USFL Week 5: Generals Command the North

New Jersey Generals WR KaVontae Turpin
New Jersey Generals WR KaVontae Turpin
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

USFL - We have reached the halfway point of the USFL season, and three teams have firmly planted themselves above the rest.

The Birmingham Stallions continue to ride home-field advantage. They're still undefeated, they boast the most consistent offense in the league, they have the closest thing the league has to a breakout star in Scooby Wright, and generally look to at least finish the Birmingham part of the schedule without any severe hiccups.

The Breakers continue to grade out as the top defense in the league; a fast, swarming unit that shuts down passing attacks. Coming into this week, they were the top scoring defense and second-best scoring offense, a combination which seemingly has them on a collision course with the Stallions for the playoffs.

But now there is a new challenge from the North. The Generals became the first team to pull out a North-over-South victory this season, knocking down our previously top-rated Breakers and declaring themselves a force to be reckoned with when it comes to actually claiming the title. The Generals have won four straight games, with their only loss coming at the last second against the undefeated Birmingham Stallions in a quasi-road game. They seem to have figured out the best version of themselves, deciding on their quarterback situation and embracing their identity as a run-first, run-second, run-third powerhouse. They're still a firm third place in our ratings but they're climbing, bit by bit, to a level we have only seen from the South to this point. Give them the Stallions again on a neutral field in Canton and we just might see a different outcome.

The Generals are done with the toughest part of their schedule now, going 1-1 against the Stallions and Breakers. The Stallions, of course, are 2-0 against their tough competition. And that leaves the Breakers, 0-2 against actual top-flight competition to this point. Their high ranking is being buoyed by the 34-3 destruction over the Bandits back in Week 2; the 31-point win is a full score more than the next biggest blowout of the year. Are they unfairly being boosted into the upper echelon by one game out of five? Or are two close losses against good teams still solid results? We'll learn more as the season continues.

Here are the updated SRS and EVOA (estimated DVOA) rankings through the midpoint of the season!

2022 USFL Rankings, Week 5
Rk Team W-L SRS OSRS Rk DSRS Rk EVOA Off
EVOA
Def
EVOA
1 Stallions 5-0 8.0 5.1 1 2.9 4 22.1% 14.0% -8.1%
2 Breakers 3-2 6.0 0.8 5 5.1 1 16.7% 2.6% -14.2%
3 Generals 4-1 4.9 2.0 4 4.9 3 13.9% 5.7% -8.2%
4 Panthers 1-4 -1.5 -4.8 7 3.3 2 -3.3% -12.5% -9.2%
5 Gamblers 1-4 -2.2 3.3 3 -5.5 7 -5.3% 9.2% 14.4%
6 Stars 2-3 -2.6 3.9 2 -6.5 8 -6.3% 10.8% 17.0%
7 Bandits 3-2 -3.2 -2.2 6 -1.0 5 -8.0% -5.6% 2.3%
8 Maulers 1-4 -11.3 -9.1 8 -2.2 6 -29.8% -24.1% 5.7%

The 3-2 Bandits being in seventh place behind the 1-4 Panthers and Gamblers does stick out like a sore thumb, doesn't it? They're the flipside of that 31-point Breakers victory, so you could argue that they're getting unfairly hit for one really, really bad day. Five weeks isn't all that much time, all things considered; in our NFL DVOA ratings, we would still deep into DAVE and preseason adjustments at this point. We don't have any DAVE or preseason adjustments for the USFL, so we don't have any priors to go by other than all teams being about equal. But we can look at the numbers in a different way.

While big victories do in fact matter—we're back to guts and stomps again—one of the main problems with the Simple Rating System is that it is easily impressed by blowout victories. It has a 50-point win and a 10-point loss being worth more than two 14-point wins, which most people would disagree with. Over the long term, this tends to work itself out; either a team will consistently pickup blowout wins, or individual games will be just one tiny fraction of a team's grade. But at the moment, that one 31-point win is 20% of the season for the Breakers and Bandits, and maybe you think that that's not fair.

Well, we can run the numbers again, only this time capping each victory at, say, 10 points—a two-score win in the USFL, but not more. We'd get a slightly different ordering in that case.

Five teams—the Stallions, Generals, Gamblers, Panthers and Stars—are essentially unaffected, with their EVOA staying within five percentage points of their actual total. The Stars actually end up exactly the same. The changes do bump the Panthers down from fourth to seventh, as they're dining out a little on their 24-0 shutout of the Maulers from Week 3, but that's more due to there being four teams very closely clumped together between fourth and seventh than anything else.

The Breakers would drop from a 16.7% EVOA to 6.3%, while the Bandits jump from -8.0% to -0.2%. The Breakers remain the third-best team in the league, but the Bandits jump from seventh to fourth. They lose a little credit for beating the Maulers by 14, but that's nothing compared to the pain they get from absorbing that Breakers beatdown. They still stay on the negative side of the ledger, but they clear all the teams with worse records than them, which is something.

The Maulers, too, improve dramatically. They rise from -29.8% to -19.6% as their losses to the Bandits and Panthers become less painful. They still remain in last place, however, because, well, they're not very good. But this week was different, and brought some hope! Let's get to the recaps to figure out what we're talking about here.

Bandits 27, Panthers 20

The Panthers got the first choice of quarterbacks in the draft, but that is apparently not enough for Jeff Fisher. Four different Panthers attempted a pass in the first 17:04 of the game as Fisher busted out the double pass, the fake punt, and the end-around receiver option in an attempt to get his second win of the season.

In one three-play stretch, we had:

  • The Panthers throwing a double-pass touchdown, with Shea Patterson throwing to Joe Walker throwing to Ryan O'Malley for six:

     

  • The Bandits screwing up a flea-flicker, but Jordan Ta'amu recovering in time to hit Derrick Dillion for a deep-shot touchdown:

     

  • Panthers running back Stevie Scott fumbling the ball, which was recovered by Obi Melifonwu, who then fumbled himself, giving the ball back to Maea Teuhema and the Panthers. It was that kind of game, for the most part.

Panthers quarterback Shea Patterson had his best game of the year, going 23-for-37 for 304 yards with a touchdown and a pick, but Todd Haley's Bandits defense was the story of the game. Coming into this one, Panthers running back Reggie Corbin was the league-leading rusher. He was absolutely bottled up, gaining 28 yards on 12 carries, and that includes one 20-yard gain early. And he was the most effective of the Panthers running backs, with Scott and Cameron Scarlett combining for seven carries and 11 yards. The Bandits sealed off the running game, forcing Patterson (and company) to throw early and often—effectively, at that, but it made them one-dimensional.

Christian Sam had three passes defended, seven sacks, and an interception. Greg Reaves had a pair of sacks, a pass defended, and two turnovers forced, including a forced fumble after the two-minute warning, with the Panthers driving in an attempt to tie the game.

It's a big win for the Bandits, one they absolutely needed as they to keep pace with the Stallions and the Breakers for the two South playoff spots. Jordan Ta'amu played solid, mistake-free ball, throwing for a pair of touchdowns as he slowly regains the form that made him a star in the AAF and XFL. The Bandits became the first team to score a touchdown against the Panthers in the second half all season on their way to a win.

As for the Panthers, well, they have a +7 point differential but are 1-4. Their four losses saw them either have the lead or the ball in a one-score game in the last two minutes of the game, but they haven't been able to finish. At least they play in the North, and so they're not entirely out of the race just yet.

Generals 27, Breakers 17

For the first time, one of the South's Big Two has fallen, with the Generals racking up an impressive victory to finally give the North a win in the inter-conference battle. That makes four straight wins for the Generals after falling in the waning seconds on opening day, as they have firmly staked their claim as a legitimate title contender.

In the first four weeks, the Generals were running a two-quarterback system, with Luis Perez and De'Andre Johnson splitting time. That appears to be over, as Johnson took every snap against the Generals. The Generals' offense has looked more potent all season long with Johnson under center. His running threat gives their offense a dimension that Perez doesn't bring, and he's solid enough as a passer to keep the team moving through the air when necessary.

And that was, in fact, the case against the Breakers. Johnson ran for two touchdowns while throwing for 213 yards; he's enough of a threat as a runner to open up running lanes for Darius Victor and company while still being able to hit the likes of Kavontae Turpin when he gets open. Yes, yes, we know that you don't need to be able to run well to hit play-action, but the Generals' option running attack is causing defenses to second-guess themselves. High-quality linebackers and safeties wouldn't be fooled, but these are USFL-caliber defenders, and the Generals' running attack is freezing people in their tracks, leading to huge running lanes and wide-open receivers. We have been saying for the last couple of weeks that the ultimate version of this Generals team is one that had Johnson under center the entire time, and it appears Mike Riley has come to the same conclusion. We'll have to see if it was an opponent-specific adjustment or if this is Johnson's team going forwards.

Our numbers still have the Breakers as the better team overall, though they're being buoyed a little bit by the one true blowout in the league to this point, the 34-3 win over the Bandits back in Week 2. They have been touted as having the best defense in the league, but that has been in large part due to their pass rush; they have occasionally been tested on the ground. The Generals are the best rushing team in the league, and they showed it again on Saturday with 42 rushes for 188 yards behind Johnson, Victor, and Trey Williams. The Breakers have been used to defending leads and sending pass-rushers with abandon; the Generals were able to hold on to the ball and control clock in a way the Breakers seemed not to be able to handle. Styles make fights, as they say.

The Breakers also have a quarterback problem. Kyle Sloter has been banged up all season long and got further banged up after being drilled late in the third quarter after a lightning delay had already paused things for 45 minutes. At that point, the game was still close, with the Breakers driving down 24-17. After the delay and the injury, however, Sloter became significantly less effective, throwing his second interception of the day and never finding a way to get back into a rhythm. Sloter needs a rest, but there are no bye weeks in the USFL, and the Breakers are the only team to have zero snaps from their second quarterback. Perhaps it was due to the injury, perhaps it was due to Larry Fedora calling plays for the absent coordinator Noel Mazzone, or perhaps the Generals' defense really is the best in the league, as they claimed after the game. Either way, they'll need an effective, healthy Sloter if they're going to keep pace with the Stallions in the South.

Stallions 30, Stars 17

The Stallions just wanted to give the Stars a fighting chance, it seems.

Birmingham started Alex McGough over J'Mar Smith at quarterback. McGough had been the opening-week starter before getting hurt and had filled in for Smith last week due to COVID protocols. We had assumed Smith would get the starting job back this week, but Stallions coach Skip Holtz apparently wanted to see what McGough gave Birmingham—after all, he was their QB1 going into the year!

We have an answer. McGough went 4-for-11 for 50 yards with one touchdown and one interception before being pulled. Smith came in, went 17-for-22 for 203 yards and a score, and I'm pretty sure we have seen the end of the famous adventures of Mr. McGough.

The Stallions were also without star linebacker Scooby Wright, and much-hyped free agent signing Bo Scarbrough was ineffective in his USFL debut, gaining 25 yards on seven carries.

None of this mattered, as the Stallions scored 23 unanswered points after Smith came in to remain a perfect 5-0 on the year in front of a lighter-than-usual crowd for a Birmingham home game. Maybe everyone was just a little sleepy from the 11 a.m. local start, and couldn't kick it into high gear until the second half?

The Stars had some highlights in the first half. Paul Terry had 95 yards on seven touches. The defense got to the Stallions quarterbacks for four sacks and a pick as the defense actually generated some pressure for once. But they were shut out in the second half as backup quarterback Case Cookus couldn't produce the same kind of aerial highlights that he managed last week. The Stars' last seven drives consisted of two lost fumbles, two three-and-outs, a six-and-out, the end of the first half, and the end of the game. The Stallions just clamped down entirely, giving their offense more than enough time to recover from a 10-point second-quarter deficit.

And while the much-touted Scarbrough did nothing of note, CJ Marable ended up with a 114-yard rushing day against the notoriously porous Stars defense. A lot of it came in the second half with Birmingham draining clock, but it's easier to drain clock when you're averaging 5 yards a carry.

Maulers 21, Gamblers 20

The Maulers did it! They finally won a game! And all it took was randomly changing players at the quarterback position.

The Maulers took two quarterbacks in the USFL draft, Kyle Lauletta and Josh Love. Love is gone, waived earlier this week. Lauletta was benched after one quarter of action this week. That left Vad Lee, signed on Tuesday, to lead the Maulers.

Lee played collegiately first at Georgia Tech and then at James Madison. After going undrafted in 2016, he spent some time on the bench in Canada before moving to the Your Call Football league, where fans called all the plays through a mobile app. He later ended up on an XFL practice squad and the bench of a couple of Spring League teams; he hasn't made much of an impact in the pros.

He does, however, bring an element of mobility to the Maulers, and when your quarterbacks can't throw, at least let them run, right? With just a few days of practice, Lee came in and went 19-of-32 for 170 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, scrambling five more times for 20 yards. That's better than anything Lauletta or Love had managed all season long, and Lee developed instant chemistry with Bailey Gaither, who caught eight passes for 108 yards and both of Lee's touchdowns.

The Gamblers held a 17-9 lead entering the fourth quarter, but then turned the ball over twice. An Olive Sagapolu sack forced a Clayton Thorson fumble inside the Gamblers 30, and Lee hit Gaither for touchdown No. 1 two plays later.

The ensuing two-point conversion failed, however, and the Gamblers were able to eat up half of the remaining clock on the ensuing drive. They couldn't punch it in, but a 44-yard field goal had the Gamblers up five points with 3:34 left in the game. On that final drive alone, Lee went 8-for-11, picking up multiple first downs and keeping the Bandits in forward motion. They had the ball just inside the 10 with four seconds left in the game when Lee found Gaither for his second touchdown of the day. Maulers win!

The Gamblers aren't very good, so we'll refrain from making too many judgments on the Maulers' victory in and of itself. But there's no denying the offense looked far closer to competent with Lee under center. Combine that with a defense that usually doesn't make too much of a fool of itself and it's entirely feasible that the Maulers might win a couple more games before all is said and done. Their first four weeks killed any realistic chance of a championship, but any move to improve the worst team in the league is a welcome one.

Comments

3 comments, Last at 16 May 2022, 11:46am

1 Yes, yes, we know that you…

Yes, yes, we know that you don't need to be able to run well to hit play-action, but the Generals' option running attack is causing defenses to second-guess themselves. High-quality linebackers and safeties wouldn't be fooled

You say that, but college option teams have been able to gash even professional SEC teams with surprise deep-shots, and Tebow Tebow'd the Steelers that way in a playoff game.

True option teams are stupidly efficient at throwing the ball, much in the way that throwing 1/10 pitches at 80 mph makes a change-up a devastating weapon. 

Even Belichick defenses didn't know what to do with option attacks at first, and the Wildcat can still be run effectively if the Wildcat QB can throw the ball a little. The threat of running and the panic it sews into defensive secondaries makes Lamar Jackson an MVP.

2 The Gamblers aren't very…

The Gamblers aren't very good, so we'll refrain from making too many judgments on the Panthers' victory in and of itself. But there's no denying the offense looked far closer to competent with Lee under center. Combine that with a defense that usually doesn't make too much of a fool of itself and it's entirely feasible that the Panthers might win a couple more games before all is said and done. 

Maulers, not Panthers.

3 USFL Drive

Watching Vad Lee turn into the USFL answer to John Elway was the most fun I've had watching USFL football yet. By like more than a little bit.

It's just a shame that i had more fans at my midget football games than were watching Vad Lee's finest moment of his minor league career [so far].