Key losses: Jim Kelly and Kent Hull.
Key gains: Antowain Smith, Marcellus Wiley and Billy Joe Hobert.
And just like that...it was over. Some might say that Jim Kelly's last game played, which I attended, against the Jags in the playoffs, marked the end of the Buffalo Bills run of the 90's. During this particular off season, Jim Kelly and Kent Hull called it quits. It's funny, because a lot of people don't talk about this, but at the time, I'd say about 35% of the fans were happy that Kelly called it quits. You see, Kelly had struggled terribly during the 96' season. What made the timing even more dreadful was that it was Kelly's contract year. Rumors persisted that Kelly wanted to get a contract extension in the range of what Dan Marino and John Elway had received, which was around 6-million a year. However, Kelly's contract year was equivalent to what Tim Connolly is doing this season. In Kelly's first 3 games, he had just 2 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Not only was he struggling, but he was having a hard enough time staying healthy. In 13 games, Kelly passed for just 14 touchdowns and a career high 19 interceptions. Because of those stats, some fans wanted Kelly gone. Some thought it was time to turn over the keys to the franchise to Todd Collins, who had a 2-1 record as a starter, with victories over playoff teams like the Cowboys and Colts. Yes, kids, people actually wanted Kelly to retire and for Todd FRICKEN COLLINS to start?!
Frankly, there were rumors that the reason why Kelly retired had to do with Ralph Wilson not wanting to give into his contract demands. I guess it made sense, because Kelly played badly that season and was definitely past his prime at the age of 36. However, even with Kelly not playing to his standard, it was definitely emotional for fans to see him retire in February. I can remember almost being moved to tears when Kelly tearfully said his goodbyes. It definitely felt that it was the end of an era. Those years in the Super Bowl were the apex as far as sports in Buffalo were concerned. It killed Flutie mania and it killed the Sabres run after the lockout. It was magical. Everyday I wish that some of the younger fans could relive those days. Who would have thought 14 years later, we'd still be looking for Kelly's replacement.
Soon after, the 2nd cog in the all-time leader in QB/Center combinations would retire, as Kent Hull decided to hang it up. Yes, fans, the rebuilding process was in full effect. If the retirements didn't tell you that, all you had to do was look at the draft in April. The Bills decided to select running back Antowain Smith and defensive end Marcellus Wiley with their first two picks. These selections were obviously met to be the heir apparent to Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas. I remember afterwards, Thomas told a story about how Bruce Smith called him after the selections, and was pissed off, because these guys were meant to be their replacements. Thurman pretty much told Smith that they were the right moves, because the two veterans couldn't play forever.
As for free agency, the Bills didn't do much of anything, besides trade for the Billy Joe Hobert from the Raiders. The trade cost the Bills a 3rd round pick and it was believed that Hobert would compete with Todd Collins for the starting job. Some scouts within the Bills organization viewed Hobert as having the same characteristics as Jim Kelly (Um, I hope those scouts are flipping burgers somewhere now). As I wrote earlier, this seemed to be Todd's job to lose. He was entering his 3rd season with the Bills and was a former 2nd round pick. As far as expectations went, I don't think many fans had any, expect for the ones who wanted Todd Collins to become the starter.
Post script: Um, yeah, the 1997 season was dreadful. It was probably the most difficult season to swallow in the 90's. The Bills finished the season 6-10 and frankly, it should have been a lot worse. The Bills offense plummeted to 25th in league and the Todd Collins era was kind of short lived. Collins, who actually started the season decently by passing for seven touchdowns in his first four games, was yanked in and out of the line-up all season long. Of course, it wasn't Billy Joe Hobert going into the line-up, as his claim to fame would be his inability to master the playbook. In a game against the Patriots, Todd Collins was knocked out due to injury. In relief, Hobert was awful, as he had three turnovers and looked completely lost out there. After the game, Hobert admitted to reporters that he didn't study the playbook during the week. Well, at least he was honest...IDIOT?!
A few days later, Hobert was cut by the Bills.
As for Collins, it seemed to really go down hill after his benching against the Broncos, a game in which Alex Van Pelt came in and scored 20 unanswered points in the 4th quarter to send the game to OT, where the Bills ended up losing by a field goal. Afterwards, you could just tell by Todd's comments that he was lost and had no confidence what so ever. He ended up going five games as the starter without throwing for a touchdown. The Bills finished the season losing 6 of their last 7 games. It's pretty sad when you consider that Marv Levy's final season with the Bills would go down like that. The lone bright spot for the Bills was actually Antowain Smith, who gained 840 yards without even starting a game. Smith possessed the rare combination of power and speed. The following season, Smith ended up starting all 16-games for the Bills, which pretty much sealed Thurman's fate as being the starter.