BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — When the Memphis Showboats lost their first three games this season, coach Todd Haley asked his defensive coordinator, Carnell Lake, to talk to the team about the 1989 Steelers, who he played for as a rookie safety.
Pittsburgh opened the 1989 season with a 51-0 loss to the Browns, and followed that with a 41-10 loss to the Bengals. But they slowly and steadily improved, and they not only made the playoffs with a 9-7 record, but won their wild-card game against Houston.
These Showboats are only starting to build their turnaround, but it took a big step Sunday, handing the undefeated New Orleans Breakers their first loss of the season, 17-10, with Lake's defense leading the way.
"We played great complementary football today – the defensive created turnovers, picking up the offense when we needed it, but then the offense, ultimately when we needed it most, had a great drive and finished it and really kind of put the game in our possession."
Memphis quarterback Cole Kelley barely saw the biggest play of the winning drive. Trailing 10-9 with three minutes to play, the Showboats had a third-and-5 at the Breakers' 16-yard line, definitely in field-goal range but wanting more. A blitzer came unchecked up the middle, and Kelley was hit as he threw, taking the hit and landing on his back as a high pass dropped into the outstretched arms of tight end Jay Jay Wilson, who got to the 3-yard line, setting up a much easier touchdown throw from Kelley to a wide open Juwan Washington for the go-ahead score.
Wilson wasn't the intended receiver on the throw, but Kelley was thrilled to see it land in the right place at the right time.
"First, I'm on the ground, so I don't even see, but I look up and I see the ball just float and I see Jay Jay running underneath it, wide open. I probably wouldn't have thrown it more accurately if I tried to throw it to him," Kelley said.
New Orleans (4-1) came in leading the league in total offense and tied for the lead in scoring, but Memphis held them to 10 points, including three turnovers. They had a chance to tie the game in the final two minutes, but the Showboats didn't let them past their own 30, getting a fourth-down stop to seal the win.
"It starts with our defensive staff coming up with a great game plan for what they do," said safety Troy Warner, who led the Showboats with 12 tackles. "We just executed, and that's been the big thing in this turnaround these last few weeks, just paying attention to small things, the details and executing at a high level."
New Orleans got 206 yards and a touchdown from quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, but only the one touchdown, facing consistent pressure that led to four sacks. Running back Wes Hills, who came in leading the league in rushing yards and touchdowns, was kept out of the end zone and held to 38 yards on 14 carries.
"Offensively, it was not a very good day," coach John DeFilippo said after his first loss of the season. "We did not take advantage of the turnovers that our defense got and the field position our defense got us. It hasn't been who we are all season, and I'm looking forward to watching our team bounce back."
New Orleans' loss, combined with Houston's win over Birmingham on Saturday, has tightened up the USFL's South Division – Memphis, in last place at 2-3, would be tied for first in the logjammed North Division, but they're just a game back of the Stallions and Gamblers for second place and a playoff berth, halfway through the regular season.
Haley, whose father Dick was the Steelers' director of player personnel in 1989, remembers well that Pittsburgh team and how well they turned around their season, and hopes for the same result with his Showboats.
"Everybody in Pittsburgh was burning their Terrible Towels," said Haley, who would later become the Steelers' offensive coordinator himself. "They figured out a way to turn it around and he said the biggest thing was 'We kept working and started to gain confidence through really good practices.' When you have good practices, and the ball's been getting turned over a bunch in practice, and when it starts happening, guys gain confidence, they believe that the ball is going to come to them."
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.