Today we speak of the “new” USFL. But four decades ago, the “old” USFL took root — however briefly — as a worthy competitor of the NFL. Which teams took the field in that inaugural season, and what impact did they have on the game of football?
Original USFL Teams From the 1983 Season
The first season of the USFL featured 12 teams divided into three divisions: the Atlantic, Central, and Pacific. Some of the names were edgier than what one would find in the NFL, reflecting the renegade attitude of an upstart league trying to pave a new path for the next generation of talent. The following are some takeaways about each squad.
Wrangler has been a mainstay for jeans and western apparel since 1947. The USFL’s Wranglers stuck around for two years. Their claim to fame? Possibly selecting Eric Dickerson with the No. 6 overall pick in the league’s first draft.
Of course, Dickerson opted for the NFL. Arizona never recovered, surrendering the most points that season while going 4-14.
The worst team in the Central, the Stallions actually finished a respectable 9-9. But a 2-4 record in their division doomed their postseason hopes. Their most notable player might have been kicker Scott Norwood, who became famous eight years later with the NFL’s Bills when he missed a likely game-winning field goal with eight seconds left in Super Bowl XXV.
Most 7-Eleven’s never close. But the playoffs were closed to the 11-7 Boston Breakers. (“Ugh, really?” said my editor.)
After four years in retirement, quarterback Johnnie Walton was coaxed into helming the Breakers’ offense. Fourteen years earlier, while competing in the Canadian Football League, he became the first African-American starting QB to win a professional football title. The Breakers likely would have been far worse off without him.
Ah, now we’ve reached a playoff team. The Chicago Blitz went 12-6. In a truly fascinating “what if?” scenario, they tried to poach Walter Payton from the NFL’s Bears a year later, and Payton reportedly considered the offer. On a brighter side, Trumaine Johnson electrified the league, leading all players with 81 receptions and 1,322 receiving yards, while Luther Bradley led the USFL with 12 interceptions.
Despite winning only seven games, the Gold led all USFL teams with an average home attendance of 41,736. For context, that more than doubled five other franchises. They scored the second-fewest points but also yielded the fourth-fewest. Apparently, their fans enjoyed defensive battles.
The 12-6 Panthers won the first USFL Championship, edging the favored Philadelphia Stars 24-22. Michigan was led on offense by future NFL Pro Bowl QB Bobby Hebert and on defense by former NFL reserve linebacker John Corker. Amazingly, Corker racked up 28 sacks in 1983. Yes, 28 sacks.
New Jersey Generals
The legendary Generals. What a coup to land Herschel Walker in season No. 1. And yet, the luster quickly wore off, as they lost their first four contests and ended up 6-12. Two years later, he bolted for the NFL’s Cowboys, but not before rushing for a combined 3,000+ yards.
Five years after the introduction of the famous video game Space Invaders, and seven years before the not-so-famous film “Spaced Invaders,” the USFL was home to the Oakland Invaders. Oakland’s franchise had the good fortune of playing in the Pacific division, where a 9-9 record could buy you a playoff ticket. Fred Besana led all USFL quarterbacks in passing yards and completion percentage.
Before nearly winning the title, Philadelphia obliterated most of the league with a 15-3 regular season record while yielding only 11.3 points per game.
No other defense came close to theirs, which averaged nearly two interceptions per game. Their QB was 1978 Heisman Trophy runner-up Chuck Fusina, who held his own, while RB Kelvin Bryant ran wild with a 318-1,442-16 rushing line.
Tampa Bay Bandits
Tampa Bay earned its name about a year after the release of the cult movie “Time Bandits.” Not sure if there’s a connection. But if they could have gone back in time, the USFL franchise might have selected Hebert in the second round. Because QB Jimmy Jordan, while entirely adequate for the 11-win club, didn’t have the firepower to lead this team to the postseason in the tough Central division.
Finally, the 4-14 Federals. They had the second-lowest home attendance and second-worst point differential. Their first-round draft pick was future NFL Pro Bowl RB Craig James, who was merely “solid” in a complementary backfield role with Billy Taylor. Dreadful QB play put too much pressure on what was, on paper, a pretty good defense.