Commentary

UFL story: low expectations, high hopes

Can football retreads breathe life into another new pro league? We'll find out soon.

Originally Published: October 6, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

So, as the United Football League kicks off its premiere game Thursday night at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, what exactly do we have here? When the California Redwoods collide with the Las Vegas Locomotives (a fair fight, one would think) will it look more like the NFL -- or the late, not-so-great XFL?

Last week, Jermaine Wiggins, the Florida Tuskers' 34-year-old tight end, was asked this somewhat flippant question: Are the UFL's teams good enough to beat … uh, say, Boise State?

Wiggins, who started Super Bowls for the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers and caught 236 passes in seven NFL seasons, answered with what sounded over the phone like a straight face.

[+] EnlargeJermaine Wiggins
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltJermaine Wiggins played in the NFL, so he knows what the UFL is up against.
"I'd like to think we could beat Boise State," Wiggins said from the Tuskers' training base in Orlando. "This is a very high, competitive level of football. Give us the time to come together as a team, minicamps and a full offseason workout program, and we would be competitive in the NFL. I'm telling you."

Jim Fassel, who coached the New York Giants to Super Bowl XXXV, laughed when Boise State came up in conversation.

"Yeah," the Locos head coach said from Las Vegas, gathering himself. "Knowing what I know about our team, yeah, we could beat Boise State. People forget we're playing with guys from Florida State and the SEC, big schools, and they were stars at those schools.

"The quality of the players we released at the end … it surpassed what I thought we'd end up with. Bill Walsh used to say that at the end of the day, there's not a big difference between the last 15 guys on an NFL roster and the last 15 guys you cut."

UFL literature states that the new league will "offer credible, 11-on-11, outdoor professional football in pro-quality venues." Credible? Could Fassel's Locos compete with some teams in the NFL?

"Yeah," Fassel said, sounding serious. "I believe that."

And so, ready or not, here comes the modest little UFL, looking to feed a need for football that the new league's founders hope is insatiable. Unlike the USFL or XFL before it, the UFL is playing small ball at the outset, hoping that quality supersedes quantity. Low expectations, the reasoning seems to go, are easier to surpass, although Wiggins and Fassel seem to be doing their best to raise that expectation bar even before the first game is played.

The idea from the beginning was to grow the league into whatever the forces of the economy allow it to be. In the early going, those in the league invariably describe themselves as pleasantly surprised.

Fassel reported that one of his Locos players told him, "Wow, this is not a B-league operation at all."

There are four 50-man teams, and three of them are coached by former NFL head coaches; Fassel is joined by Jim Haslett (Tuskers) and Dennis Green (Redwoods). The teams will play a lean six-game regular season, which culminates with the championship game on Nov. 27 right where it starts Thursday: at Sam Boyd Stadium in Vegas. A weekly game will be broadcast on Versus, with Kordell Stewart and Doug Flutie as part of the broadcast team.

After a 10-year playing career with the Bills and Jets, and 16 years in coaching, including six years as the New Orleans Saints head coach, Haslett had the month of August off. He watched his son, Chase, play baseball at Clayton High School in St. Louis, and later drove his freshman daughter, Kelsey, to Clemson.

"It's not a high-stress situation," said Haslett, who said he could have remained in the NFL as an assistant coach. "The No. 1 thing is I'm having fun. We're working with a bunch of guys that were on the street but are pretty good football players, trying to resurrect their careers."

Haslett said more than 1,000 would-be players appeared for a workout in Orlando in August, and he was amazed at how many had NFL experience. The Tuskers signed nine of them.

After the four rosters were finalized last week, the UFL released these statistics:

• 109 of the 200 players (54.5 percent) attended a BCS school.

• 30.5 percent of the players were drafted by the NFL.

• 48 percent of the players have NFL experience and 27.8 percent were drafted in Rounds 1-3.

Michael Huyghue, the architect of the Jacksonville Jaguars franchise, is the league's commissioner. On a late September afternoon, he was on his way to the airport, his "normal M.O.," to throw out the first pitch at a Tampa Bay Rays game with Haslett.

"God, I hope I don't put it on the ground," said Huyghue, who ultimately didn't. "I remember when we opened up the Jaguars in Jacksonville. When we let the fans in, they couldn't use the escalators and elevators because we didn't get the certificate of occupancy permit until an hour before the game. I don't think it will be that bad.

"It's a pretty well completed project, more of a soft launch rather than a tease. Because of the Michael Vick speculation, I was surprised how fast we got a wide-scale endorsement. At the same time, there's healthy skepticism. I think we have a strong product from a football standpoint."

[+] EnlargeJim Fassel
AP Photo/John T. GreilickBased on what Jim Fassel saw in his team's training camp, the quality of football will be high enough.
Huyghue said he isn't sure if the UFL ultimately will prove to be a stand-alone league, a complementary league or a developmental league for the NFL. The idea is to collect the best players available and pay them something more than they'd make on NFL practice squads. Most players will earn between $35,000 and $60,000 for three months of work, with a handful approaching six figures.

One of the league's slogans is "Where future stars come to play." Still, a surprising -- there's that word again -- number of players have familiar names. Florida safety Dexter Jackson was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXVII. He left the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and, eventually, the NFL with a Super Bowl ring and 433 career tackles and 17 interceptions. After Jackson, now 32, was placed on injured reserve by the Cincinnati Bengals, he was released back in March. New York Sentinels defensive end Simeon Rice, 35, was a No. 3 overall draft choice, played a dozen years in the NFL and compiled 122 sacks.

The average age is 26.5, about the same as the current NFL figure of 26.07. Most of them have some sort of unofficial asterisk next to their name, meaning they look a little like damaged goods next to the pros in the big league. Maybe they're straight out of college but didn't have the size or speed to get drafted or invited to an NFL training camp. Some have been injured or cut by one or more NFL teams. At least one failed a substance test.

Players such as Jackson, Rice and Wiggins might have the skill set to make an NFL roster, but the economics of the game sometimes works against veterans. Because of their experience, their minimum salaries would be in the $800,000-$900,000 range. Teams would rather pay a less experienced player one-third to one-half that amount.

Peter Warrick, once a legitimate receiver in the NFL, was cut by California.

One of the quarterbacks on the Locos' roster is Tim Rattay, who played 40 games for the 49ers, Cardinals, Bucs and Titans -- and he's the backup. The starter? J.P. Losman, who was drafted No. 22 overall in the 2004 draft by the Buffalo Bills. He played there for five seasons.

"Holy smokes, Losman's an outstanding player," Fassel said. "He was offered a backup contract to play in the NFL, but he's doing the right thing to play here and re-establish himself. With some of these [NFL] teams struggling with the quarterback position, I can't imagine that he couldn't start for them. No question in my mind."

[+] EnlargeJ.P. Losman
AP Photo/David DupreJ.P. Losman brings five seasons of experience with the Bills to his new team, the Locomotives.
Nearly all of the players, young and old, are sustained by the notion that a good performance in the UFL might impress the NFL. If nothing else, the UFL is fashionably green, committed to recycling; all players will be permitted to sign with NFL teams after the final game.

When he wasn't picked up by an NFL team for this season, Brooks Bollinger -- briefly Tony Romo's backup in Dallas last year -- joined the Florida franchise two weeks ago.

It isn't a typical league. There is a single general manager -- Rick Mueller, who built six playoff teams in the NFL -- and the teams operate in the spirit of socialized health care.

"Our goal is to make this thing last, so we've been helping each other," explained Haslett. "New York needed help at wide receiver, so we sent some up. I gave California a few names because they were looking for offensive linemen."

Beyond the question of competitive level, the other thing skeptics wonder is why a professional league would launch in the middle of one of the worst economic climates in our nation's history. Fassel was one of them.

"I can see it now," he said. "The top ticket is $40 and you can get a family of four in for $60. That's pretty affordable.

"I think starting with four teams is a blessing in disguise. Imagine trying to start up 10, 12 teams all at once -- that would be a huge undertaking. It's like trying to build 1,000 McDonald's all at once. You're better off starting small and letting it grow naturally.

"I think this thing is going to grow. I told my guys, 'When you run out there, you're going to make history.' I think the league's going to go."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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