USFL Week 4 Recap: Jeff Fisher Strikes Again
USFL - Week 4 in the USFL is over, and with it, we saw some of the uglier football the league has had to offer to date. Not always boring football, mind you, but probably the lowest quality collection of games the league has had to offer in its short existence.
Injuries have begun to pile up for teams, and the 38-man rosters mean that there haven't always been backups to replace the wounded. That led to multiple players playing through injuries, including two quarterbacks, with no healthy replacements available to come in for them. We had a COVID outbreak bench a starting quarterback with no notice from the league in advance. Playing DFS was very, very tough this week, as quite a few of the league's best players were surprise scratches. That's going to hurt quality of play.
We also saw less football. The USFL's new timing rules meant that play in the first and third quarters were severely curtailed—there were only two drives in the first quarter of Stars-Panthers! Through the first three weeks, USFL games averaged 121 snaps. That fell to 107 snaps in Week 4, basically costing us a drive or two per team per game as the clocks continued to run after incomplete passes—and this being the USFL, there were plenty of incomplete passes. This led to the least amount of scoring since Week 1.
That being said, at least half the games were interesting this week, which matters more than the crispest, highest-quality play. And we have reached two important milestones now. Week 5 will see the USFL match the XFL's tenure, and there's no sign of this league being cancelled. We have also reached the end of the first round of divisional games, so we can come up with a pretty clear playoff picture!
First, here's the updated SRS and EVOA (estimated DVOA) rankings:
|2022 USFL Rankings, Week 4|
And here's how the divisions stand:
In the North, the 3-1 Generals have swept the division, winning their last three games by an average score of 18-12. Though it stumbled this week, their dual-quarterback system has mostly been clicking, and they have been simply running over their opponents. To make matters better, they have already played the Stallions, so they don't have to face the league's one undefeated team during this upcoming slate of interdivisional games. They should cruise to one of the two playoff spots without much hassle; there's no real difference between No. 1 and No. 2 with everything happening at neutral sites.
The 0-4 Maulers are toast, which leaves an interesting race between the 2-2 Stars and the 1-3 Panthers. The Stars did just get the win over the Panthers, but in a wacky, nonpredictive way; I wouldn't read too much into it. The Panthers are the better team so long as Stars quarterback Bryan Scott is out; he flew home to deal with his knee injury, and it's unclear if and when he'll be back. The Stars have expressed hope he will return, perhaps in time for the second go-round of divisional matchups. The Stars also have the advantage of having already played the Breakers, while the Panthers have to take on both the Breakers and Stallions over the next three weeks. That's a pretty significant difference in their strength of schedule; Jeff Fisher's men will need a very good month to make anything happen.
The South race is much less interesting. The Stallions are undefeated at 4-0; the Breakers are right behind them at 3-1 with their only loss being in the head-to-head matchup. Both are clear leaps and bounds ahead of the 2-2 Bandits and 1-3 Gamblers on both sides of the ball, and there's no sign that that will change anytime soon. And since all playoff games will be in Canton, there's no real drama in the seeding either. If we were determining whether the USFL South championship game would be in Birmingham or New Orleans, the Breakers trying to keep pace with the Stallions and setting up for their rematch would be high drama. As it is, both teams should coast into the playoffs without too much fuss.
On with the recaps!
Stars 26, Panthers 25
USFL After Dark! In a late kickoff—scheduled for 10 p.m. and bumped back an additional 20 minutes due to truck racing—the USFL got weird.
The Stars were without quarterback Bryan Scott, but Case Cookus filled in decently—22-for-30 for 190 yards, a pair of touchdowns, and just one interception. He also added 35 yards on the ground, as he and Paul Terry combined to get the Stars over 100 rushing yards for the first time this season. This was a bold choice from Cookus, as he's the only quarterback on the Stars roster at the moment (receiver Maurice Alexander played quarterback in college, so he's the emergency option), but it worked out. But the Stars did not win because of their offense.
Nor did the Panthers lose because of their offense. They had no passing attack to speak of, as Shea Patterson once again started for the injured Paxton Lynch, but they racked up 250 yards on the ground against the joke that is the Stars' run defense. Patterson had 79 yards himself, but it was the Reggie Corbin show—12 carries, 152 yards, including an 88-yard touchdown that currently stands as the longest play in league history.
— Michigan Panthers (@USFLPanthers) May 7, 2022
But no, we have to highlight just what got us to the end so we can get to what the USFL always promised: a chance to see Jeff Fisher screwing things up, just like old times.
All four first-half touchdowns in this game came after turnovers—a Shea Patterson interception, a Paul Terry fumble, a Case Cookus interception, and a second Patterson interception. The third quarter saw a Panthers three-and-out and interception lead to two more Stars field goals, giving them a 23-17 lead as we entered a wild fourth quarter. Let's rack it up:
- The Panthers use 13 plays to march 69 yards, with Patterson hitting Joe Walker in the end zone on a huge fourth-and-6 play. The ensuing two-point conversion (remember this) worked, and the Panthers go up 25-23.
- The Stars get the ball back and promptly go three-and-out, only for Joe Walker to muff the punt, giving the Stars the ball in the red zone.
- The Stars go three-and-out again, and face a fourth-and-1 from the Panthers 3-yard line. They opt to bring out kicker Matt Mengel, who hits his fourth field goal of the day to give the Stars a 26-25 lead with 5:17 left in the game.
- But the Stars' ensuing kickoff goes out of bounds, meaning the Panthers start at midfield, only needing a field goal to win!
"Only needing a field goal." Strong words, but the Panthers have had troubles today. While Mengel and the Stars were 4-for-5 on field goals, plus two extra points, Panthers kicker/punter Michael Carrizosa has been struggling. He has already missed an extra point—hence why Fisher went for two on their touchdown, because they had no faith in Carrizosa's ability to make a kick. Carrizosa had made a 22-yarder earlier in the game, but he's just 1-for-3 on field goals and 0-for-2 on extra points to this point in the season. A field goal is no sure thing.
But Fisher's Panthers start driving against the Stars' Swiss cheese defense. They turn to that running game, the one averaging 6.9 yards per carry today, and just start draining clock. They go past the two-minute warning just outside of the red zone. They then hand the ball to Reggie Corbin five times in a row, burning all of the Stars' timeouts and getting the ball down to the 3-yard line. After the game, Stars coach Bart Andrus admitted the Stars were debating letting the Panthers score so they could get the ball back.
But on first-and-goal from the 3-yard line, with 25 seconds left on the clock and two timeouts in his pocket, Fisher opted to let the clock run down to 3 seconds, called timeout, and sent his kicker out to win the ballgame.
Jeff Fisher ran out the clock on the goal line so his punter, who hasn't made a field goal in a game since high school, could doink a 21 yard FG. That's just good ball pic.twitter.com/OOToljgys8
— Jack Williams (@jackwilly83) May 7, 2022
Generals 21, Maulers 13
The Maulers continue their march to perfection by losing their fourth straight game. They did look better this week, mind you, though we're grading on a massive curve. The Generals had 250 rushing yards last week; the Maulers held them to 113 and just 3.5 yards per rush, shutting down rushing quarterback De'Andre Johnson entirely. That's something! They scored an offensive touchdown a week after being shut out, and they averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry. That's progress! Not, like, a ton of progress, and Kirby Wilson continues to call the worst game plans in the league, but you're 0-4 and relegated to the Peacock game; we'll try to say some nice things about you from time to time.
"He broke the plane. So we're going to reverse this to a TD."
— USFL (@USFL) May 7, 2022
But no, the Generals were just obviously the better team. It was only an eight-point win, but the gap between the teams was much larger—it was a methodical beatdown by a defense-first team more than it was tight or close. While Johnson's running was taken out of the picture, the actual running backs, led by Darius Victor, did end running for 6 yards per carry and a pair of touchdowns by themselves. Johnson also passed the ball just fine, though it helps when Alonzo Moore gets this wide open.
62 yards to the HOUSE! 🏠
De'Andre Johnson finds Alonzo Moore and the @USFLGenerals strike first.
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) May 7, 2022
Johnson and Luis Perez continue to platoon well; they combined to go 20-for-24 for 200 yards and a touchdown in what ended up being a slow, methodical, drama-free win.
Stallions 16, Bandits 10
Late in the week, a bunch of USFL players, focused around the Stallions, popped up on the injury report as "illness." Well, it turns out that it was a COVID outbreak—one the USFL didn't bother to tell anyone about. That really annoyed a lot of daily fantasy players, because one of the players affected was Stallions quarterback J'Mar Smith, who was saying up until the day before the game that he was definitely playing. Well, not so much—while he was active and eligible, Birmingham sat him because he hadn't practiced all week long. That killed a bunch of DFS slates, as Smith and the Stallions had been one of the best offenses in the league. It would have been nice to known in advance that a quarterback wasn't going to play!
That left Alex McGough as the only quarterback on the roster; he came into the game banged up from his injury in Week 1, and aggravated it again a few plays into the game. As a result, the Stallions started out slowly on offense—and they weren't helped at all by the Bandits' swarming defense, which ended up recording four sacks on the night.
The defense is starting this game HOT 🔥
Back-to-back sacks 🔒 pic.twitter.com/Mqf6Sl9uV3
— Tampa Bay Bandits (@USFLBandits) May 7, 2022
The Bandits tried to take advantage of the Stallions' early struggles, scoring their only touchdown of the game on a drive that included a Jordan Ta'amu flea flicker, which I'm required to display here by universally accepted spring football law. The touchdown ended up giving Tampa Bay the 10-7 lead they held at the half.
A little trickery indeed!
The Flea-Flicker is a success ☑️
— Tampa Bay Bandits (@USFLBandits) May 8, 2022
But McGough got more comfortable as the game went along, and the Stallions' defense came to the rescue of their undermanned offense. The Bandits only had 158 yards of offense all day, and only 36 yards in the second half. Once again, Scooby Wright and the rest of Mystery Incorporated swarmed all over the Bandits and their backup linemen. Wright had pair of TFLs, a sack, and a strange sack dance of the Shark-Dog—half-shark, half-dog. A little Jabberjaw mixed in with his Scooby Snacks, I guess.
— USFL (@USFL) May 8, 2022
The Stallions couldn't find the end zone in the second half, but Brandon Aubrey went 3-for-4 on field goals, including a 49-yarder, to help Birmingham stay undefeated. Aubrey had never kicked before on any level before joining the USFL, and he has missed just one kick all year long.
But speaking of kicking, Bandits coach Todd Haley wanted to show that Jeff Fisher wasn't the only ex-NFL chief who could make bad special teams decisions. While the Bandits do have one of the better kickers in the league in Tyler Rausa, he doesn't have the leg to launch a moonshot. And yet, down three at the Stallions' 41-yard line, Haley sent Rausa out for a 58-yard field goal try in the fourth quarter. Yes, it would have tied the game. Yes, it was fourth-and-13, so going for it likely wasn't an option. But it was never, and I mean ever, going to be made, and it allowed Birmingham to flip the field on them. The Bandits never crossed midfield again.
Breakers 23, Gamblers 16
You ever just have one of those days at the office? Kyle Sloter sure has!
Sloter just set the modern-day USFL record with 397 passing yards against the Gamblers, with both Taywan Taylor and Jonathan Adams going over 100 yards receiving. That should have been more than enough for the Breakers to absolutely roll over everything; it was, at least, enough to jump their offensive SRS/EVOA to the top slot in the league.
But Sloter also threw three interceptions and lost a fumble as the Gamblers hit their idealized form. Nothing but big plays for one team or another; that's the Gamblers motto! Giving up nearly 400 passing yards while still achieving a +4 turnover margin is very difficult; it has only happened 10 times in the last decade in the NFL, most recently in the Browns-Steelers wild-card game after the 2020 season. Doing that and still losing is harder still; there have only been four cases of that in NFL history. The most recent coach to fall victim to that was Jason Garrett, whose Cowboys lost to the Lions in a wild game in 2013. Coincidentally enough, Garrett was in the booth Sunday to watch the Gamblers pull defeat from the jaws of victory.
G CODE ON ANOTHER LEVEL 📊@Cover22_ with the interception! 👏👏
— Houston Gamblers (@USFLGamblers) May 8, 2022
There really isn't a dull moment going up against the Gamblers' defense. In addition to the turnovers, the Gamblers blocked a field goal and forced a turnover on downs as Chris Odom had a great day rushing the passer. But they also allowed 7.2 yards per play, as they stretch "bend but don't break" to the ultimate limits. They're last in the league, allowing 411 yards per game, but first with a +6 turnover differential. It's crazy, is what it is.
We can't stop making plays today 🤑
— Houston Gamblers (@USFLGamblers) May 8, 2022
Full credit to Sloter and the Breakers for keeping at it despite their ugly day. Sloter ended up throwing the winning touchdown pass with 10 seconds left in the game after a weird series—a very short run on first down, a spike on second to preserve their last timeout, burning that timeout when the play call didn't come in on time, and then a game-winning touchdown pass to Adams to finish things off. It was kind of emblematic of their entire day—stumble, shoot yourself in the foot, make a mistake, make a big play to salvage things. It was a crucial win for the Breakers as they stay one win behind the Stallions in the South race.
— New Orleans Breakers (@USFLBreakers) May 8, 2022
The Gamblers' offense just didn't show up for this one. The Breakers were without star end Davin Bellamy, and the Gamblers' offensive line still couldn't handle the Breakers washing over them. Averaging 3.4 yards per play just isn't going to cut it, even if you keep getting solid field position from turnovers. The Breakers managed just 28 rushing yards on 20 attempts, forcing Clayton Thorson into longer and longer situations, and it all kind of spiraled from there. While all but one Breakers drive ended in something interesting, the Gamblers started the game with three consecutive three-and-outs. Only three of their 13 drives saw them pick up a first down, and that's just not going to get it done. An average offensive game gives the Gamblers a win, but they just couldn't do it.