August 7, 2011

1974: Blazers Take Control in Second Half to Beat Chicago

The August 7, 1974 World Football League game between the Florida Blazers and Chicago Fire featured two clubs that had started the season off well. The host Fire was 4-0 and coming off of a 53-29 dismantling of The Hawaiians the previous week in Honolulu. Coached by Jim Spavital, known for building good offenses in the CFL, the team featured NFL veteran Virgil Carter at quarterback, two solid wide receivers in James Scott and Jack Dolbin, and rookie RB Mark Kellar out of Northern Illinois.

The Blazers were 3-1 and, befitting a club coached by a former star linebacker, Jack Pardee, featured a tough, veteran defense. The backfield in particular had lots of experience, consisting of cornerbacks Miller Farr and Billie Hayes and safeties Rickie Harris, W.K. Hicks, and Chuck Beatty, all of whom had seen action in the NFL. The offense was guided by QB Bob Davis (pictured above), most prominently of the New York Jets in his previous pro stints, and had veteran running backs in A.D. Whitfield and Jim Strong, along with rookie star Tommy Reamon. Florida had yet to put more than 18 points on the board in any game thus far, but except for a one-point loss to the Houston Texans in the last contest, it had been enough.

The attendance was 31,193 at Soldier Field – all paid, according to Chicago owner Tom Origer, which was not an insignificant point since it had recently been revealed that several highly-attended WFL games in the early going had been padded by the distribution of free tickets.

The Blazers took the lead in the first quarter when safety Rod Foster returned a punt 86 yards, followed by a successful pass for the action point. Chicago responded as Kellar scored a three-yard touchdown that was set up by his 20-yard burst up the middle on the previous play, but the action point was missed when a pass attempt was deflected by Farr. Florida went up 16-7 when Reamon plunged for a one-yard TD, which was also capped by a Bob Davis pass for the action point.

However, Virgil Carter came back with two TD passes for the Fire, including a 54-yard completion to Dolbin and a one-yard pass to Scott. The second was helped along by a 20-yard pass to Scott and capped a possession that benefited from good field position following a short punt from their own end zone by the Blazers. All three of their action point attempts failed, but Chicago was ahead 21-16 at halftime.

It seemed as though the Fire had the momentum going into the second half, but, aided by a couple of big plays by the special teams and defense, Florida’s offense came alive.

CB Leonard Bryant put the Blazers back in front when, with Chicago punting from its own 42, he blocked Chuck Ramsey’s kick and picked it up downfield to run six yards for a touchdown. The action point attempt was unsuccessful, but Florida was back in front.

Less than two minutes later, LB Billy Hobbs intercepted a Carter pass that was thrown under heavy pressure from DT Mike McBath and DE Ernie Calloway and returned it 30 yards for a TD. Bob Davis added a pass to WR Matt Maslowski for the action point.

The contest was pretty well decided at that point as the Florida defense completely shut down the Fire the rest of the way. RB Dickie James capped the scoring for the Blazers with touchdown runs of 6 and 64 yards, and they added an action point after one of them. The final score was a very convincing 46-21 verdict for Florida.

The Fire led in first downs (20 to 18) and had 330 total yards to Florida’s 372 (which included 227 on the ground). Most significantly, the opportunistic Blazers intercepted three passes and recovered four fumbles.

Bob Davis completed 10 of 17 passes for 152 yards with no TDs or interceptions. Thanks to the long touchdown run, Dickie James had 100 yards on just 7 carries with two TDs. Jim Strong gained 49 yards on 15 attempts and eventual league rushing leader Tommy Reamon ended up with 46 yards on 15 carries that included a TD. Matt Maslowski gained 74 yards on three catches, one of which was good for 56 yards.

Virgil Carter (pictured at left), who had been leading the WFL in passing, threw for 224 yards, but completed just 11 of 30 passes with two TDs while also tossing two interceptions as he was harried by Florida’s pass rush. Mark Kellar rushed for 87 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. James Scott caught 4 passes for 104 yards and a TD while Jack Dolbin contributed three receptions for 84 yards and a score.

“The game was a complete turnabout from last week,” said Jack Pardee, referring to the 7-6 loss to Houston. “Bob Davis had plenty of time to pass. We had the blocking advantage because of Chicago's three-man defensive line.”

“I blame myself,” said Jim Spavital. “We made every possible mistake out there tonight. Special teams really let us down with the punt return and the blocked field goal.”

The Blazers continued to be a strong team on the field, if not financially, and ended up winning the Eastern Division with a 14-6 record. With creditors snapping at their heels, they made it to the WFL Championship game (the World Bowl) before succumbing to the Birmingham Americans. Chicago dropped off significantly after the promising start, largely due to the loss of key players to injuries, including Carter, Kellar, and Scott. The Fire ended up in third place in the Central Division at 7-13.