The Washington Federals are neither good enough, nor complete enough, nor healthy enough to count on what Branch Rickey called the "residue of design" and the rest of us call plain luck.
They lost, 22-21, Monday night to the Arizona Wranglers on big plays and flashy mistakes that left the Federals (1-5) wide-eyed on the sideline. Two plays were particularly devastating.
Arizona quarterback Alan Risher, a former Louisiana State star, began the scoring in the first quarter with a 79-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Murray. He ended it early in the fourth with a 98-yarder to Jackie Flowers.
The second touchdown succeeded the first as the longest play in the six-game history of the U.S. Football League.
Arizona defensive back Admiral Dewey Larry was instrumental in a four-play goal line stand that preceded the pass to Flowers. With the ball on the Arizona one, fullback James Mayberry tried the right side, then the middle, then the left, and found not a crack (although the Federals' coaches contend films show Mayberry crossing the plane on his third try). An incomplete pass ended Washington's feeble gestures in its longest yard.
"That shouldn't happen," Federals Coach Ray Jauch said. "You can't win with that kind of thing."
To express his own season-long exasperation, owner Berl Bernhard quoted Adlai Stevenson: "It hurts too much to laugh and I'm too old to cry."
It was the kind of game that players will say they should have won, just as the Federals said they should have beaten the Boston Breakers three weeks ago. And although it is true that the Federals were better at times Monday night than they have ever been, they are not yet good enough to be lucky.
In close games, especially in games tempered by folly, fans and players alike tend to remember only the two or three most dramatic plays--the botched snaps in the Breakers game, the goal-line stand and the two long touchdown passes in the Wranglers game.
The Federals did show some improvement. Billy Taylor gained 75 yards rushing and promises to be a versatile running mate for Craig James, who should return to the lineup within two weeks.
Receiver Joey Walters continued to play excellent, aggressive football, catching five passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns. He also drew, uncannily it seemed, two key interference penalties. And the defense can applaud itself for a strong pass rush and three interceptions, two by Doug Greene.
But the big play, the 98-yard scoring play, should never have even been a completion. Defenders Jeff Brown and Donnie Harris could have knocked the ball away; instead they collided and fell to the turf, only to watch Flowers saunter goal-wards.
"That's not luck," Jauch said. "To tell you the truth, luck was when the Arizona defender tipped it and Joey Walters caught it for a touchdown."
Joe Gilliam, starting his first professional game in eight years, thrilled the sparse crowd, his teammates and his coach with some sharp passing, especially the 17-yard touchdown throw to Walters with 16 seconds left in the first half that rendered the fireworks that followed merely anticlimactic.
But his final numbers read 11 for 31 and four interceptions. Aaron Michell's interception was Gilliam's last pass and the last play of the game.
Juach said he would wait until later in the week to determine whether Gilliam or rookie Mike Hohensee would start Sunday's game against the New Jersey Generals. "We might go to a two-quarterback system," Jauch said. "Whatever happens, I'm happy for Joe. He hasn't played in a long time and he gave us some excitement. He was injured and played anyway. He's got a future."
Gilliam, who suffered from a bruised left hamstring and a bruised lower back, is being treated for those injuries today and is "questionable" for next week. Hohensee, who missed Monday's game with the flu, is likely to play.