USFL players, coaches believe ‘we’re all here for a reason’

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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.

I was in Birmingham in early April, a couple weeks before the season started, to gather info and develop relationships. When asking about schemes and calls and plans with quarterbacks and coordinators and administrators, I would also ask, “What is the USFL?”

I liked best the answer from Daryl Johnston, the USFL’s Executive VP of Football Operations, former Dallas Cowboys fullback and current FOX NFL Analyst:

“It’s a fork in the road.”

Most of the USFL players had some type of experience in the NFL. They crave that elusive “one more chance.”

Some are former NFL draft picks who played in games, but most were undrafted free agents who spent time with a handful of teams during training camps and offseason workouts. Maybe two months on the practice squad here, two days there, two months out of work, waiting for a call to return or start somewhere else anew.

And there’s the key phrase: waiting for the call. Without that hope that lives within hundreds of NFL hopefuls, there would be no USFL. It’s the call that says, “We’d like to work you out.” Or, better yet, “We’d like to sign you.”

USFL Week Six - Pittsburgh Maulers v New Orleans Breakers
New Orleans Breakers quarterback Kyle Sloter. (Getty Images)

The USFL provided an alternative to these players. Instead of waiting around for a phone to buzz, and players spending their time lifting and running and hoping, the USFL offered a chance to actually play football. And the USFL paid players to do it. Who says no? Players are so committed to making it back that they’re willing to put on the pads, play football each week, put 10 games on film and, as Johnston told me, “Demand a re-evaluation.”

I revisited the topic with Johnston this week, with the regular season behind him and the two-week postseason ahead. His initial assessment of What is the USFL evolved over the season, and he now views the league as a way for players to face why they didn’t stick in the NFL. The USFL gave players a chance to resolve those issues.

“That was the big epiphany for me during the season: How can they stay in the NFL?” Johnston said. “What was the disconnect between their talent, and their ability to stay in the NFL? Note taking? Punctuality? And how can you fix it?”

This is in sync with the one mantra I heard over and over from players and coaches of all teams: “We’re all here for a reason.”

Here are a few of those players and their reasons:

Frank Ginda, LB, Michigan Panthers: Tackling machine who once led the nation in tackles at San Jose State and finished second in the USFL in tackles. NFL experience with Arizona, Miami and New Orleans says Ginda needed the USFL not to pile up tackles, but to show he could be an asset in pass coverage.

Chris Orr, LB, New Jersey Generals: Excelling as a physical, old school, Big 10 linebacker earned him a season with the Carolina Panthers in 2020. But what he told me was a “lack of hip-flippin’ and running” experience got him sent home. Orr said yes to the USFL to show he’s an athletic, sideline-to-sideline linebacker, not just an inside-the-box thumper.

Sal Canella, TE, New Orleans Breakers: At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, has the perfect build to detach from the line of scrimmage to play a hybrid WR role, which he did primarily in his career at Auburn. But does he have what it takes to line up next to the tackle and hold his own in the run game? A brief six-day stint with the Dolphins made it clear Canella needed to look for chances to “display toughness, and prove I’m willing to block.” Notably, Canella shined in the USFL playoff semifinals over the weekend, with 12 catches for 154 yards in a tough loss for the Breakers.

Kyle Sloter, QB, New Orleans Breakers: The most wide-ranging, winding, diverse road to the USFL of all started when Sloter was an undrafted free agent in Denver in 2017. By 2021, he had been on the active roster or practice squad of six different teams. Sloter also spent a chunk of time as a “street free agent,” meaning he was at home, in between opportunities, waiting for the coveted call. Teams are allowed to bring in such players to their own buildings and put them through a specified workout to see if they want to sign them. Including those tryouts and the six teams he was actually with, Kyle has been inside the building of 26 of the 32 NFL teams.

Mind boggling.

When I sat with Sloter to talk about this story, he said his motivation to play in the USFL was simple, but lofty: to prove he could be PLAY in the NFL.

Excel in the preseason? Done that.

Get signed to the practice squad? Many times.

Earn a season on the active roster? Box checked.

Starting games is all Sloter wants. I applaud his confidence and willingness to talk about his aspirations so openly.

The USFL provided the 10 regular season games to show it, and the Breakers led the league in passing offense.

Read more in the full Football Morning in America column