USFL Week 2 Preview: Rivalry Week
USFL - Week 2 of the USFL approaches—rivalry week! Before the season, the networks assigned a rival to each team, and scheduled all the rivals meet each other in Weeks 2 and 9. So finally, we'll get an answer to the age-old question of which is the best state in the union, Michigan or New Jersey! And, of course, they'll settle that debate in Birmingham, Alabama, the scientifically chosen neutral point between the two states.
On a more serious note, Week 2 will allow us to get a better understanding of the state of the league. With two games under their belts, we can start actually doing some analysis to figure out which teams in the league are good and which are floundering their way through the season. With only one game so far and no interconnectivity, it's hard to say if a team is good because they're actually good, or if their opponents are just terrible. While we're not measuring USFL DVOA for this season, in part due to access issues and in part due to the workload of writing Football Outsiders Almanac at the same time, once we have two weeks in the books, we can start looking at Simple Rating System and Beatwins and start analyzing the league in a more critical way. We'll also get some separation in the divisions—in Week 1, all the South teams beat all the North teams, so we have four-way ties at 1-0 and 0-1, respectively.
We'll also begin to see if the league can start correcting its own mistakes. The Week 1 broadcasts had issues with announcers talking over mic'd-up players, nauseating drone cam shots, and ill-timed helmet cam clips. They're like chefs who have discovered the wonders of a new spice and use it on literally everything. We'll see if they can figure out how to use their new technical toys to enhance a broadcast rather than swamp it.
We'll also see if they can understand how footballs physically work. One of the big controversies coming out of Week 1 was the aerodynamics of the USFL ball, with kickers, punters, and quarterbacks complaining that it's throwing them off. See, the USFL has placed chips in all the balls to automatically measure first downs, eliminating the need for chains. Reportedly, these are pretty substantially sized pieces of equipment—the NFL has chips about the size of your thumbnail in their ball, while the USFL has five-ounce, golf ball-sized units. Well, the problem there is that the weight isn't evenly distributed, which means it will throw off a quarterback's spiral and affect the path of the ball in flight. These chips were apparently not used in training camp, because computer chips are expensive and buying a bag of balls from the local sporting goods store is not, but now that they're in play, they're causing problems. In Week 1, kickers were just 3-for-10 on field goals, and while some of that will be from sub-NFL quality play, some of that is the fact that the dang ball doesn't fly straight. There haven't been any public complaints from players … because USFL contracts don't allow that. You can be found in breach of contract and cut if you speak out publicly on league issues. But the grumbling is there, and another week of terrible kicking might force the league to admit that, hey, chains are pretty useful for a number of reasons. Or at least to implement new kicking balls.
Or maybe coaches will figure out that they can't kick field goals and go for it more on fourth dow... I can't even finish that sentence.
Finally, we'll begin to see if this league can actually survive. The opening game featuring the hometown Stallions drew approximately 17,500 fans and 3.07 million viewers across NBC and FOX. Those are respectable numbers that can sustain a league, though it should be noted that the viewership is less than the AAF's one network-broadcast game or the first three weeks of XFL broadcasts in 2020. The other three games were significantly worse. The other NBC game on Sunday drew 2.15 million viewers, and the combined attendance of the other three games has to be less than 1,000 total fans, though they haven't released any official numbers.
The USFL has the same problem they have had this entire leadup period—they have to get people to actually care about the league. The XFL succeeded in places, drawing over 20,000 fans a week in hotspots such as St. Louis and Seattle. But it seems unlikely that Birmingham, a metropolitan area with about 1.1 million people in it, can support eight teams at even respectable minor league levels. And the fewer people in the stands, the less important games will seem in the long run. Sunday's games looked and felt unimportant. And while the play was no worse than early XFL games, the XFL felt more relevant because of raucous crowds and leaning into personalities and on-field engagement during the broadcast to augment the play on the field. People will go watch Minor League Baseball because of the atmosphere of the games. The USFL needs to find some way to create that atmosphere when Birmingham isn't playing.
But, you might say, that doesn't matter for 2022—they're expecting attendance to be horrible until they move teams to play in the cities they pretend to represent. It's a TV product, and it's a gambling product first and foremost. It feels a bit cynical, like the league was formed not because people really like football and want to see more of it, but because sports gambling is gradually being legalized across the nation and people wanted a piece of that. But that's not working yet either. Week 1 lines weren't legally available in New York, Indiana, or West Virginia, among others, and chatter amongst gamblers online was far more focused on the NBA playoffs. It turns out that if you have money on the line, you prefer to bet on players you have heard of in a sport with a track record, rather than trying to figure out who the heck Bryan Scott is.
All of these issues can be solved. And it has only been one week. But the path to fixing these problems and ensuring a long-term future for this league starts now.
Panthers (0-1) v. Generals (0-1)
Odds: Generals -1.5
Friday, 8 p.m., USA
The Northern Duel! I would really, really appreciate it if anyone in the comments could give us a reason to care about Michigan versus New Jersey as a concept, rather than just "these were the two teams left over."
The Panthers nearly managed a comeback in their Week 1 matchup against the Gamblers. Shea Patterson suffered turnovers early, but settled down late and very nearly rallied Michigan to a win. They lead the league, converting 42.9% of their third downs, they have the second-most first downs in the league, and they have a legitimate one-two punch at running back in Stevie Scott and Cameron Scarlett. There was a lot to like in their loss.
The problem is, the Generals also had a lot to like in their loss during the season opener. They were leading until the final drive, when a facemask penalty gave the Stallions the opportunity they needed to pull out the victory. They're running a dual-quarterback system to some effect. Luis Perez is the passer, the only one in the league to have two passing touchdowns in Week 1 and leading (qualified) players in completion percentage and quarterback rating. They also have the league's leading receiver in Randy Satterfield. The other quarterback, De'Andre Johnson, actually leads the entire league with 98 rushing yards at the moment, and their 223 rushing yards and 409 total yards in Week 1 lead the league as well. Maybe that's indicative of the Stallions defense, but the Generals' offense was clicking early.
The winner of this game will likely be the favorites in the North, even though they'll just be tied atop the division at 1-1. This is my choice for Game of the Week. Panthers 23, Generals 16.
Maulers (0-1) v. Stars (0-1)
Odds: Stars -7
Saturday, 12 p.m., FOX
The Keystone State Battle! This should be the flagship rivalry of the USFL, as it's the only one between two teams that are pretending to play in the same state as one another, but only one team has actually shown up to the league so far.
The Maulers were, without a doubt, the worst team in Week 1. Embarrassingly so. Maulers coach Kirby Wilson was the least-qualified coach in the new league, having served only as a running backs coach at the professional level, and it showed on the field. They averaged 2.8 yards per rush, second-worst in the league. They averaged 3.7 yards per pass, worst in the league—and failed to hit even 100 yards passing despite being down the entire game. They're the only team in the USFL that failed to score a touchdown. And the play calling was abysmal. It was like Wilson was stuck with a playbook consisting of only halfback dives, with constant running on third-and-long out of the I formation. Seven teams looked like minor league squads who had practiced together for less than a month. The Maulers looked like they had never even seen a football before the game.
And the Maulers have the biggest controversy off the field as well, with the story about De'Veon Smith being cut for asking for pizza instead of chicken salad being the most viral thing to come out of the USFL instead of Week 1.
Bro got cut by a USFL team for ordering pizza instead of a chicken salad??? lmaoooo pic.twitter.com/Vo7n7HD0PU
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) April 18, 2022
This is a really, really bad look for Wilson, the Maulers, and the USFL. Now, to be fair, Wilson has stated in a press release that there was a pattern of behavior that led to Smith getting cut, and that the footage was taken out of context. That may be true, but the footage is from United By Football, which is FOX's attempt to do a Hard Knocks for the league. That means league officials saw this footage and said yes, this is something we want to show people, and we think it stands on its own and represents what we want people to think about us. Astonishing.
The Stars moved the ball well in Week 1, with Bryan Scott leading the league with 206 passing yards. I believe they also led the league in time of possession, though the official USFL site doesn't include those stats. But costly turnovers, an inability to get the running game going, and some defensive lapses led to a Breakers win. The Maulers should provide less strenuous opposition. Stars 17, Maulers 13.
Stallions (1-0) v. Gamblers (1-0)
Odds: Stallions -3
Saturday, 7 p.m., FS1
The Double Down Derby! You would think Houston would be better paired with New Orleans as a rival rather than Birmingham, but something something gambling and horse racing and sure, why not? It's at least a better fit than the North's leftover matchup.
The hometown Stallions saw quarterback J'Mar Smith named Offensive Player of the Week, rushing for a touchdown with 23 seconds left to give Birmingham the inaugural league victory. He has likely taken the starting job away from Alex McGough, though expect to see a little of both quarterbacks as teams figure all this out. Birmingham does seem to have a functional passing game, with Osirus Mitchell making big catches for both quarterbacks. The running game isn't there yet, but you should see some aerial fireworks.
The Gamblers are not much for fireworks. Clayton Thorson dinked-and-dunked his way to a lot of safety ball, ironically; no big risks. But what the Gamblers did manage was a ball-hawking defense. They lead the league with a +2 turnover margin, with an interception and two fumbles helping them jump out to an early lead over the Generals before the clung on for dear life to squeak out a win. They'll likely need some more big plays out of their defense to get to 2-0, because their offense has not shown much of a spark quite yet. If they let Birmingham's weapons get going in front of a partisan crowd, they're going to have issues. Stallions 24, Gamblers 22.
Breakers (1-0) v. Bandits (1-0)
Odds: Bandits -2.5
Sunday, 3 p.m., NBC
The Breaker Bay Brawl! Tampa Bay and New Orleans do have football-related history, if only since the NFC South was formed in 2002, so the rivalry makes a bit of sense. Not quite as much as the all-Pennsylvania matchup, but more than good enough for our purposes here.
Early power ratings tend to have the Breakers and Bandits atop the league, with both coming off of impressive victories in Week 1. I think both teams might be being slightly overrated, however. The Bandits throttled the Maulers, but it really does feel like that was more about the Maulers being terrible than it was Todd Haley's version of Bandit Ball cruising. Jordan Ta'amu threw a pair of interceptions and they managed just 2.1 yards per rush, worst in the league. Their defense looked very impressive, mind you, but I think that's more to do with the Maulers terrible play calling than anything else. We'll find out more this week.
The Breakers also may be a little inflated from getting to take advantage of what appears to be a shoddy Stars' offensive line, but I think their performance holds up better in a vacuum. Devin Bellamy was the inaugural Defensive Player of the Week with three sacks and Vontae Diggs had a pick, but the Stars were also able to throw on the Breakers defense when big plays weren't happening. I do have more faith in the Breakers offense at the moment, though; Kyle Sloter was moderately efficient, while Jordan Ellis and T.J. Logan led them to 4.4 yards per carry. Again, it can be so hard to judge these teams when they have only played one game, but the Breakers did a better job passing the eye test for me, despite the Bandits having the bigger win. Breakers 27, Bandits 21.