Frank Reich talks almost every week to his former roommate at the University of Maryland, Boomer Esiason, but last week's chat was a bit special.
Esiason, the Cincinnati Bengals' quarterback, had a message to deliver.
"He told me to just go out and play my own game," Reich said last week. "He said, 'Hey, you know what to do. You've done it before.' "
What Reich has done before is step in successfully for Jim Kelly as quarterback of the Buffalo Bills.
After he guided the team to three straight victories last year when Kelly was injured, many fans wanted him to keep the job.
Things will be different for Reich when he quarterbacks the Bills against the Miami Dolphins today.
"They're calling it the biggest game in the history of the franchise," Reich said.
If they win, the Bills will be the American Football Conference Eastern Division champions and clinch the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. To keep them out of the Super Bowl, a visiting team would have to beat them in frigid Buffalo, N.Y., in January.
If they lose, they may have to settle for a wild-card spot, meaning they would have to win on the road to make it to the Super Bowl.
That's why if it isn't the biggest game in the history of the franchise, it's certainly the biggest of Reich's career.
Reich says he knows he won't continue to be the fans' favorite if he doesn't win today.
"You know how fickle things are in this business," he said. "It's not that I don't appreciate the support and everything people said and did for me, but I know it could go the other way in a hurry if we don't win this weekend."
Reich was thrust into this position when Kelly suffered a partial tear of a knee ligament Dec. 15 against the New York Giants and was sidelined for a minimum of three to four weeks.
Reich says that he's nervous about the game.
He went up to Kelly on Wednesday, tapped him on the leg and said, "I'm starting to feel the butterflies now."
Reich showed he could handle pressure a year ago when his first start of the season came in a Monday night game against the Los Angeles Rams. He threw two touchdown passes in the final 2 minutes, 23 seconds to give the Bills a 23-20 victory, then guided them to two more victories, including a 31-17 win over the Dolphins, before Kelly came back.
He said the memories of that streak should help calm his nerves.
"I think I'll maybe handle it better this year having that experience from last year," he said.
Miami coach Don Shula also said Reich's success last year will make it easier for him today.
"One of them was a big game against us, a very meaningful game in the race for the playoffs," Shula said. "He did a heck of a job."
When Reich came out of Maryland as a third-round choice in 1985, nobody expected him to be a high-profile player. But he was encouraged that Randall Cunningham was only the quarterback drafted ahead of him, although Bernie Kosar went in the supplemental draft.
"I only started seven games in college, and I looked at myself as the third quarterback in the draft, so that was quite an honor," he said. "I thought, 'Boy, if I could make it in this league five years, it'd be a feather in my cap,' " Reich said.
He's in his sixth season and his career could be just taking off.
He backed up Esiason until his senior year at Maryland, then suffered a shoulder injury and gave way to Stan Gelbaugh.
In his most memorable collegiate moment, he replaced Gelbaugh with the Terps trailing Miami, 31-0, at halftime and led them to a 42-40 victory in 1984.
The Bills were a 2-14 team when Reich arrived in 1985, so he thought he'd have a chance to play, but he wound up spending 13 weeks on injured reserve with an Achilles' tendon injury.
Kelly arrived the next year when the United States Football League folded, and Reich became a backup.
"I still try to prepare each week as if I'm going to play," he said. "One of the best compliments [assistant] coach Ted Marchibroda paid me last year when I played those three games was when he said, 'Frank, you didn't just get ready for this game in one week. You've been getting ready for it for four years.' I think that's pretty true."
He said that when he was at Maryland, head coach Joe Krivak, who was then the quarterbacks coach, stressed that a player never stays the same. He gets better or worse. That's why Reich said he never goes through the motions.
"I really think about that a lot," he said. "I go out with the attitude that I want to get better [each day]."
Reich became good enough that he negotiated, without an agent, a lucrative, new, five-year contract this year that raised eyebrows around the league. According to NFL Players Association figures, he's averaging $870,000 a year -- a $1.2 million signing bonus and $630,000 a year in base salary.
Although Reich said those figures are too high, he still got a good deal -- for a backup.
Reich said he won't put the burden on himself to beat the Dolphins.
"I just want to do my part to help the team," he said. "Nothing more. Nothing less. I've always considered myself very much a team player. I'm just thankful for this opportunity. I want Jim to get healthy as fast as he can."
As the quarterback of a playoff team, Reich could get a lot of attention, but he said he's not in it for that.
"As a Christian, I think God helps me to keep things in perspective," he said. "I try not to get caught up in all the extra-curricular things that come with success on the field. That's not the most important thing. I don't play this game for public recognition and publicity. That doesn't mean anything to me."
What means something to him is helping the Bills win the division title, something he'll get a chance to do today.
Frank Reich's career statistics
Year G Com.-Att. Yds. TD Int.
1985 1 1-1 19 0 0
1986 3 9-19 104 0 2
1987 0 0-0 0 0 0
1988 3 0-0 0 0 0
1989 7 53-87 701 7 2
1990 3 14-28 147 0 0
Total 17 77-135 971 7 4