Many old-school USFL fans will remember the Houston Gamblers as one of the most exciting offenses in pro football history.
Jack Pardee was hired to be the franchise’s first head coach when the Gamblers were preparing for their first season in 1984. Pardee is the only coach in history to be a head coach in college, NFL, USFL, World Football League, and the CFL. Prior to joining the USFL, Pardee already had stints in the WFL coaching the Florida Blazers and in the NFL coaching the Chicago Bears, and the Washington football team.
The important hire he would make to his staff was bringing in Darell “Mouse” Davis as their offensive coordinator. Davis’ hire was so important because of the impact he made on football and changing the style of play we are more accustomed to today. He was responsible for the creation of the run-and-shoot offense. This is where the offense emphasizes more receiver motion and audibles to receiver’s routes depending on the defensive formation.
Houston had the right quarterback to lead that offense with the addition of NFL hall of fame quarterback Jim Kelly. Kelly stated his displeasure about playing for a cold-weather team like the Buffalo Bills who drafted him in the NFL Draft back in 1983. Bruce Allen convinced Kelly to play in the USFL and play for whoever he wanted to. He chose to play in the Astrodome in Houston for the Gamblers and skipped out on the NFL.
1984 Season: Revolutionary Offense Creates Excitement
Pro football fans have never seen an offense that was quite like the Houston Gamblers before. The first half of the 1984 season was a bit up and down with Kelly having the offense rolling in the passing and rushing game, but the defense was inconsistent and allowed too many points. Turnovers were a major concern for the team. The main reason was Kelly playing in his first professional football season and throwing the ball at an insane amount for that time.
After starting the season 6-5, the Gamblers went on a seven-game winning streak to end the season with six of the seven games being double-digit wins. Kelly finished with a league record of 5,219 passing yards, 44 touchdowns, and 26 interceptions. Those numbers were enough to make him the league’s MVP in 1984 and instantly became a superstar for the USFL.
Despite all the passing being done, the rushing game would not be forgotten as running back Todd Fowler finished the season with 1,003 yards and 11 touchdowns. Their other back Sam Harrell was not far behind with 697 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns during the season. Receivers Richard Johnson and Ricky Sanders each had over 100 catches for at least 1,300 yards receiving and both caught at least 11 touchdowns.
Houston’s 13-5 record got them first in the western conference and a trip to the playoffs in their first season of existence. Despite being one of the favorites to win the league title, the Gamblers suffered a devastating loss to the eventual western conference champions Arizona Wranglers 17-16 in the quarterfinals.
1985 Season: Same Offense, Same Results
Darell Davis would leave the offensive coordinator position to become the head coach for the Denver Gold. John Jenkins would step in as offensive coordinator and would continue the success of the run-and-shoot offense by adding more wrinkles to the playbook. This paid off early as the team got off to a 5-0 start with Kelly pacing to crack 7,000 yards passing for the season.
The biggest highlight game during the five-game winning streak is what people call “The Greatest Game Never Seen.”
It was a week one showdown against the Steve Young-led Los Angeles Express where LA had a 31-13 lead with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. Houston would create a new strategy which is now known as the “No Huddle Offense” or “Hurry Up Offense” where Kelly and crew never stopped to come back in the game. They surely came from behind to win 34-33 in one of the best games ever, but since it was not televised, no one saw it.
After his hot start to the season, Kelly’s knee injury nearly derailed the season as he missed six games and saw Houston go on a slump of sorts. The Gamblers did fight back and finish the season with a 10-8 record and still made a trip to the playoffs. Unfortunately for the team, they would suffer the same fate as 1984 as they lost in the quarterfinals to the Birmingham Stallions 22-20.
Kelly finished the season with 4,623 yards and 39 touchdowns. He and backup quarterback Todd Duncan would combine for 6,181 passing yards which is a professional football record for passing yards in a season. Johnson, Clarence Verdin, and Gerald McNeil each had 1,000 yards receiving. Verdin and McNeil also added five kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns combined. Luther Bradley was the star on defense recording 12 interceptions in the season.
1986 Season: The End and What it Could Have Been
The USFL made the unpopular decision to move to the fall to compete with the NFL for the 1986 season which meant a lot of teams were facing financial issues. Houston was one of those games and would go on to merge with the New Jersey Generals owned by former United States President Donald Trump.
Trump would take on some of the contracts of the Gamblers’ players including adding Kelly as the quarterback to join superstar running back Herschel Walker to make what was supposed to be a “dream team.” Pardee was hired as the head coach to lead the team for the 1986 season as well.
USFL fans would not be able to see what the Generals were going to be as the league would never play a down in the fall. Despite the USFL winning a lawsuit against the NFL for establishing a monopoly, they would only receive a check for $3.76 in damages. The league would disband and the USFL would not be heard from again until 2021 when the revival of the USFL was announced.
The Legacy the Houston Gamblers Left Behind
No offense will ever compare to what the Houston Gamblers did despite the high-powered Kansas City Chiefs offense of today or the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams of the late 90s-early 2000s. Those teams would have never existed if it hadn’t been for what Kelly was able to display on the field. The passing game has now become a critical part of the game.
Houston revolutionized the way we run an offense when they are trying to score fast in a game. The “Hurry Up Offense” and “No Huddle Offense” were major game-changer which has led to many teams winning because of that strategy. It’s added excitement to the game that the NFL was desperately looking to do during the 80s when they struggled for ratings.
Despite never winning a Super Bowl, Kelly became of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history which might not have happened if the USFL didn’t come along. Most quarterbacks that throw for 26 interceptions in a season are run out of the league, but Kelly showed the arm talent to be one of the greats.
The Houston Gamblers were one of the most exciting teams to ever watch on the gridiron and not many teams can touch them in football history. Football is a passing sport because of the way Houston was able to make offenses complex with movement and audible changes at the line. What is the legacy of the Houston Gamblers? They might have saved the NFL from being considered the “No Fun League.”