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. 1985 first overall draft pick Bruce Smith, while he had a respectable rookie season, underperformed compared to expectations and was admittedly not putting his whole heart into the game of football. 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; the Generals' soon-to-be-displaced quarterback, Doug Flutie, who would become a Bill much later in his career, also rejected the team's overtures and stayed in the USFL. These rejections forced the Bills to sign Art Schlichter, a notorious compulsive gambler who had flamed out with the Indianapolis Colts, as their backup plan; Schlichter was to compete with Frank Reich, whom the Bills drafted the previous year, for the starting position.
Buffalo's fortunes underwent a drastic improvement before the season. 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, and Schlichter was released. The signing (along with those of fellow USFL refugees Ray Bentley and Kent Hull) doubled the team's home attendance.