business in 2009.

Kelly v. Edwards - Next 16
Com. Att. % Yds. YPA TD INT QBR W-L
Jim Kelly (1987-1988) 274 466 58.8 3,397 7.29 17 15 80.2 12-4
Trent Edwards (2009?) ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

Strangely, Kelly's production slipped a bit.  He completed a lower percentage of his passes, his TD-INT ratio worsened, and his QB rating dropped as a result.  Yet he was far more consistent transitioning from his second to third NFL seasons, and as a result, the Bills established an identity, won 12 of Kelly's next 16 starts, and found themselves playoff-bound in 1988 - a year they would make it all the way to the AFC Championship Game.

We have already examined the impact that WR Terrell Owens could have on Edwards' stat line, statistically hypothesizing that Edwards could complete 65 percent of his throws for 3,344 yards, 20 TD and 12 INT next season.  That's a bold prediction, we realize, but historically speaking, Owens has brought about similar statistical leaps for the quarterbacks he's played with - including two unknowns (at the time), Jeff Garcia and Tony Romo.  In many ways, that projected stat line would be superior to the line that Kelly put up from starts 24 through 39.  Clearly, Edwards would need to participate in a full slate of games next season to get all of those 16 starts into the only season that matters at this point - next season.  If the cards fall as they could (and isn't Buffalo due for a little luck?), the results could be very exciting.

There are many ways to improve as a quarterback.  For the 2009 Buffalo Bills, Trent Edwards needs to improve statistically - and we think he will simply because of the presence of Owens.  But statistical improvement is far less important than improvement in the win column, and Edwards needs improvement there as well.  Kelly improve drastically in this department because he found his role - the facilitator of a burgeoning offense, but not quite ready to conduct the whole train himself.  That's where Edwards can be in 2009 - and if he gets there, and can play consistently enough to stay there, Edwards could see a similar upward trend.  And that, folks, is all we intended to discover with this study - there is reason for optimism in Buffalo.