November 20, 2017

Herschel Walker Signs with USFL (1983)

Football fans received stunning news on February 23, 1983 as the new United States Football League (USFL), slated to begin play in just a few weeks, announced the signing of Heisman Trophy-winning RB Herschel Walker to a contract with the New Jersey Generals. There had been something of a false start earlier in the month when Walker, whose agent had been in contact with the league for some two months, signed but then took advantage of a 24-hour escape clause to back away. However, this time it was a done deal and the 6’1”, 220-pound phenom, just short of his 21st birthday, was officially a professional.

The news was both surprising and controversial. Walker, who had been a Heisman candidate since his freshman year at Georgia in 1980 (he finished third in the voting), had won the award as a junior in ’82. It was widely anticipated that he would duplicate Archie Griffin’s feat of twice attaining the Heisman trophy, especially since at the time it wasn’t possible for underclassmen to enter the NFL draft.

The USFL had initially stated that it would follow the NFL’s no-underclassmen rule. It had also been the new league’s policy to take a go-slow approach to challenging the older league. They would be playing in the spring, rather than going directly head-to-head with the NFL in the fall, and payrolls were to be held to $1.6 million per club.

The payroll structure began to unravel even before the Walker signing as several major players coming out of college such as North Carolina’s RB Kelvin Bryant, Grambling WR Trumaine Johnson, and Michigan WR Anthony Carter had inked contracts that stretched their respective team payrolls beyond the limit (the owners used personal services contracts to circumvent the cap). Walker’s deal, which was a personal services contract with Generals owner J. Walter Duncan, came to $3.9 million for three years and included incentives that took the figure over $4.2 million.

Both the NFL and NCAA cried foul at the signing of the underclassman Walker, and several colleges banned the new league’s scouts from their campuses. USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons insisted that no other underclassmen would be signed and that Walker presented a “special case”. The truth was that, in having his agent approach the new league, Walker had already compromised his college eligibility for 1983, and had he pressed a court case, he might well have forced his way into the USFL through judicial decision (a threat of a lawsuit challenging the draft was something the NFL feared and ultimately led to its ending the ban on underclassmen).

There may have been plenty of controversy, but Herschel Walker was the biggest name in college football and a huge prize for the new league. Signing with the team that would play in the New York metropolitan area only enhanced the effect. It also assured that he would receive intense scrutiny, and when he started slowly (he gained just 65 yards on 16 carries in his first game, a nationally televised 20-15 loss to the Los Angeles Express) the criticism was quick to come. However, maintaining his composure throughout, Walker ended up leading the league in rushing with 1,812 yards over the course of the 18-game season, although the Generals were a disappointing 6-12.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on February 23, 2010.

 

Doug Flutie Has Rough Debut as Generals Fall to Stallions (1985)

Entering its third season, the United States Football League once again began play with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner on one of its rosters. In 1983, it had been RB Herschel Walker, and in ’84, RB Mike Rozier. Now in 1985, Doug Flutie, the diminutive (5’9”) but strong-armed and mobile Heisman-winning quarterback from Boston College, was under contract in the USFL.

Flutie signed a five-year deal with owner Donald Trump’s New Jersey Generals for $7 million. The Generals took the further step of dealing their 1984 starting quarterback, veteran Brian Sipe, to the Jacksonville Bulls. Ready or not, Flutie was expected to step in and start right away.

Flutie had been with the team for just two weeks after signing his contract, and appeared in one preseason game where his performance was underwhelming. His regular season debut came on February 24, 1985 at Birmingham’s Legion Field against the Stallions, a good team that was coming off of a 14-4 record and Southern Division title in ’84.

New Jersey had also gone 14-4 in 1984, good enough for a wild card slot, but the Generals lost to the eventual league champs, the Philadelphia Stars, in the first round of the playoffs. It was a big improvement over the 6-12 record of the inaugural season in ’83, and reflected many changes. Walt Michaels, formerly of the Jets, had taken over as head coach, and veterans such as Sipe, G Dave Lapham, CB Kerry Justin, FS Gary Barbaro, SS Greggory Johnson, and linebackers Jim LeClair and Bobby Leopold were grabbed away from the NFL. Walker, the USFL’s leading rusher in 1983, was joined as a thousand-yard ground-gainer by FB Maurice Carthon, better known for his outstanding blocking.

There were 34,785 in attendance at Legion Field, along with a national television audience as ABC heavily hyped the game. What they saw was a dominant first half performance by the home team and a rookie quarterback whose lack of preparation was clearly evident.

Flutie missed on his first nine passes, most of which were poorly thrown, and two of them intercepted. He didn’t complete his first pass of the game, for six yards to WR Clarence Collins, until late in the third quarter.

Meanwhile, ninth-year veteran QB Cliff Stoudt, the league’s second-rated passer in ’84, operated Birmingham’s conservative offense smoothly and effectively. The ex-Steeler threw for three touchdowns and led long drives for two more.

Birmingham scored the game’s first touchdown at the end of a 10-play, 73-yard first quarter drive that was highlighted by Stoudt’s 28-yard run in a third down situation that advanced the ball to the New Jersey five yard line. The possession was capped by a two-yard touchdown pass from Stoudt to TE Darryl Mason.

Three plays after Birmingham’s TD, and just seconds into the second quarter, the Generals responded when Carthon ran off tackle and broke away for a 55-yard touchdown to tie the score at 7-7.

It appeared that the Stallions had retaken the lead later in the period when, in a fourth-and-four situation, Stoudt completed an apparent 36-yard touchdown pass to RB Joe Cribbs. However, a holding call on Mason nullified the score, and Birmingham came up empty.

The Stallions did retake the lead before the first half ended. Cribbs ran for a two-yard touchdown with 19 seconds left, capping a seven-play drive that ran 7:29 off the clock. Birmingham had dominated the first half, holding onto the ball for 22 of the 30 minutes, but the score was just 14-7 at halftime.

The Stallions took control of the game in the third quarter, scoring 17 points while New Jersey’s offense floundered. In their first possession, they drove 69 yards in 11 plays that led to a two-yard scoring run by RB Leon Perry.

Four minutes later, and after FS Chuck Clanton intercepted a Flutie pass and returned it to the New Jersey 19, Birmingham scored again when Stoudt connected with RB Earl Gant on a swing pass that resulted in a six-yard TD. Late in the period, Danny Miller kicked a 33-yard field goal that made the score 31-7.

At this point, Flutie completed his first pass to the derisive cheers of the Birmingham fans. However, making that first completion seemed to settle the rookie quarterback, and he began to flash the form that had made him a star in college.

Flutie tossed a well-thrown bomb to Walker that covered 51 yards and set up Walker’s one-yard touchdown run, cutting the Birmingham lead to 31-14. Following Kerry Justin’s interception of a Stoudt pass, Flutie led a drive that culminated in his first pro TD pass, rolling out and throwing four yards to WR Danny Knight.

Down now by just 10 points, it seemed as though the Generals might pull off a big comeback when they got the ball again with seven minutes left to play. However, CB Dennis Woodberry intercepted a Flutie pass and returned it 22 yards to the New Jersey 44. Two plays later, Stoudt threw to WR Jim Smith for a 44-yard touchdown that effectively put the game out of reach at 38-21.

Flutie’s second TD pass was similar to the first, coming on a rollout and covering five yards to WR Marcus Hackett (his only catch of the season), but with 3:13 remaining it was too little, too late. Birmingham came away with a 38-28 opening-day win.

The Stallions had a huge edge in time of possession (41:37 to 18:33). They also led in total yards (372 to 288) and first downs (25 to 12). The Generals turned the ball over five times, to three by Birmingham.

Cliff Stoudt completed 21 of 33 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns against two interceptions, and rushed 9 times for 65 yards to lead the club. Joe Cribbs was the most productive of the running backs, gaining 46 yards on 16 attempts and scoring a TD. Jim Smith caught 6 passes for 98 yards, including the long touchdown.

Doug Flutie ended up completing 12 of 27 passes for 189 yards with two TDs and three interceptions; he gained 17 yards on two carries as well. Herschel Walker was held to only 5 yards on 6 carries, but caught 3 passes for 71 yards. Maurice Carthon, thanks to the long touchdown carry, ran for 74 yards on 8 attempts. Danny Knight also caught 3 passes, for 38 yards.

“I think I’m ready,” said Flutie. “I didn’t prove it today, but I believe I will next week.”

The Generals won their next two games, on the way to an 11-7 record and second place finish in the Eastern Conference (they once again lost to their nemesis, the Stars, in the first round of the playoffs). Flutie played respectably, passing for 2,109 yards and 13 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. However, it was Herschel Walker who keyed the offense – despite his low total against Birmingham, he ran for 2,411 yards and 21 touchdowns and led the club in receiving with 37 catches for 467 yards and another TD.

As for the Stallions, they ended up placing first in the Eastern Conference at 13-5 and won their first round playoff game, but lost to the Stars in the Semifinal round.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on February 24, 2011.