In the world of commerce, money talks. In the professional football business, it also runs, passes, kicks and wins playoffs.
This weekend the wild-card Chicago Blitz will play the Atlantic Division champion Philadelphia Stars (today, 1:30 p.m., WJLA-TV-7), and the Pacific Division-champion Oakland Invaders will face the Central Division-winning Michigan Panthers (Sunday, 1:30 p.m., WJLA-7).
The Invaders are the relative misers of the group and are least likely to prevail. The Panthers and the Stars spent money not only on high-priced rookies, but also on linemen, and are likely to meet July 17 in Denver to decide the U.S. Football League's first champion.
When the league's 12 teams first started assembling preliminary rosters nearly a year ago, the owners tacitly agreed to limit salary budgets in order to maintain financial and competitive balance. Owners such as Alfred Taubman in Michigan had the money to turn any player's head. Taubman is expected to gain a 100 percent interest in the prestigious British art auction house, Sotheby Parke Bernet. He could easily have purchased a runner with the sale of a Rodin.
But the owners feared that if one of them were simply to buy a championship, the price would ultimately be a suicidal imbalance; in the end, they said, a balanced league had the best chance of survival.
The owners gave themselves some leeway by permitting the signing of one or two players outside the uniform salary structure. The Federals signed Craig James, the Blitz Ohio State's Tim Spencer, the New Jersey Generals the most skilled undergraduate athlete of all, Herschel Walker.
Commissioner Chet Simmons went though all sort of gyrations to permit Walter Duncan to sign Walker, but the true justification was that the league needed him.
Simmons knew that when the controversy cleared, his league would have the game's most promising athlete and drawing card. Although the Generals were miserable otherwise, ABC's national broadcasts were whispered by some to be "the Walker watch."
Eventually the idea of caution was pretty well abandoned, but the teams that proved most skilled were ones that had spread the money around. Walker led the league in rushing with 1,812 yards, yet his lack of a supporting cast led to a 6-12 record.
Kelvin Bryant, the Philadelphia's rookie back from North Carolina, finished second to Walker with 1,442, but the Stars' most valued asset, the one most responsible for bringing them a 15-3 record, may be Carl Peterson, the team's personnel director.
Peterson signed not only Bryant, but also linemen such as Bart and Brad Oates, and Irv Eatman. Most importantly, while other teams struggled all year to find the proper talent and combinations, Peterson had most of his team's talent in place from the start.
Philadelphia will not have an easy time with George Allen's Blitz (12-6). During the regular season, on May 15, Philadelphia won, 31-24, after trailing by two touchdowns.
Allen, too, signed players with skill and experience, including Stan White, formerly of the Detroit Lions.
Allen's biggest liability will be at quarterback. Greg Landry missed the latter part of the season with an ankle injury, and Bobby Scott, whom Allen acquired from the Generals, will start today. Chicago's two running backs, Spencer and Kevin Long, both ran for more than 1,000 yards this season, and will carry most of the offensive burden, if Scott is unsuccessful in finding the Blitz's oustanding rookie receiver Trumaine Johnson of Grambling.
Quarterbacks Fred Besana of Oakland (9-9) and Bobby Hebert of Michigan (12-6) should be the focus of Sunday's game. Besana's 62.7 is the highest passing percentage in the league, and he has had his greatest success throwing to Raymond Chester, who used to do his reception work for the departed Raiders.
Hebert led the league with 27 touchdown passes. His best receiver is also Taubman's most expensive acquisition, Anthony Carter.
Before the season, Taubman, in an attempt to keep pace with Chicago and Philadelphia, bid unsuccessfully for such high-priced players as John Riggins. It wasn't until midseason that he succeeded in getting rid of some of his money. But when he did the Panthers soon became the closest rivals of the Stars.