Would-be NFL Lockout Alternatives: Michigan Panthers


The NFL draft was the last thing we had to look forward to with any certainty. The anticipation of future events is now based on what we hope to happen or what could happen due to the uncertainty of the NFL labor situation. Take this current situation and place it back 28 years and we might not care as much.

Sure, the NFL was still king in 1983 but we would have had a lot more to do football-wise than keep up with the latest court proceedings and wonder about which school current high school juniors might eventually pick. In 1983 we would have been able to talk about the USFL playoff picture and how remarkable our Michigan Panthers’ turnaround has been since their 1-4 start.

In a city where professional football has become known for its futility on the field, the Panthers could be considered the most successful USFL’s most successful franchise. The inaugural USFL season ended with the Michigan Panthers defeating the Philadelphia Stars for the league championship in front of over 50,000 fans at Mile High Stadium in Denver. The Panthers drew just over 22,000 fans to the Pontiac Silverdome as an average during the 1983 season but over 60,000 were on hand to see the Panthers clinch a spot in the 1983 title game with a 37-21 win over the Oakland Invaders.

Expectations were high entering the 1984 season but the team struggled after Anthony Carter was lost for the season due to a broken arm. The strength of their 6-0 start to the season allowed the Panthers to be in position to secure another playoff bid with wins in the final two weeks of the regular season, a feat they accomplished. Their reward was a playoff game with the Los Angeles Express in which the teams battled into a third overtime. The Express would eventually win what remains the longest professional football game ever played; it would also be the last game in Michigan Panthers history.

A USFL power-struggle had been going on between those that wanted to keep a Spring schedule with those (like Donald Trump) that wanted to move to a Fall schedule to compete head-to-head with the NFL. The decision to move to a Fall schedule in 1986 led to a merger of the Oakland Invaders and the Michigan Panthers prior to the 1985 season that took the Panthers name out of the USFL and a franchise out of Michigan. The Invaders finished the 1985 season as division champions before losing in the USFL Championship Game.

The USFL never played that Fall schedule in 1986 because the league folded after the 1985 season.

In the absence of a fully functioning time machine, we’ll have to settle for youtube to bring back some of the memories (for our more seasoned readers) or to get a glimpse of what USFL football was like in Michigan. I’d love to hear from some Panthers fans if there are any that remain out there. Another possible topic to comment on is a suggested name for a would-be Michigan Panthers blog.

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Tags: Detroit Lions Lockout Michigan Panthers NFL USFL

  • Gun-totin-wacko

    Love the Panthers! I’ve tried to find official jerseys, but no dice.

    I can’t help but think that moving to a fall schedule was the fatal mistake. They might still be around today if they had listened to the Taubmans and continued in the spring.

    • http://sidelionreport.com/ Zac Snyder

      I had a lot of fun putting this post together because I lack the personal memories of the Panthers. I’m young enough that the only reason I was aware of the USFL was because the back of a lot of football cards I collected included those stats. Part of me still finds it hard to believe another “major” professional football league existed in my lifetime (albeit the very early part of it).

  • Gun-totin-wacko

    To be honest though, I doubt they’d still be around: There’s a great book called “First down and a billion” by Gene Klein, former owner of the Chargers. He talks about when he first bought the team, in the 1960s. He said that, based on his research before writing the check, he looked at it as buying an NFL team, because he said there was no way the AFL and the NFL could continue to compete for players.

    Look at the talent the USFL got the first year or two, and the same thing seems to hold true- anytime a brand new league can sign Walker, Young, Carter, Kelly and so on; the NFL would have had to start writing gigantic checks for players… and so would the USFL. At some point, they’d have had to make peace, and probably merge.

    But it sure is nice to dream… almost as nice as it was to sit in front of a tv watching a Detroit football team win it all!