The United States Football League came back to life on Saturday, decades after the original USFL’s three-year run. The inaugural contest pitted the New Jersey Generals against the Birmingham Stallions, with the Stallions winning a thriller, 28-24.
Here are three takeaways from the Spring League opener:
Big names… but not on the pitch
The natural problem facing all startup football leagues is that the best talent is in the NFL. This leads to a plateau in the quality of football being shown, and this was evident at times throughout Saturday’s game.
Beyond a few players who might make the ardent college football watcher say “Oh, that guy!” – there was a Scooby Wright III in sight for this game – the most identifiable people on the field might have been the coaches: Mike Riley (generals) and Skip Holtz (stallions) should be household names for college football fans .
But off the pitch, the presentation was top-notch. Curt Menefee and Joel Klatt called the action for Fox (the game was also simulcast on NBC). As you’d expect from Fox’s two longtime employees, they did a professional job and treated the action with the respect it deserves – even if it’s not the NFL or the greatest. college football game of the week, guys are putting their bodies on the line for our entertainment, after all.
Former Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett also made his debut as a television analyst for NBC, appearing before the game and at halftime.
Fox used a wide variety of cameras, including crisp skycam footage taken via drone and the “helmet cam”, which took you right into the chaotic heart of the action.
In the third quarter, Riley spent a lot of time on the mic, which gave some interesting insight into what football coaches do on the sidelines.
Overall, it was a solid show.
It’s still football!
While it might not have been of the highest quality, a big plus for the USFL debut: it’s still football!
What, you gonna pretend every NFL game is good? Football is a deeply weird game, and the beauty can be found in the wacky moments of the sport – like a guy getting a bag with a toothpick in his mouth.
But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some spectacular plays.
Randy Satterfield opened the scoring for the Generals with a nice catch, absorbing a huge shot to maintain the touchdown.
On the ensuing possession, Birmingham’s Osirus Mitchell scored a touchdown with a brilliant one-handed catch.
The game even had an exciting ending: Nick Rose of the Generals, after missing twice earlier in the game, scored the 47-yard goal with 1:54 left. But the Stallions marched downfield and scored the game-winning touchdown on a run from quarterback J’Mar Smith with just 23 seconds left.
Satterfield, a Lyon College product, was among the stars of that first contest, finishing the game with five catches for 100 yards and a touchdown. Mitchell, a Mississippi State alum, had five catches for 96 yards and a score.
Maybe one of the players who took the field on Saturday will be one of the stars emerging in this league and getting a crack at the NFL. It happened to PJ Walker, who had an outstanding run as an XFL quarterback to work with the Carolina Panthers.
A place a strange choice
Birmingham was host to this contest – and technically will be for every game the USFL plays.
The Legion’s protective stadium and historic grounds will be the sites of all regular season games the league plays before the playoffs move to Canton, Ohio.
Saturday’s game at Protective Stadium – actually involving the Birmingham side – didn’t look completely packed.
That doesn’t seem like the best sign for the league. Is there an appetite among the good people of Alabama for multiple USFL games a day? Will there be fans of other teams traveling to Birmingham to watch the ‘hometown’ team play? Will this league’s one-stop structure keep fans from fully clinging to the product?
The XFL had multiple cities drawing over 17,000 fans in Week 1 at the start of 2020 and appeared to have something solid in the works before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the league. The previous year, the Alliance of American Football folded amid financial problems.
Time will tell if the revamped USFL will succeed, but for at least one day it helped satisfy that football itch.