2022 USFL Season Preview
USFL - Let's try that again, again.
Three years ago this month, we were excited about the launch of the Alliance of American Football, the first prominent minor football league launched since 2001. That league was a lot of fun … until it folded halfway through the season after massive financial problems ended up too much to overcome for the men holding the purse strings. We never got to see a championship game.
Two years ago this month, we were excited about the launch of the XFL, and that league was even more fun (and more competently run) than the AAF. It was drawing some decent crowds in Seattle and St. Louis, and then the world caught on fire and everything shuttered. We never got to see a championship game.
And so we climb back into the breach one more time, as we preview 2022's new minor football league: the United States Football League. That's right, the 1980s are back, in spring football form.
This isn't your daddy's USFL. And I mean that literally—no one involved with the first USFL is involved in this in any way. The trademarks and naming rights have bounced around for decades at this point, and finally someone has managed to put together something to actually use them.
Instead, the new USFL is brought to you by Brian Woods and FOX Sports. You have certainly heard of that last group; FOX is here to attempt to keep the new league solvent. They have reportedly pledged up to $200 million for the first three seasons, putting the new USFL on a much firmer financial ground than the AAF ever was. Woods is familiar to you if you are a connoisseur of minor league football—this is the third minor league Woods has launched since 2014, as he strides from the rubble of the Fall Experimental Football League (2014-2015) and The Spring League (2017-2021). The primary difference between those leagues and the new USFL is the presence of money. The Spring League explicitly did not pay salaries or expenses, and the FXFL's demise came with a lawsuit alleging that that league hadn't paid players either, making them "professional" leagues in only a very technical sense.
But perhaps the third time will be the charm, as this new league has backing, a television deal, an actual news presence, and enough cache that it could well be something you might want to pay attention to in 2022. So let's talk USFL!
Sweet Home Alabama
The new USFL brings back eight teams from the original USFL. The Birmingham Stallions, the Houston Gamblers, the New Orleans Breakers, and Tampa Bay Bandits make up the South Division, while the Michigan Panthers, New Jersey Generals, Philadelphia Stars, and Pittsburgh Maulers make up the North Division. Those names, however, are not entirely accurate. The 2022 season will see all eight teams play all their games in Birmingham, Alabama, with both the new Protective Stadium and the old Legion Field handling all 40 regular-season contests. This "bubble" system helps cut down on costs, and is something that Woods' leagues have used before—the Spring League was always based in one or two cities, and never actually assigned any geographic names to any of its teams.
The plan is for this bubble to slowly burst in upcoming seasons. The league says "as many as four" teams would play in their respective home cities in 2023, with everyone finally arriving in their home cities in 2024. This is, shall we say, an ambitious plan. The last major outdoor league to last at least three seasons was NFL Europe in the 1990s, and the last to do so without being funded by the NFL was the original USFL back in the 1980s. I find it doubtful that all eight teams will find stadium deals in their assigned cities and be playing football there in 2024, especially with the XFL also ready to jump back into action next year. There's no real reason for someone in, say, Philadelphia to be a strong supporter of the Stars, because there's a very real chance that they'll never play a game anywhere near the City of Brotherly Love. The reason these teams have these names lies somewhere on the scale between nostalgia and brand recognition, depending on your level of cynicism. FOX is banking on the USFL name to draw eyeballs in, which will work for a bit. But it'll be the quality of the play on the field that keeps those eyeballs watching once the 1980s nostalgia wears off sometime in the middle of the first quarter.
Oh, and the three playoff games will not be in Birmingham—they'll be in Canton, Ohio, just outside the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This decision was not made to honor USFL legend Sam Mills, entering the Hall this year, but was instead forced by a scheduling snafu. The Birmingham stadiums were already booked for the 2022 World Games before the USFL decided to play in Alabama, and so they'll play host to the Opening Ceremonies and the first ever flag football gold medals while the USFL takes its show on the road for the first time.
TV and Schedule
The USFL's first game will be on April 16 at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, with the Stallions hosting the Generals. It will be simulcast by both FOX and NBC, as both networks are involved with this new league from the get-go. Twenty games will be broadcast over the air—12 on FOX, eight on NBC. Nineteen will be on cable (10 on FS1, nine on USA). Four will be online-only, streamed on Peacock. That adds up to 43, though it's unclear how that works with the FOX/NBC simulcast for the first game. No matter how you add it up, however, 20 games on broadcast TV is a lot; that's more national over-the-air broadcasts than any other sport in the first half of the year, as the NBA is mostly on ESPN and TNT while MLB very much in flux at the moment.
The playoffs and championship game are scheduled for June 25 and July 3, respectively. This is perhaps the USFL's biggest difference from the AAF and XFL, which planned to run from February to April, ending just before the NFL draft. The USFL dodges March Madness and the combine, but instead goes up against the draft, offseason workouts, and mandatory minicamps, ending just before training camps are scheduled to open. It's not quite the 1986 plan to go head-to-head with the NFL in the fall, but it'll be interesting to see how much coverage they draw compared to NFL stars in shorts and tanktops.
We do not know anything more about the schedule, as the USFL has announced no more details. We are told that "most" games will be on Saturdays and Sundays, with some "special broadcasts" planned for Fridays and Mondays, but no specifics have been announced. And that's kind of going to be a running theme here.
We do not know the USFL's rules. We know Mike Pereira will be Head of Officiating, but details beyond that are, again, slim on the ground. One of the most interesting and rewarding things about the AAF and XFL were their experiments with the structure of the game itself—tinkering with the kickoff rules; banning PATs in favor of one-, two-, or even three-point conversions; the Sky Judge the NFL has kind of nicked without explicitly nicking; changes in game clock management and timeouts and overtime rules. None of that is currently known about the USFL.
Pereira has teased a few things, mind you, though he has said it's "a bit early" to follow the USFL at this point. He has also said that he's a rules committee of one, and will have authority to overrule calls on the field. He specifically mentioned that in situations where a defenseless player or roughing call looks clearly fraudulent upon replay, he'll be able to overturn those. He said that the USFL will be using 15-yard pass interference penalties unless someone "deliberately tackles a guy," in which case it would be a spot foul. He also said that the USFL will be using new technology, including lasers, to spot the ball. Citing lasers as some of the cutting-edge technology the new league will be using sounds really appropriate for a league based on 1980s nostalgia, but no, this is an actual thing—the XFL also used Lazser Down equipment which used radio waves to precisely spot the ball, and it went fine.
I expect there to be many more differences from NFL rules. The Spring League was basically a test league for crazy rule changes; they partnered with the XFL to test many of that leagues' rules before it launched. And, of course, the Fall Experimental Football League had "experimental" right in the title; they moved the PAT back before the NFL did and futzed with kickoff rules before it was cool. The USFL will presumably be doing some of this, but they have not chosen to tell us anything yet. It is not a significant part of its marketing strategy at this point, unlike the XFL and AAF—again, the pitch so far has been far more about nostalgia than the product on the field. Heck, they didn't even bother to tell us which players could be drafted before draft day, leaving everyone in the dark.
One rule change we do know about is eligibility. You can play in the USFL so long as you graduated high school by 2020, and the pay ($45,000 for active roster players, $15,000 for practice squad players) includes a "tuition-free and debt-free" path to a college degree through a couple of for-profit universities. We'll save the criticism of Strayer and Capella Universities for another time and note instead that the USFL is attempting to offer an alternative to NCAA football for athletes who can play but want to make money immediately. It does not appear that any player was drafted straight out of high school, but the teams do need to add about 10 more players each to their rosters, so that's something worth keeping an eye on. The dream scenario, of course, is for some five-star prospect to pass on going to the SEC, come to the USFL, earn $100,000 and get a degree, and then go on to be drafted highly in the NFL. That's not happening anytime soon, but it's an interesting thing to think about.
And while we're talking money, we do need to talk about betting, because it's not secret that one of the reasons to start a professional sports league in the 2020s is to take advantage of the ever-widening legal sports betting in the United States. At the moment, it is currently not legal to bet on the USFL, as the league has not yet cleared all of the regulatory hurdles, a state-by-state process. It has, however, signed on with Sportradar as its integrity partner and data provider, which is a significant step towards getting final regulatory approval. I would expect for all this to be taken care of by the April kickoff, so you can gamble on the Gamblers to your heart's content. But I also would have expected a league to realize whether or not they could hold its championship game where they intended to play it before signing a contract, so we'll see what actually happens down the road. Stick a pin in this.
One thing the USFL has announced, however, is the uniforms!
ACTIVE: All 8 USFL home jerseys pic.twitter.com/Jzo4IkBqHg
— USFL (@USFL) February 17, 2022
Away game drip 💧 pic.twitter.com/ne8tEwA5qr
— USFL (@USFL) February 17, 2022
Four teams are wearing red at home, another is wearing burgundy, and two others have red or orange as part of their design. I really would love to know how this happened; no greens or anything? Many of the uniforms, by themselves, are fine; I really like the Stallions' look a lot and the Breakers' helmet is very creative, if maybe lacking a second color. But that's a lot of similar looking teams—more than half of the league's games will pit a team in red against a team in white, and that's going to be tricky just for identification purposes. It just seems odd that a singularly owned league would end up having so many of its teams share the same basic colorways. I get that that's part of the nostalgia—these are all updated versions of what these teams wore in the 1980s—but a decent chunk of the potential audience here was not alive when these teams were originally playing and won't have that same kind of nostalgic connection. Just a bizarre choice.
Teams and Players
Our plan is to cover each of these teams a little more in depth in the weeks to come, but the USFL has had its inaugural draft, so we know most of the team's rosters, and we might as well hit the highlights.
The USFL cleverly arranged its draft by position and rotated which team got first pick at which positions in an attempt to balance team strength throughout the league; there was some thought put into which positions are more impactful than others.
And the quality of players are … perhaps a bit better than we expected? This may be a case of setting up low expectations by not announcing who was eligible to be picked before the draft, so any name recognition is nice, but there's a decent chunk of NFL experience here—fifth-string, COVID emergency NFL experience, but experience notwithstanding. It's a collection of your favorite draft crushes who never panned out in the big leagues, getting one more chance to shine!
The Panthers are led by Jeff Fisher, by far the biggest name among the initial USFL coaches—head coach of the Titans and Rams in five cities, with a 173-165-1 career record, a Super Bowl appearance, and a legacy of 7-9 bullshit. For all the jokes made about Fisher over the course of his NFL career, it takes a lot of skill to lead some at-times talent-deficient rosters to .500 records; he's a good choice for a league filled with some talent deficiencies.
The Panthers also had the first overall pick for the new USFL. They took quarterback Shea Patterson, who was starter at both Ole Miss and Michigan. He went undrafted in the NFL in 2020 thanks to a lack of arm talent and accuracy and ended up bouncing around the Chiefs, the Blues of the Spring League, and the CFL's BC Lions and Montreal Alouettes. Patterson did not attempt a pass in the CFL or the NFL. He'll be battling with Paxton Lynch, the former first-round pick of the Denver Broncos, who spent last year as the third-string quarterback for the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Because they had the first overall pick, the Panthers ended up with fairly late picks in all the other rounds. The only other position they drafted first at was defensive tackle, where they took TJ Carter. This is not the same T.J. Carter who played a decade of pro European basketball; nor is it English DJ TJ "Lil Silva" Carter; nor is it the former Memphis/TCU safety T.J. Carter, who remains the top hit when you Google "T.J. Carter football." Instead, it's the former Kentucky defensive end who was last seen in Steelers training camp.
The Stars will be led by Bart Andrus, a long-time minor league football lifer. Andrus was the head coach of the Amsterdam Admirals for seven years, winning World Bowl XIII and reaching the title game the next season. He has also coached for Rocky Mountain College at the NIAA level, Feather River College at the CCCAA level, the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL, the Omaha Nighthawks in the UFL, the Generals in the Spring League, and Team 9 in the XFL. He has been around a bit, is what we're saying. And he has brought that knowledge with him to the USFL, to an extreme.
Andrus went with a familiar face—to him, not us—and grabbed Bryan Scott as his quarterback of choice. Scott played for Occidental in college, down at the Division III level, and also competed internationally—he was on the USA's U-19 national team and won a gold medal and MVP honors in the 2014 IFAF World Championships. No NFL team was interested in gold, however, and Scott spent the next few years at mini-camp tryouts and on CFL practice squads. He did beat out Zach Mettenberger to lead Andrus' Generals in the 2020 Spring League. They went 4-0 and won the championship, with Scott named as league MVP. He'll have to beat out Case Cookus, who also played for Andrus on the Generals, to keep the starting job.
Andrus didn't stop there. He also used high picks on cornerback Channing Stribling and running back Darnell Holland, both former Generals. Andrus raided the AAF and XFL as well, taking Jack Tocho (of the Iron and the Wildcats) as the top safety off the board. While other teams went for bigger name recognition, the Stars are very much a minor league team led by a minor league coach who knows minor league players. The fact that there is a different team called the Generals is confusing, but we'll roll with it.
New Jersey Generals
The Generals will be led by Mike Riley, perhaps best known to NFL fans for his three-year stint with the Chargers at the turn of the millennium, going 14-34 during the Ryan Leaf era. More recently, he was the head coach at both Oregon State and Nebraska with a 112-99 record and seven minor bowl wins. He has also had minor league experience, coaching the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the WLAF's San Antonio Riders, and the AAF's San Antonio Commanders.
The Generals took Ben Holmes from Tarleton State as their top passer. Undrafted in 2020, Holmes played for the Arizona Rattlers of the Indoor Football League last year, as well as the Sea Lions in the final Spring League season. The only other quarterback the Generals took was De'Andre Johnson of Texas Southern—and the 2016 season of Last Chance U on Netflix. It is probably the weakest quarterback room of any of these teams, which is a problem.
The Generals are better equipped in the secondary. Cornerback De'Vante Bausby has a Super Bowl ring as an Eagles' practice squad player and is the AAF's all-time leader in both pass breakups and interceptions. Safety Shalom Luani has played for American Samoa's national team in both football and soccer, and played briefly for the Raiders, Seahawks, and Chargers between 2017 and 2019.
The Maulers will be led by Kirby Wilson in his head coaching debut. Wilson was a running back coach in the NFL between 2002 and 2020, winning Super Bowl rings with Jon Gruden's Buccaneers and Mike Tomlin's Steelers, as well as working with the Cardinals, Vikings, Browns, and Raiders. He retired before the 2021 season, but the chance to be a head coach was apparently enough to pull him back in.
The Maulers went heavy on NFL practice squadders at the quarterback position. They grabbed Kyle Lauletta, a fourth-round pick in 2018 for the Giants out of Richmond. He played in two games for the Giants, going 0-for-5 with an interception, and has since spent time on the Philadelphia, Atlanta, Cleveland, and Jacksonville practice squads. His competition is Josh Love, undrafted in 2020 out of San Jose State before spending time on the Rams and Panthers practice squads.
The other most notable Maulers player is guard Vadal Alexander, a seventh-round pick for the Raiders in 2016 out of LSU. Weight and conditioning issues dropped him from a projected Day 2 pick down to the end of the 2016 draft, and he struggled to get into Oakland's lineup. He was suspended for PED use to start the 2018 season and then simply did not show up to training camp, leading to his release. He has had some tryouts since then, but hasn't been on a football team.
Tampa Bay Bandits
Todd Haley is probably the second-biggest coaching name the USFL grabbed, and he'll be leading the Bandits. Haley was the Chiefs' coach from 2009 to 2011 and had one of the quickest falls from grace in NFL history—from a 10-6 division winner in 2010 to 5-8 and fired midway through the 2011 season. Haley has spent a long time as offensive coordinator since then, first with the Steelers from 2012 to 2017, then the Browns, and most recently, uh, Riverside High School in Sarasota.
The Bandits had the second pick of quarterbacks, and they took Jordan Ta'amu, whom you may remember as being one of the top two quarterbacks in the XFL with the St. Louis BattleHawks. You also may remember him from being on nearly everybody's practice squad over the last few years, spending time with the Texans, Chiefs, Lions, Football Team, and Panthers as COVID opened up spots around the league. I will be very surprised if he's not the starter over Brady White, who went undrafted last year out of Memphis before playing in the Spring League with the Alphas.
The Bandits also have experience at wide receiver, taking Eli Rogers. Rogers spent three years with the Steelers, chalking up 78 receptions for 822 yards and four touchdowns between 2016 and 2018, and then had success with the XFL's DC Defenders in 2020. Ta'amu-to-Rogers may well be the best passing connection the USFL will have, at least on paper. The Bandits also took former fifth-round nose tackle Daylon Mack, so there are some names here; they'd probably be my favorites to begin the season.
The Gamblers are led by Kevin Sumlin. Sumlin's a long-time college coach with time in Houston, Texas A&M, and Arizona, with a career record of 95-63 and four bowl wins. There was a time where Sumlin was considered one of the best coaches in college football—he was the SEC coach of the year in 2012 and a multiple-time Conference USA coach of the year before that—but he hasn't had a winning record since that 2012 season, and his last appearance as a head coach was in a 70-7 loss against Arizona State back in 2020.
The Gamblers' top quarterback is 2019 fifth-round pick Clayton Thorson, waived by the Eagles before that season began. He has made it to an active NFL roster, however—the Giants dressed him twice in 2020 as a COVID backup, and he has been on New York's practice squad ever since. The other Gamblers quarterback is another COVID callup, Kenji Bahar out of Monmouth, who has spent time with the Ravens the last couple years.
Other notable Gamblers include wide receiver Isaiah Zuber, who dressed for the Patriots a number of times in 2020 before bouncing around the Shanahan-system practice squads in 2021. There's also top inside linebacker pick Beniquez Brown, who played for both the Birmingham Iron and the Houston Roughnecks during the AAF and XFL, making him the perfect choice for a Houston team playing in Birmingham in 2022.
The actual home team for 2022, the Stallions are led by Skip Holtz, long-time college coach. Holtz has a 152-121 record with Connecticut, East Carolina, South Florida, and Louisiana Tech, with eight bowl wins under his belt. An 8-14 record over the last two years with Louisiana Tech sent him packing, so this is a chance to somewhat rehabilitate his image before finding another college job in the future.
The Stallions' top quarterback is Alex McGough, a seventh-round pick out of FIU back in 2018 who has had multiple stints with the Seahawks' practice squad and a brief cup of coffee on the Texans' active roster. He's joined by J'Mar Smith, who played for Holtz at Louisiana Tech. You wonder if McGough went before Smith because the USFL wanted all eight top quarterbacks to be at the draft in person, while Smith is the guy Holtz really wants to start.
The Stallions also feature pass-rusher Aaron Adeoye, who fought his way through Champions Indoor Football, The Spring League and the AAF to get an NFL contract with the Ravens. That lasted two years, and he's back in the minors, but he has impressed before when given an opportunity. The Stallions also had first choice at receiver, where they took Victor Bolden, who has played for both the 49ers and Bills. He has never done much as a receiver, but had some promise as a kickoff returner, so stay tuned for the rules there.
New Orleans Breakers
The Breakers are led by Larry Fedora, the head coach for Southern Miss and North Carolina from 2008 to 2018. He has a 79-62 record as a college coach with three bowl wins and a couple of top-20 finishes in the AP poll, but hasn't had a winning season since 2016. He was last seen as Baylor's offensive coordinator, leading an offense that finished 125th in yards per play.
The Breakers had last pick of the quarterbacks, and I suppose they could have done worse. Kyle Sloter is their guy, undrafted in 2017 out of Northern Colorado and a busy man on the NFL's transactions wire ever since—he has bounced from Denver to Minnesota to Arizona to Detroit to Chicago to Las Vegas and back to Minnesota again. He was fairly sharp as a rookie in the preseason, and that has been enough to ensure him spots in someone's top 75 since then. New Orleans' other quarterback is Zach Smith out of Tulsa, who had some offseason workouts last year after going undrafted.
Drafting last at quarterback gave the Breakers high picks in a bunch of other places, including the first pick at edge rusher: Davin Bellamy, undrafted in 2018 out of Georgia. Like Sloter, Bellamy has spent the past couple of seasons doing the expanded practice squad circuit in the NFL, spending a few years with the Texans before bouncing to the Bengals, Titans, 49ers, and Chargers.