"What?", you may be asking yourself. "Impossible!" you may be exclaiming. "Simply preposterous," you may indeed be thinking. However, there is indeed a case to be made for five (and a half) Buffalo quarterbacks worthy of mentioning in the same article... nay, the same sentence as the word, "best". In fact, I would almost venture to capitalize that word, calling them the five (and a half) "Best" quarterbacks in Bills history.
Even if you aren't willing to go that far yourself, these five (and a half) players brought some real excitement and love to the Queen City, whether it was for four Super Bowls, or Buffalo's last Playoff game; whether for just two seasons or for twelve; whether it was a guy at the end of his career or a guy whose whole career was one, glorious Bills game that became the best of all time. Here, then are the top 5 (1/2) quarterbacks in Buffalo history, those that made fans proud for several seasons, or maybe even just for one game, but made them happy to be Bills fans none the less.
5. Drew Bledsoe (2002-2004; record of 23-25):
It was a coup that was very bizarre for Buffalo, a headline that just surprised the whole city. Drew Bledsoe, hated rival QB of the Patriots who had recently been usurped in New England by the younger, shinier Tom Brady, was coming to save the Buffalo Bills and lead them back to the Playoffs. Announced in April of 2002, Bills fans began salivating for the season, feeling things they hadn't felt in far too long (kind of like the first half of 2011), with a top 10 QB (he was still there in 2002) leading a viable offensive attack with Eric Moulds and Peerless Price in the passing game, alongside an explosive Travis Henry at running back.
His first season, Bledsoe took the Bills' offense from basement dwellers (fifth worst in points scored) to the sixth most potent scorers in the AFC. Drew brought a healthy deep threat and an accurate, patient short game to the previously chaotic Buffalo offense (2001 had been a house cleaning, losing GM John Butler to San Diego and firing head coach Wade Phillips, as well as releasing Doug Flutie). Though the Bills were 8-8 that year, you felt that things were turning around... but you were wrong. Next season was worse, with Bledsoe beginning to age noticeably, losing that eliteness, and resulting in a 6-10 stinker of a year. Though the addition of Lawyer Milloy in the off-season made for a heck of an opening game against the Patriots in 2003 (their last win against New England until 2011), the 31-0 domination in front of the home crowd was quickly sullied by the remainder of the season, which ended with a 31-0 loss to... New England. The following year, Drew's last, Buffalo just missed the playoffs, needing a win against the Steelers in week 17 and falling short 29-24, ending the season 9-7.
Bledsoe's numbers in Buffalo are good over his 48 games, throwing 905-1531 (59.1%) for 10,151 yards, 55 TDs, and 43 INTs, ranking him fourth overall in yards and fifth in TDs on the Bills. Though he didn't bring any championships, or even take them to the playoffs, he is credited with giving Buffalo fans the only real excitement in almost that entire decade and bringing a calm to that position after years of the Flutie-Johnson Quarterback Controversy (more on that soon). Drew was ousted once more by a younger QB after 2004, released to allow second year talent and potential star J.P. Losman to take over... you may notice J.P. Losman is not on this list. Poor Drew ended up finishing what was left of his career in Dallas and spent his remaining years bitterly lamenting his time in Buffalo, but it was good while it lasted and a win against New England was worth his mopey attitude and arrogance... almost.
4. Doug Flutie (1998-2000; record of 21-9):
Ah, the years of the quarterback controversy. The diminutive Doug Flutie got his first notice at Boston College, where his oft viewed "Hail Flutie" to beat Miami in 1984 took place, but he was considered a risk as an NFL quarterback due to his size (5' 10") and spent some time in the USFL before making his first start with the Chicago Bears in 1986. He was traded the following year to New England, then went to the CFL for eight years, winning 3 Grey Cups before coming to the Bills in 1998. Though initially disinterested in Doug, Buffalo's starting QB Rob Johnson (a thorough mess of a player, 9-17 with the Bills) went down with an injury week 5 that year (one of many, usually concussions) and in came Flutie to save the day. Much like a Tebow of his time, he was considered unable to successfully play quarterback in the NFL, but damn it if he didn't start winning games and amassing some magical stats.
You'd watch Flutie leap around behind those big offensive linemen, launching balls that you'd swear were being thrown on blind prayers, but, more oftent than not, they'd find their way into the hands of waiting receivers and the Bills began winning. Not the highest paid player, nor the most talented athlete, Flutie continued winning and kept the starting job for the rest of 1998, going 8-3. In 1999, Doug went into the season the starter and took Buffalo to a 10-5 record, throwing for 3171 yds and 19 TDS, as well as running for 476 and another score, but he inexplicably exited the season week 17 to make way for the return of... Rob Johnson. Johnson won the last game of '99 and continued as the starter (????) into the playoffs, but lost to the Titans on the Music City Miracle. It was the last Playoff appearance Buffalo made.
That was pretty much it for Flutie in Buffalo, though he stayed one more year, he was unused largely, starting only five games and mostly coming in late when Johnson (still the "franchise" QB) had already thoroughly lost the game. During his time in the Western New York, though, he became a favorite among fans for his hard play on the field, his numerous charitable endeavors, and just for being an underdog (his lack of size dominated his career, though you wouldn't know it by the numbers). His time in Buffalo was too short and under appreciated, but he did manage to play in 39 games (though he only started in half) and put up a respectable stat line of 598-1063, with 7582 yards (6th overall in Buffalo), 47 TDs (6th), and 30 INTs (as well as 829 yds rushing and 3 ground TDs).
Unfortunately, the soap opera of Johnson and Flutie that was created by Coach Wade Phillips and his inability to make a decision dominated Doug's time in Buffalo. He is put here above Bledsoe because you can't deny how much fun Flutie magic was while it was there and Buffalo was always proud to have had him, no matter how short... his time. (Hell, he even got a cereal named after him).
3. Jack Kemp (1962-1969; record of 43-31-3)
: Before he was a politician in New York, Kemp was a starting quarterback in the AFL, playing with both the San Diego (Los Angeles to start) Chargers and the Buffalo Bills in his time captaining teams. He did play in the NFL and CFL, but made his name with Buffalo in the AFL, who claimed him for $100 off the waiver wire in 1962 (where he was put after breaking fingers on his throwing hand). Though Kemp initially wanted to go to Denver (where the skiing was), he came to the Queen City and spent the remainder of his football career as a very successful quarterback of the Bills (perhaps the most if you rate by championships).
Limited by his injury in his first year, Kemp truly took the helm in 1963, but he was immediately embroiled in a quarterback controversy for the next four years with Daryle Lamonica, brought in case Kemp's injury never healed (and who constantly vied for the starting job until leaving in 67). Though Kemp was often replaced late in games if he wasn't playing up to snuff (see the '63 Eastern Division playoffs), Jack, ever the politician, managed the drama and was truly the starter for those years, routinely leading the AFL in passing stats (for at least the first few seasons) and bringing some of the only championships Buffalo has ever owned. In his six years with the Bills, Kemp led them to two AFL Championship wins (1964 and 1965), was an All Star seven times, and still holds a record for most passing TDs in the first quarter (3, shared with Aaron Rodgers who tied it in 2011). Kemp took home an AFL Championship MVP in 1965 as well, and was overall responsible for 4 straight AFL Playoff trips, and three consecutive championship appearances, though the last in 1966 was a loss and proved to be a big one, perhaps a franchise defining one.
See, in 1966, whoever won the AFL Championship got to play in Super Bowl I and, well, Kansas City won that game and Buffalo was cursed to never get that taste of winning it all ever again. Kemp stayed on until 1969, welcoming in OJ Simpson during his last season, and leaving with a 4-10 record (though he did get another All Star nod that year). In his time with Buffalo, Kemp was 1039-2240,with 15,134 yds (3rd most), 77 TDs (also 3rd), and a shocking 132 INTs (though the passing game wasn't quite as refined and deadly in the sixties, 132 still seems alot). Kemp was also a runner (as many QBs in the AFL era were), with 780 yds and 24 TDs on the ground. During a Bills era that included names like Cookie Gilchrist (running back) and Elbert Dubenion (receiver), Jack Kemp became THE man in Buffalo and the AFL for a time (he also helped found the AFL Players' Union and became its president for its first five terms), giving the Bills the most postseason success its ever known. Though he didn't last into the NFL era and would be overshadowed numbers-wise by our next names, he will forever be the ONE who could win in Buffalo.
2. Joe Ferguson (1973-1984; record of 77-86):
Still holds the record for most completions by an Arkansas quarterback, had four years with 20+ completions in the NFL (all with Buffalo), and has played in more games than any quarterback in Buffalo history with 164 (he was even, at one point, tied for most consecutive starts with Ron Jaworski at 107). Joe Ferguson was a third round pick by Buffalo in 1973 and made his last NFL start for Indianapolis in 1990, though he continued to play until 1995, where at age 45 he signed and played quarterback in the CFL for a season... at 45. Ferguson wore number 12 in his 12 seasons with Buffalo, a number later worn by QB Jim Kelly (we're getting to him), and still the only number retired by the Bills in its history.
Ferguson was forever in the top ten in QB stats during his tenure in Buffalo, even managing some good work during his rookie year when he was immediately asked to start and went 9-5 during that first season, though that may also be more attributed to OJ Simpson's 2003 yds and 12 TDs in 1973 than Joe's 939 yds, 4 TDs, and 10 INTs. A quick learner with a stellar running game to fall back on, Ferguson soon found his groove in Buffalo and, just two years later in 1975, threw for his first 2000+ yards season (2426) and his first 20+ TDs (25). He would throw over 2000 yds seven times as a member of the Bills, even going over 3000 yds twice with 3572 yds in 1979 and 3652 yds in 1981 (both after OJ's departure for the 49ers).
He's placed here above Kemp not because he won more big games than old Jacky boy, but because his numbers (and longevity) as a quarterback in the NFL are just astounding. He played into his 40's for pity's sake and still stands as the longest tenured member of the Buffalo Bills. His stats in Buffalo over 12 years are 2188-4166 for 27,590 yds, with 181 TDs and 190 INTs (again, like Kemp it's a little high, but...), something only one Bills player has managed to top in all of its time since becoming an AFL charter team in 1960. The other player is the one who, in the 80's and 90's, took all the records Joe had set for the Bills and pushed them down (all of them) to the number two spot.
1. Jim Kelly (1986-1996; record of 101-59):
The quarterback in a linebacker's body, James Edward Kelly will forever be remembered as the guy who almost got Buffalo their glory... four straight years. Drafted out of Miami in 1983 by the Bills (ahead of Marino, behind Elway), he initially turned his nose up at the cold weather city and their low game attendance numbers, heading to the USFL for two seasons where he set records for the Houston Gamblers. When the league folded, though, Kelly dragged his feet back to the NFL and the Buffalo Bills (who still owned him), where he quickly became the best quarterback to ever put on Buffalo red and blue.
More than just a player, Kelly quickly became the face of the franchise. A Pennsylvania native, Jim quickly found himself the star of the nearby Queen City, where he partnered with Thurman Thomas (1988) and Andre Reed (already there from 1985 to create one of the most potent offensive powers to ever play the game (The Big 3). Using the no-huddle, K-Gun offense, Kelly led the Buffalo Bills to the highest win total of any team over the ten years he was a starter. The records that the Bills set during the Kelly-era are just astounding and are primarily responsible for many a Buffalo fans continued following of the team (we're all just waiting for them to start playing like that again). He is the only quarterback to get his team to four straight AFC Championship games, the only QB to win four straight, and, though it doesn't sound quite as good, the only quarterback to play in (and lose) four straight Super Bowls. Kelly may not have ever won the big game (though not from any lack of opportunity), but he still holds a Super Bowl record in pass attempts (58) and held the completion record (31) until Brady and Brees broke it a decade later (32). He also holds the record for most yards per completion from a game in 1995 when he averaged 44 per.
Jim Kelly has been a vital part of Buffalo and its history/identity since the day he put on the helmet. Though his stats are indeed impressive, with 2874-4779 for 35,467 yds, 237 TDs, and 175 INTs (first among all Bills QBs in every area save INTs), it was what he made fans in Buffalo believe that was the most astounding thing about him. For all those years he played QB, Jim made Bills fans believe that their team could win, and not only win, but dominate. A true general on the field (Peyton Manning could have learned some of his tricks from Kelly), Jim was responsible for almost all the play calls whenever they were operating out of the K-Gun and could read and adjust to defenses perhaps better than any quarterback to ever play. Kelly directed a fast, high scoring Buffalo offense during his years there, one that could score at will and often, and though he never got to win it all, Kelly was the main ingredient in all those seasons of second best in the NFL, likely making him much more responsible for the retirement of number 12 than Ferguson was. Still seen wandering the sidelines these days, pumping up the crowd and helping them recall memories of past glory, Jim Kelly stands as the greatest (Bills) QB in NFL history and will be until one of their future arms can deliver a Super Bowl.
And there you have it, the top 5 QBs ever to put on a Bills' uniform...
...though, I would be remiss if I ended the list without mentioning one more (the half I spoke of earlier). Frank Reich
was drafted in 1985 by the Bills and spent most of his career with a headset and clipboard behind Jim Kelly, with not one season of more than 100 attempts (though he played a little in almost every game, as the Bills got ahead quickly and often in the 90's). However, on one cold day in January of 1993, Reich played in relief of an injured Jim Kelly in the AFC Wild Card game and led the Greatest Comeback in NFL History. Laughing off a third quarter deficit of 31 points, Frank led the Bills back against the Houston Oilers and ended up winning 41-38 in OT, forever earning him a place on the list of greatest Buffalo QBs (even if it had been the only game he played in Buffalo, he'd be on this list). Picked up by Carolina as part of the expansion draft in 1995, Frank Reich's stat line for that one game was 21-34, 289 yds, 4 TDs, and an INT. Sure, Frank Reich may be famous in Buffalo for just one game, but to fans who remember that game, it's more than enough to get him on this list.