Reliable ol' Frank Reich. Too slow, not talented enough to make it; too smart, too diligent and too tough not to. Never done anything to draw a moment's worth of attention to himself. Coach's dream. Prepared like a Boy Scout. This is what understudy Frank Reich said to injured star Jim Kelly last week late in the fourth quarter after leading Buffalo to a victory over Miami for the AFC East title: "All I want now is to get this job back into your hands."

The Buffalo Bills are in Frank Reich's hands now, at least for another week. Warren Moon injures his throwing hand and you don't give the Houston Oilers a prayer. Jim Harbaugh's shoulder separates and Chicago turns its sporting attention to the Bulls. Troy Aikman separates a shoulder and the Cinderella Cowboys turn back to pumpkins.

There is no such panic in Buffalo. Jim Kelly has missed four starts the last two seasons. Frank Reich is 4-0 in those games. Not even Mr. Backup, the 49ers' Steve Young, can claim that kind of record. One victory was against the NFC runners-up Rams on "Monday Night Football" last year. Two were against Miami. This week, at RFK, Reich goes for another first: his first road win.

It won't really be the road, though. Reich lived and played for five years in College Park at Maryland. Four of those years he was Boomer Esiason's understudy and roommate. People think Esiason led that NCAA-record 31-point comeback at Miami. Nope, the Boomer was a rookie in Cincinnati. Reich did. Came off the bench for Stan Gelbaugh and put 42 points on the board in the second half.

The word being used to describe Reich these days is "cool." O.J. Simpson said so himself. "If I'm surprised by anything it's how cool Frank Reich was under pressure," the Juice said.

Reich was like that last year that Monday night. After a horrid first 57 minutes against the Rams, you have to be cool to throw two touchdowns in the final 2:23 to lead your team to victory. He was like that again on Sunday in Buffalo, completing 15 of 21 passes for 234 yards to beat the Dolphins.

In 49 passes this year, Reich has two touchdowns and no interceptions. The 4-0 lifetime record -- he didn't play significantly his first four years in the league -- doesn't even include the save he gets for entering the game at Giants Stadium two weeks ago when Kelly sprained his knee. With L.T. and Giants smelling blood, Reich held his ground and the Bills held on.

Get the ball to Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, James Lofton. Don't make critical mistakes that would put Bruce Smith and the defense in jeopardy. Efficient, that's what Reich is. "We haven't changed anything," Coach Marv Levy said of the offense. "If we had a completely different kind of quarterback, if we had a fellow who could move like Steve Young or Randall Cunningham, we might alter what we do. But Frank and Jim are so much alike."

Not in personality, of course. While Kelly can be curt and offensive, even to teammates, Reich could belong to the Brady Bunch. He's Kelly's flip side. Levy is saying they are both pocket passers. You think Kelly is slow? Reich can't get out of his own way. Cunningham can probably run backward faster than Reich can run forward. It hardly matters.

"Frank did everything right," Thomas said of last week's Miami game. "He couldn't have been any better."

An even higher compliment came from Don Shula, who knows a thing or two about backup quarterbacks. "He played a near-perfect game last year and he did pretty much the same thing {again}. I didn't see where they would lose any confidence with Reich."

Levy said Reich was "very poised, he threw the ball well, he made good decisions."

That's what every coach has said about Reich, who only said characteristically, "Hey, I had all day to throw the ball." Levy has enough confidence in Reich to let him run the no-huddle offense, which requires the quarterback to call his own plays.

It also helps that the Buffalo players downright like Reich. Because Kelly's yapping a year ago nearly started a clubhouse war, some players thought Reich should remain the starter.

Kelly's tirades were directed (in this case) at black players, making him a redneck in some players' minds. Those who know Kelly, black and white, say his offensive behavior is pretty much colorblind and note that a black rookie lived with him in the offseason.

A lighthearted conversation about which players contributed more to the team's success -- the blacks or whites -- reportedly took on an ugly tone and teammates had to be separated. The "Bickering Bills," as they were called, hit rock bottom one afternoon when a player of interracial parentage began to autograph a ball in front of his locker, only to be stopped by a teammate who said the ball was to be signed only by black players.

Bruce Smith thought Levy's removal of the starters one game signaled giving up and said so. Levy fined him $500.

So it came as a surprise to many of us that the Bills, regardless of the quarterback, could overcome such a deep rift with pretty much the same cast of characters in the clubhouse.

Kelly, to his credit, has been a different person, studying Ted Marchibroda's offense more and cutting out his hypercritical behavior.

"We won a couple of games early that we could easily have lost," Reich said, referring to comebacks against Denver and the Raiders. "It pulled everyone together early. It showed us what a team together could accomplish. Quite honestly, there's no doubt we're closer. We're at ease with one another now."

Said Cornelius Bennett: "We just grew up. If we didn't we couldn't have had this kind of season. We were young, we had big success early and we just got bigheaded. I think the confrontations helped more than hurt. It's bad that it happened publicly. But sometimes things have to come out in the open before it gets better."

Against Miami on Sunday, it was evident just how far the Bills have come. There was Kelly, continually shouting encouragement at Reich. When Marchibroda thought about leaving the no-huddle, Kelly interjected that Reich was doing fine calling his own plays. Kelly's support has made Reich's transition easier.

One sign suggested that Rich Stadium has become "Operation Blizzard Shield" since the Bills have home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Another suggests the name of the stadium be changed to R(e)ich Stadium. Certainly, that embarrasses Reich, the new and successful, if temporary, leader of these blissful Bills.