Monday, March 8, 2010

Long Day at the Sombrero, 3/3/85

By the spring of 1985, the Tampa Bay Bandits – then in the third season of their existence – had come to be known as one of the most innovative and entertaining teams in all of the USFL. Their style, which under the leadership of head coach Steve Spurrier featured the use of trick plays, unique formations and reliance on a vertical attack, became known as “Banditball.”

On March 3, 1985, a different but equally entertaining kind of offense rolled into Tampa, one which generated an obscene amount of yardage and for which most defenses had no way to consistently stop. The offense – dubbed the run-and-shoot and quarterbacked by former University of Miami star Jim Kelly -- had become the talk of the league.

Just one week earlier, Kelly led the Houston Gamblers to a 34-33 come-from-behind win over Steve Young’s Los Angeles Express. In that game, Kelly threw five touchdown passes, going 35-for-54 with a league-record 574 passing yards. For some perspective, Norm Van Brocklin of the Los Angeles Rams, who threw for 554 yards in a game in 1951, still holds the NFL record for most passing yards in a game.

The run-and-shoot offense seemed like a perfect fit for Kelly, a smart quarterback capable of making quick decisions and having the accuracy to hit receivers who would adjust their routes based on what the defense gave them. The offense – which thrived on creating mismatches – featured four receivers and a lone running back, while eschewing tight ends or fullbacks.

This created the potential for a big play on any play, and Kelly excelled in the system. The season prior in 1984, Kelly earned USFL MVP honors after throwing for 5,219 yards and 44 touchdowns.

Needless to say, the Bandits understood that they would have their hands full while entertaining Kelly and the Gamblers at Tampa Stadium. Free safety Zac Henderson, one of the defensive players responsible for making on-field defensive adjustments to Houston’s varied formations, anticipated a challenging afternoon.

“Everything happens so quickly,” he said before the game. “They can flood the field with three receivers on one side, so it will be important for us to take the deep pattern away and make them throw short.”

Nearly 30,000 fans endured what Spurrier called the “longest day in Bandits history.” Simply put, Tampa Bay was outplayed by Houston in all facets of the game and found themselves down by two touchdowns in the first quarter. While the defense held the Gamblers to just one first-quarter touchdown -- a four-yard pass from Kelly to Richard Johnson -- Tampa Bay’s special teams contributed greatly to its early hole.

Right after Gary Anderson 5-yard rush provided the game’s opening touchdown for Tampa Bay, the Bandits surrendered a 94-yard kickoff return touchdown by Clarence Verdin to even the score at 7. Then, trailing 14-7, the Bandits gave up another touchdown, this time a 79-yard punt return by Gerald McNeil to make the score 21-7.

“It started getting out of hand after that,” Spurrier said.

Houston extended its lead in the second quarter, this time on Kelly’s second touchdown toss of the day, a 13-yard pass to Vince Courville that made the score 28-7. The Bandits answered on their ensuing drive, as quarterback John Reaves found Spencer Jackson for a 14-yard touchdown pass to cut the deficit in half. Houston then tacked on a 31-yard field goal at the end of the quarter and took a 31-14 lead into the locker room.

If any team in the USFL had a chance to make up a 17-point deficit, it was Spurrier’s Bandits. The third quarter began promisingly enough as Reaves connected with Eric Truvillion for a 3-yard touchdown pass to make the score 31-21.

The Bandits had life, but not for long as Kelly engineered two touchdown drives in 2:30, connecting on strikes of 58 yards to McNeil and 20 yards to Verdin to give Houston a commanding 45-21 lead.

With the game out of hand, Spurrier pulled Reaves to start the fourth quarter in favor of backup quarterback Jimmy Jordan. Jordan found rookie receiver Steve Carter for a 52-yard touchdown pass, but that would be the high point of his afternoon. Jordan would throw four interceptions in his stint and get sacked in the end zone for a safety.

The Gamblers went on to win the contest 50-28, the most points ever given up by the Bandits in their three-year history. The teams also combined to set two USFL records: most passing attempts in a game (103) and most return yardage (370).

For his part, Kelly posted only “pedestrian” numbers by his standards, completing 19 of 31 attempts for 261 yards and four touchdowns in just three quarters of action. The Bandits conceded after the game that Kelly, and the run-and-shoot offense, more than lived up to the hype.

“It was frustrating,” said nose tackle Fred Nordgren. “When he rolls back there and delivers the ball as fast as he does, you have to sprint back to the ball. You don’t just rush the passer. You have to read which way he’s going to roll. It’s a simple offense. What makes it tough is the way they execute.”

Cornerback Alvin Bailey put it more bluntly.

“We knew going in that we weren’t going to stop them,” he said. “We just wanted to slow them down some.”

Strong safety Doug Beaudoin, even more so.

“Thank God we only play them once a year,” he said.

In two seasons in the USFL, Kelly racked up 9,842 total passing yards and 88 touchdown passes. While he would go on to see even more success during a prolific career in the NFL, it would not come in the run-and-shoot system. Instead, Kelly helped revolutionize the no-huddle attack as a member of the Buffalo Bills en route to his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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