The Wranglers Were Star Struck

Philly proved might makes right—and right of way—as it defeated Arizona 23-3 to win the USFL crown
July 22, 1984

It's not necessarily all the Philadelphia Stars' fault that their USFL title was won in such cheerless, domineering fashion. Physics—as in Newton's Third Law, the one about equal and opposite reactions—gets some blame, as do Vince Lombardi and Jim Mora. True, the Stars needed only their opening march, a relentless 66-yarder for a TD, to make every one of the 52,622 fans in the gloaming at Tampa Stadium, and a national ABC-TV audience, aware that the outcome of this game was inevitable. But the Stars, the eventual 23-3 winners, can't be blamed for capitalizing on their power. Any good, solid team would do that. It's the kind of football that always wins championships. Might makes right, and right of way. Might is more reliable than derring-do. Unfortunately, might can also put you to sleep.

Remember what Lombardi's Green Bay Packers did to the Kansas City Chiefs in the '67 Super Bowl? (Lest you forgot, the final was 35-10.) Well, USFL II was about as compelling as Supe I. Did anybody outside the Grand Canyon State really care that two Arizona defensive linemen, Joe Ehrmann (a 35-year-old, 248-pound veteran of 10 NFL seasons) and Karl Lorch (34, 260, six NFL campaigns), were physically overwhelmed? Did observant fans even bother to notice that Irv Eatman, 23, the Stars' 6'6", 276-pound right tackle, is so strong, quick and ornery he could block a rhinoceros or a blitzing Los Angeles Raider, not to mention Lorch? "Winning is the best entertainment I know," said Eatman. "Arizona was sure entertained out there. I can't block the public. But I know we're good."

Lorch and Ehrmann manned the left side of the Wranglers' four-man defensive front, which did what it could in the face of superior force. Tricks, though they might have enlivened the proceedings, couldn't help George Allen, the Wranglers' venerable coach, and his troops. Spies couldn't help. No gimmick, charm, advice or finger-wetting ritual could change what was to be. Stars coach Jim Mora, Eatman, 290-pound right guard Chuck Commiskey, running back Kelvin Bryant, quarterback Chuck Fusina and a quick, cheating defense were so good they hurt the USFL, not to mention Allen's Wranglers.

The game was utterly suspenseless, and who has prime time for that anymore? The Stars took the game's kickoff and drove with such efficiency that even the scattering of Philadelphia fans on hand had no call to jump up from their seats. Sure, Lombardi might have risen from his seat, probably to get a better look at Eatman. For starters, Bryant ran right, off Eatman's seal blocking, for two yards. Arizona knew the Stars were coming right. Mora hadn't closed his practices. Neither did Lombardi in the old days. There was no mystery. "We're running right," he'd say.

On Philly's second play, fullback David Riley split the hole between center Bart Oates and Commiskey for four yards. Eatman wrenched at his own face mask as the Stars came to the line on third-and-four. Fusina faded to pass, saw light up the middle and ran for 10 yards. "On top of everything," Allen would say later, "Fusina is a smart scrambler." First down.

Bryant then plowed the middle for six yards. Wrangler safeties Luther Bradley and Bruce Laird began to creep up. Fusina swung Bryant out of the backfield for an eight-yard pass and a first down at Arizona's 36. "We didn't go dead conservative," said Fusina. He wanted the safeties to stay back so the issue could be decided up front. For that, Fusina needed only the threat of a pass.

"If I make more than three tackles in the first half, then you'll, know we're in trouble," Bradley had said beforehand. He made his first tackle two plays later, when Bryant cut back off Eatman's drive block for 15 yards. Bryant knocked Bradley backward to the Arizona 23. Then Bryant carried again to the right—three more yards. The safeties were now preoccupied. Fusina found wide receiver Tom Donovan on a square-in for 16 yards to the Arizona four. Bryan Thomas, giving Bryant a rest, ran the middle for the touchdown and was barely touched. The score was 7-0, and the game was all but over.

"I knew after that first drive we'd dominate," Eatman said later. "We stuffed it down their throats." He then told offensive coordinator Jim Erkenbeck, "Great game plan, Erk." And the game plan? "Kick ass," said Eatman.

"I swear, this is ridiculous," said Fusina after picking up the game MVP award in the locker room. "What did Kelvin do?" One hundred and fifteen yards in 29 carries. "He should be MVP every game," Fusina said. He had completed his first 10 passes and finished 12 of 17 for 158 yards. "And our line, my God, it was beautiful to watch! There were holes some of you guys could have run through."

Fusina nodded toward a knot of news gatherers, one of the largest seen all week in Tampa, where USFL Championship Game hype was compared to Super Bowl hype and came out a poor second. That the play in the Super Bowl is usually quite like what the Stars did to the Wranglers seemed beside the point. Didn't the USFL have to issue 4,300 freebies to push the tickets "sold" above the 57,000 needed to lift the local blackout? Didn't ABC-TV feel the need for a crew of only 75 for this game, when the network uses 80 for your Giants-Cardinals Monday Night Football broadcast? And hadn't Allen disappeared over the coaching horizon long ago?

Not quite yet. Allen had willed and believed his team into this game, saving himself in the eyes of the Wranglers' owner Ted Diethrich. "George's job was never in jeopardy," Diethrich said before the game. "We talked at midseason, but I can't imagine going on without him as head coach. I meant what I said to him, though." Whatever Diethrich had said to Allen helped spur a six-win rush to the title game. It was a nice job by a coach who is said to have everything but scruples. What Allen does have is an odd perspective. "There are only a couple of coaches who have beaten me four times," Allen said. "Lombardi couldn't do it. But this guy can."

This guy, Mora, is an interesting study. "Whatever charisma Mora has, he saves it for the team," says one Stars' beat writer. Even in triumph, Mora was slightly removed. Was there one word for the play of his defenders? "Nothing...other than awesome," he said. "They gave up 20 points total in three playoff games."

Mora was reminded of an earlier day, when, as a senior end at Occidental College, he had played against Allen's Whit-tier College team. "I was in for every down my senior year," Mora said, at last revealing something he is satisfied with. Mora was quarterback-Congressman Jack Kemp's roommate at Oxy. And did Occidental beat Whittier in 1956, when Mora first met Allen? A laugh, startlingly vibrant, came from Mora, along with a shake of his head. Whittier and Allen won back then. "George is still a great coach," Mora said. But Allen wouldn't speculate on his future. "I don't know what will happen," he said. "I'll use my tip from Eddie Robinson [who has won 313 games as head man at Grambling]. Just keep coaching."

Mora's Stars should have been leading 27-3 at halftime, but they had made uncharacteristic mistakes. Bryant had fumbled at the goal line. Running back Allen Harvin had tripped over his own feet at the Arizona five. Tight end Ken Dunek had allowed Bradley to knock the ball out of his hands early in the second quarter. Bradley's recovery of Dunek's fumble at Arizona's 45 led to Frank Corral's 37-yard field goal. By halftime, Bradley and Laird had made 16 tackles. Philadelphia's lead was a deceptive 13-3. The Stars had held the ball 22:37 to the Wranglers' 7:23. Philly had 249 total yards to Arizona's 49, and the Wranglers hadn't converted a third down.

The Star defensive secondary was playing up close to the linebackers, assisting against the runs of Kevin Long and Tim Spencer, daring Landry to throw long downfield to Trumaine Johnson, Arizona's stylish wide threat. Landry couldn't throw the deep pass, and when he did find Johnson once late in the second quarter, medium range and between coverage, Johnson dropped the ball. He had one catch all night, for just 15 yards, and the Philadelphia secondary hooted afterward. "I respect Trumaine, understand," said rookie cornerback Garcia Lane, "but earlier in the week he said he didn't think we could cover man-to-man. We covered him man-to-man a lot tonight."

The Stars were aided in that by reading Landry's lips when the quarterback called his plays in the huddle. This is what some Stars insisted, at least. But with nose tackle Pete Kugler controlling the center, and with defensive end Don Fielder and blitzing linebackers Sam Mills, George Cooper and John Bunting zeroing in on the immobile Landry, who needed lip reading? Only a 60-yard arm could go up and over it all, and Landry isn't that kind of a passer anymore. Last year Johnson had screamed, "We need an arm!" when he had run deep and the ball had fallen short. This season, he was mellower—"my underneath game is improving," he said. Landry, in his first title game, could only reflect, like an old fighter, about openings seen but not taken advantage of. "I was grabbing, grabbing at anything," he said. "But I never was on the field long enough to see if anything did or didn't work."

Mop-up operations began with 13:05 to play and the score still 13-3. Landry was sacked by Fielder and fumbled at the Arizona nine. Bryant hit the middle for five. He rammed the middle again for two yards and then followed Eatman for two on third down to just outside the Arizona one-yard line. On fourth-and-a-half-yard, Fusina handed to Riley up the middle. First-and-goal. Fusina dropped a snap, then gave the next one to Bryant, who scored on his 28th carry. Bryant would spend 20 minutes in the locker room posing for pictures, kissing the USFL trophy, pouring champagne over it, wiping it clean, kissing it, holding it aloft. He, Fusina and Eatman remained in uniform after their teammates had dressed, holding court in different corners of the room.

As the clock ran out on Arizona's futility, the fans had volleyed screams of "Bandit!" and "Ball!" back and forth. Many of those present would have preferred to watch their own Bandits, with their triple reverse passes. Even Houston's Run and Shoot would have been a better look, as they say. Steve Young firing bullets for the Los Angeles Express might have bumped up the TV rating. But those were the sideshows in the USFL this season, and they were not in the manner of championship football. Lombardi would have known all along what Mora, Eatman, Bryant, Fusina et al. would do. They were going to run right. And for one long evening, run right they surely did. Vince would have loved it, if few others did.

PHOTOThe game wasn't seven minutes old when Thomas "won" it with this four-yard TD run. TWO PHOTOSBryant ran for 115 yards on 29 carries to help the Stars polish off Allen's Wranglers. PHOTOMVP Fusina connected on his first 10 passes—and 12 of 17 overall for 158 yards.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)