June 10, 2010

1984: Kelly & Johnson Achieve Milestones as Gamblers Defeat Blitz

The Houston Gamblers were the best of the six expansion teams in the United States Football League’s second season. Under the direction of Head Coach Jack Pardee and operating the “run-and-shoot” offense developed by offensive coordinator Darrel “Mouse” Davis, the Gamblers got off to a 6-5 start. By the time they hosted the Chicago Blitz before 24,243 fans at the Astrodome on June 10, 1984 they had won four straight games and stood atop of the Central Division with a 10-5 tally.

Houston wasted little time in taking command of the game against the Blitz, who were struggling at 4-10 entering the contest. RB Sam Harrell, returning to action from a midseason injury, scored on a one-yard run in the first quarter, and before the period was over star rookie QB Jim Kelly threw a 10-yard TD pass to WR Richard Johnson.

Chicago got on the board early in the second quarter with a 38-yard field goal by Kevin Seibel, but the Gamblers came right back with another Kelly to Johnson TD pass, this one covering 30 yards. The score was 21-10 at halftime as Blitz QB Ron Reeves tossed a 15-yard touchdown pass to WR Kris Haines just before the end of the period.

The Gamblers put the game away in the second half thanks to two more touchdown throws by Kelly, of 62 yards to WR Ricky Sanders in the third quarter and 11 yards to WR Mark Barousse in the final period. Toni Fritsch capped the scoring with a 46-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter, while Chicago managed only one more Seibel field goal in the third quarter. Houston won for the fifth consecutive game by a convincing 38-13 margin.

Jim Kelly completed 21 of 36 passes for 335 yards with the four touchdowns against two interceptions before being spelled by backup QB Todd Dillon. As a result, not only did his passing totals of 4825 yards and 40 TD passes after 16 games extend USFL records but they exceeded the then-existing NFL totals of 4802 passing yards by San Diego’s Dan Fouts and 36 touchdown passes by George Blanda of the Oilers (actually an AFL record) and Y.A. Tittle of the Giants. Interestingly, both of those records were broken by Miami’s Dan Marino when the NFL took the field in ’84.

Richard Johnson, who had emerged as Kelly’s favorite target, caught 5 passes for 58 yards and the two touchdowns. The five receptions gave him 103 for the year, also exceeding the existing NFL/AFL record of 101 held by Charley Hennigan of the Houston Oilers (another record that would fall in the NFL in ’84). However, Ricky Sanders, another accomplished member of the outstanding group of receivers, had the most catches and yards for the Gamblers in this contest, grabbing 7 passes for 130 yards and the one long TD.

While Houston’s aerial attack accounted for 394 net yards, the typically-solid running game accounted for another 149 yards on 25 attempts. RB Todd Fowler led with 105 yards on 14 carries.

By contrast, RB Larry Canada led the Blitz with 26 yards rushing on seven carries, Ron Reeves completed just 16 of 36 passes for 168 yards with a TD and an interception, and Kris Haines was the team’s best receiver with 5 catches for 45 yards and the lone TD.

The Gamblers ended up winning seven straight games to end the season with a 13-5 record and the division title. They were upset in the first postseason round, 17-16, by the Arizona Wranglers (the George Allen-coached club that had played in the Windy City in ’83 before swapping locations for 1984). Chicago remained at the bottom of the Central Division, finishing out at 5-13. The franchise folded in the ensuing offseason.

With two more games left in the USFL’s 18-game schedule, Kelly added to his totals and ended up with 5219 passing yards and 44 touchdown passes - an astounding performance for a rookie quarterback in any pro league. Richard Johnson led the league with 115 pass receptions, closely followed by Ricky Sanders with 101; they thus became the first teammates in pro football history to catch over 100 passes in a season.