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USFL season preview: Spring football is back

Enjoy it while it lasts!

Philadelphia Stars Booker Russell Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

The USFL is back! Sort of.

The latest installment of “investors try to create a spring 11 on 11 football league” and the latest installment of “create a minor league using the name of an old league to generate attention” combine to kick off the new USFL on Saturday. From the same people who brought us The Spring League, which ran from 2017 to 2021 (not to be confused with the Spring League of American Football, which was announced in 2016 and died within two years); the Fall Experimental League, which ran from 2014 to 2015; and the gimmick A-11 Football League, which never got off the ground from its 2013 announcement. So it’s off to a great start.

This league has no actual connection to the United States Football League that ran from 1983 to 1986 and started the professional careers of players like Reggie White, Steve Young, and Jim Kelly. The only connections to that league are purely superficial: the name of the league and the names of the teams. The teams don’t even play in the cities they are named after. The 2022 USFL season will see the Birmingham Stallions, “Houston” Gamblers, “Michigan” Panthers, “New Jersey” Generals, “New Orleans” Breakers, “Philadelphia” Stars, “Pittsburgh” Maulers, and “Tampa Bay” Bandits all play each other in Birmingham, Alabama. That’s right, a metropolitan area with a smaller population than Salt Lake City is expected to attend four football games a weekend for the next ten weeks.

Fortunately the league will be televised on Fox/FS1 and NBC/USA/Peacock since the residents of Philadelphia, Mississippi will have an easier time going to Philadelphia Stars games than the residents of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania will.

So before the latest doomed to fail league capitulates just as the XFL (twice), AAF, original USFL, The Spring League, and others did let’s learn what there is to forget about a year from now. Because some of it is actually interesting.

Uniforms

That’s a lot of red, but they did a mostly fine job of bridging the gap between retro and modern. The football may not be good, but it’ll look good. They look better than a few NFL teams.

Get to know some funky rules

One benefit of minor leagues is that they can be testing grounds for rule changes. The third attempt to launch the XFL next year will be a partnership with the NFL where the NFL will experiment with rule changes through the XFL. The original 1980s USFL brought us instant replay and coaches challenges that the NFL then adopted. The 2022 USFL has a few that have already been rattling around the NFL as a rule change proposal or the foundation of a future rule change proposal. Now everyone will be able to see them in practice rather than just as a theory.

Two forward passes. Teams will be allowed to throw two passes that originate behind the line of scrimmage. On paper this means you could have some WR screens that turn into WR passes, or have the QB hand off and run to the flat to receive a pass and then bomb it down the field in an elongated flea flicker. In actuality? Probably won’t see it much, but hopefully someone goes crazy with it.

A 3 point attempt. In addition to the usual 1 and 2 point attempts as seen in the NFL and college, the USFL will have a 3 point attempt from the 10 yard line. This means a 17 point lead is a two score lead.

Onside kick alternative. NFL rule changes to kickoff coverage formations intended to reduce injuries also reduced the chance of conversion of an onside kick, and thus reduced the frequency of onside kicks. To bring back the excitement of potentially getting the ball back after scoring, for the 2021 season the Eagles proposed that the team kicking off could elect to attempt a 4th and 15 from their own 25, the league had adopted this rule for the Pro Bowl in 2020. That obviously didn’t pass, but the idea is out there. The USFL is going to try a version of it, giving teams the option of a 4th and 12 from their own 33.

More clock stoppages. Inside of the two minute warnings, the clock will stop when a team gains a first down. The downside is that this will make the end of halves a little longer, which is just fine in a close game and probably won’t even be noticeable without the announcers reminding viewers. The upside is no more need to spike the ball, which removes a play no one cares to see; and now players are further incentivized to fight for a first down as they’re being tackled.

American football shootout. You’ll hate this if you hate the NCAA’s current overtime rules and/or if you hate soccer’s penalty kicks. Rather than play another period of football in overtime the USFL will go straight to a best of three play shootout from the 2 yard line. If the shootout is tied after three, it will go to sudden death. It’s like the NHL’s overtime, but they skip the 5 minutes of play.

The teams

In order to play with those rules, you have to have some teams. The USFL has eight teams that are filled with players you may possibly recognize from preseason football, and are coached mostly by experienced NFL and/or NCAA coaches. The level of talent here is not about to blow you away.

Birmingham Stallions

Head coach: Skip Holtz, son of Lou Holtz and formerly head coach at UConn, East Carolina, South Florida, and Louisiana Tech.

Other coaches of note: Skip Holtz is also the offensive coordinator, quarterback coach, and like nearly all of his USFL head coach peers, the general manager. That’s a lot on one man’s plate.

Players of note: Scooby Wright won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Chuck Bednarik and Lombardi Awards and was an unanimous All-American in 2014, he was drafted in the 7th round in 2016 and was out of the NFL after the 2019 season. Jonathan Newsome was a 4th round pick in 2014, he’s been in the CFL since 2016. And then there’s Josh Shaw, who was a 4th round pick in 2015. He started 12 games for the Bengals in 2016. In 2019 he was suspended for betting on NFL games, including against the Cardinals while on injured reserve with Arizona. In 2021 he was reinstated.

Outlook: The defense is full of players in their mid 20s to early 30s who played multiple years in the NFL as at least a special teamer. The offense is full of young players who spent some time on practice squads. And the QBs both previously played for Holtz. Experienced defense/young offense can win games, and a QB who the coach has already worked with is a nice advantage.

Houston Gamblers

Head coach: Kevin Sumlin, former Houston, Texas A&M, and Arizona head coach.

Other coaches of note: David Beaty started his Kansas head coaching career with the worst season in school history at 0-12, and finished it with the joint best season in nine years at 3-9. Former Patriots All Pro Ty Warren is the team’s defensive line coach. Special teams coordinator Greg McMahon was the special teams coach for the Saints team that recovered an onsides kick in the Super Bowl. Defensive coordinator Tim Lewis held the same position in the NFL for seven seasons.

Players of note: Like the Stallions, the Gamblers defense features players with pro experience, unlike the Stallions though that experience is not so much in the NFL as it is in other minor leagues and the CFL. On offense the most high profile player might be NFC East journeyman QB Clayton Thorson.

Outlook: The strength of this team might be the coaching, which feels like damning with faint praise. Sumlin is an Air Raid disciple, if he imports that to the USFL they could be fun to watch.

Michigan Panthers

Head coach: Jeff Fisher. The USFL is scheduled to play a 10 game schedule, so none of that 7-9 bullshit for Jeff.

Other coaches of note: Offensive coordinator Eric Marty has spent one season above the level of community college football. Offensive line coach Neil Callaway has the worst winning percentage in UAB history by coaches whose tenure was not ended by the school ending their football program. This already feels like a Jeff Fisher team.

Players of note: The QBs are former NFL 1st round pick Broncos bust Paxton Lynch; and Shea Patterson, who played at Michigan. Lynch is the most high profile player in the league, Patterson was the 1st pick in the USFL draft. The team roster lists four tight ends, I again remind you that their head coach is Jeff Fisher.

Outlook: Even by the USFL standards of NFL experience equaling being on a practice squad, the Panthers are light on NFL experience. It’s hard to see where they have any kind of advantage on a week to week basis.

New Jersey Generals

Head coach: Mike Riley, former head coach of the San Diego Chargers, Oregon State, Nebraska, San Antonio Commanders of the AAF, San Antonio Raiders of the WFL, and Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL.

Other coaches of note: 1991 All Pro Chris Dishman and former UConn head coach and 2012 Broyles Award winner for best assistant coach Bob Diaco. Most of the rest of the staff has experience as a coach and/or player at the minor league level.

Players of note: QB Luis Perez, who was one of the “stars” of the AAF. The rest of the roster is filled with players in their mid 20s to early 30s who have plenty of minor league and NFL practice squad experience, and some with active NFL roster experience.

Outlook: This team should at least be competitive. The players and the coaches have experience at this level. That should be an advantage over teams with coaches with no experience at anything close to this level and players who haven’t done much beyond an NFL practice squad since college.

New Orleans Breakers

Head coach: Larry Fedora, former Southern Miss and North Carolina head coach. He usually wears a visor.

Other coaches of note: College journeyman coordinators Noel Mazzone (offense) and Jon Tenuta (defense) hold the same positions under Fedora. The rest of the staff is young and light on experience.

Players of note: Journeyman practice squad QB Kyle Sloter will throw to a pair of former 3rd round picks in WRs Taywan Taylor and Chad Williams.

Outlook: Borderline NFL talent at QB and WR might be enough in this league, but in Fedora’s last job as Baylor’s OC he led Baylor’s offense to its worst performance since 2009.

Philadelphia Stars

Head coach: Bart Andrus, former head coach in NFL Europe, The Spring League, UFL, and CFL.

Other coaches of note: Jeff Jagodzinksi, whose career in reverse is an impressive climb from minor league position coach to NFL offensive coordinator and NCAA head coach. But that’s the reverse. In 2009 Jagodzinski, who was entering his third year as Boston College head coach, was offered an interview for the Jets head coaching position. His AD told him in no uncertain terms that if he took the interview he would be fired. He took the interview and was fired. He was then hired as Bucs offensive coordinator under first year head coach Raheem Morris, but was fired during the preseason for among other things not actually knowing the playbook. He’s been a journeyman coach ever since.

Players of note: The QBs are Bryan Scott, dubbed “Aaron Rodgers of DIII” who was two time Spring League MVP; and Twitter inside joke Case Cookus. Both played under Andrus in the Spring League, along with half a dozen on the Stars roster.

Outlook: The Stars have two things working for them. First, and perhaps most importantly, is that Andrus is the only head coach in this minor league who is a minor league lifer. None of the other head coaches aside from Riley have lived through the grind and limitations of a minor league, and Andrus has done it for decades. There won’t be an adjustment that his peers are going through. The other is that both his QBs and a handful of other players previously played for him, he and they are already up to speed with each other. Those are good advantages to have at least early on when the rest of the league is still figuring things out.

However the talent level on the Stars may not be enough to keep up any early momentum that may happen. The Stars appear to have the least amount of players who spent time on NFL rosters, and eventually talent wins out.

Pittsburgh Maulers

Head coach: Kirby Wilson, who has been a RB coach in the NFL for 23 years. He is the USFL’s only first time head coach at any level. He’s also the only USFL head coach who is not also his team’s GM.

Other coaches of note: None. This team has no coaching strengths or intrigue.

Players of note: European Football League MVP RB Madre London and journeyman practice squad QB Kyle Lauletta.

Outlook: Any notion that the USFL is a developmental league is dispelled by this team. Their head coach is a 60 year old position coach, which I guess could be argued is exactly the kind of teacher you want leading a developmental roster. But the Maulers roster is relatively old: their youngest QB is 25, their offensive line is mostly 27 or older, their defense has three players 27 or older, heck their punter is 29. It’s hard to see this team unearthing any young gems or having a tactical advantage through coaching.

Tampa Bay Bandits

Head coach: Todd Haley, former Chiefs head coach.

Other coaches of note: Long time Patriots assistant Pepper Johnson, and former Steelers player and coach Carnell Lake.

Players of note: When you consider that Haley is a former WR coach, it is unsurprising that the Bandits are loaded with WRs with NFL experience. Every WR but one—Vince Papale’s son—has bounced around NFL rosters for multiple years.

Outlook: The Bandits offense is well positioned for the passing game. QBs Jordan Ta’amu and Brady White put up big numbers in college, they probably have the best set of WRs in the league, and their coach has put up good passing offenses when he’s had talent in the NFL.

How does the USFL stack up against other minor leagues?

Not well.

The original USFL had real potential as a spring league, it landed star college players, taking advantage of the NFL not allowing juniors to be drafted; and it had legitimate coaches who weren’t at the end of their careers. But as it expanded, leaders became corrupted by new owners who wanted to move to a fall league to compete with the NFL, with their goal to get rich on either a settlement with the NFL or a merger with the NFL. It failed spectacularly. Between the 1984 and 1985 seasons the league voted to move from a spring season to a fall season for 1986. The 1986 season was never played. They did win their lawsuit with the NFL though. They were awarded $1.

Since then plenty have tried to produce an 11 on 11 spring football league, they usually failed pretty quickly. The original XFL had WWE money and a major broadcaster and did an exceptional marketing job for what it was. It lasted a year. The Alliance of American Football was created by Serious Men in Bill Polian and Chris Ebersol, it folded before its first season was finished in 2019. Your Call Football (not to be confused with Fan Controlled Football, of a similar concept) started in 2017 and ended in 2018. The United Football League lasted four seasons from 2009-2012. The World Football League (not to be confused with the World League of American Football) launched in 2008 and ended in 2010. The Spring League played six seasons in five years from 2017-2021 before folding so that ownership could launch their fourth attempt at a spring football league.

The only 11 on 11 league that had any kind of staying power was the World League of American Football/NFL Europe. Debuting in 1991 as the WLAF, it took a three year hiatus after the 1992 season, and in 1998 was rebranded as NFL Europe. It would last until 2007. For a time it was a quality developmental league, giving early career playing time to future Pro Bowlers such as Kurt Warner, Brad Johnson, Jake Delhomme, La’Roi Glover, James Harrison, Adam Vinatieri, David Akers, and Dante Hall, and plenty of other NFL players. The football wasn’t amazing, but the team names and uniforms were cool and you saw guys that would play on Sundays in the fall. For the first decade or so, it was a proper developmental league.

NFL Europe, as its name indicates, had one huge advantage and one huge disadvantage over all other minor leagues. The advantage was that it was part of the NFL. This gave it a better supply of talent and proper financial backing.

The disadvantage was that it was in Europe, where American Football is a niche sport. By the final years attendance concerns had the league exist almost entirely in Germany. After the 2007 season the league folded, losing too much money for owners to stomach. It was also no longer producing a pipeline of talent, teams stopped treating it as a developmental league. One factor for that was the NFL added eight teams between the WFAL’s first season and NFL Europe’s final season while from 1995 on there were only six WFAL/NFLE teams. The addition of more spots in the NFL than there were in all of NFLE drained the NFLE of talent.

So is this going to last?

No, it will not.

This USFL does not have major financial backing, does not have attention grabbing players, does not have attention grabbing or funky head coaches, is poorly located, and has no NFL backing.

At best, the USFL will be comparable to the UFL, which had a similar level of coaching but better playing talent as rosters were mostly populated by older former players on their final stops rather than aspiring fringe players. Games were initially broadcast on the precursor to the now defunct NBC Sports Network, and were reasonably well attended. It lasted four years before it ran out of money.

At worst, the USFL will be comparable to the AAF, which had a similar level of talent and coaching. Games were broadcast on CBS Sports Network, Turner, and NFL Network and were reasonably attended. The AAF’s goal was to turn from a minor independent league to a full on NFL developmental league over the course of a few years, the connections of Polian and Ebersol had gotten the NFL’s attention and made such an end game a possibility if the league lasted a few years. It went sour fast. The AAF ran out of money so quickly that it missed payroll for the first week. The broadcast deal it had didn’t actually pay it any money, which isn’t unheard of, the Arena League and NBC had a similar deal in 2003 and 2004 where the AFL received no rights fee but would share revenue. The league turned to Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon for financial help. Dundon wanted the league to take on NFL players immediately, but to do so the NFLPA would have to agree to let players play for two teams, and they wouldn’t and won’t. Six weeks after Dundon essentially bought the league, he folded it.

This USFL feels like it is much closer to the AAF than the UFL.

The USFL is financed by investors that previously tried and failed to get multiple spring leagues going. That puts it on shaky ground from the start. Putting the entire league in one city makes sense from a cost cutting standpoint, but it will also guarantee that the league won’t make any money through attendance revenue or build a fan base. Jeff Fisher making the top pick in the draft a “hometown” favorite seems to have worked to get attention, the Panthers are at least the most popular team on Twitter. But that will only last as long as the football is good, viewers in the Michigan area aren’t going to keep watching a bad team that plays in a bad league that doesn’t actually play in Michigan just because their QB played a couple of seasons for Wolverines teams that got blown out by Ohio State. There’s even less incentive for people from the New York City area to watch a team labeled as New Jersey that plays in Alabama and has no players with a real connection to the NYC area. And next year, assuming it lasts that long, it may have to compete with the XFL.

A proper developmental 11 on 11 league will never work without full involvement with the NFL and NFLPA. Only the NFL has the finances to endure, only the NFLPA has the talent to attract fans. The NFL got out of the business 15 years ago and hasn’t shown any significant interest in returning, its billionaires are content to let someone else foot the bill. The NFLPA recently said they are not interested, after winning changes to how often and how hard its members can participate in football outside of the NFL season they don’t want their members, even the fringe ones, doing even more in the spring and summer.

So enjoy the USFL for however long it lasts. Hopefully the football is fun.