American Football / Duper Bowl: Searching for shades of Montana: Matt Tench reports from Pasadena on Troy Aikman and Jim Kelly, opposing quarterbacks in tonight's Super Bowl

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WATCHING Troy Aikman prepare here for his first Super Bowl, a familiar name came to mind. There was something in the slightly distracted look, as he answered questions, in the ability to frustrate interrogators by talking a lot but saying very little, in the unruffled manner and faraway eyes. Sometimes, it seemed, a young Joe Montana was in town.

Aikman would, no doubt, eschew the comparison, understandably pointing out that he is not the second anybody, but the first Troy Aikman. He wouldn't mind emulating Montana today, though, when he leads the Dallas Cowboys against the Buffalo Bills with Super Bowl XXVII on the line. Old Joe knew a thing or two about winning Super Bowls.

In Aikman's way is Jim Kelly, a quarterback with whom he could hardly contrast more starkly. Kelly is a garrulous, personable character whose cocky charm has been much in evidence.

Where Aikman puts up with the attention, Kelly rather enjoys it. Where Aikman is quiet, Kelly is noisy. Where Aikman is reluctant to talk about himself, Kelly dives in.

Experience in the last two Super Bowls has helped but, in many ways, Kelly has always been like this. He is the quarterback with a linebacker's mentality and will talk for as long as anyone will listen about how he likes the physical side of the game, how he has unwavering confidence in his ability and that of his team (usually in that order) and about his family. Always about his family.

Kelly grew up in western Pennsylvania as part of a big, tight-knit clan and they crop up in many of his answers. Where did you develop your toughness, Jim? Oh, when you had a family like mine you soon learned how to look after yourself. How did you get out of that slump, Jim? Oh, I talked to my brothers. What was the first thing you did after that game, Jim? Oh, I called my Dad.

Where the two quarterbacks are similar is that they have both had to overcome adversity to get to today's game. For Aikman this came early. He was picked by the Cowboys in head coach Jimmy Johnson's first draft, a much-sought after college talent who found himself at a franchise in turmoil. Johnson was feverishly changing his roster in that early period as he tried to upgrade the talent. Aikman found himself in an unstable, inept side that lost 15 out of 16 games.

They were so bad it was difficult to judge the new man at the helm, who was playing as a rookie, but Aikman's job security was hardly enhanced when Steve Walsh was drafted, the quarterback with whom Johnson had enjoyed great success in college football at Miami.

Looking back at that decision this week, Johnson admitted that it put a strain on his relationship with Aikman, and that he withdrew from both his young quarterbacks for fear of favouring either. 'I think that hurt, because at that stage of Troy's career he really needed someone,' Johnson said. Aikman, though, saw off the challenge of Walsh, who was eventually traded to New Orleans, and as the Cowboys recovered from that first disastrous season, Aikman made great progress.

By the beginning of this season he was regarded as one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. Still he had his doubters. The Cowboys carried all before them, but he had two bad games, against the Rams and the Eagles and, after each, the local media questioned his ability to guide the team to the Super Bowl.

In this year's play-offs, however, Troy Aikman came of age. Philadelphia, his bogey team, were humiliated and when the Cowboys beat San Francisco at Candlestick Park, a game in which Aikman produced two quarters of football that were virtually flawless. It was watched by Roger Staubach, the greatest playcaller in Dallas history. 'His performance in the second half was as good as any quarterback I have ever seen,' Staubach said. 'I just stood on the sideline and marvelled.'

In the locker-room after the victory Johnson's first words were: 'It was Troy's game. He's come a long way and he's brought me with him.'

On the edges of the drama, a familiar figure must also have been impressed. Joe Montana, now the 49ers back-up quarterback, had seen Aikman play with Montana-like poise on his own backyard.

Kelly has also had to conquer the critics this year. As the regular season drew to a close Kelly injured his knee and his capable back-up Frank Reich marshalled the first two play-off victories. This included the now legendary triumph over Houston in the wild-card game when the Bills rallied from a 32-point deficit to pull off the biggest comeback in NFL history.

By the time the Bills travelled to Miami for the AFC Championship game Kelly was fit. Marv Levy, the Bills head coach, had always insisted that if he was healthy Kelly would play, but this did nothing to prevent a huge controversy erupting. For all his success with the team, Kelly's cockiness and single-minded play had always created an undertow of ambivalence, and it was from these roots that there developed a strong lobby for Reich to keep the job, with a local newspaper poll giving him a five-to-one advantage.

Under immense pressure Kelly played and, without ever performing brilliantly, pulled out the win. 'This is without a doubt the sweetest victory I've ever been associated with,' he said, 'because it's almost like, at the beginning of the week, I should apologise for feeling good.'

Levy rounded on Kelly's critics: 'I cannot think of a time when a quarterback entered a game under more pressure than Jim Kelly did. Here's a guy that's taken us to three Super Bowls, the best five-year span in the Buffalo Bills' history, and people are starting to denigrate him. It revolts me.'

Kelly's swashbuckling style may partly explain the furore. He is a dynamic leader calling his own plays in the Bills' relentless, no-huddle offense, and he is never afraid to go for the long pass. When it works the result is an offensive onslaught, but there are times when Kelly forces the play and throws an occasion when a desperate No 12 threw four interceptions.

Aikman's game is very different. Less effusive on the field, his is a calmer, more disciplined, style. He, too, will throw deep, but in this case the play will be called for him.

Aikman looks to be the right quarterback in the right team at the right time, and he goes into today's game knowing what it could do for him. 'I think the Super Bowl and winning the Super Bowl propels a quarterback's career,' he said. If he is in any doubt he should just ask Joe Montana.

----------------------------------------------------------------- AIKMAN v KELLY: HOW THEY MATCH UP ----------------------------------------------------------------- AIKMAN KELLY Age. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .26 32 Height. . . . . . . . . . .6ft 4in 6ft 3in Weight. . . . . . . . . .15st 12lb 15st 9lb NFL seasons. . . . . . . . . . . 4 7 Super Bowls. . . . . . . . . . . 0 2 Passing. . . . . . . . . . 3445yds 3457yds TDs. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .23 23 Interceptions. . . . . . . . . .14 19 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)