Day 1 of the U.S. Football League didn't belong to Herschel Walker. It didn't even belong to his team, the New Jersey Generals. The Los Angeles Express beat the Generals 20-15 in the Los Angeles Coliseum last Sunday as Generals Coach Chuck Fairbanks stuck by a statement he'd been making all week but few people had taken seriously—that he wasn't going to change his offense to accommodate one player with only a week's practice under his belt, even if he were the greatest runner to come out of college football since O.J. Simpson or, maybe, Red Grange.
Walker isn't ready to tear the new league apart. Perhaps in another month or so, but not yet, not while the playbook is still pretty much a mystery to him. His numbers on Sunday were 65 yards rushing on 16 carries, including a five-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, a walkover because New Jersey Tight End Sam Bowers and Right Guard Wayne Harris removed all of L.A.'s roadblocks. One pass was thrown to him, and he caught it, on a little crossing pattern, for just three yards.
The Generals' press book notes that Walker had 90 runs of 10 or more yards in his three-year Georgia career. On Sunday he had none. His longest gain was nine, on his very first carry, a strongside pitchout from, naturally, the I, his college formation. His worst rush went for minus-five, one of his two minuses on the day. The rest of his runs were threes and fours and sixes, journeyman stuff. Walker was on the field for 37 of the Generals' 75 plays from scrimmage, and in passing situations and when the Generals were playing catch-up at the end, he came out for 5'10", 195-pound Larry Coffey, a New York Giants' cut last season.
Walker was most productive in the first quarter, when he was on the field for 14 of the Generals' 18 plays, carrying the ball nine times for 38 yards. Then it seemed as if Fairbanks was saying to the 34,002 fans in the stands: "O.K., we've given you your show. Now it's time to win the game."
The crowd didn't seem to feel cheated. There was little booing. Afterward there was considerable action at the advance reservations windows. On the whole, the USFL crowds surpassed expectations, with an average attendance for five games last Sunday of 40,943 and a high of 45,167 in Tempe to see the Oakland Invaders play the Arizona Wranglers (plus a one hour pre-game Beach Boys concert). The smallest crowd was—yes, the 34,002 at the L.A. game, which had figured to be the biggest draw of the day. Healthy numbers for a fledgling league, although no one knows how many of those tickets were giveaways.
The caliber of play in L.A. was better than that of the early WFL games, more balanced than the ones during the first year of the AFL, where the action was heavily geared to the pass. The hitting was well below NFL standards. There were a lot of missed tackles. Coverage in the secondary was loose. There were many missed assignments, but don't forget that there hadn't been any exhibition games.
So why quibble? After all, the USFL put people in the stands for Week 1, and a healthy collection of young and eager rookies was on view. Most notable among them was Chicago's star receiver out of Grambling, Trumaine Johnson, who caught 11 passes for 158 yards and one touchdown in the Blitz' 28-7 rout of the Washington Federals. And Walker made more than a token appearance, although it did seem that Fairbanks left him out of situations ideally suited to him.
In the fourth quarter, for instance, after the Generals, with Walker on the bench, had driven 67 yards to score a TD that brought them within five points of the Express, at 20-15, they lined up for a two-point conversion. No Walker. "Three yards is tough to get running," Fairbanks said. Maybe, but Herschel Walker is still Herschel Walker. Under pressure, Quarterback Bobby Scott threw a pass that was picked off.
"I don't want to question Coach Fairbanks' decision," said L.A. Halfback Anthony Davis, "but most people anywhere would say Herschel's got to be in there."
Then there was the Generals' final drive, which began on the Express' 31 (after L.A. Coach Hugh Campbell had amazingly gone for a first down on fourth-and-one and fallen short) and ended just outside Los Angeles' two-yard line. Walker carried for six on the first play, and then reserve Fullback Maurice Carthon went for two. Two yards needed for a first down and two plays to get them—and Walker came out. Carthon picked up the first down, blasting to the 12-yard line. Walker came back in. He lost a yard. Out he came, and out he stayed, even when the Generals had a third-and-three at the five.
"God almighty, he's only been practicing for a week," Fairbanks said. "A veteran back with that short a time, with no familiarity with your system, would have a tough enough time, let alone a rookie. He came out in the second half because they were doing different things with their defense—stunts and blitzes that we hadn't expected. I didn't want to expose him to that."
Well, how about when it was third-and-three at the five? A 220-pound back who can run a 4.25 40—"That's the last clocking they got on me at Georgia." Walker says—might have been useful.
"I really don't have an answer for why he came out then," Fairbanks said. "I felt confident with the way we were going with the people in there.
"Listen, Herschel did a fine job for us today, considering the amount of practice time he had. A few mistakes here and there, but not bad considering...."
Walker was asked if pro football was what he'd expected. "Tougher," he said. "They had more speed than I thought, plus they knew how to execute."
Was he confused out there? "No, I don't think so."
Dominant? "Well, I'm not going out on the field thinking like that."
What are you going to do now? "Work on getting better."
And so on. Lurking somewhere in the background was the old, depressing memory of Simpson's debut in pro football, when Buffalo Bills Coach John Rauch built his attack around Jack Kemp's arm rather than O.J.'s legs, until Lou Saban took over and set the matter straight. Could that possibly happen here?
"You don't have to worry," Fairbanks said. "He's got a lot of football ahead of him. Don't forget we still have 17 games to play this season."
The game came down to the final 49 seconds and one of those strange plays in which practically everyone involved fouls up. The Generals faced fourth-and-12 at the Express' 14-yard line. Walker was out of the game. But what was the formation New Jersey used in this situation? An I, with two tight ends and only one wide receiver, Larry Brodsky, who was split out right. "We wanted backside protection and outside containment for blitz coverage," was Fairbanks' explanation.
But not to be outcoached, Campbell assigned only one man, reserve Corner-back Tyrone Justin, a San Diego castoff, to Brodsky.
"We were fooled," Campbell said. "We were not strategically prepared for that formation."
Brodsky ran a corner pattern and gave Justin a healthy shove. No flag. Scott laid the ball in perfectly and Brodsky caught it at the three. All he had to do was fall forward and the Generals would win the game. Instead he juggled the ball and stepped out of bounds inches short of a first down. End of contest.
The best player in the game was a 5'11", 195-pound L.A. halfback named Tony Boddie, who ran 13 times for 77 yards and caught five passes for 49 more and the TD that put L.A. ahead to stay. If the USFL is to establish an identity this year, its strength will be its homegrown talent, unknowns like Boddie, a terrific little back on the style of Kansas City's Joe Delaney. He caught 50 passes for Montana State last fall and said that until Sunday he'd never played before a home crowd larger than 15,000.
Someone asked him how it felt to outplay Walker. "Doesn't mean anything," he said. "Herschel's a great runner. Tony Boddie can run and block and catch passes. Herschel does his thing, I do mine."
Campbell said his scouting books in Edmonton, where he coached the CFL's Eskimos last year, had Boddie rated as the sixth-best American college back. So how come he waited until the 12th round to draft him?
"Frankly, I didn't think we'd be able to sign him," Campbell said.
Boddie laughed at that news. He had signed a one-year contract for roughly $30,000. "I could have made more in the NFL," he said, "but no one was interested in me. I got feelers from Dallas and Seattle, but nothing very serious. I sacrificed money to get the one-year contract. After I've shown what I can do, I'll have some bargaining leverage."
And maybe in that little capsule we can see the grievous error the NFL made in not shortstopping some of this talent, not devoting some early attention to the decent college players, say a phone call to let them know there's a place for them in the big league, that they are wanted and would get a long, healthy look.
"A phone call like that," Boddie said, "would have sold me on the NFL."
L.A. Raiders owner Al Davis, in evaluating the emergence of the USFL, decried the "country club mentality" and "Rip Van Winkle approach" of the NFL. Maybe he has something. For a new league, 40,000 fans per game isn't too bad—for openers.