USFL’s plan to keep growing after first season

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Peter King is on vacation until July 18, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today’s guest is Paul Burmeister, a play-by-play voice and studio host for NBC Sports.

After what we’ve seen with alternative spring leagues in the recent past, making it to this point is no small task. Job well done.

But making it to season two in a better place will require development. Being a better league for the players and coaches, as well as having a better product on television, will require strategic fixes and enhancements.

Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: The XFL will debut next winter. Who knows what kind of quality it will have out of the gates. But in the abstract, it’s hard to imagine two spring leagues thriving, let alone surviving.

So I reflected on year one with Johnston, with the goal of learning where growth is most needed for year two. Four topics emerged:

Longer Training Camp

Training camp was incredibly brief by preseason football standards. It lasted only two weeks, and wasn’t preceded by any form of OTAs or minicamps. That’s not nearly enough time for any facet of the game to develop, especially the one that most everyone wants to see the most: the passing game. And because of that, the offensive execution for the first part of the season suffered.

Johnston shared his hope for next season is a training camp “of at least three weeks.” Early season efficiency in the passing game will benefit most. When passes are completed and first downs are made and points are scored, the league wins.

More Players On Rosters

The initial roster concept during the season looked this way: 38 players active on game day, 45 total on the roster.

Thirty-eight is minuscule for a game day roster. Consider the NFL has 53, and many coaches will tell you how difficult the game day math can be for certain positions, especially offensive line.

Twenty-eight percent fewer players to play a four-quarter football game was aspirational, to say the least. I recall calling one game when two offensive lineman went out with injuries on the same drive, and all I could think was “38?”

The coaches voiced this concern from day one; to the credit of the league, an adjustment was made. The game day roster increased to 40, with the roster total moving to 50.

Discussing it all with Johnston, it sounds like the jump from 38 to 40 was just a start. No specific number was given as a target, but it was clear that moving beyond 40 is a high priority.

More players also will allow for more efficient and better practices. Coaches and players spoke during the season about their reluctance to have contact in practice due to small numbers and the risk of injury. What a well organized coaching staff can accomplish, through volume, difficulty and efficiency of work, increases exponentially with more players.

Opportunities For Undrafted Players

There’s also a plan for how to inject youth and talent into each roster next spring, and it relates to the NFL draft.

Each spring there are hundreds of quality players who believe they will be drafted, only to have draft weekend come and go with no call.

The best of that group will become high priority free agents, with a decent chance to make a roster, and a better chance to land on a practice squad. But most who sign with a team as an undrafted free agent face long odds to stick.

Johnston sees an opportunity with this group, one he describes as “a non-traditional route to get where you want to go.”

He remembers fondly his own pre-draft process as a fullback coming out of Syracuse in 1989, and doesn’t want to interfere with or interrupt that time. Johnston wants all the players to commit to that process and enjoy it. But if the time comes and goes without a good opportunity to be on an NFL roster, he wants those players to sign with the USFL.

“Understand how many undrafted free agents make it and how many don’t,” Johnston said. “It’s a tough hill to climb. Get to us as soon as you can, play 6 or 8 games, and force the NFL to change their opinion of you.”

The USFL dabbled in this area a little bit this season, and quarterback Eric Barriere is a prime example.

At Eastern Washington as a freshman in 2017, Barriere told me he would walk by the trophy case each day and see the Walter Payton Award that Cooper Kupp won as the most outstanding offensive player in the FCS, and think how cool it would be to win that award himself one day.

As a senior in 2021, Barriere did win it by throwing for over 5,000 yards and 46 touchdowns.

But he didn’t hear his name called in the NFL draft. And no team offered him a contract to be an undrafted free agent. The Denver Broncos did fly him in for a rookie minicamp tryout, but it didn’t end with an offer to come to camp.

So Barrier came to the USFL late in the season, signed with the Michigan Panthers, and earned some playing time in the final two games of the regular season. Had he come earlier, he potentially could have started a handful of games, and “demanded a re-evaluation,” as Johnston explains.

Barriere’s example is one Johnston hopes many more will follow in 2023.

More Fans, One More Stadium

If you tuned into any of the USFL games this season, you noticed the fans. Or lack thereof.

For most games, all of which were played in Birmingham, the attendance was minimal. It was impossible not to notice.

This is unless the Birmingham Stallions were playing. Thousands of people attended Stallions games, and the energy difference was night and day. The broadcasts for Stallions games were automatically, distinctly better. It’s affected planning for 2023.

“We should afford a team in the North Division the same luxury that Birmingham had,” Johnston said.

Would that be Michigan, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia or New Jersey? No word on a front runner. But Johnston and the league are motivated to give one of those teams the opportunity Birmingham had this season. The USFL and its broadcasts would be better for it if they can make it happen.

As for keeping at least half the games in Birmingham? Johnston said: “I hope so. It sure would be a waste to go somewhere else (in the south) and start again.”

One of the parts that won’t change is the schedule. The games started in mid-April and the championship is next weekend. Johnston likes the USFL’s home on the sports calendar. “We don’t compete with March Madness, we’re not immediately after the Super Bowl,” he said. “We’ll target the weekend after The Masters.”

The separation from the NFL season, with game one targeted approximately two months after the Super Bowl, is key.

“I want our fans to get to the point of the off season where they say ‘I miss football,’” Johnston said.

Read more in the full Football Morning in America column

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