Jeff Pearlman

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The 25 best players in USFL history: No. 5—Jim Kelly

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I am counting down the top 25 players in USFL history, concluding with the announcement of the No. 1 guy on Sept. 10—the eve of the release date for Football for a Buck.

The list comes after years of writing and researching my book, as well as a lifetime of loving the long, lost spring football league.

There have been books throughout my career that were written because the moment was right. There have been books throughout my career that felt like pure labor (sorry, Roger Clemens). But Football for a Buckis pure passion. Everything about the USFL spoke to me. The colors. The uniforms. The nicknames. The stars. The scrubs. It felt real and gritty and authentic.

Hence, the book.

Hence, the list.

Also, a quick point: This has 0 to do with what the players later became. NFL accomplishments are insignificant here. It’s all about the USFL.

So, with no further ado …

No. 5: Jim Kelly

Quarterback

Houston Gamblers (1984-85)

I mean … could have been No. 1. Perhaps should have been No. 1.

Instead, I’ve got him at No. 5. Here’s why …

Jim Kelly was a nuclear attack in his two USFL seasons. Coming out of the University of Miami, he was a cocky, cocksure, strong-armed quarterback who desperately did not want to play for the Buffalo Bills. So he signed with Houston and found himself running Mouse Davis’ run ‘n’ shoot offense, which featured no tight ends and four or five wide receivers on every down.

Kelly initially hated the system. He was a kid who grew up dropping back and letting the football fly. Now, under Davis, he was being asked to roll and make quick reads and identify and throw. It was initially jarring and uncomfortable, until it turned fantastic and awesome. In his first season with Houston, Kelly threw for 44 touchdowns and 5,219 yards (both professional football records, though they were accomplished over 18 games). He was also sacked 75 (yes, seventy five) times, also a mark that had never been matched. The next year, Kelly launched 39 more touchdown passes and compiled 4,623 passing yards.

The offense was electrifying, Kelly was unstoppable, Houston was in love.

And yet …

As great as Jim Kelly was, much of this was—factually—a product of a video game-esque offensive scheme. The Gamblers threw and threw and threw and threw. Hell, Kelly was picked off 26 times as a rookie, 19 as a sophomore. So, yes, he was outstanding, and his place in my top five is as firm as oak.

But there were better USFL players, one of whom was a (gasp) quarterback.

Stay tuned.

From Football for a Buck

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Player No. 25: Tim Spencer

Player No. 24: Chuck Clanton

Player No. 23: Maurice Carthon

Player No. 22: Marcus Marek

Player No. 21: Jimmy Smith

Player No. 20: John Reaves

Player No. 19: Richard Johnson

Player No. 18: Irv Eatman

Player No. 17: Peter Raeford

Player No. 16: Trumaine Johnson

Player No. 15: David Greenwood

Player No. 14: Joey Walters

Player No. 13: Gary Zimmerman

Player No. 12: Reggie White

Player No. 11: John Corker

Player No. 10: Luther Bradley

Player No. 9: Anthony Carter

Player No. 8: Gary Anderson

Player No. 7: Chuck Fusina

Player No. 6: Kit Lathrop

Player No. 5: Jim Kelly

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life