September 26, 2017

Jacksonville Bulls Score 53 Points in USFL Debut (1984)

The Jacksonville Bulls were one of six new teams in the USFL for the 1984 season. Owned by Fred Bullard (hence the Bulls nickname) and coached by Lindy Infante, they took the field for their first game on February 26 before 49,392 fans at the Gator Bowl. They didn’t disappoint, rolling up 53 points as they obliterated the visiting Washington Federals.

The first points came on a safety as Washington punter Dana Moore fell on a fumble in his end zone. The first touchdown occurred on a 74-yard pass play from QB Matt Robinson to WR Aubrey Matthews. It was 16-0 at the end of the first quarter after RB Larry Mason scored from a yard out.

By the end of the first half, the Bulls had a 29-0 lead as Mason scored a second TD on an eight-yard run (the PAT failed) and Robinson connected on another long pass play, this one covering 54 yards to WR Wyatt Henderson. Washington finally got on the board in the third quarter on a one-yard run by QB Mike Hohensee, but it was Jacksonville accumulating the next 17 points as the Bulls cruised to the 53-14 victory.

Robinson, who had played in the NFL with the Jets, Broncos, and Bills, completed 15 of 25 passes for 299 yards with three touchdowns against two interceptions. Rookie WR Gary Clark led the team with 4 pass receptions (for 65 yards), although Matthews had the most receiving yards with 74 on his lone catch, the long TD. Larry Mason led the team’s runners with 36 yards on 11 carries with the two scores.

WR Joey Walters had an outstanding statistical day in a losing effort for the Federals as he gained 205 yards on 8 receptions that included a 51-yard TD on a pass from relief QB Reggie Collier.

It was a great start for the franchise both on the field and in terms of attendance. But while the Bulls would set a USFL single-game attendance record in their next game with 73,227 on hand to witness a heartbreaking loss to the New Jersey Generals, and would go on to lead the league in attendance over the course of the season, they went 6-12 on the way to a last place finish in the Southern Division. The Federals also finished last with a 3-15 record, tied with the Pittsburgh Maulers in the Atlantic Division.

Matt Robinson ended up splitting time at quarterback with Robbie Mahfouz. Gary Clark was the top receiver, with 56 catches for 760 yards. However, the team finished next to last in the USFL in rushing with 1729 yards; Mason’s 495 yards led the club.

Defense was a problem as the team failed to consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and ended up surrendering 455 points. They were good at picking off passes, with 28 interceptions (led by safety Don Bessillieu’s seven), but defensive lineman Bob Clasby was the team’s leader with just five sacks.

The franchise’s enduring legacy was the fan support that it generated. Long after the Bulls disappeared with the rest of the USFL, the NFL awarded Jacksonville an expansion franchise for the 1995 season. The enthusiasm generated for the Bulls apparently played a role in that decision.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on February 26, 2010.

 

Kelly Passes for 574 Yards as Gamblers Defeat Express (1985)

The opening week United States Football League contest between the Houston Gamblers and Los Angeles Express on February 24, 1985 featured two of the most highly-regarded young quarterbacks in the league. Houston’s Jim Kelly had a remarkable rookie season in 1984, throwing for 5219 yards and 44 touchdowns. The Gamblers, coached by Jack Pardee and utilizing a run-and-shoot offense, went 13-5 and only a first-round loss to Arizona in the playoffs could put a damper on the outstanding year.

Steve Young of the Express joined the club after the ’84 season was already underway and, while not putting together the spectacular numbers that his fellow rookie did in Houston, nevertheless performed capably and had a positive effect on the offense. LA was 2-3 and having difficulty generating points when the mobile lefthander out of Brigham Young took over, but rallied to finish at 10-8 and gain a spot in the postseason in the weak Pacific Division (and defeated Houston in the first head-to-head encounter between the two quarterbacks). Following a triple-overtime win over the defending-champion Michigan Panthers in the first round of the playoffs, LA had finally succumbed to the Arizona Wranglers.

There was a typically sparse crowd of 18,828 in attendance at the LA Memorial Coliseum for the untelevised game. The Gamblers took the early advantage as Kelly threw two one-yard touchdowns to WR Ricky Sanders in the first quarter to build up a 13-0 lead (the extra point attempt was missed following the second of the TDs). The Express responded with two field goals by Tony Zendejas, of 26 and 48 yards, in the second quarter and the score was 13-6 at halftime.

Zendejas added a 37-yard field goal in the third quarter, and then Young connected with WR JoJo Townsell for a 64-yard touchdown. RB Kevin Nelson ran for a two-yard TD and the Express, aided by Houston turnovers, was ahead by 23-13 after three quarters.

LA appeared to put the game away in the fourth quarter when safety Troy West intercepted a Kelly pass and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown, making the score 33-13 with less than ten minutes to play. However, two plays from scrimmage later Houston narrowed the gap in lightning fashion as Kelly threw to WR Richard Johnson for a 52-yard touchdown.

The Express played conservatively, trying to run out the clock, and the Gamblers got the ball back at the LA 43 following a poor 16-yard punt by Jeff Partridge with the clock down to 4:05. This time it took five plays to drive to another Kelly scoring pass as he connected with WR Vince Courville from 20 yards out. With the successful extra point it was now a six-point game at 33-27.

LA managed only a running play and two incomplete passes in its next series. Following another punt, the Gamblers had possession with just under two minutes to go. They only needed 40 seconds to cover 84 yards and cap their furious comeback as Kelly found Sanders open over the middle, beating West (who had two interceptions in the game and returned one for a score) for a 39-yard touchdown. Toni Fritsch kicked his fourth extra point of the game to provide a one-point margin.

Still, there was time on the clock for LA to attempt to drive into field goal range, and Zendejas had been successful on all four of his attempts. But Young was intercepted by LB Mike Hawkins to nail down the 34-33 win for Houston.

The Gamblers rolled up 585 total yards, with only 25 of that total on the ground, on a mere 8 carries. The Express ran the ball 20 times, but for just 49 yards while gaining a total of 267. Houston also had the edge in first downs (26 to 12), although the Gamblers hindered themselves by turning the ball over five times, to just one by LA.

Jim Kelly completed 35 of 54 passes for 574 yards and 5 touchdowns. In doing so, he not only surpassed Bobby Hebert’s USFL record of 444 yards, but Norm Van Brocklin’s NFL record of 554 and was just 12 yards short of Sam Etcheverry’s 586 yards with Montreal of the CFL in 1954. It was the second time Kelly had tossed five TDs in a game, tying the league record that he shared with four others.

Three Houston receivers gained over a hundred yards, led by Richard Johnson with 174 on 11 catches, including one score, and followed by Ricky Sanders with 9 receptions for 108 yards and three TDs and RB Sam Harrell’s 105 on 6 catches. Harrell led the almost non-existent running attack with 16 yards on four carries.

For the Express, Steve Young was successful on 13 of 27 passes for 255 yards with a TD and an interception and was the leading rusher with 27 yards on five carries. JoJo Townsell gained 104 yards on his two catches, including the one long touchdown, while WR Duane Gunn had four receptions for 42 yards.

“I’ve been in some comebacks before, but never anything like that,” said Kelly. “Pulling out that win was the best feeling I ever had in my life.”

“He’s a great quarterback; that’s a great offense,” summed up Steve Young, whose own efforts had come up short.

“I got too conservative in the fourth quarter,” lamented Express Head Coach John Hadl.

It was the beginning of another outstanding year for Houston and Jim Kelly. While the second-year quarterback out of Miami missed several games due to injury, he still led the USFL in pass attempts (567), completions (360), yards (4623), touchdowns (39), and passer rating (97.9). The Gamblers finished third in the Western Conference with a 10-8 record but were the league’s highest-scoring club with 544 points. They qualified for the postseason but once again lost in the first round, falling to Birmingham by a 22-20 score.

They were far ahead of the Los Angeles Express, who finished at a miserable 3-15 and wound up the year playing at Pierce College’s small venue while unsuccessfully seeking new ownership. It was a tough season for Steve Young as well, who threw for 1741 yards with 6 TD passes and 13 interceptions and rushed for 368.

With the demise of the USFL, both quarterbacks made their way to the NFL. Kelly played for Buffalo, the team that had his rights after drafting him in the first round in 1983, and led the Bills to four straight AFC titles – although the club fell short in the Super Bowl after each. Young went to Tampa Bay and was then dealt to the 49ers, where he was a backup on two Super Bowl-winning squads, was the starting quarterback when San Francisco won the NFL Championship in 1994, and led the league in passing six times. They both eventually ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – the USFL performances were just the opening chapter.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on February 24, 2012.

 

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.)

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.