April 9, 2010

1983: John Reaves Sets USFL Passing Records as Bandits Defeat Gold in Overtime

33-year-old QB John Reaves was making the most of his new opportunity with the Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League. An outstanding college passer at Florida, he had been the first draft choice of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles in 1972. He had started seven games for a very bad Eagles team in his rookie season, but then sat on the bench for two years after veteran Roman Gabriel was obtained from the Rams. Traded to Cincinnati, Reaves backed up Ken Anderson for four years. But after appearing in five games with the Houston Oilers in 1981, it appeared that his career was over. He had become better known for his off-field problems than any on-field accomplishments.

In 1983, a clean and sober Reaves became starting quarterback for the USFL franchise in Tampa Bay, operating Head Coach Steve Spurrier’s air-oriented offense. He led the team to wins in the first four games, but then suffered a disastrous performance against the Chicago Blitz in which he was intercepted four times and pulled in the third quarter.

In the following contest, on April 9, 1983 at Mile High Stadium in Denver, Reaves filled the air with passes as he set single-game league records for passes attempted (63) and completed (38). The Bandits defeated the Denver Gold, 22-16, but it wasn’t easy.

Denver was up 13-3 at halftime thanks to a 56-yard pass play from QB Ken Johnson to RB Harry Sydney and two Brian Speelman field goals. The Bandits had managed only a 36-yard first quarter field goal by Zenon Andrusyshyn.

Reaves led Tampa Bay on a long scoring drive in the third quarter that culminated in a six-yard TD pass to WR Danny Buggs; Denver blocked the ensuing extra point attempt. A one-yard fourth quarter touchdown run by RB Sam Platt put the Bandits ahead by a 16-13 margin, but the Gold fought back as Speelman tied the game with a 33-yard field goal with 45 seconds remaining in regulation.

Reaves directed a 73-yard scoring drive to win the game in overtime, including a key 28-yard pass to WR Eric Truvillion that set up an 11-yard touchdown run by RB Greg Boone.

Reaves’ 38-of-63 performance yielded 357 yards; he threw two interceptions in addition to his one TD pass. Sam Platt caught the most passes for the Bandits with 12 receptions out of the backfield for 87 yards while Danny Buggs led the team with 97 yards on 8 catches. Boone was Tampa Bay’s top rusher with 41 yards on seven carries; Platt contributed another 36 yards on 16 attempts.

For Denver, Harry Sydney was the top rusher with 68 yards on 17 carries. Ken Johnson completed 13 of 23 passes for 157 yards with the lone touchdown and no interceptions. TE Bob Niziolek caught 5 passes, for 27 yards, while Sydney was the receiving yardage leader with 56 thanks to his touchdown reception.

Tampa Bay’s strong start didn’t result in continued success over the course of the season; the Bandits ended up with an 11-7 record and finished in third place in the strong Central Division and out of the postseason. Denver was 7-11 and ended up third in the far weaker Pacific Division.

Reaves suffered a broken right wrist the week after the Denver game and didn’t return until the next-to-last contest of the season (three quarterbacks started in his absence, most notably Jimmy Jordan, a former Florida State star). Thus, his overall numbers were held to 139 completions in 259 attempts (53.7 %) for 1726 yards with 9 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. That he was playing football at all, and in general quite effectively, was the bigger story. He would go on to have his greatest professional season in 1984.