The Houston Gamblers, new to the United States Football League in its second season, were off to a 2-1 start as they hosted the undefeated New Jersey Generals on March 18, 1984. Owned by Dr. Jerry Argovitz and coached by Jack Pardee, the Gamblers had a pass-oriented “run-and-shoot” offense operated by rookie QB Jim Kelly, who was proving to be remarkably well-suited to it.
The visiting Generals were coached by ex-Jets mentor Walt Michaels and, while they still were a ground-oriented team based around the presence of RB Herschel Walker, had taken steps to improve the overall roster. Newly-acquired veterans included QB Brian Sipe, G Dave Lapham, CB Kerry Justin, FS Gary Barbaro, SS Greggory Johnson, and linebackers Jim LeClair, Willie Harper, and Bob Leopold and the result was great improvement over the team that went a disappointing 6-12 in the USFL’s inaugural season.
There were 35,532 in attendance at the Astrodome for Houston’s home-opening game. The Generals opened the scoring as Sipe threw to TE Jeff Spek for a seven-yard touchdown midway through the first quarter. Houston responded with a scoring drive that featured a Kelly completion to WR Gerald McNeil for 29 yards and a 12-yard pass to WR Greg Moser. It ended in a five-yard touchdown run by RB Sam Harrell. PK Toni Fritsch completed a two-point TD pass to Harrell shot-put style after the center snap on the extra point try was bobbled by the holder, Moser, who then lateraled to the veteran placekicker. The result was that the Gamblers were ahead by 8-7 after a period of play.
That lead was extended in the second quarter after CB Will Lewis (pictured below) intercepted a Sipe pass and returned it to the New Jersey one yard line. From there, Harrell scored again and, with Fritsch kicking the extra point this time, the Gamblers were up by 15-7 at the half.
Houston made it 22-7 ten minutes into the third quarter when Kelly threw a screen pass to WR Scott McGhee for a 25-yard TD that was followed by another successful Fritsch PAT. Three minutes into the final period, Fritsch added a 20-yard field goal and the game was essentially put away shortly thereafter when Lewis again picked off a Sipe pass and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown.
The Generals fought back with Sipe throwing to WR Clarence Collins for a six-yard TD and then tossing to Walker for a successful two-point conversion. With less than three minutes remaining, Walker scored another touchdown from a yard out, but that was it for the visitors. Houston came away with a convincing 32-25 win.
The Gamblers outgained New Jersey (370 yards to 234) and had more first downs (22 to 17). In addition, the Generals turned the ball over three times, all on interceptions, to one suffered by Houston.
Jim Kelly showed off his mobility as well as his passing skill, leading the team with 65 yards on 6 carries in addition to completing 22 of 36 passes for 271 yards with a touchdown and an interception. WR Richard Johnson caught 6 passes for 46 yards while Gerald McNeil gained 73 yards on his 5 pass receptions. Sam Harrell was right behind Kelly as he rushed for 60 yards on 20 carries that included two TDs.
For the Generals, Brian Sipe was successful on 18 of 29 throws for 148 yards and two touchdowns but also the three interceptions. Herschel Walker had relatively modest output, rushing for 65 yards on 14 attempts and catching three passes for 21 yards. Clarence Collins led the club with 6 catches for 64 yards.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the way this team played,” said Houston Head Coach Jack Pardee. “We held down a good club today and came up with the turnovers when we had to have them. It was a great team effort.”
The Gamblers went on to become the most successful of the six new USFL franchises in ’84, topping the Central Division with a 13-5 record before losing to Arizona in the first round of the playoffs. New Jersey placed second in the Atlantic Division at 14-4 but also exited in the first round of the postseason, falling to the division-rival Philadelphia Stars.
Jim Kelly had a sensational year throwing the football as he led the league in most major passing categories, including yards (5219) and TD passes (44) – although also interceptions (26). However, as the game against the Generals suggested, he was also one of the USFL’s most productive quarterbacks at running the ball as he gained 493 yards on 85 carries (5.8 avg.) and scored five touchdowns.