USFL Week 2: Breakers Wash Over Bandits

New Orleans Breakers WR Jonathan Adams
New Orleans Breakers WR Jonathan Adams
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

USFL - Week 2 of the USFL has come and gone. On the field, Rivalry Week was a big jump over the quality of play in Week 1 as we had one legitimately fantastic game, a second very solid contest in front of a partisan crowd, and a pasting that established a clear favorite atop the league. We also had one absolute stinker, but I suppose they can't all be winners. We're beginning to see a few of the teams develop some actual chemistry, with about half the league beginning to get consistently acceptable play on both sides of the ball, at least for a minor league.

Off the field, we had more of a mixed bag. The production of the games got noticeably better, with the omnipresent drones and helmetcam shots being mixed in with a bit more judgment this time around. It seemed like the NBC-helmed broadcasts tended to stick more to traditional camera angles than the FOX-led coverage. Whether that was actually an edict from their respective broadcast teams or simply a coincidence, both networks' broadcasts calmed down from their over-produced debuts and were generally more enjoyable games to watch. But attendance remained low and viewership took a stiff dive from Week 1's numbers. Some of that was expected, but the league remains in a position where they're struggling to get the sort of attention they were hoping for.

Team Rankings

We're not doing DVOA for the USFL this season, but that doesn't mean we can't take a look at team strength beyond the realm of wins and losses. We just have to turn to a simpler solution.

Pro Football Reference uses the Simple Rating System to rank teams. SRS is a rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule—like any good rating system, the better you play and the better your opponents, the higher your overall rating. For example, the Cincinnati Bengals had an average margin of victory of 4.9 points in 2021. Their opponents had an average SRS of -1.9. Therefore, the Bengals' SRS was 4.9 - 1.9, or … well, 3.1 because of rounding, but you get the idea. That means that the Bengals were 3.1 points per game better than an average NFL team in 2021.

We're going to do the same thing here for the USFL to produce our own rankings, generating an overall SRS as well as offensive and defensive SRS for all eight teams. And because this is Football Outsiders, we can also roughly convert those stats into their DVOA equivalents, using the same system we used to estimate NFL team quality before 1950 during our Dynasty Project. It's not DVOA, but it's the next best thing—Estimated Value Over Average, or EVOA. EVOA has about a 0.9 correlation with actual DVOA at the NFL level, so while it is an over-simplified estimation, it's good enough for a ballpark figure.

Both SRS and EVOA measure the same thing in the same way, as it's a direct one-to-one conversion from one to the other. SRS is just scaled in terms of points above or below average, while EVOA is scaled as a percentage above or below average—and on the same scale as DVOA, which will be interesting if the USFL grows large enough to the point where we start doing actual DVOA calculations for it. Until that point, we'll figure out which system we want to keep using based on your feedback.

Doing anything like this just two weeks into a season is fraught with problems, of course. There's a lack of data, with each team having only played two games. There's a lack of interconnectivity in the data too: because the USFL's Week 2 just had one-to-one opponent swaps from Week 1, you can divide the league in two based on opponents. The Stallions, Generals, Gamblers, and Panthers have only played one another, as have the Breakers, Stars, Bandits, and Maulers.

To get around these problems in the NFL, we use DAVE, mixing in our preseason projections to help smooth out the effects of variance early. Well, we don't have projections for the USFL, a brand-new league with eight brand-new teams. We'll just have to let the early numbers stand for themselves two weeks into the season. Just remember to take these ratings with appropriate grains of salt early. Offensive EVOA is an approximation of the offensive portion of total EVOA, which is itself an approximation of the teams' actual DVOAs, which is itself an approximation of a team's total quality, all based on a sample size of two games each.

2022 USFL Rankings, Week 2
Rk Team W-L SRS OSRS Rk DSRS Rk EVOA Off
EVOA
Def
EVOA
1 Breakers 2-0 16.5 8.5 2 8.0 1 44.3% 22.8% -21.5%
2 Stallions 2-0 4.5 11.0 1 -6.5 8 12.1% 29.6% 17.6%
3 Stars 1-1 2.5 5.5 3 -3.0 5 6.7% 14.8% 8.1%
4 Generals 1-1 0.0 -2.5 5 2.5 3 0.0% -6.8% -6.8%
5 Gamblers 1-1 0.0 3.0 4 -3.0 6 0.0% 8.0% 8.0%
6 Panthers 0-2 -4.5 -10.5 8 6.0 2 -12.1% -28.2% -16.0%
7 Bandits 1-1 -6.5 -8.0 7 1.5 4 -17.5% -21.6% -4.0%
8 Maulers 0-2 -12.5 -7.0 6 -5.5 7 -33.7% -18.9% 14.8%

The Breakers have jumped out as the clear top team in the league through two weeks after a 34-3 drubbing of the Panthers on Sunday. The offense has been very solid for six quarters, but it's their defense that really has them lapping the field. So far, the average USFL team scores 19.3 points per game and gets 4.7 yards per play; the Breakers have held their opponents to 10.0 points and 3.5 yards. They're dominating along the line of scrimmage; their 10 sacks are double what anyone else has managed so far, and only the Panthers have allowed fewer than their 237 passing yards—and the Panthers haven't had to face Jordan Ta'amu yet. Larry Fedora's men are clearly the class of the league to this point; the only team that has been successful on both offense and defense. It has only been two games, sure, but that's also 20% of the entire USFL schedule.

The Breakers will get to test their mettle next week against the hometown Birmingham Stallions, the best team in the other half of the league. We mentioned that the average USFL team is getting 4.7 yards per play, which would be tied with the Texans and Giants in the 30s in the NFL rankings last season. Well, the Stallions are averaging 5.8 yards per play, which is what the Packers and Seahawks were doing—they're moving the ball like a good NFL offense, though obviously against significantly sub-NFL competition. J'Mar Smith is averaging 7.5 yards per attempt (Dak Prescott numbers!), Osirus Mitchell and Marlon Williams are making plays, they're fun to watch. Some of that is probably due to getting to play in front of partisan crowds; we don't have a home-field advantage component in these numbers. But even without it, they're the offense that has looked competent the highest percentage of the time; seeing them crash into the Breakers is something I'm honestly eager to see.

The lack of data is causing some of the numbers to be a bit wonky—note the Generals and Gamblers as exact inverses of one another. That's what happens when you have two teams, each with a point differential of zero, playing teams with point differentials of +9 and -9. That will sort itself out as we get more data; right now all we can say is that it looks like the Gamblers are better offensively as they have scored 45 points, and the Generals are better defensively as they have only allowed 34.

The worst team in the league so far has been the Maulers. Kirby Wilson's men bounced back a little from their embarrassing Week 1 loss and played an entertaining game this week. It was still a loss, mind you, and when half your data is a shellacking and the other half is still a defeat, there's only so much you can do.

Broadcast Update

The league's struggle with drawing eyeballs continues. Attendance at the non-Birmingham games looked to be a hair above where it was in Week 1, but all three games clearly had fewer than 1,000 people at them, and likely less than 500. We won't know for sure, as the USFL doesn't release attendance information for these games, but you could probably get a decent headcount just by manually counting everyone in the various wideshots.

Things got bad enough that the FOX broadcast was either pumping in artificial crowd noise or individually micing each fan as they walked through the gates, as they tried to generate some of the atmosphere that has been missing—you can hear the effects in the Stars/Maulers highlights below. It's sad, because other aspects of the broadcast were improved. There was far less crosstalk, far fewer disorienting camera angles, and just a general higher level of professionalism all around. Using drone cameras and helmet cameras for replays works so much better than using them for live action; it helps you follow along with the game while still getting the novelty of the new technology. But having to pump in fake crowd noise is a bad look.

Speaking of noise, we saw one thing during a few USFL broadcasts you have never seen in an NFL game: spoilers. With the announcing booth getting live feed of the play calls as they were happening, we had several instances where the announcers would tell us the play that we were about to see. Think Tony Romo attempting to predict plays beforehand, only with 100% accuracy.

I'm not sure I'm a fan of this. It feels like a few steps beyond just trying to keep viewers abreast of the strategy in a way that doesn't feel quite natural. I would prefer the broadcasts not to tip pitches, as it were; let the offense try to fool me with the play fake.

The attendance for Stallions games has been better, but they have dipped significantly below what the AAF's Birmingham Iron were able to do in the same city in 2019. That being said, the Iron weren't playing every week at home, and they weren't going up against Easter and a major NASCAR race in the area and the NBA playoffs. Mind you, the USFL set themselves up against that competition by choosing to start in April rather than February, and by having all the games in one city rather than a traditional traveling schedule. But at least fans came out for the home team, and it wasn't a situation where people came just to see the opener as a novelty and then checked out for the rest of the season. We'll just have to wait to see what the TV ratings ended up being as well before really casting judgment on where the league stands at the moment.

Generals 10, Panthers 6

By definition, there has to be a worst game in USFL history. So far, this is the leader in the clubhouse.

Both offenses ground to a halt for the vast majority of Friday night. Neither team topped 150 passing yards; neither team topped 120 rushing yards. It wasn't a case of stellar defense, either. Players simply weren't on the same page and passes were not on target. Basic elements of plays—snaps, handoffs, fielding kickoffs—were botched. It has been about a month since teams first met, and this game really highlighted how little time a month actually is.

The Generals' two-quarterback platoon system had logistical issues. The passer, Luis Perez, finished with just 5.1 yards per attempt, while the runner, De'Andre Johnson, averaged 2.7 yards per rush, neither of which exactly leap off the page at you. Darrius Shepherd hauled in five receptions for 58 yards; I suppose he would have to qualify as your highlight player. But every time the Generals got something going, they coughed the ball up—Perez had an interception and Darius Victor had a fumble late that could have allowed the Panthers back into things. They did at least manage to score on two of the three drives that crossed midfield, though that included a 21-yard field goal and a shanked 34-yarder.

But the Panthers simply could get nothing going for the first 58 minutes. Shea Patterson was the first pick of the USFL draft, and yet he was 10-for-21 for 50 yards going into the final two-minute drill. The Panthers' only touchdown came after the aforementioned Perez interception, which gave them the ball inside the 20. But since the Generals couldn't put them away, the Panthers had a chance to show some life on the last possession of the game. Some sandlot ball allowed Patterson to convert a fourth-and-20, and the Panthers reached the Generals' 16-yard line before time expired, but it was too little, too late. The Generals were sitting back in prevent and rushing three and still beating the Panthers offensive line. Terrible performance all around.

Oh, and the teams combined to go 1-for-3 on field goals and 1-for-2 on PATs, despite the new kicking ball. Perhaps all of the problems can't be reduced to one little chip.

Stars 30, Maulers 23

Conversely, there must be a best game in USFL history, and the inaugural Keystone State Battle has lapped the field in that category. The Maulers picked themselves up after their embarrassing first game and played high-quality minor league football, while the Stars realized the potential that had me calling them preseason favorites before the year began. The league is lucky this was the game on broadcast television as it showcased everything that can make a minor league football game exciting and fun, other than a happy crowd in attendance.

Stars quarterback Bryan Scott turned in the first real star performance of the league. The league's leader in passing yards went 26-for-36 for 272 yards with three touchdowns (he also ran in another one) and one interception. The two-time Spring League MVP looked comfortable, repeatedly finding Maurice Alexander (eight receptions for 87 yards and a pair of scores) and Jordan Suell (six for 72) despite an offensive line that can be best described as the particularly holey part of Swiss cheese. It wasn't a perfect day by any stretch of the imagination—Scott was sacked four times, losing a fumble on one of them—but in general, the Stars' passing attack looks the best by a decent margin through two weeks of USFL football. That's not shocking, because Stars coach Bart Andrus brought Scott and a significant chunk of his championship Spring League teams to the USFL, and that familiarity is paying off. They can't run and their defense is questionable, but they can air the ball out.

If it wasn't for turnovers, the Stars would have run away with this one, but the Maulers' defense kept them very much in the game. Carlo Kemp led the way with 1.5 of the Maulers' four sacks, forcing a fumble that led to the first touchdown of the Maulers' season.

That was one of three turnovers the Maulers forced, but they only turned those turnovers into 10 points. While the offense was better than the remedial-level play we saw last week—they managed touchdown drives of 76 and 85 yards—they had trouble finishing drives. There were individual highlights, for sure—the run game averaged 4.4 yards per carry behind Garrett Groshek, and the Josh Love-to-Bailey Gaither connection was good for 117 yards and a score—but they were also forced to settle for a 25-yard field goal, whereas the Stars scored on all three trips to the red zone.

We also saw a little bit of history as the Stars' comeback was fueled by the league's first three-point conversion. With 8:51 left in the game, Scott hit Alexander for a score to jump out to a 27-23 lead. In the NFL, you go for one there; there's no point in trying to stretch things to a six-point lead. But in the USFL, you can opt to go for three; the jump from four points to seven is huge. I'm not sure I'd advise teams in general to run little flat routes needing 10 yards to go for the conversion, but hey, it has worked on literally 100% of the USFL's three-point conversions to this point, so who am I to judge?

Stallions 33, Gamblers 28

Not to be outdone, the Stallions and Gamblers played a very solid game of their own, and in front of an actual crowd to boot. At time of writing, the USFL hasn't released actual attendance numbers, and it wasn't anywhere near the 17,500 that attended opening night, but it looked like Birmingham brought somewhere in the high-single-digit-thousands out to support their home team. That's significantly below where the AAF's Birmingham Iron were in 2019, but it's amazing how much more energy is in the air when a few thousand people are there to cheer and shout. The Stars-Maulers game was the better of the two Saturday affairs, but Stallions-Gamblers felt like a bigger deal because people were there to make it feel like a big deal. And, after a few games where the crowd was outnumbered by players on the field, even a 5,000-person crowd felt like a jam-packed coliseum. Everything's relative.

J'Mar Smith isn't letting the title of "best quarterback in the league" go to Bryan Scott without a fight. Week 1's offensive player of the week threw for 229 yards and a pair of touchdowns, adding 31 more yards on the ground. He hasn't had to do as much with his arm because of the superior Birmingham rushing attack—CJ Marable and Tony Brooks-James combined for 138 yards on 25 carries—but Smith led the Stallions to three consecutive touchdown drives to start the second half, turning an 18-13 halftime deficit into a 33-21 lead, which ended up being just enough to hang onto for the rest of the game. Smith hit Marlon Williams on a 64-yard bomb for the third of those scores, the longest play in the USFL so far this season.

Big plays were, in fact, the watchword for this game. Before anyone in the country could tune in—the game was shunted to FS2 for the first quarter, as there was baseball to take care of on FS1—we had a pair of pick-sixes. 49ers legend Brian Allen took a Clayton Thorson dumpoff 48 yards to paydirt, and Will Likely returned the favor a couple drives later, taking a Smith pass 62 yards the other way.

The Gamblers offense had a few counterpunches of their own, but in the end came up just a little short. They, too, were bolstered by big plays—a 44-yard strike to Tyler Simmons, a 41-yard rush by Mark Thompson—but just had too many mistakes to overcome. Clayton Thorson threw two touchdowns but also had three interceptions, with Lorenzo Burns ending the game on his second pick of the day to stymie a late Gamblers drive that was beginning to look dangerous. Thorson has had his high moments, but he has been far too inconsistent through two weeks; he needs to find his rhythm earlier in the game if the Gamblers are going to match up with the best teams in the South. The Gamblers briefly removed him from the game for Kenji Bahar, but Bahar provided nothing of note. It's not a surprise that the four teams that seem to be satisfied with one quarterback—the Stallions, Stars, Breakers, and Bandits—are a combined 6-2, with the only losses coming to one another. For the Gamblers—or anyone else, for that matter—to really contend, they'll need to get more consistent production from under center.

Breakers 34, Bandits 3

This was the matchup between the top two teams in most people's power rankings. I cautioned that people might be overrating both of them based on a one-game sample against some poor opponents. Let's say that I was half right.

The Breakers have firmly planted their flag as the best team in the league by absolutely decimating the Bandits, who had destroyed the Maulers the week before. The Breakers' defense had Bandits quarterback Jordan Ta'amu running for his life early and often. They had four sacks (two by Kamilo Tongamoa) and about a dozen hurries. Even when Ta'amu did find time to throw, his receivers were either heavily covered or just dropped the ball; he played better than his 8-for-18, 62-yard statline would have you believe, but still, yikes. Ta'amu ended up leading the Bandits rushing attack as well with 45 yards, mostly from tucking the ball and running against the relentless Breakers pass rush.

But it wasn't just a defensive showing. Nearly every Breakers skill position player had something to show from this matchup, as they racked up 374 yards at a 5.2-yards-per-play clip. Kyle Sloter threw for a pair of touchdowns and rushed for another, Jordan Ellis and T.J. Logan handled their business on the ground, and Jonathan Adams capped his 92-yard receiving day with a one-handed catch that might be the most impressive play made in the USFL to date. Everything was clicking, everything ran smooth, and the Breakers have established themselves as the team to beat.

I suppose we shouldn't be too surprised that "New Orleans" would handle "Tampa Bay," though. After all, the Saints have a seven-game winning streak over the Buccaneers in the regular season. You can place this one alongside Saints 38, Buccaneers 3 from 2020 or Saints 34, Buccaneers 17 from 2019. There's just something in the water in this matchup, even if that water has been temporarily moved to Birmingham.

But at least Todd Haley's Bandits took their loss with good humor and respect.

Comments

4 comments, Last at 28 Apr 2022, 12:27am

3 Definitely looking like play…

Definitely looking like the decision to play all games in 1 city was a mistake.  Not only are the folks there are getting OD'd on games, I suspect the teams not named Birmingham have to be affected by the lack of a home crowd.  I understand the need  to keep costs down, but if they'd limited themselves to the South - say Nashville, Memphis, Atlanta,  NO, Charlottte, Birmingham, Jacksonville, Houston - the travel would have been within reason and the crowds might have been better.