ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — ORCHARD PARK, N.Y.--THE PHONE rang incessantly in the Buffalo Bills' administrative offices Monday.
The switchboard operator, her desk covered with unopened letters, unfiled papers and untyped memos, answered the same question at least 100 times.
"No, Jim Kelly will not be the Bills' quarterback this weekend."
Buffalo's sometimes-treasured son went down with a knee injury in the second quarter of Saturday's game against the New York Giants. He won't be back for Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins, he won't be back for the regular-season finale against the Washington Redskins. Doctors say Kelly will be ready to practice in three weeks and play in four.
When this happened last year -- when Kelly separated his shoulder at midseason -- the spirit of this city matched its weather: cold and gloomy. But while the public still checks up on Kelly almost hourly, there is not the same aura of impending doom.
Frank Reich, 29, who will replace Kelly, no longer is a stranger to Bills fans -- or to the Dolphins, for that matter. He led the Bills to three victories in three starts last year (including a 31-17 victory over Miami) and hung on against the New York Giants as the Bills won, 17-13.
Monday morning, when Bills wide receiver Scott Tasker made his regular weekly appearance on AM Buffalo -- a local morning talk show -- callers had only upbeat comments.
"We were just so proud to see all our guys go in there and play so hard for Frank," one woman said, crying.
The mood is just as optimistic in the Bills' locker room.
"What? No one told me Frank was starting," receiver James Lofton joked. "Seriously, though, we have a lot of confidence in both of them. Frank is one of the best backup quarterbacks in the league."
Everyone from coach Marv Levy and offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda to Reich and the receivers have insisted that Buffalo's strategy will not be affected by the quarterback change.
"We will not tailor the offense to a player; we will follow the same game plan," Levy said. "Frank has been on top of everything all year long."
In Reich's view, he has played every game this season, facing all the same situations as Kelly. Each week he stands on the sidelines, studying the defense, planning his patterns, selecting his receivers.
"I'm a big fan of visualization," Reich said of the technique advocated by Levy and his coach at the University of Maryland, Bobby Ross. "When I'm not playing and Jim's in there, I'm trying to think what would I do, who would I throw to, reading the same way he's reading the defense . . . I do everything except physically complete the pass."
In reality, though, he has touched the ball very little. He has thrown only 28 passes all season; Saturday's appearance was his first this year in a close game. He takes at most 5 percent of the snaps in practice, so there is a lot of rust to remove. That's why Levy has assigned him a lot of homework -- films to watch, plays to memorize, extra practice.
Kelly has branded the Bills with his no-huddle offense, and Reich does not expect the Bills to change for him.
"I feel very comfortable with it," Reich said. "It's something that we've developed well this year. Basically, what we're doing is just huddling on the line of scrimmage."
Although Levy called Reich's strengths his ability to read defenses and think clearly in the huddle, no one is worrying about his arm. At Maryland, Reich would play "gorilla ball" with Boomer Esiason -- his roommate -- and he always beat Boomer on the long throws.
"He's got a good arm, but our main concern is attacking the opponent, not what Frank can do," Levy said.
And how do the Bills plan to attack Miami? Levy won't even discuss his offensive plans, but several players said the Bills might lean heavily on the run.
"We'll try to get the running game going as much as possible so we can keep the pressure off of Frank," fullback Jamie Mueller said.
Last year, Reich was a modest six of nine for 123 yards and one touchdown against the Dolphins, but the Bills trampled all over Miami's run defense, with 100-plus yard performances from Thurman Thomas (148) and Larry Kinnebrew (121).
Although Reich may not have made a big impression on Dolphins fans last year, University of Miami followers are sure to remember his name. In a game at the Orange Bowl in 1984, Reich led Maryland to one of the biggest come-from-behind victories in college football history.
Reich, then a senior, sat out the first half nursing a shoulder injury. But after the Hurricanes took a 31-0 lead in the first half, Reich led the Terrapins on a second-half rampage that ended with two touchdowns in the final three minutes and a 42-40 Maryland victory.
"Past history," Reich said earlier this week. "I have to think about this week."
The Bills would clinch their third straight AFC East championship -- and home-field advantage for the playoffs -- with a victory Sunday.
"I think we have to turn it up a notch," said linebacker Ray Bentley, "but that's because it's Miami. It would have been the same whether Jim plays or not. We have confidence in Frank."