March 26, 2010

1984: Panthers Defeat Gamblers as Hebert Outduels Kelly

The Houston Gamblers, new to the United States Football League in its second season, quickly established themselves as an offensive force. With rookie QB Jim Kelly leading the “run-and-shoot” attack, the Gamblers broke out to a 3-1 record. On March 26, 1984 at home in the Astrodome they took on the reigning USFL champions, the Michigan Panthers, in a battle for supremacy in the Central Division.

The Panthers were off to a solid 4-0 start as they sought to defend their league title. Head Coach Jim Stanley’s team was ably directed by QB Bobby Hebert, who in combination with WR Anthony Carter provided a devastating aerial attack. The defense included the 1983 league leader in sacks, LB John Corker, as well as DE Larry Bethea, NT David Tipton, LB Kyle Borland, and SS David Greenwood.

The upstart Gamblers scored first, with Kelly connecting with WR Scott McGhee on a nine-yard touchdown pass. Michigan responded with a one-yard run by RB John Williams for a touchdown later in the quarter. Early in the second quarter, Houston scored again on another nine-yard pass play, this from Kelly to WR Richard Johnson. The Panthers narrowed the score on a 22-yard field goal by Novo Bojovic and then took the lead just before the half thanks to an 11-yard pass from Hebert to Carter.

Michigan pulled away with three third quarter touchdowns, two on Hebert touchdown passes of 72 yards to WR Derek Holloway and 19 yards to RB Linnie Patrick, who also scored on an 11-yard run. In the meantime, Houston scored a touchdown on a 63-yard pass play from Kelly to slotback Clarence Verdin. However, the Panthers led by 38-21 after three quarters, a margin that proved too much for the Gamblers to overcome.

The final score was 52-34 as Michigan scored twice more in the final period, with Hebert hitting Carter on a touchdown pass play that covered 55 yards and Patrick running for a TD from 14 yards out. Houston’s backup QB Todd Dillon combined with WR Greg Moser for a 65-yard touchdown and RB Todd Fowler ran four yards for the final score of the game.

Bobby Hebert set a then-USFL record with 444 passing yards as he went to the air 37 times and completed 26 of his throws. Four produced touchdowns, as against none intercepted. By comparison, Jim Kelly (pictured below) completed 18 of 23 passes for 298 yards with three TDs and two interceptions. Between Kelly and Dillon, the Gamblers still piled up plenty of passing yards with 423.

Michigan had two hundred-yard pass receivers, as Derek Holloway pulled in 6 catches for 133 yards with a score and Anthony Carter grabbed 5 for 111 with two TDs. WR Ricky Sanders led Houston with 7 receptions for 76 yards, while Greg Moser had the most receiving yards with 83 on three catches, including the 65-yard touchdown.

The Panthers also outran the Gamblers, 116 yards to 43. Top rusher was Linnie Patrick, with eight carries for 48 yards; Jim Kelly actually led Houston with 27 yards on four runs.

The Panthers stayed undefeated through the first six games, but Anthony Carter broke his arm and the passing game was not as effective. Carter’s loss was a major turning point as the club then lost four straight contests and nine of the last 13. Hebert suffered a knee injury that limited his mobility, in addition to no longer having his best target available. While he still threw for 3758 yards and 24 touchdowns, he also tossed 22 interceptions and ended up the tenth-ranked passer in the league. The loss of David Greenwood in the secondary later in the season put a hole in the defense as well.

Jim Kelly threw more interceptions than Hebert, with a league-leading 26, but he also threw 44 touchdown passes as well as topping the USFL with 5219 yards, 370 completions, and an average of 8.89 yards-per-pass. Richard Johnson and Ricky Sanders both topped 100 passes, with 115 and 101, respectively.

The Panthers, with a 10-8 record, ended up in second place and earned a wild card spot behind Houston, the division champions at 13-5. Both teams lost in the first round of the postseason, as Michigan was defeated 27-21 by the Los Angeles Express in a marathon game that lasted into a third overtime period. Houston was upset by Arizona, 17-16.