USFL Week 4 Preview: Stallions Defend Home from Bandits
USFL - Week 4 sees the USFL complete its first circuit of divisional games. After Sunday's contest, each divisional opponent will have played each other one time, and we'll get a good snapshot of just where each division is a month into the season. It makes for an interesting rest point, a place where we can stop and get an even snapshot of the league's playoff races where every team is equally balanced. Honestly, it would be interesting if the NFL stole this idea one of these years, having two three-week blocks with all the divisional games in them so those races would have a midway checkpoint. In a league with actual rivalries, October being "divisional month" or something would be something you could brand. The USFL isn't there yet, but I have to give credit where credit is due: this is a good idea.
Also credit where credit is due? The USFL didn't lose viewers this week!
While we won't get ratings for the Peacock game, the USFL went head-to-head against the NFL draft and didn't get destroyed. The FOX game during the draft, Bandits-Gamblers, averaged 825,000 viewers. The primetime game on FOX, featuring a battle between the undefeated Stallions and Breakers, hit 1.1 million. That's a 5% increase from Week 2, with an extra 100,000 viewers tuning in to Saturday's matchups compared to the network games the week before. Sunday's USA matchup, a blowout featuring the worst team in the league on a cable channel, fell to 292,000 viewers from 360,000 viewers the week before, but I don't think "we didn't hold viewers during an ugly blowout" is cause for massive concern.
There's a half-full, half-empty way of looking at this. The half-empty approach is that, well, the league is hovering at 1 million viewers for the best possible matchup they had in the best possible timeslot. The XFL's network broadcasts never dipped below 1.5 million viewers, and even their cable viewers only fell below 1 million during their final week. The half-full approach is that the XFL lost viewers every single week. They never stayed even, and certainly never increased. The USFL took a punch in the nose, losing more than half their audience after Week 1, but people who stuck around after one week stuck around again. That's huge. If they can sustain a million viewers a week, viewers who keep tuning in on a regular basis, that is absolutely a core fanbase you can build off of for Year 2 and forward.
It's not the 2.5 million viewers the USFL originally promised their advertisers, but FOX executives seem publicly pleased at any rate. Executive VP Mike Mulvihill has given several interviews (and a Twitter thread) comparing the USFL's numbers to Formula 1, Sunday Night Baseball, and the NHL, saying that the league is trying to position itself in that sort of category. A million viewers a week for your top game is right there alongside those other leagues. We'll see if the USFL can keep its viewership going forward, but they have to like going head-to-head with the draft and coming out clean.
If I can make one suggestion, however, it's that the league find a schedule and stick with it.
If you want to watch an NFL game, you know when they will be broadcast. There's a Thursday night game, two windows at the same time every Sunday, a Sunday night game, and a Monday night game. These games are mostly on the same channels, week after week. Even if you don't know thing one about the schedule, you know you can tune in on any random football week and find an NFL game. And when there are deviations due to holidays or whatnot, the NFL advertises the heck out of them.
This is not true for the USFL. We're in Week 4, and we already have our fourth different schedule of games:
- Week 1 saw a FOX/NBC simulcast on 7:30 p.m. Saturday night and a planned tripleheader on Sunday on NBC, USA, and FS1.
- Week 2 saw an 8 p.m. Friday kickoff on USA, a noon Saturday game on FOX, a Saturday night game on FS1, and a 3 p.m. Sunday game on NBC.
- Week 3 saw a 4 p.m./8 p.m. Saturday doubleheader on FOX, a 2:30 Sunday game on USA, and an 8 p.m. Sunday game on Peacock.
And now Week 4 kicks off with a game at 10 p.m. on Friday on FS1, a 2:30 Saturday game on Peacock, a 7 p.m. Saturday game on FOX, and a 3 p.m. Sunday game on NBC. There has not yet been one timeslot with games on consecutive weeks, and there won't be in Week 5, either. The USFL is being smart by moving all Birmingham games into prime slots so they can broadcast games with crowds, but it would be really helpful if people knew what slots exactly they could expect to see football. The fact that the USFL has kept a million viewers despite sliding all over the schedule is actually fairly impressive.
Thursday Afternoon Update - A Matter of Bad Timing
News broke Thursday the USFL is altering a key rule -- important enough to cover, but not so important as to scrap everything I had written before, and thus you get this awkward bonus section!
USFL head of officiating Mike Pereira announced that the league was moving to a running clock after incomplete passes, but only in the first and third quarters. The stated goals are to keep games under three hours and to "maximize fan enjoyment". OK. Sure. Let's break that down a bit.
There's nothing wrong with a running clock. The XFL had a continuously running clock until the two-minute warning and Arena football nearly always has a running clock. Especially in leagues where you're going to get more incomplete passes than normal, keeping things moving is a good idea.
But the problem here is that these timing rules are usually baked in from the beginning, and tied in with the rest of the league's timing rules. The XFL, for instance, always had a 25-second play clock to make up for the fact that a running clock would produce fewer plays. And then, to make up for the fact the play clock was faster, they had one-way radios in all offensive players' helmets, so plays could be radioed in directly from the sideline, eliminating the need to huddle. There's a connectivity and flow to the decisions. They wanted to have less dead ball time, which required fewer clock stoppages, which meant that there would be less time for plays, which they solved with a shorter play clock, which mean there'd be less time to call plays, which they solved with the helmet radios. Whether it worked or not is a matter of opinion, but it felt thought through and intentional.
This feels neither thought through nor intentional. Changing the timing rules of your sport halfway through the season is an odd look. Changing the game clock rules without changing any of the other timing rules seems ripe for causing unintended consequences. And there's no explanation as to why the new timing rules only apply to the first and third quarters. Yes, if you're going to have different timing rules for only two quarters, the first and third are the logical choices. But why two quarters, instead of four? Or instead of zero? Why make this change now? Why not wait until the first round of divisional matchups are over, so they were all played with the same rules? Why wasn't this change considered before the season started, and what made it clear that something had to happen right this second? In his announcement video, Pereira said that the USFL is providing unprecedented access, but this is a real black box decision.
I feel that the USFL's biggest problem, to this point, is how unprepared and unprofessional it has appeared. It really has the feeling of a product that was rushed to market to beat the XFL's return next season, and as a result, there are a lot more kinks and hitches than either the AAF or XFL had in their abbreviated seasons. From the ongoing trademark lawsuit questioning whether the USFL has the rights to even use any of their IP, to shuffling games around due to a lack of fans in the stands, to the issues with poorly balanced footballs, and now altering the timing rules midseason, it really feels like we're watching a beta version of what the league could or should be; these are issues that should and could have been resolved before kickoff ever happened. It really makes the league look unprofessional and second-rate.
And I really, really have to take issue with "maximize fan enjoyment" here. Making games go quicker is good for a minor league, and making it less of a time commitment is good for the fans. But it's telling that their solution to "games are going over three hours and falling out of our intended timeslot" was to...lessen the amount of football that's actually being played. Not to cut into pregame stuff, not to remove some commercials, not to shorten halftime, but to make the game clock out faster. It's a reminder that this league is being funded by FOX as a made-for-TV program. They want their live sports, but they don't want the risk that comes with live coverage that something might upset their programming schedules. This rule change feels very cynical to me.
Anyway, back to the now-abbreviated football action!
Stars (1-2) v. Panthers (1-2)
Line: Panthers -1
Friday, 10 p.m., FS1
This game should, by our numbers, feature the best defense in the league against the league's best passing attack. However, injuries might make this less competitive than one might hope.
Jeff Fisher's Panthers finally got into the win column last week, albeit only against the hapless Maulers. Still, a win is a win is a win, and the Panthers' defense has been impressive this season even before they blanked the Maulers 24-0. They limited the Maulers to 228 yards of offense on 53 plays, but even before that, they were second in the league in points and yards allowed. They determined that no, the Maulers did not get to play football on Sunday, to a level beyond what the other two Maulers opponents were able to do.
Now, the Maulers' offensive strategy is "run straight at the defender," so we'll see how the Panthers adjust to a team that actually realizes that you can move the football through the air. They certainly don't see that in practice. While we don't know yet if Paxton Lynch or Shea Patterson will be starting, it probably doesn't matter. The two combined for 72 passing yards last week, which is terrible. I think Lynch gives the Panthers a better chance to win this point if healthy; first-overall pick Patterson has yet to show anything through three weeks. Monitor Lynch's ankle injury to see which quarterback will be handing the ball off to Reggie Corbin and the rest of the Panthers' three-headed backfield. The Stars allow more rushing yards per game than any other team, so while another 244-yard rushing day seems unlikely, the Panthers may well roll over the Stars if they get out to a lead.
The Stars, meanwhile, do one thing well, but they do it very well. They can't play defense; they allow the most yards per game. They can't run the ball; they're averaging a league-low 3.2 yards per carry. They can't protect the passer, giving up 11 sacks when no one else in the league has given up more than eight. But damn it, they can pass the dang ball, as Bryan Scott is the best quarterback in the league so far. He's the only USFL quarterback completing more than 70% of his passes, and his 6.6 yards per attempt are second-most in the league. Even as the receivers have gotten banged up, Scott has continued to deliver, going from Devin Gray and Maurice Alexander to Jordan Suell and Diondre Overton. His production seems to be receiver-independent, which is a good sign for a developmental passer.
The problem? Now Scott's hurt too. He has been taking a beating back there behind Philadelphia's Swiss cheese line, and he had to leave last week's game with a knee injury. And that may well be it for Scott's season; he's left Birmingham to address his injury, adding that he's going to do everything he can to make it back this season. That means Case Cookus is the quarterback the rest of the way for the Stars. Cookus was OK in relief, honestly, but Scott's the engine behind the Stars. Without him, it's very difficult for me to see the Stars coming out on top in this one. Panthers 22, Stars 17.
Generals (2-1) v. Maulers (0-3)
Line: Generals (-9)
Saturday, 2:30 p.m., Peacock
The Generals are third in our USFL rankings, a fairly clear favorite in the North so far. They have the best rushing attack in the league, running a read-option attack when De'Andre Johnson is playing during their quarterback platoon. Their 5.0 yards per carry is a little inflated from getting to play some subpar defenses, but it's hard to argue with a team that's averaging over 200 yards on the ground per game. Last week, they had one stretch where they ran the ball 23 out of 26 plays, and the Stars simply could not get off the field. The Generals are not as good when trailing, because they sub out Johnson for Luis Perez when they need to air the ball out, and Perez's passing is better than Johnson's passing, but not better than Johnson's running. The Generals are in their ultimate form when Johnson, Trey Williams, and Darius Victor are grinding defensive souls into dust.
I question how much success the Generals will have when they face some of the more effective offenses in the league; their one loss this season came when they tried to keep up with Birmingham on opening night. Fortunately for them, we won't find out this week, as the Maulers are terrible. Like the Generals, the Maulers are a run-first, run-second attack. Unlike the Generals, the Maulers show no creativity or spark in their rushing attack whatsoever. The Generals run read-option, they have a plethora of backs with different skills, they hand the ball off to their wide receivers because not even the USFL is free of the urge to find the next Deebo Samuel. The Maulers run the ball into the line. Again. And again. And again. Their idea of variety is to sometimes do it with a fullback instead of a running back. They're platooning Josh Love and Kyle Lauletta and occasionally, once in a blue moon, Love gives them a spark—he's averaging 6.0 yards per pass compared to Lauletta's 2.2, and no, that is not a typo. But even when the Maulers do bust out a big play, it's back to "run into the line, run into the line, screen pass that goes nowhere, punt."
The Maulers are bad, is what I'm saying here, and as I have had to sit through all their games so far, I think I deserve some sort of medal. Generals 31, Maulers 3.
Bandits (2-1) v. Stallions (3-0)
Line: Stallions (-3.5)
Saturday, 7 p.m., FOX
Most people would call this the game of the week, which is one reason FOX made sure to schedule it in prime time on Saturday. Our numbers, strangely, don't like the Bandits nearly as much as subjective rankings do.
CBS has the Bandits in fourth place in their power rankings, thanks to a Jordan Ta'amu-led comeback over the Gamblers last week. Ta'amu, for the first time really in the USFL, looked like the quarterback who was atop the XFL in 2020. With the St. Louis BattleHawks, Ta'amu was a 70% passer averaging 8.0 yards per attempt. With the Bandits, Ta'amu has completed 52.1% of his passes and just 5.3 yards per attempt, with two touchdowns and four interceptions. Admittedly, a third of his games have come against the stingy Breakers defense, but Ta'amu still had not played up to the level we have seen him play in other spring league until the second half against the Gamblers.
So maybe the Bandits would be higher in our rankings if we had some sort of DAVE equivalent; a preseason projection to help wring out the small sample size. As it is, the Bandits lost by 31 points to the Breakers and only beat the pitiful Maulers by 14; they have been outscored despite their winning record. And you can argue the Bandits played better last week than the scoreboard would even indicate. They lost out on a 50-yard pass play when pass interference was just ignored by the officials; they had a dropped touchdown pass in the end zone; they fumbled just outside the goal line. Polish some of that up, and the Bandits would have results better befitting their preseason odds and their player's pedigrees.
The Stallions, meanwhile, are riding high, winning the USFL's battle of the unbeatens. They did this despite quarterback J'Mar Smith struggling for three quarters—struggling enough that there's a chance we might see the return of opening day starter Alex McGough when he gets healthy. But Birmingham is talented enough to overcome an off day by one player. The defense showed up for the first time all season, with Scooby Wright flying around the field. And Victor Bolden is living up to his status as the top receiver picked in the league, with opposing defenses now just blatantly interfering with him to try to stop him from making big plays—he's the league leader with 526 all-purpose yards, top-three as a receiver and No. 1 as a kick returner. He may well be punching his ticket back to the NFL after a brief stint as the 49ers' returner in 2017.
If the Stallions can match their defense from last week with their offense from the first two weeks, I'm not sure anyone will be able to beat them. I'd like to see them play a complete game on both sides of the ball before anointing them undisputed favorites, and it would be really nice if they could put someone away before the fourth quarter one of these weeks. Well, maybe not for the thousands of fans who actually turn up for their games, but for, you know, our numbers and whatnot. Three one-score wins in a row (remember, nine-points is a one-score win in the USFL!) is a fragile way to be undefeated.
I think the Stallions' one-game offensive decline was more due to playing the Breakers than anything else, while their defensive performance was a sign of things to come. If so, they should be able to handle a Bandits squad which has not yet put everything together. Stallions 27, Bandits 17.
Gamblers (1-2) v. Breakers (2-1)
Line: Breakers -5
Sunday, 3 p.m., NBC
The Breakers led the Stallions in the fourth quarter in the battle of the unbeatens; there's no shame in losing a game to the other best team in the league. They'll get another crack at them in Week 8—and, as things currently stand, likely a third crack at them in the semifinals at the end of June. That one will be interesting, because they presumably won't have a partisan Birmingham crowd in Canton, where the postseason is being held, so even if the Breakers end up losing both Stallions games this season, that may not end up meaning anything if the Stallions really are getting a boost from a Birmingham homefield advantage.
Of course, to get there, the Breakers need to keep winning. We're keeping an eye on Kyle Sloter's health; he has been banged up with a torn groin but still threw 47 passes last week. With Bryan Scott getting hurt for the Stars, Sloter has taken over as the league's leading passer in terms of yardage, but he clearly wasn't 100% against Birmingham, short-arming some passes and in clear pain at points. That may mean the Gamblers have come at just the right time for Sloter; they allow the most passing yards per game with the second-fewest passes defended. If you're looking for a get-healthy game, the Gambler's so-called secondary is a good one to get healthy against.
Living up to their name, Gamblers live and die by the big play on both sides of the ball. Yes, they allow more passing yards than anyone else, but they're tied for the league lead with seven takeaways … and also for the league lead with five interceptions thrown by their offense. They have the sack leader in Chris Odom, too, so the average pass attempt against the Gamblers is usually a big play of some description. The offensive line allows Mark Thompson to get hit early and often … but he's still the league leader in rushing, averaging nearly 5 yards after contact. They're only completing 52% of their passes, but their 11.8 yards per completion is second in the league behind only the Stallions.
In short, no, the Gamblers are not a good team. But they're a fun team. And with their games averaging a league-high 47.7 combined points, and none of them decided by more than five points, here's to more fun, entertaining losses. Breakers 24, Gamblers 17.