Ex-Charger Luther in Midseason Form With Jacksonville

Times Staff Writer

On a dreary, rainy evening, before 13,025 fans and 57,005 empty seats, Ed Luther made his debut in the United States Football League here Monday night.

Sort of.

What Luther did was stand on the sideline and watch his new teammates, the Jacksonville Bulls, lose to the Arizona Outlaws, 41-21.

He's still new to the team, but one thing must have felt right. The Bulls don't play defense any better than the Chargers.

Luther, who last week left the Chargers for a $650,000 salary and a chance to be the starting quarterback of the Bulls, was in midseason form by San Diego standards. That is, he was called upon to do nothing but hold a clipboard.

But instead of Dan Fouts keeping him idle, it was a little-known quarterback named Buck Belue who kept Luther on the sidelines Monday night. If Luther is correct in his assumptions about his own ability, Belue is destined to remain anonymous.

It was really Luther's lack of familiarity with the Bulls' offense, plus a strange USFL rule, that kept him idle. In this league, a coach must designate in advance his top two quarterbacks (in this case Belue and Robbie Mahfouz), and the No. 3 guy can only play if the first two get hurt.

Luther, who was signed with the expectation he would take over for the injured Brian Sipe, remains confident he will do just that, beginning next week at Oakland.

"I expect to do well and have a lot of success," he said. "Being No. 1 is an important part of playing quarterback and developing continuity."

Luther, who hadn't picked up a football since the Chargers ended their season in December, said his arm feels surprisingly strong.

He is also realistic enough to know a lot is expected of him in Jacksonville, if not in the nation's media centers.

"There is some pressure," he said. "But I know I have talents and I expect to perform (well). I expect things to come together for me.

"That's what life and football are about--doing it in pressure situations."

It was the feeling time was not on his side that helped persuade Luther to bid the Chargers farewell after five years.

The dollars were good, too, but it was the chance to start that made the big difference, according to Luther and his agent, Leigh Steinberg.

Luther is starting to learn Jacksonville's offense, but the terminology is still a mystery.

"Just because you know the English language doesn't mean you know a foreign language right away," he said. "The concepts and the philosophy are pretty much the same. Of course, we don't have a Kellen Winslow here."

Luther's debut--to use the term loosely--bore little resemblance to that of another newcomer to the USFL, Doug Flutie.

No one is predicting Luther will help rescue the league. No one is counting on his charm or his scrambling to carry the new league's banner into the fray against the NFL.

What Jacksonville is expecting is the quarterback the Chargers kept hoping would emerge over the past five seasons.

Luther could plead lack of opportunity in San Diego, but, despite the unequivocal public backing of Coach Don Coryell, he never convinced a skeptical public he should be the heir apparent to Fouts.

Luther was inconsistent, to be kind, while filling in for Fouts, who was hurt for extended periods during the 1983 and 1984 seasons.

There were even whispers within the organization that he had gone backward a bit when Fouts was out last year. Luther completed 83 of 151 passes for 1,163 yards and five touchdowns last season.

Luther remains quietly confident.

"If I play up to my potential, it will be real interesting," he said. In any case, the Chargers decided the price of retaining him was too high--a four-year, $2.6-million contract.

While the Chargers must now groom inexperienced Bruce Mathison for the backup role, or pursue another man, the Bulls and Luther are still waiting to determine how well they will fit each other.

Luther said he thinks Mathison has the tools to become a solid backup.

Perhaps Luther, with the secure feeling of knowing he is the No. 1 guy, at least until Brian Sipe returns from a knee injury, will prove himself one of the new league's top quarterbacks, behind Flutie and Jim Kelly.

When he moves into the starting lineup, he will be joining a Jacksonville backfield that includes a couple of former Heisman Trophy winners, Mike Rozier and Archie Griffin.

Arizona Coach Frank Kush seemed impressed with what he had seen of Luther in that other league.

"He has a great arm," Kush said. "He's a lot like our guy (Doug Williams) with that quick release. He can do some damage to a defense."

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