JIM KELLY'S Gamblers' image is as faded as a Wild West photograph. Now, overseen by Ted Marchibroda, a quarterback's mentor with a string of successful pupils, Kelly has become the NFL's top-rated passer.
And the next club he will try to dissect is the Giants -- proud protectors of the league's top defense -- in a game tomorrow that brings together the rival conferences' East Division leaders.
For Marchibroda, in his second season as the Bills' offensive coordinator, both the Bills' record and Kelly's stellar season are not surprising.
"I feel I've been successful when I've had a good quarterback," he said, matter-of-factly.
Marchibroda rattles off the names like someone proud of his handiwork: Roman Gabriel of the Los Angeles Rams, voted the league's Player of the Year for 1969; Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer with the Washington Redskins of the early 1970s; Bert Jones with the 1975 Baltimore Colts and beyond.
"They were all championship years," Marchibroda said.
The Baltimore stint remains his only one as a head coach. The 10-4 record the Colts finished with in 1975 stands as the finest turnaround in league history, for which Marchibroda earned Coach of the Year honors. The year before, the Colts were 2-12. The Colts went on to win three straight division titles, but Marchibroda left in 1979 when the team started losing.
Now, Marchibroda is a top assistant to Marv Levy. It is a role that long ago, he said, he understood could be a fact of football life.
"I go back to George Allen and the Redskins," he said. "We'd have 10 wins every year. I said, 'I'd like to have the head job, but if not, I have a fine job.' "
This is Marchibroda's 29th season of coaching in the league, and although he concedes that "times change, with more concentration on throwing and speed," there are basic ways to coach and play.
Perhaps that has been his biggest success with Kelly: the basics. This season, the strong-armed, strong-willed former University of Miami star has become an efficient quarterback in leading the Bills to an 11-2 record.
Kelly has completed 63.2 percent of his passes this season and his touchdown-to-interception numbers are 23 to 9. Every pass-attempt averages more than 8 yards.
Marchibroda's other stops after the Colts weren't as imposing as his earlier successes (mediocre Detroit and Philadelphia teams), and he joined the Bills as the quarterbacks' coach in 1987.
Marchibroda is in his fourth season working with Kelly. When Kelly joined the NFL in 1986, he had been a U.S. Football League legend with the Houston Gamblers, where he threw almost 600 passes a season. At times with the Bills, like any impatient quarterback with a club that isn't making things happen, Kelly only looked for his deep receivers.
"Jim's a winner," Marchibroda said. "He's very tough and football-minded. We just weren't surrounded with championship people."
Marchibroda thought the Bills would win it last year. He remembers telling Kelly before the season, "If not now, when?" But Kelly's 405-yard passing performance wasn't enough to topple the Cleveland Browns in the playoffs.
"I didn't set any goals this year," Marchibroda said. "We're a club capable of winning a championship."
Marchibroda says Kelly has the attributes the other top quarterbacks had: "first, the arm, then mental and physical talent."
And Kelly's role against the Giants?
"He's played good, consistent football these first 13 games," Marchibroda said. "That's what you must do, against the Giants or anyone else."