A Consumer Guide to the USFL
by Perry Meisel
Except for Herschel Walker, they all have a lean and hungry look. Somebody seems to be watching from behind - you, me, the coach, the owner, the NFL. Above all, the NFL scouts. Those prospective gazes are the secret diversion in both the players' and their mentors' eyes even in the thick of a sometimes bruising, sometimes sluggish game in the fledgling United States Football League.
Sure, the overtness of the anxiety has receded now that the season is several weeks old. And no, as Lou Grant would say to Mary, "it doesn't stink," either as spectacle or achievement. Boring maybe, but not pathetic. With only a month's camp and no exhibition games, some offensive lines actually started to click by the second week of play (Philadelphia's in particular, releasing North Carolina rookie Kelvin Bryant for big yardage), though others stayed inarticulate (Washington's); team concentration sagged in some cases (New Jersey), but in others it deepened profoundly, especially in Arizona's stunning alarm-clock comeback to beat powerhouse Chicago under the new gun of LSU rookie star Alan Risher.
But the almost palpable anxiety remains and is likely to endure, qualifying the major-league credibility of the new league. Even the Birmingham press corps - as ready (again) as any for a pro franchise - was reportedly grumbling "Triple A" after the opener there against Michigan.
By turns jaunty and tedious, exhilarating and downright dull, the USFL will in all likelihood remain Triple A in stature, a highly formalized, almost luxurious hybrid of established minor institutions like the Canadian Football League, the Central American baseball leagues, or summer pro basketball clubs. But it wouldn't stand a chance against even the impromptu NFL Players Association squads that played two games during last fall's strike (John Riggins took the red-eye to play in both). The USFL will forever be a three-quarters to seven-eighths version of the NFL, everything - and most everybody - built just a tad off-scale, especially (and in this case, happily) the exciting young quarterbacks like Risher who wouldn't - and won't - get legitimate shots at the Real Bigs.
But while the USFL is offscale aesthetically, it will probably have no financial problems in staying afloat (or adrift) for at least a few more years, certainly longer than the two-year bubble of the old World Football League in the early '70s. After all, the marketing boys at ABC said go ahead and spend a rumored $20 million last year. Meanwhile, ESPN -- which shares the league video package with ABC and whose former president, Chet Simmons, is the new league's commissioner - is rumored to have its future hanging on the new venture at a supposed cost of $11 million. But after a couple of weeks the Nielsen numbers aren't just respectable - they're terrific, both for ABC and ESPN (of the 30 million households that have cable, almost 25 million get ESPN). Stadium attendance, too, has been more than reasonable - consistently over 30,000 plus an average per game, producing a controlled but visible jubilance among league personnel and contradicting guys like Dave Anderson (the John Simon of sportswriting) who prophesy a virtual biogenetic dysfunction as the result of pro football in the spring and summer.
And add still another advantage, this one the plain (and perhaps the only) result of real football work: two extremely different kinds of high-caliber players buttressing the league at its inception - some good NFL veterans plus some genuinely dazzling rookies. Hence the re-emergence of tested rifles like Chicago's Greg Landry, and even the emergence of Tampa Bay's John Reaves; the shocking jump to the new league by ex-Lions linebacker Stan White (NFL strike spokesman, by the way) now calling signals for the Chicago Blitz defense; and the signing of Eagle linebacker John Bunting by Philadelphia.
Hence, too, not just one but two sets of college rookies, one group normally NFL-bound (North Carolina's Kelvin Bryant, SMU's Craig James, Wisconsin's David Greenwood); the other brilliant but slightly offscale (the kind of college stars you've always wanted to see more of but couldn't, performers like Risher, Birmingham quarterback Reggie Collier, and Chicago wide receiver Trumaine Johnson).
This is the one important - and historically salutary - difference that the USFL adds (or subtracts?) to pro football. Sure, James or Bryant would likely start in the NFL (at least on a noncontender). But Risher would get cut, like Yale's John Rogan last year with the Jets, as would Washington's rookie quarterback, Minnesota's Mike Hohensee.
Of course, in the middle, both figuratively and literally, come all the no-names and never-names, guys cut for years and years but who could at least beat out the hundreds who came to the earliest camps. But let's face it: like the Académie Française, the NFL has the legal standards no matter its mistakes or its politics.
Both credible and incredible, then, what's this three-quarters to seven-eighths operation like? Only real football junkies need apply (I confess to watching CFL replays at 3 a.m. in August). Most of us expected a wide-open offensive game like the old AFL at season's start. Even the commentators (and more especially the coaches) huffed about offense being prime.
The consistent ring (clunk would be too strong a word) is not so much poor execution as it is an almost uniform principle of conservative rather than reckless play - as if to offset all the prophesies (including the coaches' own hype) about mega-offense. Conventional idiom would say defense was simply ahead of offense. But defense is hardly the dominant factor. Offensively, the games have simply centered on the ground, superadded to a control passing game used either simply to mix it up or, more often, to maintain possession by zipping the ball to receivers curling under the defensive backs and behind the linebackers, or by tossing outlet passes to flaring backs.
Under the relative duress of sketchy video coverage and only a few weeks of play, then, here is a set of team-by-team impressions, containing some maybe harebrained predictions (special thanks to ABC Sports for providing whatever additional video has been available).
New Jersey Generals: Even before the signing of Walker, everyone thought this was the team to beat, based largely on coach, president, and part-owner Chuck Fairbanks's reputation, a stolid if soggy customer. Boy, were we wrong. Just thinking about how much depended on rickety old Bobby Scott after nine years on the beach in New Orleans during its "glory years" should've clued us in. The Generals' receivers do include two former Giants, Mike Friede and Mark Slawson (Friede's acrobatic catches often made highlight films when the Giants rolled).
Without Herschel (is this a scam we have to get used to, or are we really waiting for something?), the Generals' backfield has looked strangely like the Giants' did a few years ago, especially with ex-Giant Larry Coffey stroking off a few elegant yards on one play only to fall on his face in the backfield on the next.
But it's not all Coffey's fault, any more now than it was with the Giants. Plagued by a demoralizingly inept offensive line, Herschel will have to start carrying the ball 30 to 40 times a game after (so Fairbanks's rap goes) he learns all the plays, especially his blocking assignments and a better way to see holes. And even despite a line in shambles, Herschel still runs like he did at Georgia, sweeping mostly to the right and simply feeling his way along his blockers' asses till he finds a crack. He's hardly had a blast-off run yet; questions are actually cropping up about his ability to accelerate.
But if Herschel does start carrying more often, it still means he'll have to take Earl Campbell-style punishment, extremely damaging both physically and mentally. Marcus Allen, for example, will last longer (like Tony Dorsett or Walter Payton) because his narrowness doesn't give tacklers a chunky target to spear - the weighty Campbell and Herschel are sitting ducks by comparison. What this will spell for Herschel's later NFL career, we won't know for a while. But to think that Herschel will stay in the USFL very long is naive.
Philadelphia Stars: A slashing tailback from North Carolina, Kelvin Bryant was easily on his way to breaking the record for NCAA season touchdowns (29) when his knee gave out early in his junior year (despite arthroscopic surgery, he still came back to gain over 1000 yards in the 1981 season). The injury clearly hampered him in his senior season, scotching once-genuine hopes for a Heisman bid. On the first Sunday, the sleek and stocky Bryant still had 77 yards. And with a full camp behind him, Bryant at least has, like his linemen, obviously learned the system well (Herschel, Herschel). But, like Walker, look for him to jump to the NFL at the right time.
Quarterback Chuck Fusina (one of innumerable Penn Staters in the USFL, including teammate Scott Fitzkee) is indeed an NFL backup but a much younger one (three years behind Doug Williams at Tampa Bay), but in charge as much as any quarterback in the league. Exuding a quieter and more convincing confidence than Reeves or even Landry, Fusina's second game was the best exhibition yet of the control passing that will highlight the league's conservatism more consistently than the rushing game. But with Bryant in there, too, Philadelphia obviously has the most balanced attack in the East.
Washington Federals: Even though SMU tailback Craig James would've doubtless ended up a probably latish NFL pick (he played alongside Eric Dickerson, the cool, wise one who sits and waits), he'd likely have ended up on special teams ("oops, my frontal lobe"), seeing only backup duty at fullback on a contender and a faceful of defense on a lousy team. After a dismal opener, though, James went down with a jammed back the second Monday night against L.A. And along with him went Washington's other best hope, rookie quarterback Mike Hohensee, another Risher in stature but without the mobility (receiver Reggie Smith also went down in the second game, decimating an already sluggish squad).
Boston Breakers: It's been an ex-Eagle Johnnie Walton's passing that has seen Boston first lose one of the few seesaw openers to an equally aerial Tampa Bay team, and then win one the next week against Denver on a fleaflicker bomb plus a 14-yard TD strike (Walton also has ex-Eagle Charlie Johnston to throw to). Add to the passing a defense that can block field goals and run 'em back for TDs, and you've actually got one of only a few defenses to say something positive about. Boston is balanced enough to merit real scrutiny once they get fuller video exposure. Besides, they're the only threat in the division to Philadelphia's otherwise clear supremacy.
Michigan Panthers: Probably the only team in the league with a more interesting and potent defense than offense. Already feared for some beefy backers, Michigan also features world-class rookie strong safety David Greenwood, a Ted Hendricks/Bob Baumhower look-alike, blitzing his lanky frame all over the place, very often in the quarterback's face. Michigan is lucky to have his excitement - and his punting - as well as the psychological and strategic relief he provides cornerbacks like Clarence Chapman, who can gamble with Greenwood roaming the streets.
There is also a good quarterback rivalry to watch, though coach Jim Stanley has yet to exploit it, staying with rookie Bobby Hebert and letting Vandy rookie Whit Taylor sit on the bench. This is still not one of your big play/major action teams. Like Birmingham, Michigan will be relatively interesting to see develop over a few years, but expect less and less as this season wears on - unless, of course, Taylor gets a chance to come on like Risher.
Birmingham Stallions: Quarterback Reggie Collier is exactly the kind of great college offensive threat (Southern Mississippi '83) who'd at best end up as a defensive back in the NFL (like Darrol Ray or Nolan Cromwell), but who can continue his offensive career in a USFL that allows a fair amount of quarterback running at three-quarters punishment. A blastoff sweep-runner (or up the middle) whose only other pro shot at offense would've been the Great White North, Collier resembles Oklahoma's J.C. Watts, who led the Toronto Argonauts to the Grey Cup out of nowhere in 1981 (the Generals' Lott was also a wishbone quarterback at Oklahoma, but Fairbanks is almost surely too old-fashioned to try him out under center if things get even worse in the Meadowlands).
Defensive backs have been brought into lots of action so far throughout the league and the Stallions' Billy Cesare is a prime example of how to bottle up outside routes so as to allow pressure coverage of the underneath receivers (Cesare can even do a Jerry Holmes, getting into the backfield before a running play can start).
With little else going for 'em other than a reasonably tough if no-name defense, then, the Stallions' future now depends on how much punishment Collier's body can endure and whether or not he can learn to throw more and better.
Chicago Blitz: Chicago's opener was easily the most convincing game of the lot, the kind you expect from a George Allen-coached team. Balancing Stan White on defense is vet quarterback Greg Landry - never a question to the extent Scott or L.A.'s Mike Rae have been. And unlike former backup Scott, Landry did get to play a fair amount with Baltimore (Bert Jones got hurt often) and so has not just psychological but also physical experience - the toughening will doubtless help preserve him in the USFL. Landry is also fortunate in his receivers, especially rookie Trumaine Johnson (maybe an NFL shot if looked at long enough), an instant star on day one, a Reynaldo Nehemiah or Lam Jones who already has soft hands even if he's thinking about running before catching the ball. He's also one of the few really explosive runners in the league, with more acceleration than almost any of the backs.
Tampa Bay Bandits: Landry can do it for Chicago, and veteran John Reaves (Bengals, Eagles) is doing it up big for Tampa Bay. Reaves got in a seesaw spearchucking affair with Boston's Walton the first day; like Landry's, Reaves's was no short-passing game but the bombardier antics of an old pro. Adding to the offensive push is a running game headlined by Duke rookie Greg Boone, the first back to break 100 yards in a single USFL game.
But will good old quarterbacks like Reaves and Landry make it through an 18-game season? Scott is already more than a question, but even the proven ones are vulnerable. They have experience - bench experience - but the punishment factor, even for Landry, has yet to be assessed. Will there even be any pressure late in the season? Or will people just sigh - or not even notice - when the CFL kicks off July 4th and the USFL finishes its regular season?
L.A. Express: The simple fact that Hughie Campbell has come should tell everybody else to get out of town. This cool and largely unknown customer is probably the best coach in pro football today. A receiver at Washington State, he coached at little Whitworth College in Washington before going north in 1975, eventually leading the Edmonton Eskimos to five champion Grey Cupa in a row before coming to Los Angeles this year. Certainly Fairbanks's fate and even Allen's mean coaching aren't everything but, like Allen, Hughie is also blessed with talent.
With the one-two punch of veteran quarterback Mike Rae (Oakland, Tampa Bay, Washington) and UCLA rookie sensation Tom Ramsey, the cunning Hughie started with Rae in the opener, switching to Ramsey only after the flutters were gone and getting a fairly exceptional pro debut out of him. By the second game, Hugh's line system was clicking well enough to get even the substitute backs hunky hardage, and well enough too to leave Rae in there long enough (three quarters) to make him the second week's star.
Already rich and balanced in quarterbacks, then, L.A. probably surprised itself when it saw incandescence in a classic backfield combination of swift tailback rookie Tony Boddie and a Sam-the-Bam-style fullback in LaRue Harrington. Even the defense is hitting in harmony, led by linebacker Eric Scroggina. Add receivers like Ellis and a zesty backfield bench and L.A. has got it all, growing not just sounder each week but fierier too.
Oakland Invaders: Oakland's young quarterback Fred Besana (Cal) played as well as Reaves when the Invaders tackled Arizona in their opener. One of the few instances in which offense outdid defense convincingly on opening day, Oakland also produced the league's only defensive shutout the first weekend.
Former Raider, tailback Arthur Whittington gives Oakland some backfield credibility on paper, though its young fullback Ted Torosian who's actually done what rushing damage there's been so far. With only a few old vets to stabilize line play (especially 13-year veteran Cedrick Hardman at defensive end), Oakland will live or die by how well the youngsters jell in a future more secure than Washington's, but less so than Tampa Bay's or even Boston's.
Arizona Wranglers: Even though center Dave Otey wears a horseshoe belt signifying his status as a "bucking" star on the rodeo circuit ridin' bulls, the Wranglers at first didn't look at all like the "roughneck" outfit they've learned to call themselves in interviews. Apparently the dog of the league the first week out (the only shutout victim), their second week's upset of powerhouse Chicago was the biggest surprise yet, and probably the most exciting game. Maybe the Wranglers didn't realize they were really a finesse, collegiate-style team rather than a bunch of gunfighters until Risher turned it all around in the second half of the Chicago affair. Expect anything.
Denver Gold: Coach Red Miller is, of course, a local folk-hero, leading the Broncos to the Super Bowl in 1977. Bob Niziolek and Lionel Phea are Colorado rookie quarterback Jeff Knapple's most dependable targets, even though Knapple himself throws too many floaters, easily picked off on fly patterns. Ken Johnson can at least spell him, though, throwing tighter spirals and showing more pocket poise. At his best, though, Knapple features the USFL's control passing game, tossing underneath dumplings to his receivers and backs - a better way (in this league anyway) of keeping the ball than the largely damp running game it has (un)developed so far. Former Bronco Larry Canada - good for breaking off a few long gainers between stumbles and occasional short-yardage success - is the best Denver has in the backfield, and is probably better at snagging short passes than running the ball with any particular consistency. Look for catnapping fans at Mile High Stadium as the weather gets better.
It took the NFL till the last few years to achieve Rozellian parity. It will probably take this league more time than it's got. That makes prognostication easier even if the enjoyment is subpar. And though it's absurdly early, these picks ain't coin tosses either.
Atlantic: Philadelphia will take the division with relative ease and relatively little competition.
Central: Chicago and Tampa Bay will fight for a while, but Chicago will glide in the end.
Pacific: Best race of the three by far. L.A. will eventually take it all (Hughie doesn't lose), though the endurance of Besana's arm at Oakland and Risher's fortunes at Arizona may give the Express some skirmishes before it's all over.
Pick for the championship game: Los Angeles against Chicago, with Hughie a winner all the way.
Originally published in The Village Voice, April 12, 1983