USFL Titlists Seek .500 Mark Tonight

To be a Baltimore Star is to lead a dime-novel life. Danger and suspense at every turn.

The strange and mercurial Stars have cartwheeled their way through three-quarters of the USFL schedule. Their playoff chances still are undetermined, with their record an unenlightening 5-6-1. It's about time this mystery of the defending league champions was unraveled.

The best team in the league the past two years is in a curious state of disarray. The Stars' six losses equal their combined total in 1983 and 1984. They lost to New Jersey on Sunday and, with six games to go, another loss would greatly diminish their chances of making the eight-team playoffs.

"I think it's conceivable that we could win four of our last six and get in," Stars President Carl Peterson said. "As crazy and upset as we all are with this season, we aren't definitely out of it. But if we think we are, then we will be."

The Stars, who next play the Renegades in Orlando, Fla., tonight at 8, never have lost games back to back in the history of the franchise. And Orlando's 3-9 record indicates Baltimore could be back at the .500 mark this weekend. But nothing is certain with this team.

The Stars' problems come in all shapes and forms. The offense, led by quarterback Chuck Fusina -- the 1984 player of the year -- and running back Kelvin Bryant, gains its share of yards, but is 10th in the league in scoring. Against New Jersey last week, the defense shut down the Generals for 53 minutes, but the offense mustered only a field goal in the 10-3 loss.

"It's our inability to score touchdowns," Coach Jim Mora said. "We just haven't scored enough points. As for why, there's a lot of reasons. We haven't done anything consistently. Nothing."

It seems that on the occasions the offense has been able to find itself, the vaunted defense, ranked second in the USFL, has disappeared. Against Arizona two weeks ago, the Stars mounted impressive drives for two touchdowns in the first half, but the defense allowed the Outlaws to score almost at will. The Stars barely got by with a 25-22 victory.

"It's inconsistency on both sides," defensive back Jonathan Sutton said. "Sometimes we play the first half, then we don't play the second half. Last year we won a lot more close games. We haven't been doing that. It's been a real relief to see the offense put points on the board. Then when they play well, we slack off."

Judging by Sutton's description, it would seem the Stars are experiencing something very close to complacency. On a team renowned for its work ethic, that's not acceptable. "It's been mentioned," Sutton said. "Some people say we've looked lackadaisical. I hope that's not the case. But we haven't been getting it done."

Baltimore's problem may be as simple as the law of averages. In their first two years, the Stars got the breaks and the relatively injury-free kinds of seasons needed for a championship. This season they have had neither luck nor health. Bryant, receiver Willie Collier and fullback David Riley have had various ailments. Tight end Steve Folsom, out most of the season with a torn hamstring in his left leg, finally recovered this week and was set to start against Orlando. Then, in practice, he pulled his right hamstring and will not start.

"They had an unbelievable run of luck their first couple of years," said Orlando Coach Lee Corso, who spent a season as a USFL commentator for ABC, a season when the Renegades were the Washington Federals. "I would telecast a game early in the season and go back later, and they (the Stars) had almost the exact depth chart every time. That's rare. This year they've had some injuries. They're back to reality, like other teams. The injuries have kept them from dominating the league the way they did before."

The Stars also have contended with some unusual disruptions. They still practice and commute from Philadelphia, going to Baltimore for public relations appearances once a week, and busing to College Park for home games on Sundays. They have been averaging 18,000 attendance, compared to 26,000 in Philadelphia.

"I think working out of three different places has disrupted us to some extent," Peterson said. "We are playing 18 road games, really. We take a bus there. We stay in a hotel."

"It's different. Let's just say that," Mora said.

Increased parity in the young league is another explanation for the Stars' decline. When the USFL was pared from 18 to 14 teams, a sizable pool of talent went to an allocation draft that deepened the remaining teams across the board. Throw in the usual headhunting that a championship team confronts in trying to repeat, and the Stars might have faced a harder schedule than in their previous seasons.

"All the teams are better," New Jersey Coach Walt Michaels said. "The competition is better across the league, and that's typified by what's happening to the Stars. It doesn't mean they're a bad team. Players have matured, there is better organization and consolidation. Enough credit isn't given to that."

Stars management may have compounded its difficulties by keeping its championship team essentially intact. Baltimore was low in the allocation draft and added just two players. An attempt to sign Virginia Tech defensive lineman Bruce Smith, the Outland Trophy winner whom the Buffalo Bills made the first pick in the NFL draft, fell through. They did not pursue another high-profile rookie. While the rest of the league moved forward, the Stars might have stood still.

"It's something I've given a lot of thought to," Peterson said. "Without question, the league has improved . . . If I had to do it again, I'd do it the same way. But that doesn't mean it isn't something I question. When the dust settles after the season, I'll look around. I'll also look at some of the players we elected not to sign and see how they've done in the NFL."

To the Stars' credit, they have been able to stay in playoff contention despite the mysterious nature of this season. Of their remaining opponents, they play lowly Orlando and San Antonio twice, both of which are behind Baltimore in the standings. In addition, they play four home games.

"We've still got a chance to control our own destiny," Peterson said.