May 12, 2011

1984: Kelly Throws 5 TD Passes as Gamblers Thrash Maulers

After getting off to a 6-3 start, the Houston Gamblers, one of six new teams to take the field in the United States Football League’s second season, were in a three-way tie atop the Central Division. Head Coach Jack Pardee provided overall direction while offensive coordinator Darrel “Mouse” Davis instituted a “run-and-shoot” offense. With prize rookie QB Jim Kelly (pictured above) directing the pass-oriented attack, the Gamblers were an exciting and high-scoring club.

However, the Gamblers then lost two consecutive close contests to fall a game behind the defending-champion Michigan Panthers (who had administered the first of the defeats). On May 12, 1984 they went on the road to face another first-year team, the Pittsburgh Maulers, at Three Rivers Stadium.

Pittsburgh was far less successful than the Gamblers. They had lost five straight games to come into the contest at 2-9, and Head Coach Joe Pendry had already been fired and replaced by Ellis Rainsberger, who was elevated from assistant head coach. Pittsburgh, too, had a prize rookie in Heisman Trophy-winning RB Mike Rozier out of Nebraska, but little else. Former NFL backup QB Glenn Carano was inconsistent and the defense had far too many weaknesses.

There were 24,880 in attendance for the Saturday night game that was something of a homecoming for Kelly – he had grown up in East Brady, a town north of Pittsburgh, before going on to star at the Univ. of Miami. The rookie quarterback was suffering from a sore elbow, but it didn’t hinder his performance.

The Maulers fumbled the ball away on their first two possessions and Houston converted those turnovers into a 10-0 lead. Following a 25-yard field goal by Toni Fritsch, a fumble by Carano set up the first touchdown of the game less than two minutes later as Kelly threw to WR Richard Johnson on a play covering 15 yards.

The Gamblers took control of the game in the second quarter. Following another Fritsch field goal of 22 yards just under three minutes into the period, Kelly connected again with Johnson for a 13-yard TD and 20-0 lead. Pittsburgh finally got on the board as Carano threw to TE Mark Raugh for a 13-yard touchdown. But Kelly responded with a first-down bomb to WR Ricky Sanders that covered 68 yards for his third TD pass of the game, and less than three minutes later, with just seconds remaining in the first half, Kelly fired a fourth scoring pass to RB Todd Fowler from 21 yards out. Houston took a solid 34-7 lead into halftime.

Fritsch extended the margin to 37-7 at just under six minutes into the third quarter with a 42-yard field goal. The Maulers scored two touchdowns later in the period, both on runs by RB William Miller. The first covered 12 yards and the extra point attempt was missed. The second was from a yard out and, with the successful PAT, narrowed Houston’s lead to a slightly-more-respectable 37-20.

Kelly threw one more TD pass in the fourth quarter, his fifth of the game and third to Johnson, covering 31 yards. Pittsburgh’s backup QB Tom Rozantz connected for a 70-yard touchdown to WR Jackie Flowers – the attempt for a two-point conversion failed. Kelly yielded to backup QB Todd Dillon and Fritsch kicked his fourth field goal of the game, from 29 yards, to provide the final points. The Gamblers won by a comfortable score of 47-26.

While the time of possession was practically even (30:41 to 29:19 in favor of the Maulers) as well as yardage by rushing (Houston held the edge at 138 to 136), the Gamblers blew Pittsburgh away with 450 yards through the air (the Maulers had 147). They also had a significant lead in first downs (27 to 16) although they were also penalized 15 times, at a loss of 132 yards (Pittsburgh was flagged on six occasions).

Jim Kelly’s completion percentage was ordinary, as he was successful on 15 of 29 throws, but they were good for 367 yards and he tied the USFL single-game record for TD passes with five (Walter Lewis of Memphis also threw five the night before). None were intercepted. While Richard Johnson scored three touchdowns on his 4 catches for 70 yards, Ricky Sanders had the gaudier statistics with 8 receptions for 227 yards and the one long TD. The Gamblers could run the ball, too, and Todd Fowler gained 130 yards on 20 carries.

For the Maulers, Glenn Carano completed only 4 of 14 passes for 48 yards with one intercepted; Tom Rozantz was successful on 5 of 7 throws for 144 yards, including the one long TD and no interceptions. The recipient of that long scoring pass, Jackie Flowers, had two catches for 83 yards. William Miller ran for 93 yards on 20 attempts and two touchdowns while Mike Rozier ended up with 8 rushes for 28 yards.

It was the sixth straight loss and tenth in twelve contests for the Maulers, who ended up tied with Washington at the bottom of the Atlantic Division with a 3-15 record. The franchise folded in the offseason.

Houston went on to surpass Michigan and win the Central Division at 13-5, running up a total of 618 points (an average of 34.3 points per game) and 79 touchdowns along the way. However, the Gamblers were upset in their First Round playoff game by the Arizona Wranglers.

Jim Kelly, who surpassed Bobby Hebert’s 1983 season record of 27 TD passes with his five against Pittsburgh, ended up throwing for 5219 yards and 44 touchdowns, although he also led the league with 26 interceptions. Richard Johnson (pictured at right) topped the USFL with 115 catches for 1455 yards (12.7 avg.) and 15 TDs. Ricky Sanders was runner-up as he pulled in 101 passes for 1378 yards (13.6 avg.) and 11 scores.

Kelly had a second five-TD passing performance in ’85, making him one of two quarterbacks in the three-season history of the USFL to reach that total in a game twice (the other was Birmingham’s Cliff Stoudt). Michigan’s Hebert, who originally set the record in 1983, Chuck Fusina of Philadelphia, and Lewis were the others who achieved the mark.