USFL Week 7: Stallions and Generals Clinch Playoff Berths

Generals RB Trey Williams
Generals RB Trey Williams
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

USFL - With three weeks to go in the USFL’s inaugural season, the playoff picture is as clear as can be.

Two teams – the Generals and the Stallions – punched their ticket to Canton this weekend. One more team – the Gamblers – was mathematically eliminated. That means only five teams still have things to play for as the league wraps back around to finish off its divisional matchups. That’s rather unfortunate, but it’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. When you have half the league making the postseason, and no reward for finishing first in a division, sometimes obvious results become obvious early. I’m sure there’ll be plenty interesting to watch as the season winds down, but I’m sure the USFL was hoping for a little more overarching drama to match what has been an entertaining set of games.

First off, we have our updated EVOA (estimated DVOA) ratings!

2022 USFL Rankings, Week 7
Rk Team W-L SRS OSRS Rk DSRS Rk EVOA Off
EVOA
Def
EVOA
1 Stallions 7-0 7.9 5.4 1 2.5 3 21.2% 14.5% -6.7%
2 Breakers 5-2 4.4 1.8 3 2.6 2 11.7% 4.9% -6.9%
3 Generals 6-1 4.3 -0.0 5 4.3 1 11.4% -0.1% -11.5%
4 Stars 4-3 -0.1 4.7 2 -4.8 8 -0.4% 12.7% 13.0%
5 Panthers 1-6 -1.1 -2.6 6 1.5 4 -3.1% -7.1% -4.0%
6 Gamblers 1-6 -2.6 1.8 3 -4.4 7 -7.1% 4.9% 11.9%
7 Bandits 3-4 -3.6 -3.2 7 -0.4 5 -9.8% -8.7% 1.2%
8 Maulers 1-6 -9.0 -7.8 8 -1.2 6 -24.2% -21.1% 3.2%

No major changes here. The Gamblers' first two-score loss bumps them from fourth to sixth, but everyone else stays in the same order they were. Your four presumptive playoff teams occupy slots 1-4, which is at least somewhat satisfying to see.

We can also break things down one more way, looking at the possible playoff outcomes over the final three weeks, to show how little drama is left in the regular season.

In the North, the Stars join the Generals in the playoffs if they win one more game. Even if they go 0-3, they’ll still slip in unless the Panthers or Maulers win out.

There are fewer scenarios in the South with the Gamblers out, but the situation is at least a little more complicated. If the Bandits end up with the same record as the Breakers, they’ll be the ones joining the Stallions in Canton due to their divisional record. But they’re two games down with three to play.

Here’s hoping for a few more upsets next week to keep intrigue alive.  Now, on to this week’s lack of upsets.

New Jersey Generals 20, Tampa Bay Bandits 13

The Generals became the first team to punch their ticket to Canton, getting to 6-1 and ensuring themselves one of the two slots in the North with three weeks to play.

We said last week that this was essentially a must-win game for the Bandits, with their playoff hopes being severely damaged if they couldn’t top the Generals. We said they would have a chance if they could only stop shooting themselves in the foot. Well, tough luck there. Jordan Ta’amu threw three interceptions, and while the Generals didn’t actually score off of any of them, they killed promising drives. Add in the two turnovers on downs, and half of the Bandits’ drives ended with them handing the ball over to the Generals, and you’re simply not going to win many football games like that. The Bandits are now dead last with a -10 turnover differential, with no other team being worse than -3. That’s bad.

The Generals defense feasted. Dravon Askew-Henry had two interceptions and Shalom Luani the other, while Luani, Djuan Hines and Bryson Young all got to Ta’amu for sacks in the backfield. They were needed, too, as the Generals offense was less effective with Luis Perez still filling in for the injured De’Andre Johnson. Darius Victor rushed for 72 yards and a touchdown, but we’re used to seeing the Generals go for more than 3.4 yards per carry. It’s nice that they have a solid backup quarterback in Perez, who was solid and professional and did a good job distributing the ball to his various playmakers. But I’m also very sure the Generals do not mind having three weeks to chill and get everyone healthy, so we can see the offense that really pushed them to their 6-1 start in action. USFL teams don’t really have enough depth to do too much resting of starters, but they can at least make sure any key players don’t get overworked over the next few weeks as they prep for the Canton trip.

They’re loose, at the very least, and ready to roll.

The Bandits did make this one a game in the fourth quarter, with Ta’amu hitting John Franklin for a touchdown with ten minutes left in the game to make things 20-13. But the Bandits had to punt the next time they had the ball, and their last drive ended up seeing their last pass swatted down in the end zone, as the Generals held on to the lead and the victory.

The Generals received their playoff notification in a special blue envelope, and I can’t decide if this is stupid or kind of endearing. Probably a little bit of both. I’d love to see Bill Belichick awkwardly holding one of these up this season. Get ready to steal some ideas, NFL.

New Orleans Breakers 31, Michigan Panthers 27

After 12 weeks of waiting for it between the XFL and USFL, we finally had our first shootout-style overtime. And we can thank Jeff Fisher for getting us there.

For those who don’t remember, the USFL doesn’t play a standard NFL overtime. Instead, they go to a best-of-three shootout, with each offense running three scrimmage plays from the two-yard line. If both teams are tied after three attempts, they go to sudden death. Its main selling points, theoretically, are fairness – each team gets the same number of cracks at the end zone, so there’s not as much worry about coin tosses or sudden death – as well as speed, which is important for a league determined to try to squeeze into designated TV schedules.

But before we got to overtime, we had to play 60 minutes of regular football first. This was the first game for Fisher’s Panthers since they cut no. 1 overall pick Shea Patterson. With Paxton Lynch still hurt, that meant Josh Love got the start. Fisher said after the game that Love gave them a boost at the quarterback position, which is debatable. Love’s stats – 18-of-37 for 179 yards – were nothing particularly to write home about, going under both Patterson’s accuracy and his yards per attempt. But Love also didn’t turn the ball over, doing just enough with his arm to keep the Panthers moving against the league’s top defense. Reggie Corbin added 108 yards on 13 carries as the Panthers set a new season-high in points scored.

The Panthers also looked, for a while, to have finally solved their kicking woes, having lost several games this season on last-minute missed kicks. Cole Murphy has now twice set the record for longest field goal in USFL history, blasting a 56-yarder last week and topping that with a 60-yarder on Saturday. Murphy could easily find his way onto an NFL team in a month and a half with a leg like that.

Murphy was four-of-five on field goals on Saturday, which is both good and highlights a Panther problem – they weren’t finishing drives. They had a 10-play drive end on a fourth-down failure and two field goal drives of 13 and 16 plays. Their two touchdowns came on short fields, once after a Lance Lenoir fumble on a kickoff, and the second after a roughing the passer call converted a third-and-long. For most of the game, the Breakers were playing bend-but-don’t-break defense. It would have worked without a problem, had the offense not sputtered in the second half and allowed the Panthers to take the lead.

Fisher and the Panthers had the ball up 27-24 with two minutes left in the game, facing a 4th-and-3 from the Breaker 36-yard line, and here’s where Fisher reared his ugly head once again. He could have attempted to pick up a first down, keeping the ball and draining more of the clock. He could have pooch-punted, trying to pin the Breakers inside their own 10-yard line. Or he could attempt a 54-yard field goal, turning a one-score lead into, er, a one-score lead and giving the Breakers the ball back either way.

Going for it is the correct analytical decision, generally speaking, though that’s working with NFL baselines. While the Breakers still had all their timeouts and wouldn’t have ended the game just by picking up the first down, they would have at least wasted all of the Breakers’ resources had they picked up three yards. Most win probability models have the offense winning more than 90% of the time with a conversion, and at around 60% even if they fail. It’s probably about a 50/50 chance of converting, considering the strength of USFL offenses, so let’s call it a 75% chance of winning if the Panthers had gone for it. Punting isn’t a terrible option, either, as the Breakers hadn’t been moving the ball with excessive amounts of ease. Pinning them deep and playing defense ends up with about a 70% win chance in most models. The worst option is trying the 54-yarder. Even if you make it, you still need to keep the Breakers out of the end zone, and you’re still giving them the ball back. If you miss it, you're giving the Breakers an extra eight yards of field position. Models peg the Panthers’ win percentage at about 80% if they make it, and at about 55% if they don’t – and even with a kicker with the leg to make a 60+ yarder, trusting a USFL kicker to make a 50+-yard field goal at any given point seems like playing with fire. I’d rank going for it as the best option, followed by punting, followed by attempting the field goal.

The Panthers tried the field goal, and Murphy missed his first kick of the game. The Breakers drove the short field, kicking a tying field goal as time expired, and we went to the shootout. Because of course they did. Fisher’s team just can’t buy a break.

The shootout is…interesting. Perhaps because of the lack of atmosphere, it feels almost perfunctory – very go, go, go, and we’re done. A soccer shootout benefits from the drama, the isolated camera angles on the penalty taker slowly walking towards the spot, cuts to the goalie dancing on the end line. These were just a bunch of regular plays without any feeling of weight or importance to them. I’m tempted to blame that more on the broadcast than the rule itself, but I wasn’t overly thrilled with the shootout just yet. It probably didn’t help that the Panthers’ first play saw the ball snapped over the quarterback’s head, and their second was thrown right into the body of a Breaker defender. The Breakers easily scored on their two attempts, ending the shootout before they could even get to the third round, and Fisher and company dropped to 1-6.

As a side note, I’m treating the game as a 27-27 tie for the purposes of SRS and EVOA and whatnot, rather than adding the four extra points to the Breaker offense and Panther defense. It seems a bit silly that those are counted as actual points rather than just successes and failures, but that’s a very minor nitpick and quibble.

Birmingham Stallions 26, Pittsburgh Maulers 16

Considering the Stallions remain undefeated at 7-0, and the Maulers remain the worst team in the USFL, this one remained remarkably close through the first half – the Maulers even held a 10-6 lead, threatening what would easily be the biggest upset in USFL history to this point.

That’s been par for the course for the Stallions, however – they have a -11 point differential in the first half of games, and have found themselves more often then not trailing even when entering the fourth quarter. But Birmingham has a league-best +78 point differential in the second half, and played to that form yet again on Sunday. Another double-digit win, another victory, and a playoff berth locked up for the best team in the USFL.

The Stallions’ slow starts in the first half might be a concern going forward, especially if some of their second-half success has been spurred by a partisan crowd behind them. That won’t travel to Canton with them, as that will be their first true neutral site games of the season. That might why Skip Holtz wasn’t overly pleased, despite locking up a playoff slot. His post-game press conference was all about limiting mental mistakes and playing four full quarters and all that sort of thing. You can chalk that up more or less under good problems to have, but problems are still problems. What didn’t come back to bite the against the Maulers might bite them against the Breakers or the Generals, competent teams in a game that might matter.

At the very least, a better team might have been positioned to take advantage of the Stallions’ early-game miscues. J’Mar Smith had his worst game of the season, completing just nine passes for 138 yards with a pick. And a huge chunk of those 138 yards came on one pass play to Victor Bolden.

Smith was not helped by a depleted receiving corps, with Marlon Williams missing the game with injury and Bolden knocked out of action in the first half. Things got so bad that backup quarterback Alex McGough had to play some emergency slot receiver in the second half.

Smith targeted McGough four times, resulting in three incomplete passes, one DPI, and an interception, so this may not be the long-term answer they were hoping for.

At one point, the Maulers were ahead by as many as four points. That may not sound like a lot to you or me, but it’s the biggest lead the Maulers have had all season long. With the offense struggling, Holtz turned to his special teams, dialing up fake punt direct snap to “Hardcore” Bobby Holly.

That was your turning point in this one. Birmingham rode Bo Scarbrough the rest of the way, outscoring the Maulers 20-6 in the second half. In desperation, the Maulers pulled QB3 Vad Lee (6-for-14 for 58 yards) for QB4 Roland Rivers, but he couldn’t provide a spark. The Stallions are going to Canton.

Philadelphia Stars 35, Houston Gamblers 24

I feel, at this point, the only way to truly recap a Gamblers game is to throw a bunch of scrabble tiles into a bag, with random big plays written on them. Pull seven of them out, and you have your recap. This one saw a pick-six less than 65 seconds into the game and 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, with the usual smattering of big plays and killer penalties mixed in in the intervening 43 minutes and change. And, as required by USFL bylaws, the Gamblers came out on the losing end of the chaos. They drop to 1-6 and are officially eliminated from postseason contention, despite being easily the most entertaining of the one-win teams.

The fourth quarter’s really where the story was in this game, but we’ll start with Donald Payne running an early Case Cookus pass back for six before the fan had even finished finding his seat.

That set the tone, as the Stars and Gamblers traded blows for the first half. The Stars blocked a Gamblers’ punt, setting up a field goal. James Crawford sacked Gamblers quarterback Clayton Thorson, forcing a fumble which put the Stars in good position to score again. But Case Cookus threw a second interception to Payne, which allowed Gamblers backup quarterback Kenji Bahar to come in and throw a touchdown of his own just before the end of the first half. Bahar and Mark Thompson engineered a long drive that ate up most of the third quarter, and the Gamblers stood strong with a 24-13 lead with 15 minutes to go. Surely, surely they would find a way to win and save their season.

There were eight drives in the fourth quarter. None of them went the Gamblers’ way.

Drive one saw Cookus throw a 39-yard touchdown to Jordan Suell on a play where the Gamblers cornerback fall down. 24-20, Gamblers.

Drive two saw the Gamblers miss a 49-yard field goal. That led to Stars marching 61 yards in 10 plays on drive three, with Cookus’ scramble for 29 yards setting up another Stars touchdown. 27-24, Stars.

Now trailing, drive four saw the Gamblers fumble the ensuing kickoff, recover it, and then throw an interception two plays later. Channing Stribling took Bahar’s pass to the house, but a penalty meant it ended up as just an interception rather than a pick-six. No worries, however, as the Stars still got a field goal on drive five to make it 30-24 Stars.

That’s still a one-score game, if the Gamblers could get it together on drive six, but the very first play of that drive saw Bahar get strip sacked, with the Stars diving on top of it to recover. That’s two turnovers in two plays from the Gamblers’ backup quarterback.

The Gamblers’ defense held again on drive seven, holding the Stars to just a field goal. That’s a 33-24 lead, which is still just one score in the USFL. Drive eight, with the season on the line, could have been the Gamblers’ time to shine.

Personal foul on the kickoff to pin the Gamblers deep, a sack that pushed them back even closer to the goal line, and a second sack in the end zone for the game-losing safety. Because of course the Gamblers would lose on a game-ending safety. They were running out of other ways to lose.

Over the last five weeks, the Gamblers held a combined 99-66 lead entering the fourth quarter. They lost all five games. That is insane. You may not be going to Canton, Gamblers, but you’ll always be in the Hall of Fame of our hearts.

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