Len Pasquarelli

Message Board
NFL en español
NFL Draft
Photo gallery
Power Rankings
NFL Insider

ESPN Auctions
Wednesday, March 5
Updated: March 6, 5:48 PM ET
NFL influenced by USFL's schemes, former coaches

By Len Pasquarelli

While fatherhood of the zone-blitz defense has been claimed by dozens of surrogate wannabes over the past two decades, the consensus now is that it was Dick LeBeau who first introduced the scheme that was prevalent in the 1990s, and which battered and boggled opposition quarterbacks.

Don't try telling that, however, to former quarterback Bobby Hebert.

LeBeau may have conceptualized the defense in the mid-80's, to take full advantage of the wondrous skills of Cincinnati Bengals monster-sized safety David Fulcher, but the first time that Hebert remembers seeing the exotic defense was in the USFL. Even after games, he would still see the scheme in his nightmares.

Dom Capers
Dom Capers was using zone-blitzing in the USFL before it was popularized in the NFL.
"Every time you played the (Philadelphia) Stars, they would be running that zone-blitz stuff at you, and it was tough," said Hebert, who began his pro career with the Michigan Panthers of the USFL. "People hadn't seen it that much before and the linemen would get confused. You'd end up getting just hammered. They had (Dom) Capers on their staff and he'd just send people at you all day and from weird angles. Rushers would be coming free and getting clean hits on you. It was like a bad dream."

Twenty years later, the zone-blitz scheme, used by a preponderance of teams in the NFL as recently as three years ago, is beginning to fade in popularity. It is still at least a part, though, of nearly every defensive playbook. Capers, of course, is the head coach of the Houston Texans, in his second tour as an NFL sideline boss.

And when one reviews the history of the USFL, and seeks to divine the part of it that still thrives long after its demise, its legacy might be best summed up in the two elements Hebert discussed: scheming and coaching.

There were, to be sure, some great players in the USFL. And most of them who moved on to (or back to) the NFL after the collapse of the springtime loop remained very good. Some of them enjoyed long careers.

Some of them, like defensive end Reggie White, were superstars.

But as has been the case with every "second" league that has ill-advisedly challenged the NFL's superiority over the years, the residual benefits aren't so much the players who move on. Instead it is the ideas that were hatched, in attempting to gain parity with the most dominant sports entity of this or any other time, which move forward. And the coaches as well.

Without the AFL, for instance, the concept of the "vertical passing attack" might have remained just a concept stuck between the synapses of Al Davis' fertile mind. Hank Stram might have remained a big-time dreamer, but a small-time coach. The moving pocket, the "stacked" defense, bump-and-run coverage might have been ideas that never saw the light of day.

The 1970 merger that ended the bloody and expensive enmity between the AFL and NFL not only provided a lasting peace, but also pieces of the game that have lasted through three decades. Certainly the heritage left behind by the USFL, a league that sometimes seemed more rumor than reality, will not approximate the AFL legacy. But neither should the USFL's contributions to the sport, positive or otherwise, go totally unrecognized.

"It's unlikely the NFL would have opened its doors to (underclass players) as fast had the USFL not signed Herschel Walker (after his junior year)," noted University of Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley, the Bulldogs coach when the school's most legendary player was spirited off by Donald Trump and the New York/New Jersey Generals. "At some point, I'm sure, somebody would have challenged the (NFL's) eligibility rules and won the case. But once the USFL started snatching players off campuses, it kind of changed the landscape, and people had to react."

Notable is that, in every contract the USFL signed with an underclassmen, the deal stipulated that the nascent league would pay for the player to finish his college degree work. Few of them did, according to some former USFL officials, but the concept was at least a good one.

Walker is among many players who moved on to the NFL after the USFL folded and who insist that there was more camaraderie in the junior league. The feeling, Walker and others have suggested, was more collegial. They were, Reggie White recalled, more fraternal because they were the Davids of the time, trying to challenge a Goliath they knew was unbeatable.

Every time you played the (Philadelphia) Stars, they would be running that zone-blitz stuff at you, and it was tough. People hadn't seen it that much before and the linemen would get confused. You'd end up getting just hammered.
Former QB Bobby Hebert, who began his pro career with the USFL's Michigan Panthers

And because of that, players and coaches were more willing to gamble, and inclined to take chances. The trite-and-true, White reasoned recently, would not have played nearly as well with fans or advertisers (what few existed) if it just looked like a watered-down NFL. It would have been easier to clone the NFL than to have created a new product.

But being new and fresh was part of the package.

Jim Bates, now the highly-regarded defensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins, introduced a 4-2-5 scheme while coaching in the USFL. Former NFL head coach June Jones, the man who has resurrected the program at the University of Hawaii, employed the run-and-shoot offense, as did Mouse Davis. Two teams actually used the "wishbone" backfield, albeit briefly, on short-yardage plays.

"Spreading the field like we did, with four wide receivers and throwing all the time in the 'run-and-shoot,' that was kind of radical back then," allowed Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, trigger man for the Houston Gamblers' audacious offense before signing with the Buffalo Bills. "Now you see it all the time in the NFL and not just on third down. People can say whatever they want to (about the USFL), but we tried to be exciting. The coaches had kind of an 'anything goes' attitude, you know?"

Clearly, it's not an 'everything goes' mentality in the more stolid NFL, but many of the coaches who tossed caution to the wind in the USFL have made a very nice transition. Perhaps more than anything else it is the experience and acumen they gained in the USFL, the hands-on professional opportunity they might otherwise not have received, that is the springtime league's most enduring legacy.

The short-lived league produced past and present NFL head coaches such as Jim Mora, Capers, Chris Palmer, Lindy Infante, among others, along with a host of assistants. In fact, for the 2002 season, there were 47 former USFL coaches on NFL staffs. Only six of the 32 franchises did not have a head coach or an assistant with some USFL experience.

"It was like a coaching laboratory for a lot of us," said Mora, who won two of the three USFL titles ever contested. "You had the chance to try out a lot of things that maybe, in a more (staid) setting, you wouldn't have had a shot at doing. I know after 20 years, a lot of people have forgotten the USFL, or would prefer to forget it. But there are a lot of coaches who remember it for what it meant to their careers."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

 More from ESPN...
Garber: In the beginning
The USFL was around for only ...
Rovell: Checks and balances
Steve Ehrhart holds on to ...

Rovell: The USFL collectors
The growing memorabilia ...

Garber: Coaching cradle
The USFL was a breeding ...

USFL: A team-by-team history
A complete look at the best ...

Corso on USFL days
Lee Corso's brief stint as an ...

Len Pasquarelli Archive

 ESPN Tools
Email story
Most sent
Print story
Daily email