February 24, 2011

1985: Doug Flutie Has Rough Debut as Generals Fall to Stallions

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 (pictured at right), 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 2109 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 2411 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.