Orchard Park, N.Y. -- John Elway stiffed the Baltimore Colts because he didn't want to play in Frank Kush's Stone Age offense or with Bob Irsay's penny-pinching franchise.
Jim Kelly stiffed the Buffalo Bills because he hated frozen footballs and Buffalo's dreary track record as an NFL doormat.
The year was 1983. It was the year six quarterbacks were taken in the first round of the draft, the draft when two of those marquee names, Elway and Kelly, were rebels with a cause. Elway used his baseball leverage to force a trade to the Denver Broncos. Kelly used his USFL leverage to avoid three Buffalo winters. He signed with the Bills in 1986.
Those two distinguished members of the Class of '83 cross paths again today, when the Broncos and Bills meet in the AFC championship game at Rich Stadium. They are playing for the right to go to Super Bowl XXVI in Minneapolis in two weeks, and ultimately, they are playing for something else: to be the first from the Class of '83 to win the big one.
For all of the anticipation of greatness, the Class of '83 is 0-for-the Super Bowl. Elway has failed three times by increasing margins, and Kelly, Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins and Tony Eason, then of the New England Patriots, have lost once each. That's a collective 0-for-6. Two other Class of '83 members, the New York Jets' Ken O'Brien and retired Todd Blackledge, never got that far. Greatness as a group? Validation awaits.
"After this year, I'd like to have people say, 'He was the first quarterback from the Class of '83 to win a Super Bowl,' " Kelly said. "I'm sure John feels the same way. No matter what happens Sunday, one of us will get the chance."
Quarterbacks are judged on performance in big games. That is why they are given not just passing statistics, but playoff records as well. In AFC title games, Kelly is 1-1, having lost to the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1988 season and beaten the Los Angeles Raiders a year ago. His status as one of the league's premier quarterbacks is clearly on the rise.
Elway is another story, though. Because the Broncos have been blown out in the three Super Bowls he quarterbacked, Elway is viewed by many as an underachiever, a player of great talent who performed poorly in big games. His Super Bowl record notwithstanding, the facts don't support that view.
Elway is 3-0 in AFC championship games -- all three against the Cleveland Browns. He has thrown for 910 yards, seven #i touchdowns and only two interceptions in those games. He has a playoff record of 7-5 -- including the Super Bowl.
But perhaps his legacy will be the ability to bring the Broncos back from defeat in the fourth quarter. He has choreographed 19 fourth-quarter comebacks in his nine-year career, the latest last week with an 87-yard drive for the winning field goal that eliminated the Houston Oilers, 26-24.
"John has tremendous athletic ability," said Broncos coach Dan Reeves. "His ability to make something out of nothing is a unique skill. Not a lot of quarterbacks have the speed to be able to do the things that John's able to do."
Unless it's the Super Bowl, what that means is the Broncos are never out of a game. It is a circumstance reminiscent for Broncos assistant coach Charlie Waters of his time as a safety with the Dallas Cowboys. Waters watched Roger Staubach bring the Cowboys from behind in the fourth quarter to win 21 times. It served as motivation for the defense.
"I stress this to our players, and it's the same feeling I had as a player," said Waters, who coaches the defensive backs. "We're capable of scoring at any time because of John. He has that competitiveness that you can't coach. It ends up being an intangible plus for us. It gives our defense great drive to get the ball back: 'Give him one more shot at it.' He's done it time and again. We're convinced [he can do it]. We believe it now."
While Elway inspires awe with his two-minute wizardry and his ability to improvise, Kelly presents a different kind of problem. Operating out of the Bills' no-huddle offense, he is not as elusive or as athletic, but he is linebacker-tough. And he has been virtually unstoppable this season, throwing for 36 touchdowns.
"He's got a lot of poise and an aura that exudes confidence," Waters said. "At times, he might get himself in a little bit of trouble. But that offense is so potent, it can overcome his mistakes. They've had 44 drives for touchdowns that were performed in less than three minutes this year."
At times this season, when the deep passing game wasn't there, Kelly has grown impatient, forced passes and thrown interceptions. That is what the Broncos must hope for today, to rattle Kelly, to take him out of his game. That and a big game from Elway.
Elway has learned to live with his bittersweet reputation for blowing Super Bowls and creating comebacks. The Broncos are 11 1/2 -point underdogs today, and Elway was asked whether he remembered a time when the spread was so prohibitive against Denver.
;/ "Yeah," he said. "A couple of Super Bowls."
Title game performances
How today's opposing AFC quarterbacks have fared in conference championship games:
Season..Opponent..Outcome.. ..Com.-Att.. ..Yds..TD..Int.
1988.. .Bengals.. Lost, 21-10.. 14-30.. .. 163.. 1.. 3
1990.. .Raiders.. Won, 51-3.. ..17-23.. .. 300.. 2.. 1
Totals.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..31-53.. .. 463.. 3.. 4
1986.. .Browns.. .Won,23-20.. ..22-38.. .. 244.. 1.. 1
.Browns.. .Won,38-33.. ..14-26.. .. 281.. 3.. 1
.Browns.. .Won,37-21.. ..20-36.. .. 385.. 3.. 0
Totals 56-100 910 7 2