United States Football League

State of the USFL: Embracing Kickoff Returns, Increased Competitiveness in Season 2

June 2, 2023 - United States Football League (USFL) News Release

While the NFL recently implemented a fair catch rule on kickoffs in what is seen nationally as a step toward the eventual elimination of the play, the USFL moved in a different direction.

This season, the USFL moved kickoffs back five yards from the 25 to the 20-yard line, a change designed to generate more returns, according to USFL head of officiating Mike Pereira.

"We wanted more kickoffs," Pereira said during an update on the league this week. "We wanted 90% of our kickoffs returned."

Through seven weeks of play, the USFL achieved that goal with 93.5% of kickoffs returned, compared with 38% in the NFL last season. The USFL had 81% of kickoffs returned last year.

Three kickoffs have been returned for touchdowns this season, including two by Birmingham receiver Deon Cain. Memphis Showboats receiver Derrick Dillon also returned a 59-yard missed field goal attempt by Pittsburgh Maulers kicker Chris Blewitt 109 yards for a score.

As an added benefit, Pereira said the increase in returns has not resulted in more injuries.

To help with player safety, the USFL implemented a rule in which the return team must have a minimum of eight players, or a maximum of nine, start in a box within 10 yards of the ball placement at kickoff until the ball is kicked. This means players on the coverage team are running down the field with the coverage team as opposed to waiting for them further down the field, reducing the speed of impact when the sides meet.

Conversely, NFL owners last month approved a resolution allowing players to fair catch kickoffs, with the possession starting at the team's own 25-yard line if the fair catch is behind the team's 25-yard line.

Derrick Dillon shows off ELITE speed with huge week

The Pittsburgh Maulers had no answer to Derrick Dillon as he accounted for one TD and 219 all-purpose yards in the victory for the Memphis Showboats.

The adoption of the new kickoff rule rankled some NFL head coaches.

"I didn't like the change," Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll told reporters this week. "Worrying about the game a little bit, but the other side of it is worrying about the rest of it, too. There are some numbers that maybe we can change and help some people not be injured.

"It's really hard to not look in that direction and support it. We've got to support our guys and take care of them. That's the way we voted. But I was battling. We worked really hard at it."

Along with kickoffs, the USFL has been much better at kicking field goals this season.

In 2022, the USFL finished with a 67.9% field goal percentage, 83.6% on extra points. Through seven weeks this season, those numbers are up to 84% on field goals and 87.7% on extra points.

"We've got three kicks returned for touchdowns," Pereira said. "Special teams are a huge part of our league. Last year, at the beginning of the year it seemed like we were having a hard time kicking an extra point. This year, we had a game where we kicked eight field goals, and they were down the middle, and they weren't short chippies. So, our kicking game has been a huge part of this."

Third QB rule is a hit

The USFL will also continue to use the three-quarterback rule, making a third quarterback suited up on game day and available in case of injury to the first two quarterbacks on the active roster. The third quarterback does not count against the active, 45-man roster.

If the emergency quarterback plays in the first three quarters, the other two quarterbacks on the roster are ineligible to return. But if the third quarterback enters in the fourth quarter, the other two quarterbacks can still play.

"All I know is what a miserable experience it was being in the broadcast booth in Philadelphia, with the 49ers playing the Eagles, and seeing the 49ers hopes demolished in one injury," Pereira said. "And so, I think as usual, rule changes are reactionary. I think this is a change we looked at and said we didn't want to get in that position."

The New Jersey Generals almost had to use their third quarterback when De'Andre Johnson had to be transported to the hospital with a head injury last week, leaving Kyle Lauletta as the only healthy quarterback on the active roster.

The NFL also recently brought back the emergency third quarterback rule.

"We just want to protect ourselves," said Daryl Johnston, vice president of football operations for the USFL. "I think the NFL is doing the same thing for something that in all likelihood is probably not going to occur, but at least it takes that one situation and protects us from that."

Playoff dates announced

The USFL also announced the playoff dates for the upcoming postseason. The North Division championship game will be hosted in Canton, Ohio on Saturday, June 24 at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. The South Division championship game will be hosted in Birmingham or Memphis on Sunday, June 25 at 7 p.m. ET on FOX.

And the USFL championship will be hosted in Canton on Saturday, July 1 at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

Through seven games, all eight teams remain in postseason contention with three games remaining.

Johnston pointed to the addition of four new coaches - Ray Horton, John DeFilippo, Curtis Johnson and Mike Nolan - adding a wealth of experience and creating a better competitive environment for the league.

"It was really a testament to what we're trying to do when you have someone like Mike Nolan call you and say I hear there's a potential opening with the Michigan Panthers and I'd be very interested in that," Johnston said. "That speaks volumes and is really gratifying to us and all the hard work we've put into this when you have people of that caliber wanting to join your journey in Year 2."

Asked about reseeding teams in the postseason by doing away with the divisions and just taking the teams with the top four records, Johnston was not interested.

"When you watch the NFL and you see those 7-9 teams get into the playoffs, a lot of times they win that first game," Johnston said. "That's a team that's usually been on a run late in the season, and they've had to scratch and claw to get to 7-9. They're playing good football.

"I've seen the Carolina Panthers do it. I've seen the New Orleans Saints get upset by the Seattle Seahawks, with a very talented football team. Those under .500 teams are dangerous. So, for me, I don't really like that. I like the more traditional - we've got a North Division and we've got a South Division. Take care of your business through the first 10 weeks, then you don't have any complaints when you don't make the playoffs."

Increasing the NFL pipeline

USFL had 24 players on active rosters or practice squads in NFL last season. Johnston said he's hopeful to place more players in the NFL pipeline for the upcoming year.

Johnston said one of the undervalued positions in the USFL is the stacked linebacker position. He pointed to Gabriel Sewell Jr. with the Philadelphia Stars, Frank Ginda with the Michigan Panthers, Quentin Poling with the Stallions and Kyahva Tezino with the Pittsburgh Maulers as linebackers having good seasons.

"Obviously KaVontae Turpin is our greatest ambassador, with everything he accomplished with the Dallas Cowboys and all the accolades that he received," Johnston said. "I think that shows the necessity for a league like the USFL, when we can have a player not only become discovered or change that narrative, but really how the NFL views you as a scout or a GM. We are giving you that opportunity to change that."

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.

• Discuss this story on the United States Football League message board...

United States Football League Stories from June 2, 2023

The opinions expressed in this release are those of the organization issuing it, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts or opinions of OurSports Central or its staff.

Sports Statistics from the Stats Crew
OurSports Central