By Sal Maiorana - Rochester D&C
There will never be a debate as to who the toughest quarterback in Bills history is. Hall of Famer Jim Kelly's career was defined not by his four losses in Super Bowl games, but by his legendary ability to keep on ticking no matter how beaten up he was.
There were times during his epic run as the leader of the Bills when it didn't seem possible that Kelly could get up from a hit, or continue to play with a mangled ankle, or knee, or shoulder, or head.
Politicians at election time don't ring bells as often as Kelly had his bell rung, but rare was the time when No. 12 couldn't answer the bell.
Kelly's credo was simple: If he could count to 10 without getting confused, could stand on two feet, and could throw the ball, he was going to play.
Foolish? Perhaps, especially given what we now know about concussions and how so many retired players, having taken such a beating, are now struggling to perform life's daily tasks without constant pain.
But tough? Absolutely, and Bills fans came to revere Kelly for this trait, and still do 17 years after we watched him being carted off the field that final time in the wild-card playoff loss to Jacksonville in December 1996.
Thad Lewis will never lead the Bills, or any team, to four straight Super Bowls, nor will he ever join Kelly in the Hall of Fame. But three games into his interim tenure as the Bills' starting quarterback, his utter mediocrity has been somewhat overshadowed by the fact that he's giving Kelly a run in the toughness department.
Lewis did not play well Sunday afternoon against the Saints in Buffalo's 35-17 loss, but he took a savage pounding and never missed a play.
"That's the nature of the beast," Lewis said, referring to the several shots he absorbed that enabled him to become quite familiar with the floor of the Superdome. "You're going to get nicked up in this game. It's football. It's a physical sport. It's going to take more than a little bruise and a bump to keep you out of the game."
It looked as if Lewis' day was going to be done on the first play from scrimmage. He kept the ball on a read option, turned upfield, and never saw Saints linebacker David Hawthorne who proceeded to smash his helmet and shoulder into Lewis' rib cage.
Lewis lost the ball and Hawthorne recovered, and then Lewis stayed down for a good three minutes as the trainers tended to him while backup Jeff Tuel began warming up on the sideline.
Despite suffering bruised ribs on the play, when the Bills took the field for their next possession, Lewis was out there, and he made it through the rest of the game.
"There was no doubt in my mind I was getting back in there," he said. "I just took some time to catch my breath because I had the wind knocked out of me a little bit, but I was fine and I told the doctors that I was going back out there."
Should Lewis have gone back into the game? I wrote last week that C.J. Spiller should be shut down for a little bit so that his sprained ankle could heal. Doug Marrone did just that for the New Orleans game.
Same for Stephon Gilmore, who I felt came back too early from his wrist surgery, seeing as he had to play with a hindering cast on his hand to protect it. Gilmore shed the cast this week and wore only a protective brace on his wrist.
In the case of Lewis, his ribs were certainly sore, but it wasn't an injury that would prohibit him from functioning properly and therefore put him in harm's way. Playing in pain is one thing, playing with an injury is another in my book.
So Lewis played in pain, and his teammates loved him for that.
"We wouldn't expect anything less from Thad," Stevie Johnson said. "This is his opportunity. If it ain't a broken leg, I believe he'll be out there. That's the type of player he is. He's ready to fight for his boys. He showed toughness. I know he was hurting."
Lewis was sacked four times, was hit at least half a dozen other times in the pocket, and there was that ill-fated read option running attempt. But he persevered, a truly Kellyesque performance in terms of grits and guts.
"The hit he took was scary," Fred Jackson said of the opening play wipeout. "Any time you got a guy who takes shots like that and still competes, you love playing for him."
Lewis has proven he can take punishment. He might be a Miami native who went to haughty-taughty Duke, but the kid's a baller who seems to have acquired some western New York-like toughness. Now, if he could just throw the ball a little more efficiently.