Although the Bills were only 2–6 at the midway point of the season, their games were much more competitive than in years past. (Only two of their losses in the first eight games were by more than a touchdown.) Still, after a 6-point Week Nine loss to Tampa Bay, the Bills fired coach Hank Bullough, and hired former Kansas City coach Marv Levy from outside the organization, an unusual mid-season tactic. (Levy had been out of coaching since being the head man with the USFL's Chicago Blitz in 1984.) Levy would win his first game with the Bills against Pittsburgh in Week Ten, and one more game against Kansas City in Week Thirteen, finishing with a 2–5 record in his first half-season as head coach.
At the end of the 1985 season, the Bills' future was in serious jeopardy; two consecutive seasons in which the team had finished 2–14 had driven attendance at Rich Stadium to less than 30,000 fans per game. Buffalo's fortunes underwent a drastic improvement before the season. Quarterback Jim Kelly, whom the team had drafted in the first round of the 1983 draft as their franchise quarterback of the future, still refused to play in Buffalo and was prepared to play the 1986 season as a member of the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League, but on July 29, 1986, the USFL received only a nominal judgment in its antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, leaving the league without much-needed capital and forcing the end of its operations. With no other options, Kelly then signed with the Bills amid much fanfare. The signing (along with those of fellow USFL refugees Ray Bentley and Kent Hull) increased home attendance at Rich Stadium by 30,000 per game.