Doug Flutie, the $7 million man who couldn't complete a pass in the first 43 minutes of his professional career, pulled off another comeback today.

It didn't win a football game; his team, the New Jersey Generals, lost rather meekly to the Birmingham Stallions, 38-28, in their USFL season opener.

But it might have saved the image he acquired in a Heisman Trophy-winning career at Boston College.

With the Generals trailing, 31-7, at the end of the third quarter, he completed his first pass -- a low six-yarder to Clarence Collins -- then hit five of his next six during two run-and-gun touchdown drives.

The scoreboard read 31-21. There was 10:04 remaining in the game. ABC-TV's announcers, their fingers crossed, hoping somebody out there still was watching, started to talk about comebacks. The 34,785 sodden souls at Legion Field began to rustle.

Sadly for Flutie fans, the story line ends there. The next time he got the ball, he drove to the Birmingham 36 before he soft-pedaled a pass behind his receiver and was intercepted. (He did, however, make the solo tackle seconds later on the return.)

Later, with New Jersey down by 38-28, punt returner Donnell Daniel fumbled away the Generals' final chance with two minutes to play and Flutie never returned.

But he did come back.

"I thought we were going to pull it out until we fumbled," he told reporters, who had come from practically everywhere for his first game since a mediocre performance in Boston College's Cotton Bowl victory Jan. 1.

"But it wasn't a positive day for me. I should have been doing what I was doing at the end from the beginning of the game . . . I was relaxed, I was calm, I knew what I was doing. I just couldn't throw on the money."

Seven times in the first half, Flutie, who is 5 feet 9 3/4, tried to pass to a receiver. He missed all seven times. He did, however, find the other player wearing No. 22 in the game -- Birmingham defensive back David Dumars -- on his final throw of the half, overthrowing tight end Jeff Spek by a good five yards.

Flutie had had halves like this before, most notably an "ohfer" against Syracuse in the first half of an upset loss two seasons ago.

Birmingham led by only 14-7, but Flutie was very angry.

"How can you be happy when you come out and don't complete a pass in the first half?" wondered Flutie, who finished with 12 completions in 27 attempts for 189 yards, two touchdowns and three costly interceptions.

"I just wasn't throwing the ball well. It irritated me. I like to get myself into the game, work up a sweat. I didn't work up a sweat until the third quarter."

Over on the Generals' sideline, Coach Walt Michaels wasn't so cool. He was sweating.

"It's very easily said," Michaels started out after the game, "that we will need some time. I just told Doug to relax. What can you do about it? All this takes time."

Futility became contagious among the Generals. Flutie sputtered, at least in part, because of the coaches' play-calling. In the first half, he threw only on third down or second-and-long situations, and never rolled out.

As running back Herschel Walker, who caught three passes for 73 yards, put it, "He can move the ball when he moves out of the pocket."

In the first half, he never moved out of the pocket.

The Generals ran only 15 plays in the first half, not including punts. Their only first down came on fullback Maurice Carthon's 55-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second quarter (In the USFL, teams are credited with a first down on a touchdown if what would have been first-down yardage is gained on the play). Flutie ran 15 yards behind, cheering him on.

Meanwhile, Birmingham's Cliff Stoudt, the former Pittsburgh Steeler, was the quarterback to watch in the first half. He ended up with a 21-for-33 day, including three touchdown passes.

Flutie, calm, composed and barely sweating after the game, summed up the miserable first half this way: "The worst part was, when we made a mistake, we couldn't get back on the field to correct it."

Up to that point, it was possible to make the case that Brian Sipe, the quarterback New Jersey traded to Jacksonville to make room for Flutie, was having the better day. He separated his throwing shoulder in the first half of his game and will be out at least six weeks.

But things got better for Flutie. He didn't have the Midas touch, but he stopped missing receivers.

Finally, after seven incompletions and two interceptions, he passed to Collins with two minutes remaining in the third quarter. After a sack by Don Reese, the other Sports Illustrated cover boy (for his story on cocaine use in the NFL nearly three years ago), Flutie threw a bomb -- and completed it.

The spiral traveled 51 yards as Walker curled underneath tight coverage by cornerback Dennis Woodberry to catch the pass at the two. Three plays later, Walker dived over the middle to make it 31-14.

"I was getting into it a little more," Flutie said. The Generals then went into their hurry-up offense and scored twice more on passes by Flutie. He loved it.

"I feel like I'm in control. It must be the helter-skelter atmosphere. I like to get myself in the game. Things start happening a little faster. I tuck the ball under my arm and run a little and now I'm part of the game, not just handing off like a robot."

The Generals, who pride themselves on their rushing, began throwing on first down. Flutie scrambled, rolled out, motioned to receivers to change their routes. He lost, but it became exciting.

It also left room for questions, he realized.

"It (the publicity) won't end," he said. "Now, (the stories) will be on Flutie's shaky start. Now, it'll be, when will he win one?"