USFL Week 1 Recap: Is Anybody Home?

Michigan Panthers QB Paxton Lynch
Michigan Panthers QB Paxton Lynch
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

USFL - The USFL is back, and it's … alright, I guess?

After months of buildup, this weekend saw the first four three games of the brand new USFL, and the results were something of a mixed bag. In terms of actual football, the games were more or less what you would expect. There was a lot of enthusiasm and excitement, and more than your fair share of miscues and bloopers. It's minor league football; the quality of play was very similar to what we saw early on in the AAF and XFL. With three weeks of practice and a lack of quality quarterbacks and offensive linemen, you expect some bumps and bruises, and the USFL definitely delivered there.

Honestly? That's fine. The games were played at about low-tier college level, and sometimes that's exactly what you want to see on a lazy Saturday night. More important than the general level of play was the general level of competition, and we mostly saw even balanced football. All three games actually completed over the weekend stayed competitive all the way through. At least at first blush, the league seems more or less balanced, which is just about where you want to be—competitive games will hold people's interest far longer than blowouts, regardless of skill level.

We'll get to the actual on-field action in a moment, but with this being the league's coming-out party, it's important to talk about it as an overall product first and foremost. And, as an overall product, the first week of games left much to be desired.

Broadcast Issues

With FOX and NBC simulcasting the first game, you expected a certain degree of polish and professionalism which wasn't always there. Instead, the broadcast at times took a more experimental angle, trying out new camera angles and audio segments which didn't always hit the mark in their first iteration.

The USFL had drones flying around the action—visibly during the wide shots -- and occasionally used them as the primary camera on plays, particularly on special teams action. That, more than anything else, was the talk of the first broadcast. It certainly is unique, you have to grant them that, and there were moments when the drones caught something on replay that was unlike anything you've seen in an NFL game, in a positive sense.

More often than not, though, the drone cameras were disorienting and, in some cases, nauseating. The jerky motions and midair pirouetting were distracting, to say the least; "motion sickness" was briefly trending as a fair share of the audience had trouble holding in their Easter dinners when the networks swapped to the alternate angle. The midair maneuvering, combined with the significant drop in picture quality when the lower-def drone cameras were focused, made it hard to actually see what was going on. The idea of alternate camera angles allowing you to see the entire field is an interesting one, but it needs to serve a purpose rather than just be a novelty that actually lowers the quality of the footage you're presenting. Call it unrealized potential at the moment; if they can improve both the quality of the cameras and the steadiness of the shots to make it more in line with what we get from Skycam, only with greater freedom of movement, it might work. So far, though, it's not really working as an in-action cam, and needs to be reserved for cinematic stage-setting shots.

The drones have potential. Helmetcam, however, needs to become a thing of the past immediately.

But it wasn't just the visual portion of the broadcast that had viewers grumbling. Like the XFL before it, the USFL had coaches and players mic'd and let that audio play up until the snap of the ball. Unlike the XFL, however, the USFL broadcast team didn't seem to really understand how to handle it. For much of the game, the announcers were calling the action as if it were a normal broadcast, which meant that fans at home were trying to listen to both the play-by-play and the play call coming from the sidelines. The crosstalk meant that it was very difficult to make out either; all the voices talking over one another turning those portions of the broadcast into a mush. They also over-mic'd the crowd and everything was extremely compressed; the traffic in the sound mix was aggravating as all get out. Sometimes, less is more … as we saw on the "Crank It Up" drives, where the announcers stepped back and let only the coaches and players audio play. That worked, and produced some of the few moments where the USFL felt like something different and interesting rather than just a minor league act.

All-in-all, the opening primetime game was a rough shakedown cruise for the league. In addition to everything mentioned above, there were minor issues throughout—unsynced audio; the constant buzz of the drones filtering through the mics; the Generals' half of the scorebug being blue and not matching the red-and-white uniforms, making it hard to tell at a glance which team was which. These got smoothed out some during Sunday's games, and hopefully will continue to be smoothed out going forward.

There are good ideas here on the broadcast, and hopefully we'll see them refined over the coming weeks. If the first weekend of games is the quality of presentation we're going to get from here on out, this is not going to work. But as an experiment, with consistent refinement, there's potential here.

Shocking Attendance

Saturday night's opener drew 17,500 people, which was more or less what was expected—the AAF's Birmingham Iron had a 17K median attendance, and that's more than enough to keep the league afloat. Coupled with roughly three million fans watching at home, that's definitely a good first step for the league. But Sunday was a different matter.

Hosting every game in the same city, with three games on the same day, always had it its risks. And on a rainy Easter Sunday, pretty much all of them hit. The poor weather both delayed the first game by an hour, bumping the rest of the schedule back and discouraging people from coming out in the first place. Couple it with the games occurring on a holiday in a religious part of the country, and Sunday's attendance was, well…

Things picked up a little throughout the day, but this had to be disheartening. The league won't make or break based on attendance—it's product for television and for gambling first and foremost—but it's rather embarrassing to be playing in front of an empty house. This was far more Spring League than XFL, much less 1980s USFL. It makes the product feel more bush league when no one is coming to see it. Perhaps things will go better in Week 2, with better weather on a non-holiday weekend, but I have my doubts.

If you were interested in the USFL for novelty value, you could get a ticket to the opener; Protective Stadium seats 47,000. I doubt many people would want to go to more than one game per week, even with a $10 ticket that gets you into the full day's slate. And here's where giving each team geographic monikers might be hurting the league—if you're living in Birmingham, and are going to attend one USFL game per week, you're going to attend the games for the Birmingham Stallions. There's no real incentive for fans from, say, Philadelphia to come down and watch the Stars; they belong to the city in name only and have no real connection to the community. But there sure is an incentive for the people of Birmingham to only go to watch the "home" team. Hence you get shocking attendance for the other matchups, even in nice, dry 70-degree weather. By putting all the games in one city, the USFL has saved on logistical costs involved with travel, but they may have delivered a fatal blow to their actual attendance, in a way that is going to harm the overall opinion of their product.

And, of course, since the first game was delayed by lightning, that pushed the other games back too, meaning people who were interested in catching the second game on TV flipped on USA or Peacock and found Law and Order: SVU reruns. This was bad luck more than anything else, but it again shows the logistical problems with having everything in one place: one delay ended up blowing up the entire schedule. Bad luck played a factor, for sure, but the USFL left themselves vulnerable to bad luck with their planning.

Stallions 28, Generals 24

The first game in modern USFL history was a hell of a contest, with the Stallions scoring a touchdown with 23 seconds left on the clock to send the hometown fans home happy. With 24 points scored in the fourth quarter, it's safe to say that the action in this one was backloaded, but you can't argue with a finish like that.

The Stallions kickstarted their offense with a quarterback change at halftime. Alex McGough opened the game hot with a 35-yard bomb to Osirus Mitchell to get the Stallions on the scoreboard, but he petered out quickly even before going down with an injury; 5-for-10 for 55 yards, a touchdown, and an interception is pretty bad even for this level. J'Mar Smith, who had cameoed briefly in the first half, made the most out of being the man under center, going 11-for-17 for 156 yards and a touchdown through the air. He also rushed for the game-winner on a broken play. I'll be very surprised if he isn't the Stallions quarterback going forwards.

But the star of the game for the Stallions was Scooby Wright. The ex-Arizona star was all over the field, blowing people up and hustling. His strip-sack of Generals quarterback Luis Perez kept New Jersey from at least a field goal try—and I say "try" because the Generals missed a pair of field goals, including a 23-yarder that should have been a gimme even in the minor leagues. Still, turnovers are turnovers.

The Generals were coming in undermanned. Ben Holmes was initially pegged to be their starting quarterback, but the former Tartleton star was hurt in preseason and let go entirely before the week. That left Luis Perez and De'Andre Johnson operating as sort of a platoon. For the first half, Perez was the passer (12-for-16 for 142 yards and a score), with Johnson coming in for mostly designed run plays. But Perez vanished for most of the second half as the Generals became the Johnson show. And the Johnson show was a lot of ground-and-pound—24 straight rushing plays in a row at one point! It was working; Johnson ran for 98 yards on 12 carries, with Darius Victor and Trey Williams each averaging over four yards a pop and going for 50-plus yards each. But the missed field goals, and an utter inability to stop Smith, ultimately led to New Jersey's defeat.

Gamblers 17, Panthers 12

Ah, I missed Jeff Fisher. I don't think we ever saw Fisher this laid back before, but he's treating the league with the level of professionalism it deserves. It's just too bad for his Panthers that that screenshot was probably their highlight of the game. The Panthers had the first overall pick in the league, quarterback Shea Patterson. Well…

That's OK, though; the Panthers had former first-round pick Paxton Lynch on the bench to provide a spark!

Lynch also threw an interception before he was once again pulled for Patterson as the Panthers' early offensive ineptitude ended up putting them in a 17-0 halftime hole. Each of their first six possessions saw the Panthers either fumble the ball or throw an interception, which is not exactly ideal. It's not so much that the Gamblers were doing anything particularly well, though Mark Thompson ran for 71 yards at 5.5 yards per carry. It's that the Panthers kept shooting themselves in the foot over and over again.

By the end of the game, though, Patterson was the best quarterback on the field. Some of that goes with the struggles of Clayton Thorson—9-of-17 for 73 yards with a touchdown and a pick—but Patterson legitimately settled down in the second half, leading the Panthers on multiple long scoring drives, hooking up repeatedly with Lance Lenoir and Joe Walker. The Panthers opened the second half with three straight drives of nine plays or more, resulting in two touchdowns and a missed field goal. That resulted in 12 points (with two missed two-point conversions) and meant that the Panthers had a chance to pull off a remarkable comeback. With nine seconds left, Patterson threw a 30-yard pass to La'Michael Pettway in the back of the end zone, but Pettway had one foot out of bounds and there was a chop block on the play anyway. Game over, Gamblers escape.

Breakers 23, Stars 17

Meet Davin Bellamy. Davin Bellamy is aware he's mic'd up. Davin Bellamy does not care about broadcast standards.

The Breakers edge rusher was more than just bark, however. Bellamy racked up three sacks as the Breaker defense and special teams made the splash plays to give them the win over the Stars.

On a per-play basis, the Stars were the dominant team in the first half. They racked up 211 yards of offense to the Breakers' 85. They put together several long drives while the Breakers struggled to get out of the blocks. Quarterback Bryan Scott's stats won't jump off the page at you, but he actually was playing decently well for this level, when you take into account the fact that the Breakers were winning the line of scrimmage over and over again; the Stars may well have the worst offensive line in the league at this point.

But it was the Breakers who got all the breaks, defensively. Vontae Diggs read Scott perfectly for a pick-six to open the scoring, and a blocked punt added two more points to their total before the half. The Stars, meanwhile, saw their kicker miss twice from 40-plus yards and were stuffed at the goal line on fourth down after another long drive. Big plays produce big swings, and the biggest ones all came for the Breakers.

The Breakers got their offense sorted more in the second half, when they were playing with the lead. Kyle Sloter threw an interception but was otherwise solid, and Jordan Ellis had 18 carries for 89 yards through a progressively more and more worn-down Stars defense. The Stars offense fought back, and the Scott-to-Chris Rowland connection looks like it might be something going forward, but they just blew too many opportunities early on to win this one.

Postponement

Storms delayed the final contest of Week 1 between the Maulers and the Bandits. Because of the early postponement and the shifting schedule, the late game wouldn't have been able to be completed before another storm rolled in. It was rescheduled for Monday at 7 p.m., so we'll have to wait and see if Todd Haley and Jordan Ta'amu can live up to their projection of the best passing attack in the league, or if Kyle Lauletta and company can get some revenge for "Pittsburgh." It's a fitting that a disappointing Sunday for the USFL would end with a postponement, though at least there's very little place to go from here but up.

Week 2 Schedule

Friday: Panthers (0-1) v. Generals (0-1), 8 p.m., USA
Saturday: Maulers (0-0) v. Stars (0-1), 12 p.m., FOX
Saturday: Stallions (1-0) v. Gamblers (1-0), 7 p.m., FS1
Sunday: Breakers (1-0) v. Bandits (0-0), 3 p.m., NBC

Comments

13 comments, Last at 20 Apr 2022, 8:17pm

1 Helmetcam, however, needs to…

Helmetcam, however, needs to become a thing of the past immediately.

The problem with Helmetcam is that it needs really good video editing and announcers to be useful, and, well... it's minor league football.

Like, with that shot - you don't show the whole thing. You literally show the handoff, and then stop it 3 seconds in (not the full ~10 second clip) - and say something like "you can see, the entire play's dead right at the start, there's just nothing he can do - he's trying to head here, but when nobody picks up 33, he's got no chance" (with appropriate telestrator annotations).

It's the same issue with the drone cam, really: you want to splice it in with the regular (steady) footage to show things, rather than just get all of your viewers sick.

2 Hard to do all that in real…

Hard to do all that in real time however, esp on a budget.

Might be a better use of it. Record the games, do a bit of production with camera angles, lines, etc  and better commentary and then broadcast at a later time as entertainment. I dunno. 

 

4 MLB has (had? I don't keep…

MLB has (had? I don't keep up with it) a feature where you could watch "condensed games", where they essentially took out all the non-active parts of the game. Certainly loses some of the drama and tension, but you can watch a game in like half an hour. I think something like that would be perfect for drone footage - pick the shots you know are good, mix them in with regular footage, trim out all the excess, and let people watch that a few days later. I have no drive to watch minor league football on a spring weekend, but give me an entertaining half hour or so I can watch on one monitor while I work and I might be interested. Seems like a decent way of helping draw people into the league.

13  Don't know about MLB,  but…

 Don't know about MLB,  but the PAC-12 network does that with football games they repeat - the entire game is shown in 60 minutes.  Honestly, it's pretty nice.

 Did the same thing with a couple of SBs I recorded. It's way better in 90 min than in 4 hours.

5 Yeah, that's what I was…

Yeah, that's what I was trying to say. Also tough to do when you don't have, um, top tier talent, for instance.

A high-production value team (like, say, prior year SNF, who knows now) could really benefit from it. I mean, a guy like Madden with that kind of access in a modern environment would just be total gold - and just hilarious, really.

3 I had the same take on that…

I had the same take on that video. That the back turned that into anything was impressive; the linebacker practically handed him the ball.

On the drone shots, I was most concerned about the drone taking a guy or two out.

7 Player mic

Please, do not continue with mic'd up players.  They sound the same, play after play, and it makes it difficult to hear the commentators  Just too much noise coming from all directions.

10 Much like the helmet cams…

In reply to by hanu51

Much like the helmet cams and the drone cams, less is more.  Sprinkle it in from time to time and it's an interesting twist, but they're just drowning the game with their gimmicks.

11 I feel the same about the …

I feel the same about the "steadycam right in the action" thing that networks started to do a couple of years ago. It's fun sometimes (e.g. players celebrating touchdowns), but often feels like they go to it hoping something interesting will happen, and switch away when nothing does.

I'm also not a big fan of the portrait-mode depth-of-field gimmick, which is a bit disorienting when it comes out of nowhere (unlike its use on TikTok, where everything is disorienting).

8 Waiting to see if a player…

Waiting to see if a player will spike the ball into a drone or if they have been warned against doing so.... 

9 Kyle Sloter

Kyle Sloter just wins.   preseason, usfl, whatever.