June 29, 2011
The United States Football League Quarterfinal playoff game on June 29, 1985 matched the Birmingham Stallions, with the league’s second best defense, against the USFL’s highest scoring team, the Houston Gamblers.
The host Stallions, coached by Rollie Dotsch, had finished first in the Eastern Conference with a 13-5 record. The defense, which featured DT Doug Smith, LB Herb Spencer, and FS Chuck Clanton (16 interceptions), allowed opponents to score just 299 points during the season. To be sure, the offense was effective as well, led by QB Cliff Stoudt, the league’s second-ranked passer (91.2), and including WR Jim Smith, who caught 87 passes for 1322 yards and 20 TDs; RB Joe Cribbs, the USFL’s leading rusher in 1984 who contributed another 1047 yards on the ground in ’85; and All-League guards Buddy Aydelette and Pat Saindon.
Houston, under Head Coach Jack Pardee, featured a run-and-shoot offense that could generate plenty of points – 618 in 1984 and 544 in ’85. QB Jim Kelly, who had a sensational rookie season in ’84, missed the last four games with a knee injury but still ended up as the USFL’s top-rated passer (97.9) and also paced the league by throwing for 4623 yards and 39 touchdowns. WR Richard Johnson was the leading receiver for the second straight year (103 catches) and gained 1384 yards with 14 TDs; WR Clarence Verdin ranked fourth with 84 receptions that added up to 1004 yards and 9 scores. The team faltered with Kelly out of the lineup, but still finished in third place in the Western Conference at 10-8, and Kelly would be behind center against the Stallions, although wearing a knee brace that would hinder his mobility.
There were 18,500 fans in attendance at Legion Field on a 90-degree day in Birmingham. Stallions PK Danny Miller started off the scoring with 39-yard field goal four minutes into the game. On the ensuing kickoff, Birmingham DB Ted Walton knocked the ball away from Verdin and DB Dennis Woodberry recovered for the Stallions at the Houston 34. Four plays later, the Stallions added to their lead with Stoudt’s eight-yard TD pass to Jim Smith.
Kelly showed no rust following the injury layoff, and completed his first seven passes. His 23-yard scoring throw to WR Gerald McNeil cut Birmingham’s lead to 10-7, and that was the tally after one quarter of play.
The teams traded field goals in the second quarter, although it had appeared that the Gamblers were on their way to another touchdown with the ball deep in Birmingham territory. But a goal-line stand by the Stallions, in which RB Todd Fowler was twice stopped short while attempting to dive into the end zone, caused Houston to settle for a 20-yard field goal by Toni Fritsch. Miller booted a 26-yard field goal for Birmingham and the Stallions took a 13-10 lead into halftime.
Midway through the third quarter, Miller kicked his third field goal of the day from 41 yards out. However, a short time later, Johnson got between the safeties and hauled in a Kelly pass, skidding through the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown. With the successful conversion, Houston had its first lead of the game at 17-16.
Birmingham came right back, driving 35 yards in 10 plays that culminated in Miller booming a 57-yard field goal near the end of the period, and took a 19-17 margin into the fourth quarter. In what was turning into a see-saw battle of field goals, the Gamblers responded with another of their own, of 46 yards by Fritsch with just over nine minutes left to play.
The Stallions drove to midfield on their next possession and, forced to punt, veteran Bob Parsons kicked one that was downed on the Houston one. The Gamblers moved to their 20 before having to punt in turn, and the field position advantage was strongly in the Stallions’ favor as they took over at the Houston 48. Playing conservatively, the offense drove 29 yards in six plays (four runs, including a 21-yard bootleg by Stoudt, and an incomplete pass) to set up Miller’s fifth field goal, which was successful from 35 yards with just under two minutes remaining (pictured at top).
Houston had one last shot, and it didn’t appear that the two-point lead would hold up when Kelly hit McNeil for a 21-yard gain on a fourth-and-18 play to the Birmingham 32 with five seconds remaining. The Gamblers had gone 58 yards in nine plays and now stood to win as the 39-year-old Fritsch, a 13-season pro veteran, attempted a 49-yard field goal. But the portly Austrian placekicker known as La Machine hooked the kick to the left and Birmingham came away with the 22-20 win.
Houston outgained the Stallions (385 yards to 248) and also had more first downs (25 to 18). But as Cliff Stoudt summed up afterward, “The only stat that counts is who got the W and who got the L. I feel real bad for Toni Fritsch - well, I don't feel real bad.”
Stoudt was successful on 13 of 26 passes for 156 yards and was not intercepted. Joe Cribbs gained 70 yards on 16 attempts, playing with an injured hand and bruised ribs. WR Joey Jones caught four passes for 59 yards while Jim Smith also caught four for 45.
While Danny Miller’s kicking statistics during the regular season were fairly ordinary (13 field goals in 20 attempts, five missed PATs), it was the second year in a row that he booted five field goals in a playoff game.
For the Gamblers, Jim Kelly completed 23 of 40 passes for 319 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Richard Johnson caught 7 passes for 120 yards. Todd Fowler ran for 36 yards on 9 carries and Sam Harrell had 29 yards on five attempts.
The end came for the Stallions the following week, as they lost in the Quarterfinal round to the eventual league champions, the Baltimore Stars. In their three seasons of existence, they made it to the postseason twice, advancing to the second round both times. Houston, a 1984 expansion team, went to the playoffs twice and lost in the first round in both instances.