At long last, the Express scrapped its Salvation Army routine Saturday night, finally meeting a lead it couldn't fold, spindle or otherwise mutilate.
This time, there were no fourth-quarter meltdowns, giveaways or handouts. Not with a 38-point advantage and only 10 1/2 minutes to play. Not with the San Antonio Gunslingers on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
After opening its 1985 season with three straight defeats, the Express finally played a good enough entire game--against a bad enough team--to walk off the field a 38-7 winner before 11,757 fans at the Coliseum.
This was one lead that was never in doubt. The way San Antonio's offense kept beating itself, the Express could have gone home, taken the rest of the evening off, and the Gunslingers still would have had trouble making up those 38 points by Monday afternoon.
How futile was the Gunslingers' offense? Here's how:
--Until Marcus Bonner returned a punt to the Express 48-yard line with 5:48 left in the fourth quarter, San Antonio had not crossed midfield.
--New starting quarterback Fred Mortensen was returned to the bench after a start of 10 attempts, 1 completion, 1 interception, 15 yards.
--His replacement, former starting quarterback Rick Neuheisel, was sacked on his first play, intercepted on his fourth pass and became personally involved in the Express' last touchdown. It was Neuheisel's pitchout that running back Scott Stamper couldn't handle, resulting in a fumble that Express cornerback John Higgins recovered in the Gunslinger end zone.
--The San Antonio quarterbacks, combined, completed 11 of 33 passes and threw three interceptions. And the San Antonio running backs rushed for a combined 78 yards and lost the ball three times on fumbles.
Mortensen, at least, was accurate in his postgame assessment. "This was a very poor showing for the offense," he said. "There's going to be a lot of assessing to be done after this one to be sure that something like this doesn't happen again."
That, however, would seem unlikely. The Gunslingers (1-3) still have games remaining on their schedule.
The Express, also 1-3, must have had an idea that something good was in the offing. The team didn't have any champagne chilling on ice--budget cuts, you know--but the players did pass out victory cigars in the locker room afterward.
"This is for the first win," said cornerback Wymon Henderson as he laid a cigar down in his stall. "It took much longer than we thought it would. For once, the breaks wound up on our side of the field."
Without the Gunslingers, however, none of this would have been possible.
The Express scored by running the ball, with Mel Gray producing touchdowns of two and 25 yards, and Kirby Warren adding a one-yard touchdown plunge.
And the Express scored by passing the ball, with Steve Young hitting Jojo Townsell in the end zone from 16 yards out.
Added together, the Express was able to set club records for most points scored in a game and largest margin of victory.
"We couldn't lose that lead," said Young, who also ran two yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. "We needed something like that, we needed to break loose. Now, we can let our hair down, get a game plan going and fire it up."
Young admitted that the team had been playing uptight, a condition caused as much by off-the-field factors as the earlier on-the-field collapses.
One day, the ownerless Express players hear that three parties may be--just may be--interested in buying the club. The next day, they read that the team is about to fold any minute.
"Everyone's been walking on eggs," Young said. "When you're 0-3, all the negative stuff starts to gnaw at you. We're ownerless, the Boston Globe says we're playing our last game. The off-the-field stuff has been crazy. You try to be numb to it all, but it's been hard."
For the time being, the Express is still with us, with historic victory No. 1 of 1985 in tow. Saturday night, coaches and players were all breathing easier.
"This is just what the doctor ordered," Young said. "Now, we can settle down and concentrate on football and winning . . . unless, they don't let us play."