BIRMINGHAM – The first game in the history of the new United States Football League featured 52 points, 685 total yards, a last-minute comeback and just two turnovers. Birmingham 28, New Jersey 24, made for good television on Saturday night, and was everything Fox and NBC could’ve hoped for.
What we didn’t see, however, were a lot of the rule innovations that are part of the circuit.
With the game so close neither Stallions coach Skip Holtz nor Generals boss Mike Riley were interested in trying two or three-point conversions, and there was never a need for the fourth-and-12 onside kick option or an overtime shootout.
“You don’t say, ‘Let’s go for three’ when you got a game like this,” Holtz said. “I don’t think a lot of the rule changes that are being implemented in this league really were able to be seen (Saturday) because the game went from 7-14 to 14-21 to 21-24. I think you’re gonna see a lot more, though, when you’re down two scores and have to figure if you go for one or two.”
For a time, it looked as though the contest might go into overtime, which is a best-of-three shootout from the two-yard line. Had that been the case, Holtz had a plan.
“I sat down and I thought, ‘You know what, if we can do overtime, I may need to add plays,’” Holtz said. “I used to have three but now I have seven. And the last thing you want to be doing is get in the fourth overtime and go, ‘I don’t know, just call something.’ You’ve got to have a plan.
“And so I spent a lot of time just trying to make sure we had something when it comes into play.”
One rule change which is a constant, however, is the change to kickoffs, which are from the 25-yard line. No kicking team member can line up any further back than one yard, and the receiving team must have a minimum of eight players in the set-up zone between their 35-and 45-yard lines.
After a kickoff travels 20 yards, the first touch must be by the receiving team. If an untouched kick becomes dead, then the ball belongs to the receiving team at that spot.
“I mean that kickoff … did you guys see the field position teams got?” Riley said. “That’s scary. And I don’t know, we’ve got to figure out something to limit that.”
Holtz, an offensive-minded coach, likes it a bit better.
“You saw the great field position offenses get after a kickoff,” he said. “Almost every time you get to start in a really good spot.”
Until the USFL decided to make Protective Stadium the hub for all eight of its 2022 teams, Legion Field had been the home for all of Birmingham’s outdoor pro football teams (semi-pro teams excluded). In fact, it was hinted that “The Old Gray Lady” might still be used this year for several games, including the postseason.
However, that talk cooled once it was announced that the USFL playoffs and championship game would be played in Canton, Ohio, at the 23,000-seat Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
But Legion Field is slated to host games during Week 8 and Week 10, so it’ll still get a piece of the USFL action.
April showers bring May flowers, but April storms on Easter Sunday in Alabama do not bring football fans.
Protective Stadium is hosting a tripleheader today, which might’ve drawn a few thousand fans during nice, warm weather on another date. But the players mostly had the stadium to themselves in the early game between the Panthers and Houston Gamblers.
The league is set up as a television event (since Fox owns it, you can make the case that the USFL is as much a TV series as a football league), so butts in the seats won’t make it or break it. Still, it’d be nice to see games played under optimum conditions.
Looking ahead, the weather forecast for next Friday’s 7 p.m. game between Michigan and New Jersey calls for clear skies and a high of 84.
Saturday’s games – Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia at 11 a.m. and Birmingham vs. Houston at 7 p.m. – will be played under similar conditions, as will Sunday’s 2 p.m. clash between Tampa Bay and New Orleans.
If the forecast is correct (and I think it’s sweet that there are people who think it will be), perhaps then we’ll get a better idea of what a “normal” crowd will look like in the USFL’s Birmingham hub.
With all the players housed together, many have talked about the positive relationships they’ve formed with guys who play on teams other than their own. According to Holtz, there’s a pretty strong bond among the coaches, too.
“So many great, great people in this league,” Holtz said. “I love Coach Riley … that guy is unbelievable, just an unbelievable human being. And I can say the same thing about (New Orleans coach) Larry Fedora. And (Houston coach) Kevin Sumlin. We’re all linked together. We’ve all beat each other. We’ve all lost to each other. (Michigan coach) Jeff Fisher, I have great respect for him as I do all of these coaches in this league.
“I think if it’s any indication of the future the USFL, it’s gonna be great.”
The USFL is a league made up largely of younger players, although most are at least a few years removed from college. The youngest, however, is New Orleans Breakers safety Aashari Crosswell. He is 21 years, eight months and nine days old. Crosswell played at Arizona State, declared for the 2021 NFL Draft, and was signed by the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted free agent before being cut.