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Spring Scramble: The USFL is back

Fourth down. 28-24. Oakland Invaders quarterback Bobby Hebert had one chance at the end zone to secure the 1985 USFL Championship. 

The ball lofted towards Invaders receiver Gordon Banks, who tried to elevate between two defenders, but his 5’10” build was not enough to overcome Baltimore Stars cornerback Jonathon Sutton, who batted the ball to the ground and ran off the field as that year’s USFL champions.

Smaran Ramidi / DFP Staff

What neither the Stars nor Invaders knew, however, was the championship game would turn out to be the last game in the history of the United States Football League. The league experienced success, even boasting that the USFL’s Michigan Panthers brought in more fans than the NFL’s Detroit Lions one season. 

It stood out due to its encouragement of celebrations and then-novel ideas, such as two-point conversions and challenges. But poor money management, a failed lawsuit and other factors sent cracks running up and down David Dixon’s league just three years into its start-up.

The nail in the coffin of the league came in a decision to move away from its spring niche and directly compete with the NFL in the fall to force a merger — a move proposed by Donald Trump, then-owner of the New Jersey Generals.

The merger never happened, and neither did the 1986 fall season, sending the USFL into nothing more than obscurity and memories — until now.

On June 3, 2021, over 35 years after the 1985 championship game, the USFL announced the league would return to the gridiron in the spring of 2022. 

The new adaptation of the league has no formal connection to 1980’s edition, most likely to avoid incurring debts. 

The league will be led by president Brian Woods and executive vice president of football operations Daryl Johnston. 

While the league may have no official connection to the original rendition, fans may experience déjà vu — all eight teams have been created as revamped versions of the previous franchises. 

The North Division will host the Michigan Panthers, New Jersey Generals, Philadelphia Stars and Pittsburgh Maulers, while the Tampa Bay Bandits, Houston Gamblers, Birmingham Stallions and New Orleans Breakers will play in the South Division.

The season will be ten games long with the top two teams in each division playing each other in the semifinals and the winners going onto the championship. 

In the league’s inaugural season, all eight teams will play in Birmingham, Alabama, at either the University of Alabama Birmingham’s Protective Stadium or Legion Field, in an effort to save money on travel costs and stadium leases. 

Moving forward, four franchises are slated to move to their home city, and the other four will remain in Birmingham next year. In the league’s third season, all teams are expected to move into their respective home stadiums. The playoffs, however, will take place in the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio.

This decision will save a significant amount of money, although it may cost the league new supporters, who won’t be able to easily attend games.

Each roster will hold 38 players along with seven practice squad members. Roster members will make $45,000 per year while practice squad players will receive a $15,000 salary. Athletes will also receive bonuses when their teams wins, and for a championship victory.

The league is also offering tuition-free education through Strategic Education’s Capella University and Strayer University, programs known to assist working adults.

One aspect that made the USFL successful during its brief tenure was a skill level that matched or rivaled the NFL. This included star players, such as quarterback Jim Kelly, defensive end Reggie White, quarterback Steve Young and offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman, all of whom moved onto the NFL and eventually the NFL Hall of Fame. 

The new iteration of the USFL will look to reiterate that phenomenon — all eight head coaches have had a stint in the NFL or NCAA football, including three who have served as NFL head coaches in the past.

The most prominent name out of the group is Michigan Panthers coach Jeff Fisher, who coached for 22 years in the NFL with both the Oilers/Titans and the Rams. The experience of Fisher and the other head coaches brings validity to the league as it starts from the ground floor.

The USFL will present a second chance at a career in football and, possibly, a path towards the NFL for some. A 35-round draft was held on Feb. 22 and 23, where college players who never got their shot in the pros, former pro players and standouts from other supplemental leagues, such as the XFL, among other athletes, were selected to fill out rosters.

A second 10-round draft will take place in March to round out the rosters and practice squads. 

Training camp for the inaugural season will begin on March 21. Four weeks later, the first game of the season will be played between the New Jersey Generals and the Birmingham Stallions on April 16. All games will be streamed on either FOX, NBC, Fox Sports 1 or USA Network.

Whether the USFL succeeds or fails in its 2022 iteration, it provides the opportunity for football fans to watch their beloved sport in the NFL offseason, and see a league experiment with new rules and play styles to improve the NFL and sport of football as a whole.

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