March 11, 2012
The Pittsburgh Maulers, one of six new teams in the United States Football League’s second season, had lost their first two games on the road. Owned by Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. (father of the owner of the NFL’s 49ers), Coach Joe Pendry’s team had the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, RB Mike Rozier, but little else. QB Glenn Carano was a former backup for the Cowboys and the defense was mediocre. Still, the Maulers lost their first two contests by a combined total of just seven points. On March 11, 1984 they debuted at home against the Birmingham Stallions.
There were 53,771 fans in attendance at Three Rivers Stadium, the first sellout in league history, fueled by the fact that Birmingham’s new starting quarterback was ex-Steeler Cliff Stoudt. He had been less-than-popular as the replacement for the injured Terry Bradshaw in ’83, and had made the jump to the USFL. Stoudt was joined in the backfield by RB Joe Cribbs, who had been selected to the Pro Bowl in three of four seasons with the Buffalo Bills. The one element of the Birmingham offense that had played well in 1983 was the line, not surprising under Head Coach Rollie Dotsch, who had been offensive line coach of the Steelers during their last two championship years. Adding experienced veteran talent in the backfield could only help, and the club had gotten off to a 1-1 start.
It was a cold and windy day with temperatures in the 20s. A deafening chorus of boos greeted Stoudt’s pregame introduction and a regular barrage of snowballs were tossed toward the quarterback and his teammates during the contest (drawing angry criticism from Coach Dotsch afterward). However, the Maulers proved mistake-prone on both sides of the ball and put themselves in a hole early.
In the opening period, Birmingham CB Chuck Clanton intercepted Carano’s second pass and returned it 53 yards for a touchdown. Before the first quarter was over, Scott Norwood kicked a 35-yard field goal that was set up thanks to a roughing-the-passer penalty on Pittsburgh on a third-down play in which Stoudt threw an incompletion. A run by Cribbs put the ball in field goal range.
It got worse for the Maulers as a fumble by Rozier after catching a swing pass was recovered by Birmingham DT Joe Cugliari. It initially seemed that Pittsburgh had dodged a bullet when, following a 23-yard pass completion from Stoudt to another ex-Steeler, WR Jim Smith, the defense held and Norwood’s field goal attempt was wide to the right. But Norwood was hit by LB Ron Crosby, who was called for roughing-the-kicker. Five plays later, and just into the second quarter, Cribbs scored on a four-yard touchdown carry.
Norwood suffered a knee injury on the play that resulted in the penalty and was forced to sit out the remainder of the contest. Following the Cribbs touchdown, Stoudt ran for a two-point conversion (waving the football triumphantly over his head in response to the Pittsburgh fans) and the score was 18-0 in favor of the visitors.
Tony Lee kicked field goals of 28 and 42 yards for the Maulers in the second quarter to narrow Birmingham’s margin to 18-6 at halftime. In the second half, another penalty snuffed out a successful fake punt for the Maulers. From their 45, punter Larry Swider, after dropping the snap, threw to CB Bill Yancy (a receiver in this instance). However, the play was called back because of an illegal receiver downfield.
Stoudt (pictured at left) was having a poor day throwing but, with Cribbs running effectively and the Maulers beating themselves, it hardly mattered. He also added another six points in the third quarter on a ten-yard run, although the attempt to pass for a two-point conversion failed.
Pittsburgh finally scored a touchdown two minutes into the fourth quarter as Carano tossed a four-yard pass to WR Shawn Potts. Ten minutes later, Cribbs rushed for a 13-yard TD and the Maulers followed with one last score as FB Walt Easley plowed over from a yard out. Both teams attempted two-point conversions after each of their touchdowns, failing in each instance. Pittsburgh came close to one final, meaningless TD but Rozier was stopped inches short of the goal line on the last play of the game. Birmingham comfortably came away as the winner by a final score of 30-18.
The yardage totals were deceivingly close as the Stallions outgained Pittsburgh by just five yards (263 to 258). However, the breakdown showed Birmingham with 242 yards on 52 rushing plays to just 46 on 20 attempts for the Maulers. The Stallions had only 21 net passing yards to Pittsburgh’s 212 that were accumulated in a vain attempt to come from behind. Birmingham led in first downs (19 to 15) and dominated the time of possession (37:07 to 22:53). There weren’t many turnovers, but both of Pittsburgh’s led to Birmingham scores while the Stallions turned the ball over once, and the Maulers were penalized 8 times to 4 flags thrown on the visitors, often in key situations.
Joe Cribbs was the offensive star for the Stallions with 191 yards on 33 carries and two touchdowns. Cliff Stoudt was successful on only two of 17 passes for 29 yards and had one intercepted. Jim Smith’s 23-yard catch was the longest of the game for Birmingham and RB Leon Perry had the only other reception, for six yards. The Stallions went for two-point conversions after their remaining touchdowns but were only successful on one.
For the Maulers, Mike Rozier was held to 52 yards on 16 rushing attempts but caught 7 passes for 68 more, although with the one costly fumble. Glenn Carano went to the air 33 times and had 18 completions for 221 yards and a TD with one intercepted. WR Greg Anderson gained 96 yards on his 4 receptions.
“Cliff did the things that he had to do, and we won,” said Coach Dotsch in response to the comfortable win despite Stoudt’s miniscule passing performance.
“All I have to do is please my teammates, my fans, and my coaches,” added Stoudt, who also said, “the crowd really fired me up. I was just excited out there. I was having fun and I wanted them to know it.”
“The interception didn’t set things back as much as the second turnover,” said Joe Pendry regarding the early plays that put Pittsburgh in a deep hole. “That forced us to throw the ball more than we wanted.”
Pendry, whose team fell to 0-3, added “They’re (Birmingham) an excellent football team, too good for us to make mistakes against. If they didn’t stop us, we had a penalty to stop ourselves.”
The Maulers won their first game the following week, against the equally-hapless Washington Federals, but it was hardly a case of turning a corner. They and Washington ended up the season at 3-15 and at the bottom of the Atlantic Division. Coach Pendry was gone after ten weeks.
Birmingham, on the other hand, went on to win nine straight games and topped the Southern Division at 14-4. They easily defeated the division-rival Tampa Bay Bandits in the First Round playoff game but lost to the Philadelphia Stars, who had also ended their season winning streak, in the Eastern Conference Championship game.
Joe Cribbs led the USFL in rushing with 1467 yards on 297 carries (4.9 avg.) and 8 touchdowns. Cliff Stoudt had far better passing days than he did against the Maulers and ended up ranking second in the league with a 101.6 rating that included 3121 yards and 26 TDs to just 7 interceptions.