July 23, 2017

Stars Throttle Wranglers for USFL Title (1984)

The Philadelphia Stars were a team on a mission during the 1984 United States Football League season. Head Coach Jim Mora’s squad had gone 15-3 in the league’s inaugural ’83 campaign but lost a closely-fought title game to the Michigan Panthers by two points. The Stars were just as efficient and dominating during the ’84 regular season, going 16-2. QB Chuck Fusina led a conservative but potent offense centered around RB Kelvin Bryant and an outstanding line anchored by OT Irv Eatman and C Bart Oates. The “Doghouse Defense” was, if anything, even better than it had been the previous year and featured All-League honorees in DT Pete Kugler, LB Sam Mills, CB Garcia Lane, and FS Mike Lush. The club had beaten the New Jersey Generals and Birmingham Stallions to advance once again to the USFL Championship Game.

Their opponent on July 15, 1984 was the Arizona Wranglers, under Head Coach George Allen. The veteran-laden club that had (for the most part) played as the Chicago Blitz in ’83 was similar to the Stars in having a ball-control offense and rugged defense. 37-year-old QB Greg Landry no longer had a strong arm but still had plenty of savvy behind center and the running game boasted two thousand-yard rushers in Tim Spencer (1212) and Kevin Long (1010). WR Trumaine Johnson was a top receiver (90 catches, 1268 yds., 13 TDs). The defense ranked first overall and contained DE Karl Lorch, DT Kit Lathrop, and LB Ed Smith. However, Arizona’s road to the postseason had been more difficult – the Wranglers started off slowly but won their last four games to finish second in the Pacific Division at 10-8 and qualify as a Wild Card. They won two closely-fought games over the Houston Gamblers and Los Angeles Express to make it to the title game.

There was a crowd of 52,662 on hand at Tampa Stadium for the second USFL Championship game. The Stars took control from the start, driving 66 yards in 10 plays in the opening series of the game capped by a four-yard touchdown carry by RB Bryan Thomas. Following a three-and-out possession by Arizona, Philadelphia again put together a long scoring drive that took nine plays to travel 54 yards. Fusina scored on a quarterback sneak from a yard out and, while David Trout missed the extra point attempt, Philadelphia was ahead by 13-0 after a quarter of play.

Fusina completed his first ten passes and the Stars’ offense moved methodically down the field, but in the second quarter turnovers kept the team from scoring again and nearly allowed the Wranglers to get back into the game. Backup TE Ken Dunek, in the lineup in place of injured starter Steve Folsom, fumbled early in the second quarter at the Arizona 43 yard line. The Wranglers recovered and capitalized when Frank Corral booted a 37-yard field goal.

Another Philadelphia drive into Arizona territory was stopped at the Wranglers’ 11 but Trout missed a 27-yard field goal attempt. Just before halftime, an 84-yard drive by the Stars came up empty when Kelvin Bryant, who was hampered by a toe injury, fumbled at the goal line – the play resulted in a touchback. The score remained 13-3 at the intermission although Philadelphia had rolled up 249 yards to just 49 for the Wranglers.

Arizona’s offense came alive in the first series of the third quarter. The Wranglers advanced 40 yards, but facing third-and-three at the Philadelphia 39, Greg Landry’s pass intended for Tim Spencer was broken up by LB Mike Johnson. While a furious Landry shouted at officials that Spencer had been interfered with, the protest was to no avail and Arizona was forced to punt.

Once again the Stars moved smoothly down the field. However, after reaching the Arizona 16, they came up empty once again when Fusina’s third-down pass was tipped by Kit Lathrop and intercepted by Ed Smith, who returned it 37 yards to the Philadelphia 46. It seemed once again that the Arizona offense would put points on the board, advancing to the 23, but the Stars defense held and Corral missed a field goal attempt from 40 yards.

The Wranglers suffered only one turnover, but it served to put the game out of reach. Landry fumbled while being sacked by DE Don Fielder at the Arizona 11 yard line and DT Buddy Moor recovered for the Stars. Seven plays later, Bryant scored from a yard out and Philadelphia took a commanding 20-3 lead with just under ten minutes left in the contest. David Trout capped the scoring with a 39-yard field goal as the Philadelphia defense stifled the Wranglers the rest of the way. The Stars became USFL Champions by a score of 23-3 that easily could have been much larger.

Philadelphia ran 59 running plays, a USFL postseason record, and dominated time of possession by 43:19 to 16:41. They also outgained Arizona by 414 yards to 119 and, while the Stars turned the ball over three times, the Wranglers were only able to take advantage with the lone field goal, while Arizona’s single turnover led to seven points for Philadelphia. Arizona, known for its outstanding pass rush during the regular season, was unable to put pressure on Fusina and did not sack him at all.

Chuck Fusina, the game’s MVP, completed 12 of 17 passes for 158 yards with no TDs and one interception. Kelvin Bryant led the running game with 115 yards on 29 carries that included a touchdown while Bryan Thomas contributed 69 yards on 11 attempts and one TD. WR Tom Donovan caught three passes for 43 yards.

For the Wranglers, Greg Landry was successful on just 6 of 20 throws for 54 yards. No player caught more than one pass, with WR Lenny Willis gaining 16 yards on Arizona’s longest pass completion of the game and Trumaine Johnson gaining 15 on his sole catch. Held to only 72 rushing yards as a team, Tim Spencer led the way with 33 yards on 8 carries.

“There’s no doubt we are the best team in the USFL,” said a triumphant Jim Mora afterward. “There was no denying this team.” Mora further added, “Our goal after losing to Michigan last year was not just to get to Tampa, but to win this game tonight.”

“We had opportunities to get back in the game after a couple of turnovers, but we didn’t take advantage of them,” said George Allen, coaching his last pro game at age 66. “We didn’t play as well as I thought we would, so Philadelphia deserves to win the championship.”

Allen saluted his players by saying, “I’m proud of them even though we lost. They played hard and came back from adversity all season long.”

In the ensuing offseason, the Stars moved to Baltimore (necessitated by the USFL’s plan to shift to a fall schedule for a 1986 season that never happened) and, while not as dominant during the regular season, rallied to win a second straight title in ’85. The Wranglers stayed in place but were merged with the Oklahoma Outlaws for 1985 and went 8-10 to finish fourth in the Western Conference.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on July 15, 2012.

 

The High-Rise and the Slurpee Cup: An Appreciation of Larry Brown

Where the NFL Hall of Fame is concerned, the past 40 years have been good times for the Washington Redskins. Over the past five years, Chris Hanburger, Russ Grimm, Darrell Green and Art Monk have been enshrined. George Allen was finally elected in 2002; Joe Gibbs in 1999; and “The Diesel”, John Riggins, in 1992. Before that, Charley Taylor was inducted in 1984, and both Sonny Jurgensen and Bobby Mitchell were honored in 1983. That’s a sizable chunk of the greatest ‘Skins of my lifetime. If I have fond memories of each, though (okay, at 50, I have a hard time conjuring images of Bobby Mitchell), none of them evokes the same childhood passion as one who’s not in the Hall, my favorite Redskin of all-time, Larry Brown.

I’m not advocating for Brown’s enshrinement in Canton; I understand that next to the greatest running backs in the game’s history, his totals pale by comparison. And anyway, I don’t really care that he’s not in the Hall of Fame, nor was ever a finalist. His body of work, as they say, was relatively brief, just five productive years, so it makes sense that he wasn’t ever considered one of the greats (although during the same comparative span, over their respective first five years, Brown actually amassed more yardage than did Gale Sayers, whose career was almost identical to Brown’s career). It’s enough that Brown is in the Redskins Ring of Fame, because it’s difficult to imagine any player ever meant more to his team than did number 43.

It may be that my favoritism came from proximity. When I was a kid growing up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., we lived not far from The Chateau, the high-rise apartment building where Brown lived, right next to the Beltway. Every time I’d pass by the place I’d imagine him inside his apartment; how he lived; the route he’d take on game days to RFK Stadium in the District, where the ‘Skins then played; even envision him at the local Safeway, where I was sure we both shopped. I once saw pictures of his living room in a magazine, with the shag carpets that were so prevalent in a bachelor pad of that era. I remember thinking it must have been cool to be Larry Brown.

I didn’t learn until years later, of course, how Vince Lombardi installed a hearing aid in Brown’s helmet after discovering that the running back, whom Lombardi had drafted in the eighth round of the ’69 draft, the 191st player taken, was hard of hearing. But as I rooted for the Allen-era Redskins (after Lombardi’s death, Bill Austin led the team to one sub-.500 season, then Allen began his legendary run), Brown’s toughness and running style came to symbolize the kind of team those Allen ‘Skins were: tenacious, resilient and tough, just so gosh darn tough. Watching Brown take a beating game after game, it was fitting that he later titled his autobiography, “I’ll Always Get Up.” He always did.

For those five years, Brown was one of football’s best runners. Beginning in his rookie season, 1969, he was named to four consecutive Pro Bowls; twice during that span he was also named First Team All-Pro. As a measure of his durability, Brown never finished worse than fourth in the league in carries, and among his two 1,000-yard seasons, he finished first in the league in 1970 and second two years later, when he rushed for a career-high 1,216 yards. The 1972 season was magical. Individually, in addition to the high-water mark in yards gained, Brown also led the league in both yards per game and yards from scrimmage, and his performance garnered a host of post-season awards, among them the Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year and MVP, and the Bert Bell Award as the Player of the Year. Collectively, the ‘Skins finished 11-3 but lost to Miami in Super Bowl VII, although Brown ran as hard as ever in that game, finishing with 72 yards on 22 carries. That season was the pinnacle of Brown’s and Allen’s careers.

That’s probably the year I got the Slurpee cup. Just as with the excitement of finding my favorite baseball player in a package of Topps baseball cards, I remember the same feeling when my local 7-Eleven finally brought out Brown’s cup among the Redskins’ series. I’m sure I filled it with the Coke flavor Slurpee, because that’s just about the only kind I ever gulped. That cup sat on my dresser for years. Eventually, I filled it with pennies. I’m not sure whatever happened to it; for nostalgia’s sake, I wish I still had it.

By 1973, Brown was for all intents and purposes finished. Although he gained 860 yards that season, he only averaged 3.2 yards per carry. He couldn’t overcome debilitating knee injuries after that, and carried his final twenty times in 1976. Then he retired. Allen wore him out.

Man, was Brown tough.

Thanks for the memories, Larry.