USFL Week 6 Preview: Will the Bandits Become Stars?
USFL - Week 6 in the USFL features the third of four interdivisional matchups as we pass the halfway point and begin the back half of the schedule.
I'll be honest with you—this may be the single least compelling slate of matchups in the USFL this season. There are three serious contending teams—the Stallions, Breakers, and Generals. None of them play one another in Week 6. And with teams playing outside of their own divisions, playoff implications are relatively muted as well. It may turn out, at the end of the season, that this was the least impactful week on the schedule.
But then again, maybe not. The Bandits are trying to show that the contending threesome should really be a contending foursome, trying to earn some style points in a matchup against the defenseless Stars. The Panthers are trying to overcome several fourth-quarter breakdowns and properly fulfill the Jeff Fisher legacy of only being slightly under .500. And the Maulers just won a game and have a new quarterback, and they're trying to show that they're not the same pushovers that have been beaten and battered to this point in the season.
And, of course, if the Stallions, Breakers, or Generals fall, races could be blown wide open. To this point, 15 of the 20 games have been decided by one score, keeping in mind that nine points is technically one score in the USFL. There's not nearly enough of a track record to call anyone a prohibitive favorite at this point. When most games are close, then most games provide something worth watching.
Un-Final Ratings Update
We said last week that the USFL had settled into a pattern where they were getting between 1.0 million and 1.2 million viewers on network television, and thus we didn't have to constantly go on about the ratings anymore. While not their initial hinted-at-targets, that was stable enough and everyone could go home happy.
Well, we have to open the television viewer keg once more, because Week 5 saw significant drops across the board.
FOX's Saturday afternoon matchup of the Generals and Breakers drew 724,000 viewers. Sunday's noon Eastern kickoff for Stallions-Stars on NBC drew 905,000 viewers, while the afternoon closer of Maulers-Gamblers on FOX drew just 692,000, the new low point for a network-broadcast spring league game in modern times. By comparison, the two Week 5 games for the XFL on ABC and FOX drew 1.55 and 1.50 million viewers in the last week before they were forced to shutter. This was the least-watched week of USFL action despite having three games on free TV.
After four weeks of holding steady, a 40% week-over-week drop from last week's numbers is catastrophic. Week 4's games weren't particularly good, which may be playing into this somewhat—they were interesting, yes, but not particularly well played. There were no primetime games, which often draw more viewers. The USFL's constantly shifting schedule around can't be helping either.
But there was also the little matter of multiple Game 7s in the NHL and NBA last weekend; if you're a casual sports fan rather than a die-hard USFL fan, watching elimination games between the best players in the world at their sports may well have been a bigger draw than midseason minor league football. There're two sides to that coin—first, most weeks won't go up against a ton of Game 7s, so if that's the problem, it's a temporary one. On the other hand, it's not like the NBA or NHL surprised anyone by scheduling the playoffs at this time; the USFL knew they were going head-to-head with the meat of their seasons by starting in April rather than February.
Every NBA playoff game this past week outdrew even NBC's best top numbers. Every weekend NHL game did, too, as did several weekday prime ESPN matchups. CBS' coverage of the PGA Tour dwarfed them. Both the NASCAR and Indy Car races outdrew the USFL, as did WWE SmackDown and Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN. When you slide down to the Maulers-Gamblers low point, you get passed by the LGPA, four more weekday NHL cable games, the National Hot Rod Association, and UFC Fight Night. And when you start talking about the 250,000 cable viewers for Panthers-Bandits on USA? Well, they were outdrawn by every single soccer game on cable TV, from 7 a.m. Sunday kickoffs to midweek 3 p.m. clashes. They also were outdrawn by NASCAR truck qualifying and the college softball regionals, though they did beat a Tuesday broadcast of the Red Sox and Braves.
The point is, this is a crowded time of the year for sports. This week sees two games sandwiched around the Preakness Stakes, while next week the USFL gets shunted around to avoid interfering with FOX's baseball coverage. The USFL risks getting lost in the wash, even as the on-field product gets better.
Naysayers are saying that these ratings just prove that the league's coming to a crashing end. USFL stans claim that this is all part of the plan, that any number in six figures is solid and just surviving to Year 2 is a victory. The truth, as nearly always, lies somewhere in between. One week of bleh ratings against serious sports competition is not the end of the world. But a made-for-TV product needs to draw eyeballs to TV. When you're getting fewer viewers than Simpsons reruns (720,000 on Sunday for FOX), that is not a positive omen going forwards.
More about what that omen could entail, in terms of some Xtreme Football Competition, after the four game previews.
Bandits (3-2) v. Stars (2-3)
Line: Bandits -3
Saturday, 1 p.m., NBC
NBC definitely gets the better of the deal this week in terms of broadcasting. They're sandwiching the Preakness Stakes with the Bandits and Stallions games. It's a horse-themed Saturday. Cute. Someone, somewhere in scheduling, saw an opportunity and ran with it, and we approve of that sort of nonsense 'round these parts.
The Bandits are tied for second place in the South right now with the Breakers. All of their advanced statistics are bad because of their 34-3 loss to said Breakers, which is also bad for their point differential and their playoff tiebreakers (we assume). Outside of that one blowout, they have been more or less on pace with the other playoff contending teams as they try to indicate that no, that game was a fluke, we're moving on now. Jordan Ta'amu has worked himself back into the form that made him a top quarterback in the AAF and XFL; he has been much more on-point the last couple weeks than he was at the beginning of the year. If the USFL had had an actual preseason, or at least more than three weeks working together before the year began, we might have been talking about the Bandits as one of the favorites. That being said, their wins have come against the Maulers, Gamblers, and Panthers, who have a combined total of three wins to this point in time. Beating the bad teams and losing to the good ones might get you a playoff berth, but it doesn't bode well to making noise when the league shifts to Canton for the postseason.
That makes this matchup against the Stars critical. The Stars aren't one of the good teams by any stretch of the imagination, but they have been more competitive than the three bottom-feeding teams. They had a double-digit lead on the hometown Stallions this week before Birmingham swapped back in their starting quarterback and hit the gas. The Stars are only interested in doing one thing, and that's throwing the football. Their passers have a combined quarterback rating of 91.5, second-best in the league, as Case Cookus has come in and provided adequate performances since the Bryan Scott injury. The Bandits allow the second-most passing yards per game, so their defense is going to have a bit of a test in this one.
But you can absolutely run all over the Stars; teams are averaging 193 yards a game against them. That makes this a winnable game for the Bandits, and one they absolutely need. If they can't beat the Stars, they're going to be exposed as a team that can't hang with solid teams, and they'll be an afterthought in the playoff race. If they can, however, they'll have their biggest win of the season and look to get some revenge on the South down the stretch. Stars 20, Bandits 19.
Panthers (1-4) v. Stallions (5-0)
Line: Stallions -6.5
Saturday, 7:30 p.m., NBC
Please, please, please let the Stallions' quarterback race be done and dusted. Birmingham let the Stars jump out to a multiple-score lead as they were messing around with Alex McGough before J'Mar Smith came in and the good Stallions resumed play. Birmingham has gone undefeated to this point on the back of a solid home crowd, Smith's athleticism, the clock-grinding runs of CJ Marable, and a ferocious pass rush. Messing with that formula is just asking for trouble. It's not a couple of stars leading the way for the Stallions, either. They get production from just about everybody, spreading things around enough that they only have one player atop any sort of statistical leaderboard halfway through the season (Victor Bolden, with 832 all-purpose yards). They're getting a boost from being the only team with a crowd, sure, but the Stallions are very much of a likeness with the Houston Roughnecks or Orlando Apollos, the best teams of spring leagues gone by. Not bad for a team that was pegged by many to be the worst in the league entering the season.
Jeff Fisher has managed to build a defense for the Panthers, we'll give him that. The Panthers lead the league with just 72 points allowed, and they have been legitimately stingy at times. The trouble is, the offense just hasn't gotten out of the gates, which is not what Fisher or the league had in mind when they gave them first pick among all quarterbacks. Shea Patterson is coming off of his first really decent game—over 300 yards passing after failing to hit 200 in the first month of the season. That's not what you want out of QB1! The Panthers have also been snakebit, with missed field goals, costly turnovers, and ill-timed defensive lapses destroying them down the stretch. We'd say they had been unlucky, but they have also been relying more than anyone else on third-down conversions this season as even their successful drives feel more like luck than skill. If the Maulers' quarterback change truly sparked something for them, this is the worst offense in the league.
The Stallions had their first win by more than one score last week. The Panthers' best hopes might be preventing this from being safe win No. 2. Stallions 23, Panthers 16.
Maulers (1-4) v. Breakers (3-2)
Line: Breakers -8
Sunday, 12 p.m., FS1
Are the Breakers paper tigers? They're still second in our EVOA ratings, but their two losses have come against both of the other good teams in the league, the Stallions and Generals. They're being significantly buoyed by one blowout victory over the Bandits; maybe we're reading too much into what was an early-season fluke. After all, the Carolina Panthers started last season 3-0; small sample sizes sometimes produce weird results.
I don't think it's just one game for the Breakers, mind you. They handled the healthy Stars back in Week 1 and gave the Stallions a decent fight in Week 3. I side with the Generals' running game just being a bit of a bad matchup for a Breakers team that is, by design, undersized and speedy rather than big and bulky. They're also in the middle of quarterback problems at the moment, as Kyle Sloter is banged up. You can see it in his performance; he's less accurate than he was to start the year. I'd argue that the Breakers are going through a bit of a rough patch, as opposed to not being as good as they were at the beginning of the year. But in a 10-week season, with the Bandits nipping at their heels, they can't afford for the rough patch to last too much longer.
Are the Maulers actually good? No. But are the Maulers going to be better now that they have finally made a quarterback switch? Vad Lee came in with just five days of experience on the roster and all of a sudden the Maulers were moving the football; they looked like an entirely different team out there. It doesn't say great things about the Maulers' coaching staff that a guy can come off the street and do better than either of their drafted or scouted players, but we'll take what we can get. Lee and Bailey Gaither had instant chemistry, though Gaither did bail Lee out of a couple of ill-advised throws with some spectacular catches. Combine a workable offense with a defense that has at least avoided true putridness, and you might have something here.
Color me skeptical on Lee after just one game—there was a lot of hit-and-miss in his play, but that's better than the miss-and-miss that the Maulers were getting from everyone else to start the year. I suspect that the Maulers will look more like their first-month selves than they did last week; a Breakers loss here would be stunning. Breakers 30, Maulers 7.
Gamblers (1-4) v. Generals (4-1)
Line: Generals -7
Sunday, 4 p.m., FOX
Is the two-quarterback system done for the Generals, or will Luis Perez come back in and take snaps away from De'Andre Johnson? The Perez-led passing Generals are a solid enough team, but the Johnson-led running Generals is the version of this roster that can make noise in the postseason. So long as they can avoid going down early, they can run people over all day—they're averaging a league-leading 180.2 rushing yards per game at a 4.6 yards per carry clip. The only teams in the last 30 years to average that kind of rushing game in the NFL are the 2019-2020 Lamar Jackson-led Ravens and the 2006 Michael Vick Falcons. Johnson's not Jackson or Vick, obviously, but he has an advantage in athleticism over your typical USFL defender. When you have a quarterback with that kind of advantage, you're very, very tough to stop. I like Luis Perez a lot; he'd be a starter for the Maulers, Gamblers, or Panthers, and you could talk me into the Bandits and Breakers. But he doesn't provide the same level of competitive advantage that Johnson does. We shouldn't see Perez again unless the Generals go down multiple scores and get into a must-pass situation.
The Gamblers lost to a winless team—the third week in a row they have lost in the closing seconds. They're still first in the league in turnover differential, but also dead last in yards allowed and points allowed. This is a recipe for fun, exciting games which they inevitably lose. If the Gamblers can ever learn to close things out—sitting on a lead with a running game, perhaps, or playing less aggressively on defense and forcing opponents to take actual time to move up and down the field—they may be able to get out of the cellar. I'm not counting on that happening this week. Generals 23, Gamblers 17.
A New Challenger Appears
The USFL was brought to market this year in order to beat the XFL back to business. This week saw the XFL firing back.
On Tuesday, it was announced that the XFL had signed a five-year exclusive contract with Disney and ESPN, with 43 games each season being "aired and streamed across ABC, ESPN and FX," as well as exclusive content for ESPN+. They also made official the long-rumored kickoff date of February 18, 2023, following training camps in a central location (presumably Dallas) in early January. That would be six weeks of preseason practice as opposed to the USFL's three.
The XFL was originally planning on coming back this year through a deal with the CFL, but that fell through before anything could happen. They have agreed to a collaboration with the NFL, though exactly what that will entail is not yet clear. We know that it will not be a feeder league, but it sounds like the NFL will have some input into the rules and broadcast components of the league, using it as an explicit testing ground for things they may want to try at some point in the future.
Not yet official, but highly rumored, is the league structure. Reports have the league not identifying team names and locations until this summer, as they're still having "ongoing and fluid" discussions about stadiums. Stadiums plural, note—the rumors, at the moment, state the that the XFL will not be copying the USFL's hub organization, and instead having some, most, or all of their teams playing in the cities they represent. The Rock, co-owner of the league, has made multiple Tweets referring to taking the field "in stadiums across our country," though he could also be referring to the XFL's plan to have a series of tryout showcases around the country this summer.
The connection with Disney also hints at confirming the rumors about which teams the XFL will trot out in 2023. Current speculation has five of the XFL's eight teams from 2020—the Seattle Dragons, St. Louis BattleHawks, DC Defenders, Dallas Renegades, and Houston Roughnecks—making a return. One more team, the Vipers, have been rumored to move from Tampa Bay to Orlando, which would fit in well with the Disney connection. The rumors have the L.A. Wildcats and New York Guardians being disbanded, with new teams being awarded to San Antonio and Las Vegas to fill out the ranks. The Guardians and Wildcats were the two XFL teams to average less than 15,000 fans a game in the 2020 season, while the Vipers were the only other team under 16,000, so singling those three out for relocation would make sense.
We also know all eight head coaches, though not which teams they would be running. They are Bob Stoops, Terrell Buckley, Reggie Barlow, Wade Phillips, Rod Woodson, Anthony Becht, Jim Haslett, and Hines Ward. That's an interesting mix of names, including three former NFL players who have never gone beyond position coach.
Assuming the USFL continues into 2023, and assuming the XFL gets off the ground, we'll be covering both as they battle for what has to be a fairly small market, all things considered. Will fans really want to watch 24 weeks of minor league football? Will they pick sides? Will the USFL's two-year contracts keep enough talent away to squash the XFL? Will the XFL playing in front of moderate crowds make the USFL look bush league? Will ESPN advertising and backing the XFL do more or less than FOX backing the USFL? The battle on the field isn't the biggest challenge the USFL has coming down the pipe.