USFL Week 10 Recap: Jeff Fisher's Panthers Win Pick No. 1

Michigan Panthers HC Jeff Fisher
Michigan Panthers HC Jeff Fisher
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

USFL - For a week of meaningless football, the USFL provided some quality entertainment as it became the first significant minor league to complete a season since the original XFL in 2001. The Michigan Panthers earned the top draft pick on the field. The New Jersey Generals and Philadelphia Stars decided to play a real football game despite the fact that they're playing another real football game next week. The Tampa Bay Bandits tried to play a game without a kicker. And the Houston Gamblers were up to their same old nonsense. It hasn't always been a pretty season in Birmingham, but there certainly has been a fair share of highlights.

And with four teams out (and sharing stupidly identical farewell messages), we're now moving the whole show over to Canton for the playoffs.

Here are the final SRS/EVOA (estimated DVOA) standings!

2022 USFL Rankings, Week 10
Rk Team W-L SRS OSRS Rk DSRS Rk EVOA Off
EVOA
Def
EVOA
1 Stallions 9-1 5.9 3.1 2 2.7 2 15.9% 8.6% -7.3%
2 Generals 9-1 3.7 1.5 3 2.1 3 9.8% 4.2% -5.7%
3 Breakers 6-4 2.8 -1.3 6 4.1 1 7.6% -3.5% -11.1%
4 Stars 6-4 1.1 5.9 1 -4.9 8 2.9% 16.0% 13.1%
5 Gamblers 3-7 -0.5 0.0 5 -0.5 5 -1.4% 0.2% 1.5%
6 Bandits 4-6 -2.2 -3.8 7 1.5 4 -6.1% -10.2% -4.1%
6 Panthers 2-8 -2.2 0.4 4 -2.6 7 -6.1% 1.1% 7.2%
8 Maulers 1-9 -8.5 -6.0 8 -2.5 6 -22.8% -16.3% 6.6%

The top four teams made the playoffs, which is always nice to see. The Gamblers end up higher than the Bandits despite their worse record because the Gamblers were exceptionally unlucky to lose all the games they did; they lost fourth-quarter leads five weeks in a row at one point. In fact, the Bandits were a bit out of their depths in the playoff chase and end up tied with the first-pick Panthers in SRS. The Maulers, of course, were terrible.

The EVOA numbers are for the entire season, but it's worth noting that things have changed as the year has gone along. If you run EVOA for just the past five weeks (and throw out the games where teams were resting starters in Week 10), it's the Stars who jump up into first place overall with a 14.1% EVOA. Their offensive EVOA jumps all the way to 23.6% as the offense has been cooking under Case Cookus. Meanwhile, the Generals fall by 0.9%, and the Stallions drop an entire 5.9%—they have not been the same team over the last five weeks as they were when the season began. The Breakers end up exactly where they were, just sliding into fourth place as the Stars jump up.

The postseason should be pretty good. But before we get there, we have to recap the final four games of the regular season.

New Jersey Generals 26, Philadelphia Stars 23

Meaningless football can still be very fun football. In a preview of next week's North divisional finals, the Generals and Stars both impressed. If there was any thought of holding things back to prepare for the playoff game, those went out the window quickly as both teams provided plenty of offensive fireworks. The North, all season long, has been thought of as the weaker division, but the Generals and Stars have shown that the championship game can't be thought of as just a walkover.

Both the Generals' Mike Riley and the Stars' Bart Andrus opted to play most of their starters the entire way despite the upcoming rematch next week. Part of that comes from the USFL having only 40-man rosters, so there's not a lot of depth to show off, but the Stars played Case Cookus, Matt Colburn, and the rest of their offensive stars the whole way through, while the Generals stuck with the quarterback rotation they have been using when everyone's healthy. That's not to say everyone started—the Stars rested All-USFL cornerback Channing Stribling and safety Ahmad Dixon, among others, resting more players than the Generals chose to. Still, most of the major names were here.

That means we got a matchup of two of the top three offenses in the league by EVOA, and they didn't disappoint. The Generals' Trey Williams ran for 114 yards on 14 carries, highlighted by this 61-yard romp early in the first quarter.

Luis Perez had an efficient, effective day, going 14-for-18 for 138 yards and three touchdowns. He was the quarterback of record for four drives, resulting in three touchdowns and one epic, field-flipping 84-yard punt. Perez especially looked good hooking up with Alonzo Moore, who made a spectacular touchdown catch early on as the Generals attacked the notoriously weak Stars defense.

As mentioned, the Generals also went back to their platoon, to middling results. De'Andre Johnson has not recovered the form that made him a devastating rushing threat early in the season. Part of that might be lingering effects from his ankle injury, but if so, he's not doing much to protect himself—he took a big shot in the third quarter and did not return. At this point, the Generals are probably better off riding with Perez even if Johnson is cleared to play in Canton; Johnson's rushing potential doesn't matter if he's too banged up to play effectively.

The Stars weren't going to let the Generals run away with this one, however. When Cookus has been accurate, he has been one of the top quarterbacks in the league. He led a Stars comeback, finishing the day with 244 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Trailing by nine with six minutes left in the game, backed up inside their own 10 thanks to the Generals' massive punt, Cookus marched the Stars down the field before Colburn punched the ball in with 1:50 remaining in regulation. And remember, in the USFL, a nine-point margin is a one-score game, and the Stars lined up for the three-point conversion. That failed, with Cookus picked off in the end zone. No matter, because the Stars got to attempt the other unique USFL play, the alternative kickoff in lieu of the onside kick. That fourth-and-12 came up short, but a penalty on the Generals kept the ball in Stars possession. But a couple of deep shots later, Shalom Luani picked off Cookus' desperation deep shot, ending the game. The Generals go 9-1, the Stars fall to 6-4, and I'm legitimately excited to see them do it again next week.

Birmingham Stallions 21, Tampa Bay Bandits 18

The Bandits did something very interesting for this one: they deactivated their kicker. Tyler Rausa was left inactive for the game, leaving punter Brandon Wright (who also has placekicking experience, to be fair) as the only active specialist on their roster. And so … the Bandits didn't kick. Because of their lack of kicker, the Bandits…

  • Attempted a fourth-and-7 from the Birmingham 23. It failed as Jordan Ta'amu took a sack.
  • Attempted a fourth-and-10 from the Birmingham 37. It failed as Ta'amu's pass went incomplete.
  • Attempted a fourth-and-9 from the Birmingham 33. It failed as the snap to Brady White went bad.
  • Attempted a two-point conversion after a touchdown cut the Stallions' lead to 14-6. It failed when Ta'amu fumbled.
  • Attempted the alternative kickoff after the touchdown. It failed when Ta'amu took a sack.
  • Attempted another two-point conversion after a touchdown cut the Stallions' lead to 14-12. It failed when Ta'amu's pass went incomplete.
  • Attempted a fourth-and-11 from the Birmingham 34. It succeeded, when Ta'amu hit Cheyenne O'Grady for 14 yards.
  • Attempted a three-point conversion after a touchdown cut the Stallions' lead to 21-18 with 7:17 remaining, something they may have attempted even with their kicker. It failed, as a wide-open Derrick Dillon came down out of bounds.

The Bandits also attempted two fourth downs on their final drive, down three, but they weren't in field goal range either time, and those would have been plays they went for with or without a kicker. I am going to suggest playing without a kicker entirely is not a great plan, though I suppose it saved an extra roster slot in the Alabama heat. We do appreciate teams being more aggressive, and it's unfortunate that the Bandits went 1-for-7 on their kickerless plays, but sometimes you just need to take three points. We don't have a USFL-specific model, but some back-of-the-envelope math indicates that the last three fourth-down attempts should have been field goal attempts with ever-increasing degrees of certainty. You shouldn't need to handcuff yourself by going without a kicker to get aggressive, and you shouldn't get aggressive just for the sake of getting aggressive. Sometimes analytics says to take the points!

The actual outcome of the game is less important. The Stallions played a lot of backups, including letting Alex McGough play three quarters instead of J'Mar Smith. McGough played well, reminding people that he was supposed to be the starter until he got hurt. Smith will be the primary quarterback in Canton, but at least McGough got to put some more solid play on film.

We also saw Rashard Davis score the second punt touchdown in USFL history, taking one back 74 yards for what would have been a game-tying score had the Bandits had a kicker. So that was fun!

The Stallions finish at 9-1. The Bandits finish at 4-6, losing all six games they played against playoff teams and winning the four games they played against the other scrubs.

Michigan Panthers 33, Pittsburgh Maulers 21

With the two worst teams in the league playing each other on the last day of the regular season, the USFL called an audible. They declared that the winner of the game would get not only the top overall draft pick, but the first pick in each round of the 2023 USFL draft, whatever form that may end up taking. They wanted to give teams an incentive to win rather than to lose, which I like in theory. Not as big of a fan of them changing the rules on the fly, again, but it was making lemons out of lemonade here, and I'm OK with it.

It appears we have found Paxton Lynch's level, and it's a battle of two 1-8 teams in a minor league. Lynch went 22-for-30 for 275 yards and three touchdowns against the Maulers, calling on Ishmael Hyman repeatedly as the Panthers locked up the top draft pick.

The Maulers moved the ball well—perhaps better than they have all season, honestly—with both Vad Lee and Roland Rivers getting a chance to shine at points. They did it oddly, with Lee playing the first and fourth quarters and Rivers getting the second and third, which seems counterintuitive for … many, many reasons. And turnovers killed them, with Lee throwing an interception and both Mikey Daniel and Isiah Hennie fumbling. It may not have helped that head coach Kirby Wilson was screaming at them in the locker room at halftime, in front of a group of players who seem to have checked out on Wilson's … let's call it "fiery" leadership style a month and a half ago. He started his season by cutting a player for ordering pizza and ended it by calling quarterback draws on third-and-10 and raging against the dying of the light. Spring leagues like this are a great chance for people to get shots at leading a team for the first time, to see if they have what it takes to be a head coach. For Kirby Wilson, the answer appears to be "no."

The Maulers finish the season at 1-9 at the bottom of the USFL. The Panthers' win gets them to 2-8 and gives them the first pick of the draft. That should really help them out. After all, this season, the first pick of the draft went to the, uh, Michigan Panthers. First overall pick Shea Patterson ended the season bouncing on and off the inactive roster for the Breakers. Well, I guess they get a do-over.

Houston Gamblers 20, New Orleans Breakers 3

The Breakers ended the season resting most of their key players, including All-USFL quarterback Kyle Sloter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they weren't very good. The first half saw them pick up 41 total yards and just one first down while turning over the ball twice. With the starters on break, this doesn't tell us much about the Breakers, so we'll leave it at that.

The Gamblers, though, boy howdy. I commend them for committing to the bit of never playing a normal football game. Let's go out on a high note, with some Patented Gamblers Nonsense. Their 20 points included both a Donald Payne pick-six (fairly normal, although Payne is not known for his hands) and a blocked kick returned for a touchdown, the fourth kick Chris Odom has blocked this year and the second time they have returned one the other way. Sure. Why not.

The Gamblers are the only team who managed a win over both the Stallions and Breakers, the two top teams in the division. Because of course they did. Nonsense is the Gamblers football brand, and they'll be missed as they ride off into the sunset at 3-7, while the Breakers will shake this off at 6-4.

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