August 19, 2017

Steve Young, Rookie With the USFL’s Los Angeles Express in Spring 1984

For a lot of NFL fans, it’s very easy to not know that the USFL existed: the league that died 27 years ago after playing games in the spring of 1983, 1984, and 1985 is scarcely discussed by either the NFL or the media covering the NFL, let alone by fans. One site, USFL.info, does a pretty good job of chronicling the challenger to the NFL’s supremacy in pro football, including the story of Reggie White, Jim Kelly, Doug Flutie, and even Sean Landeta beginning their careers in the United States Football League.

Steve Young, who would go on to be perhaps the most illustrious USFL alum, signed his first professional football contract with the Los Angeles Express (yes, L.A. once had three pro football teams). He made his debut with the Express on April 1, 1984 at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, against the New Jersey Generals. New Jersey’s most recognizable player was Herschel Walker; Jojo Townsell was probably the best Express player besides Young. The Generals won, 26-10, before just 19,853 at Memorial Coliseum. This level of attendance for a nationally televised game played in a cavernous stadium was not a good sign for the USFL’s future.

Here’s how the Los Angeles Times reported Young’s performance: “He completed 19 of 29 passes for 163 yards and at times ran the offense as if he had been a part of it for years. . . . Young, who signed a contract in early March worth more than $40 million over 43 years, took advantage of a breakdown in coverage to pass 9 yards for a touchdown to Jojo Townsell, a former draft choice of the Jets. During one stretch over the second and third quarters, he completed 9 consecutive passes before Kerry Justin, the Generals’ cornerback, made a good play to break up a pass intended for Anthony Allen.”

Young said: “I think it’s just a matter of time. I felt pretty comfortable out there. I was throwing the ball pretty well. We just have to get the continuity going. I feel comfortable with what I’ve done, but I’ve got to get better.”

His coach, John Hadl, made an accurate prediction: “Steve is going to be a great quarterback. He went up against one of the best defenses in the league and performed well. I like his leadership. He saw some things on the field that another quarterback wouldn’t see for a year.”

Nonetheless, Brian Sipe, formerly a longtime quarterback with the Cleveland Browns, led the Generals to victory in his fourth start of the USFL season, making the Express a 2-4 team after Young’s debut. Young stayed with the Express for two seasons, went to the NFL and Tampa Bay in 1985 and 1986, then began his four-year apprenticeship with the 49ers in 1987.

I’ve hunted down the stats for Young’s USFL debut game from the L.A. Times archives. Here’s a rundown of the scoring:

And here’s the team box score:

And, here’s the individual stats:

I don’t recognize most of the names in the box score, but Herschel Walker did have a good day, and the member of the famous Zendeyas kicking family making kicks for New Jersey was Luis. (The above stemmed from my project chronicling Bill Walsh’s 49er teams.)

A Backgrounder on the 49ers and Giants in the Playoffs

During the ‘80s the 49ers and Giants matched up four times in the playoffs, twice in San Francisco and then twice in the Meadowlands. Here, adapted from my e-book covering the 49ers under Bill Walsh, are summaries of these four games, followed by quick notes on the teams’ three following playoff games and a wrapup of the Giants-49ers playoff rivalry. I do not claim that looking back at these games has any predictive value for the NFC title game Sunday, but the renewal of a rivalry that goes more than 30 years back is a welcome occasion to reflect on the clashes between two of the great teams of the past few decades.

1981
In a game deeply overshadowed by the next week’s title game vs. the Cowboys, the 49ers beat the Giants, 38-24, at Candlestick. In the second quarter, a Ricky Patton 25-yard run produces a 24-7 lead for the Niners. But the Giants come back and, in the third quarter, go on a drive that puts them at the SF 11, hoping to tie the game at 24 with a touchdown. A fine defensive play by Eric Wright and following missed 21-yard field goal by the Giants’ Joe Danelo leaves the 49ers still up 24-17. A 49er touchdown on a short drive and then a second touchdown on a 20-yard Ronnie Lott interception return late in the fourth quarter seals the game.

Afterward, Giants coach Ray Perkins predicts: “Next Sunday the Cowboys will win. The Cowboys are a better football team. That’s nothing against the 49ers, but the Cowboys have been in this situation before and they’re a better football team.”

Giants linebacker Harry Carson: “During the week you only have time to work on so many things. But the 49er passing game is so complex, so sophisticated, there just isn’t time to work on everything that they might use against you.”

49ers tight end Charle Young: “Montana is a winner. I can see it in his eyes.”

1984
As in the 1981 playoffs, the 49ers start their trip to the Super Bowl at home, playing the Giants. Excellent defense and competent but not memorable offense gives the 49ers a 21-10 win. There is not a lot of interesting detail to this game, which in retrospect was a sign that the Giants, who intercept Joe Montana twice, including a 14-yard Harry Carson return for the team’s one touchdown, were ready to handle the 49ers’ complicated offense.

Bill Walsh: “The Giants are definitely a team of the future.”

Joe Montana: “I expected more of Lawrence Taylor coming. I got enough of him, but I expected a lot more.”

1985
The Giants, playing at the Meadowlands, swarm the 49ers for a 17-3 win in the wild card round. The 49ers come into the game banged up from accumulated injuries to Montana, Dwight Clark, Wendell Tyler, and others. An interception of Montana by Terry Kinard sets up one Giants touchdown, and a second touchdown drive gives the Giants more than enough points. Although the 49ers get into Giants territory repeatedly, stout defense and drops by San Francisco receivers prevent the drives from coming to much. A crucial second-quarter, 15-play 49er drive ends in a 21-yard field goal instead of a touchdown.

The Giants get a superb 174 rushing yards, 141 of them from Joe Morris, and put a lot of pressure on Montana, while not allowing him any deep completions.

Lawrence Taylor: “One thing that I think intimidated the 49ers was that long (15-play) drive. They scored three points, and we got three penalties. They were aggressive penalties. We’d get one, and we acted like we didn’t care as long as we were hitting somebody. I think it was enough (for the 49ers) to say, ‘Hey, these guys are crazy.’”

1986
Back in the Meadowlands, the Giants annihilate the 49ers in a 49-3 win. Jerry Rice starts the game with probably his most humiliating play: after catching a slant-in throw from Montana, Rice starts running in the clear, but at the Giant 27, he simply loses the ball from his hands, and Giants strong safety Kenny Hill falls on it in the end zone for a touchback. The Giants respond with an 80-yard drive to go up 7-0, and the second quarter features a midfield interception by the Giants’ Herb Welch to set up Joe Morris for a 45-yard touchdown run, a 57-yard touchdown drive late in the quarter, and a 34-yard Lawrence Taylor interception return for another score just before halftime. On that Taylor play, a frightening hit from future 49er Jim Burt takes Montana out of the game with a concussion. It’s 28-3 at the half, and the rout is really on.

The Giants add three more touchdowns in the third quarter, and so the fourth quarter’s just a matter of running out the clock for both teams. It’s the third-biggest blowout in the history of the NFL playoffs, and the Giants are on their way to a Super Bowl victory.

Rice on his fumble: “I wanted to keep on running into the locker room.”
Lawrence Taylor said that if Rice had scored that “would have made it 49-10.”

Walsh: “We were shattered by a great team. The Giants played a great game. Physically, they just shattered us.”

Giants quarterback Phil Simms: “We were fortunate that we caught them in a few things today, caught them in some blitzes and we made the plays. People say we don’t have good wideouts, but put them across the field and you can’t cover them one-on-one.”

1990, 1993, 2002
After the 1990 season, the Giants came into Candlestick for the NFC title game and won, 15-13, in the most memorable game these two teams have had in the playoffs. A late-game Roger Craig fumble set up Jeff Hostetler to lead about a 45-yard drive ending in a 42-yard Matt Bahr field goal for the win. This game signaled the end of the Montana-led 49ers, as the quest for three titles in a row ended with Montana devastated by a fourth-quarter Leonard Marshall hit, and Craig and Ronnie Lott playing their last game in San Francisco. In 1993, the 49ers to some extent paid the Giants back for 1986 by beating them 44-3 in the division round, a game that featured five Ricky Watters touchdowns. But the 49ers promptly lost their second NFC title game in a row to the Cowboys. And then, after the 2002 season, there was the memorable 39-38 49ers victory in the wild card round, with San Francisco overcoming a 38–14 deficit by scoring 25 points in the second half. A last-minute Giants drive ended with a botched field goal snap and desperation heave to the end zone that fell short.

So in sum, the seven playoff matchups have the 49ers winning four games, the Giants winning three. Gauged by points, the 49ers lead, 161 to 156; the Giants have beaten the 49ers twice on the way to Super Bowl victories, and the 49ers have beaten the Giants twice on the way to Super Bowl victories.