March 6, 2010

1983: Blitz Wins USFL Debut as George Allen Returns to Washington

March 6, 1983 marked opening day for the new United States Football League (USFL), and the Washington Federals hosted the Chicago Blitz at RFK Stadium. It was something of a homecoming for Blitz Head Coach George Allen, who had coached the NFL Redskins from 1971-77.

Allen was the most prestigious of the new league’s head coaches, and thus he and the Blitz received a fair amount of attention prior to the USFL commencing its first spring season. After initially gaining notoriety as the defensive assistant for the Bears under George Halas when they won the 1963 NFL title, Allen had gone on to his first head coaching job with the Rams. Taking over a franchise that had posted six consecutive losing seasons prior to 1966, he immediately turned the team’s fortunes around and ended up with a 49-19-4 record before departing following the 1970 season. From there it was to Washington and a 69-35-1 tally that included a NFC championship in 1972. Hard-working and intense, he also was an outstanding motivator whose teams typically played with great spirit and enthusiasm.

Allen left Washington to return to the Rams for the ’78 season, but never made it through the preseason as he was replaced by Ray Malavasi. He retreated to the broadcast booth until taking on the challenge of coaching a new team in a start-up league. His arrival in Chicago heralded great expectations and, as Allen had done with the Rams and Redskins, a strong nucleus of veteran players was assembled.

QB Greg Landry (pictured below left), a 14-year NFL veteran, guided an offense that included the team’s two most significant rookie signings, WR Trumaine Johnson and RB Tim Spencer. The defense was filled with experienced players, most notably defensive ends Karl Lorch (WFL and Redskins) and Junior Ah You (CFL), DT Joe Ehrmann (Colts and Lions), LB Stan White (Colts and Lions), CB Virgil Livers (Bears), and safety Luther Bradley (Lions). Even punter/placekicker Frank Corral (Rams) was an experienced pro.

Chicago met expectations in the opener, easily defeating the Federals, 28-7. Landry directed the typically conservative but effective offense (a signature of Allen’s teams), completing 19 of 27 passes for 251 yards with two TDs and no interceptions. The rookie WR Johnson made an immediate impression, catching 11 of those passes for 158 yards and a score. Spencer led the running attack with 69 yards on 17 carries. On defense, Bradley picked off two passes and Ah You and Ehrmann each recorded a sack.

The Blitz outrushed the Federals, 143 yards to 36 (rookie RB Craig James gained 34 of those yards on 14 carries), and outpassed them 213 to 172. Washington had only three first downs in the first three quarters, didn’t score until the fourth quarter, and was forced to punt nine times.

Speculation that Chicago was the USFL’s dominant team grew to a fever pitch, although Allen attempted to calm the inflated expectations. “I don’t feel that we’ll dominate the league in any manner,” was his response, and it was proven so the following week when the Blitz gave up 18 points in the fourth quarter to blow a 29-12 lead over the Arizona Wrangers, who won 30-29.

At the end of the year, Chicago had a 12-6 record and the wild card spot in the playoffs (their record matched that of the Michigan Panthers in the Central Division, but the eventual-champion Panthers won the division title by sweeping the season series between the teams). They lost to the Philadelphia Stars in the Semifinal round. Washington, by contrast, went 4-14 and ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic Division.

The Blitz scored the most points (456) and had the third-ranked offense as well as top-ranked defense in the USFL. Trumaine Johnson topped the league with 81 catches for 1322 yards and Luther Bradley led in interceptions with 12. Allen was criticized for his offense’s predictability, and for sitting on late leads that made them vulnerable to opponents staging comebacks. However, the team suffered key injuries, losing Landry to a foot injury twelve weeks into the campaign as well as some key offensive linemen. But for the outsized expectations (and monetary losses that led the franchise to exchange locations with the Wranglers for 1984), it was a respectable showing and did nothing to damage a coaching career that landed Allen in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.