April 1, 2010

1984: Steve Young Debuts with USFL’s LA Express

The April 1, 1984 matchup between the Los Angeles Express (2-3) and visiting New Jersey Generals (4-1) at the Memorial Coliseum before a small crowd of 19,853 didn’t provide any surprises; the Generals won handily, 26-10. But it did mark the first professional start for QB Steve Young, who had signed a 10-year, $40 million contract to join the USFL club after an outstanding career at Brigham Young.

The Express had failed to score more than 14 points in any of its first five contests, with Tom Ramsey and Frank Seurer splitting time at quarterback, and were ripe for an infusion of new talent. Young gave them that, completing 19 of 29 passes for 163 yards with a TD and an interception and also leading the club in rushing with 32 yards on six carries. His first pro touchdown pass was a nine yard toss to fellow rookie WR JoJo Townsell late in the second quarter, and at one point he completed nine consecutive throws.

“Steve is going to be a great quarterback,” said LA’s Head Coach John Hadl afterward. “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.”

With his outstanding mobility to complement his passing, Young put together a solid rookie season. He completed 57.7 % of his 310 passes for 2361 yards with 10 touchdowns and 9 interceptions and ran for 515 yards on 79 attempts for a healthy 6.5-yard average and seven TDs. Moreover, he rallied the Express to a 10-8 record and the Pacific Division title. After averaging 10.7 points and 296.8 yards per game over the first five contests, the Express averaged 22.9 points and 338 yards the rest of the way.

It was a rather ordinary performance for the Generals, with star RB Herschel Walker gaining just 59 yards on 16 rushing attempts but scoring on a 50-yard pass play from QB Brian Sipe as he accumulated 66 receiving yards on three catches. The Generals outgained the Express on the ground, 111 yards to 56.

The 34-year-old veteran Sipe, a high-profile signee from the NFL’s Cleveland Browns who had started slowly in the USFL due to injury, completed 13 of 21 passes for 219 yards with two touchdowns. It was a solid outing for him as well, and afterward he commented, “This was probably my best game. I felt more comfortable than I have felt so far. And it was nice to see us do a lot of different things. My knee injury was a real setback to me, but each week, I seem to feel more and more comfortable.”

New Jersey went 14-4 for the season, finishing in second place in the Atlantic Division and qualifying for a wild card playoff spot. They lost convincingly in the first postseason round to the team that finished ahead of them in the division (and went on to win the USFL title), the Philadelphia Stars.

The greater significance of the game, however, which lasted far beyond the ’84 season and the USFL itself, was the beginning of Steve Young’s 17-season career (two in the USFL, 15 in the NFL) that ultimately earned enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.