Daryl Johnston is used to making history. As the Dallas Cowboys fullback, Johnston helped Emmitt Smith become the NFL’s all-time career rushing leader. He was a key member of a Cowboys team that won three tiles in a four-year span.
Johnston, over two decades removed from his last NFL game, is helping make history again. The USFL’s executive vice president of football operations, Johnston has played an integral role in the league’s inaugural season. He’s proud of many of the things the league has accomplished so far, specifically one thing that may be overlooked.
“Finishing the regular season,” Johnston said in an interview with CBS Sports. “It’s been a long time since one of the spring alternative leagues has pulled that off. A lot of hard work by a lot of great people. We told everybody we’re going to be just like the teams in our league. We’re not going to be at our best in Week 1. We want to be at our best as we finish the regular season and head into the playoffs, and I think we’ve done that. We’ve learned a lot.”
Being adaptable and responding quickly to feedback — from the league’s teams as well as the viewing audience — was one of the USFL’s main strengths during the regular season. One of the biggest in-season changes the league made was implementing a running clock in an effort to speed up the game. Another notable change was implemented last weekend, the final week of the regular season. With two 1-8 teams prepared to face each other, Johnston announced that the winner of the game would receive the first overall pick in next year’s draft, adding intrigue and stakes to a game between the league’s bottom two teams.
“I think one of the great things we’ve done is we’ve adjusted on the fly when there’s been things that we could do that would be best for the league,” Johnston said. “We’ve done it for players when there was something that we felt would be best for our players. … I think the best thing for us during the course of the season was that we were always reacting in the moment. There were certain things that we had to do in real time. I’m not going to say we were perfect, but that’s one of the things I was really proud of.”
The USFL season started out with a bang, as the Birmingham Stallions and New Jersey Generals staged a highly competitive game in front of a prime-time audience. Excitement continued throughout the season, with one of the main storylines being the Stallions’ 8-0 start. New stars also emerged, none bigger than Generals receiver KaVontae Turpin, who was named the league’s MVP earlier this week.
The Stallions and Generals represent half of the field that will partake in the USFL’s postseason, which will kick off this Saturday with games between the Generals and the Philadelphia Stars and the Stallions taking on the New Orleans Breakers.
Johnston is anticipating two exciting, tightly contested contests. In the game pitting the Generals against the Stars, Johnston believes that the outcome could come down to how much success Offensive Player of the Year Darius Victor and New York’s running game can have against Philadelphia’s stout defensive front. For Saturday’s nightcap, Johnston feels that the Breakers are capable of upsetting the Stallions after coming up just short in both of their regular-season meetings.
The USFL’s postseason will take place inside Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, which sits just a short walk away from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The winners of Saturdays games will meet in the USFL Championship Game, which will be played on July 3.
“I don’t think you could have scripted something better for Year 1,” Johnston said. “Very, very competitive games all season long, then to finish the regular season and go to Canton for the playoffs. That’s like a fairy tale. I’m thrilled, and I know there’s a lot of guys that are going to be there this weekend that have never been. It’s one of the things that we wanted to do as a league is to make sure they got to experience the Hall of Fame. See the guys who’ve come before them who built this game, sacrificed a lot so they can have what they have today.”