USFL Week 3 Recap: Sweet Home Birmingham

Birmingham QB J'Mar Smith
Birmingham QB J'Mar Smith
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

USFL - Week 3 of the USFL is in the books, and the Birmingham Stallions now sit alone atop the league. They are the last remaining undefeated team, beating the Breakers to go to 3-0 in front of a cheering home crowd.

That last bit is interesting – the Stallions are the only team drawing a crowd, as the good people of Birmingham have decided that one football game is enough for a week, and are only turning out to see the hometown team play. That means each of the Stallions' three games have seen crowds of…well, a few thousand people, at any rate, as the USFL is being somewhat coy about their actual attendance numbers. They're underdrawing what the AAF or XFL did, at any rate. But there certainly has been an actual crowd, and compared to the dozens of fans who show up for other games, the few thousand people shouting and making noise makes the USFL feel like a real football league from time to time.

Home-field advantage has become far less pronounced in the NFL over the past three or four seasons, but the USFL's hub concept means that there is only one team getting a hometown experience. It may be a coincidence that the Stallions are the one undefeated team, but considering preseason odds had them dead last among the eight teams in the league, perhaps there is something here. It has to do something for morale to hear the roar of the crowd and to see fans supporting you, and we're getting an interesting case study in the effects of what happens when one team, and only one team, receives any in-person support whatsoever. The Stallions are playing good minor-league football, but you do have to wonder how many of their close fourth-quarter wins have been sparked by something extra from the crowd.

But while they're the last team left without a loss, Birmingham isn't quite running away with our Estimated Value over Average and SRS rankings. We still see this as a two-horse race; or, at least, a race between a horse and a…tidal wave? Whatever a Breaker is.

2022 USFL Rankings, Week 3
Rk Team W-L SRS OSRS Rk DSRS Rk EVOA Off
EVOA
Def
EVOA
1 Stallions 3-0 11.5 10.8 1 0.7 4 31.1% 29.2% -1.9%
2 Breakers 2-1 9.4 1.3 4 9.4 2 25.5% 3.5% -22.0%
3 Generals 2-1 5.8 1.3 5 4.5 3 15.7% 3.5% -12.3%
4 Gamblers 1-2 1.3 7.0 2 -5.7 6 3.6% 18.9% 15.3%
5 Panthers 1-2 1.3 -8.2 7 9.4 1 3.5% -21.9% -25.4%
6 Stars 1-2 -3.4 3.5 3 -6.8 7 -9.0% 9.4% 18.3%
7 Bandits 2-1 -7.9 -5.3 6 -2.6 5 -21.1% -14.2% 6.8%
8 Maulers 0-3 -18.3 -10.5 8 -7.8 8 -49.2% -28.1% 21.0%

The Stallions' win over the Breakers wasn't enough by itself to vault Birmingham into first place; they had a 12-point SRS gap to make up, after all. The Breakers also still have the lead over the Stallions with a 9.3 average margin of victory, as opposed to the Stallions' 6.0; the Stallions can't seem to put anyone away before the end of the fourth quarter, while the Breakers absolutely destroyed the Bandits two weeks ago. But with the Stars' loss in the nightcap this week, the strength of schedule difference between the two clubs is too much to ignore – the Generals and Gamblers make for a much tougher set of opponents than the Bandits and Stars. However you look at it, it's fairly clear that the Breakers-Stallions match was, in fact, the matchup of the two best teams in the league so far. A rung down from them are the Generals, who lead the North division; they're the three teams in the league that have a positive EVOA on both offense and defense. The Generals are fourth in points allowed, but they get a boost from strength of schedule; they had to play the Stallions, after all, as well as the Stars and the best passing attack in the league. You would have to bet on the Generals taking on the Stallions/Breakers winner in Canton at the end of the season as things stand right now.

The Gamblers and Panthers are basically even, though they get there in very different ways. Gamblers games average 47.7 points a game, as their offense is difficult to stop and they seem only vaguely aware of the concept of defense. That makes their games more fun to watch then the Panthers, which average just 23 points per game and tend to devolve into puntfests. But stopping points is just as important as scoring them on the scoreboard; I just find bad football with lots of points to be more entertaining than bad football with few points. The Stars clock in a rung behind them, and they may fall sharply depending on Bryan Scott's health; more on that in a moment.

And then there are the Bandits, ranked surprisingly low despite their 2-1 record; they're still getting hammed from that 34-3 loss to the Breakers, and a close win over the Gamblers isn't enough to fully offset a third of your schedule being a disaster, ever after opponent adjustments. But at least they're not the Maulers, who look like what would happen if the USFL had it's own minor league; some sort of 2SFL. And then the Maulers would not be a particularly good team in that made-up league, either.

Bandits 27, Gamblers 26

I'll level with you, gentle reader – I did not watch this game, as it was going on at the same time as Day 3 of the NFL draft. I was more interested in the Punt God than minor league football, which meant I missed a ton of points, some back-and-forth action, and a game-winning field goal in a league that hasn't exactly had perfect kicking up to this point.

Todd Haley's speed passing game finally got off the blocks. Jordan Ta'amu went 21-for-36 for 255 yards. His one touchdown, however, was more due to the efforts of Derrick Dillon, whose six-catch, 124-yard day included this catch-and-run on a little hitch route.

But the Gamblers would not go gently into that good, er, midday Saturday. The USFL got it's first 100-yard rusher in Mark Thompson; he was already the league's leading rusher and now has added the longest run of the year to his resume.

That's not to say it was all pretty. This was the first play from the game I saw, and, well, minor league football everyone. This is exactly how you draw up a touchdown in the USFL.

The Bandits were down 26-17 entering the fourth quarter, but special teams came to their rescue. A blocked punt led to a touchdown three plays later – they went for one and not three, annoyingly. Ta'amu threw an interception the next time the Bandits had the ball, but the Gamblers had to punt three times in the quarter, giving the Bandits just enough chances. Tyler Rausa nailed a 48-yarder with 10 seconds left to win what looks like it was an exciting, rollicking, back-and-forth game. Why on earth FOX scheduled it during the draft I will never understand.

Stallions 22, Breakers 13

This was far from the cleanest game in USFL history, but it was tight and tense in all the right ways through three quarters, before going a bit gonzo nuts in the fourth; a fitting showcase of the two best teams in the league.

The Breakers came in as the best defense in the league, the Stallions as the best offense. Through three quarters, defense was winning, with the Breakers holding on to a 13-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Stallions quarterback J'Mar Smith was basically shut down; he completed less than 40% of his passes as Birmingham finally met an opponent that could keep up with their speed and timing. But the real surprise was the Stallions defense also showing up. The Breakers had the most points and yards per game entering this one, but Scooby Wright and company were flying all over the field themselves – sometimes literally, as in this goal-line stand in the first quarter.

The first three quarters featured 11 punts, two turnovers and one turnover on downs to just 23 combined points, but that was more good defense than bad offense; things weren’t always as crisp as they could have been, but it felt more like a game where the defenses were establishing themselves as opposed to a game where the offenses were just out of synch. And then the fourth quarter happened.

First, Victor Bolden fought through pass interference on back-to-back plays to give the Stallions a 17-13 lead.

Then, Kyle Sloter was sacked in the end zone for the first safety in USFL history, something that got Scooby Wright, er, excited…

And then DeMarquise "The Floss Pick Guy" Gates – who had 10 tackles, a fumble recovery, and an interception – ended the Breakers' last shot at going forward. Game over, Stallions win, they remain undefeated 3-0.

And, in perhaps a tribute to the 1980s origins of the league, Wright showed up to the next day's games, like…well…

Jinkies.

Panthers 24, Maulers 0

The Panthers are every bad Jeff Fisher team you've ever seen. Somewhat desperate for a spark, the 0-2 Panthers started Paxton Lynch over Shea Patterson; that lasted for one quarter before Lynch got hurt. It didn't matter in terms of quarterback play, with both guys combining to throw for a whopping 72 yards. And it didn't matter in terms of the outcome, as Fisher probably could have lined up behind center himself to throttle the Maulers.

Maulers coach Kirby Wilson is the worst in the league, and it's not particularly close. His play calling is atrocious, his lack of aggression egregious. Every time the Maulers actually started driving, usually due to a pass from Kyle Lauletta or Josh Love, Wilson would call a run into the line that got nothing, a second run into the line that got nothing, and then a screen pass on third and a mile that never had a chance of converting. He also loves long field goals – in a league where no kicker can be counted upon, Wilson called for a 57-yarder, and then, when that failed, a 46-yarder, and then, when that failed, a 59-yarder. The former running backs coach seems dramatically over his head, and is producing unwatchable football. I'm not expecting to find the next Sean McVay out here or anything, but finding a coach who can actually determine what his players do well and then ask them to do those things doesn't seem like it would be this difficult.

That being said, I don't think the Maulers would be a particularly good team no matter who was in charge. Wilson also did a poor job of choosing talent for his roster, and it leads to things like Reggie Corbin going for 133 yards on 20 carries. But mostly, it's just an offense so predictable even Jeff Fisher can figure out what's coming next. Until further notice, there's no reason to watch a single game involving the Maulers.

Generals 24, Stars 16

The big news coming out of this one is Bryan Scott's knee injury. The Stars quarterback was nursing a bad knee entering this one, which may have been somewhat caused by the league-high 10 sacks he had suffered through the first to weeks. But the league's leading passer was gutting through it, until he went down, untouched, late in the second quarter. At the time, the Stars were holding on to a 7-0 lead, but losing Scott is a huge blow. All the Stars could do well to this point was pass, and they were producing at a volume no one else in the league could match. Scott was my early choice for offensive player of the year and possibly MVP. Scott is the reason the Stars' passing game is what it is – he was helping coach Bart Andrus recruit all their old Spring League teammates, including all their leading receivers. If Scott misses the rest of the season, that's a huge blow to the Stars.

Case Cookus was alright in relief, as he and Scott combined for 230 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns; the Stars entered the fourth quarter up 16-10. But then the Generals' run game took over. The Generals have now run for over 200 yards in each of the last two weeks, averaging over five yards per carry in each game. On Sunday, it was Trey Williams with 110 yards and rushing quarterback DeAndre Johnson with 94, with Darius Victor punching in a pair of touchdowns on the ground. When Johnson is at quarterback, the Generals go to a read option-heavy attack which is really working for them; they bring in Luis Perez when they want to pass more and it just doesn't work as well. The Generals had three drives in the fourth quarter; they all went over 62 yards with the first two scoring touchdowns and the last draining the clock. The Generals are thus alone in first place in the North, and looking comfortable there thanks to the Stars' sudden worries at quarterback.

It's just a shame no one saw this, as it was the exclusive pay-tier Peacock game. The USFL is not doing a great job getting these games in front of people.

Comments

2 comments, Last at 02 May 2022, 2:45pm

2 We'll find out when the…

We'll find out when the ratings come out in a couple days.

I'd argue that it isn't in and of itself a bad sign.  Die-hard football junkies had the choice of watching a bunch of people they've never heard of play football for teams they don't care about, or watching a bunch of people they've never heard of assigned to teams they do care about, and that's a legit tough decision.

What I would say is that it's an example of the league doing a bad job scheduling things, promoting things, and generally running things -- a theme which continues next week, with a 10 PM Friday game of all things.

But maybe I'm wrong and they'll get five million people turning in on Saturday afternoon.  We'll see!