The Baltimore Stars are on a self-help mission, so it is only fitting they are going to northern California.
The Stars and the Oakland Invaders, teams in search of themselves, meet today in what promises to be an introspective, deeply thoughtful encounter. If neither of these U.S. Football League teams finds any cosmic answers, they can always join hands, commune a little and settle for sniffing the California Sauvignon Blanc that flows so freely from the mustard hills above Oakland.
The defending champion Stars are seeking a higher plane after last week's stumbling start against the Bulls in Jacksonville. At 0-1, they have the first losing record in the brief history of the Philadelphia-born franchise, and it's weighing on their minds going into today's 4 p.m. (EST) game at Oakland Coliseum.
"If we play like we did last week, we won't even be in the game," Coach Jim Mora said. "Our guys made a lot of mistakes, especially at critical times. It sure wasn't a good game on our part."
The Stars had two touchdown passes called back for penalties and gave up four turnovers, including two straight interceptions thrown by Chuck Fusina, who incurred a sprained right thumb, in the 22-14 loss. Fusina is sufficiently recovered to be the starter, but he won't be at full strength. The Stars' other problems are far more serious than an injury, starting with the Invaders.
"They (the Stars) looked like they were coming off a championship and expected to win easy," said Oakland's defensive coordinator, Ron Lynn, who is orchestrating what looks to be a remarkably resurgent defense. "Maybe they felt they could just show up and win."
Actually, all the quality-of-life talk is something of an inside joke in Oakland, a blue-collar, smokestack city with even bluer suburbs. A perfect setting for the Invaders, who aren't nearly as effete as one might think.
Thanks to an offseason merger with the Michigan Panthers, they have taken on some of the rough-hewn style of the NFL's old Oakland Raiders. In fact, the Invaders' Charlie Sumner, serving in his first head coaching job, is the Raiders' former defensive coordinator.
One of last year's poorer teams at 7-11, the Invaders made a quantum leap when they merged. With quarterback Bobby Hebert and wide receiver Anthony Carter, who led the Panthers to the league championship the first USFL season, they became a presto force in the Western Conference, as shown last week in a 31-10 victory over the Denver Gold.
"It's gone very well so far," Sumner said. "I can't relax, but it sure was good to get the first win out of the way. I'm surprised things have gone so smoothly. I know something's probably around the corner waiting for me."
The Stars gave up the fewest points in the league last year, 225. But they have had nagging injuries in the secondary that could make them vulnerable to the Invaders' deep threat. Cornerback Jon Sutton has been bothered by a hamstring and strong safety Antonio Gibson has a torn tendon in the ring finger of his left hand, although he is expected back.
The Invaders' defense last season was ranked 13th in the league, but they now have a physical secondary and a couple of Michigan players helping fill gaps, starting with former Dallas Cowboy Larry Bethea, who led the Panthers in quarterback sacks. Lynn, however, is wary of the Stars, who still have the league champion offense.
"When their Xs are still bigger than your Os, it doesn't do much for your confidence," he said.