USFL – The USFL leaves Birmingham and heads to Canton, Ohio, for its first-ever playoff weekend. And if you go solely by regular-season results, you would think there’s little drama in this opening round. Both matchups this week feature rematches of regular-season sweeps. The Birmingham Stallions went 2-0 against the New Orleans Breakers to win the South, while the New Jersey Generals beat the Philadelphia Stars twice on their way to winning the North. Both of the division-winners are favored going into Saturday’s semifinals, and our numbers agree.
But neither game should be a walkover by any stretch of the imagination. We’re getting rematches of some of the more interesting games from the USFL’s inaugural season, and there are real reasons each of the underdogs should believe that they can win here. The USFL did bring the “right” four teams to Canton, with the top four teams by our ratings getting the four playoff slots. And seeing how so many of the USFL’s games have been close and competitive, we should be in for a good slate of games this weekend.
So whether you have been watching the games from the word go or are just tuning in now, let’s get ready for some elimination football.
Northern Division Finals: Philadelphia Stars (6-4) v. New Jersey Generals (9-1)
Line: Generals -4.5
Saturday, 3 p.m., FOX
If you’re going to watch just one game this weekend, this would be the one I would pick. It’s a matchup between two of the three best offenses in the league and arguably the two best quarterbacks, although your mileage may vary. It’s the game most likely to produce significant offensive fireworks, which has always been my personal preference when watching a game where I don’t have rooting interest. It also features the hottest team in the USFL by SRS (the Simple Rating System) and the hottest team in the USFL by recent form—and they’re two different teams. This should be good.
The Generals lost the season-opener to the Birmingham Stallions on a touchdown scored with less than 30 seconds to go. They haven’t lost since. They have a league-leading four All-USFL players on offense. Running back Darius Victor led the league with nine rushing touchdowns and is the focal point of an offense that put up a league-leading 160.6 rushing yards per game (not to mention a league-leading 349.4 total yards per game). Linemen Terry Poole and Garret McGhin pave the way for Victor and the rest of the Generals’ excellent rushing attack. And don’t think all they can do is run, either—Kavontae Turpin led the league with 540 receiving yards, including a league-leading 316 YAC.
Luis Perez was the top-rated qualified quarterback, throwing for 1,200 yards, nine touchdowns, and just one interception, with a 71.7% completion rate and a league-leading 6.9 yards per attempt. And he has been platooning with De’Andre Johnson, who actually has a higher completion percentage and YPA. That’s in large part due to Johnson being the league’s ninth-leading rusher, with Johnson, Victor, and Trey Williams providing a three-headed monster. That was truer early in the season than late, as Johnson has been hampered by an ankle injury through most of the second half of the year, and his status is somewhat doubtful for this weekend’s action. But Perez has stepped up as the primary passer with Johnson’s decline, and so they come into this weekend with a third-ranked 4.2% offensive estimated DVOA (EVOA). SRS and EVOA use points, rather than yards, and so it’s not quite as enthused with the offense as their league-leading yardage totals would indicate; 23.2 points per game certainly isn’t bad, but it is third in the league. Still, we’re picking nits—it’s not an offense you particularly want to face.
They’re no slouches defensively, either, with defensive tackle Toby Johnson and safety Shalom Luani both making the All-USFL team. The Generals shut down the rushing attack, allowing a league-low 73.6 rushing yards per game—impressive even after factoring in how often they have a lead. However, they can be in a little bit of trouble when teams drop back to pass against them. Their 199.7 pass yards allowed per game is inflated by the fact that they have frequently had the lead, but they also have a league-worst 10 sacks. Their big defensive plays come on interceptions, where they’re one off the league lead with 12. If someone is going to beat the Generals, it’s going to be through the air.
Enter the Stars, as the one thing they do better than anyone else is throw the ball. Through the first three weeks of the season, the Stars had the best quarterback in the league in Bryan Scott. He was lost for the season, however, and so the Stars had to turn to Case Cookus … who has been the second highest-rated quarterback in the league, just after Perez. He’s not as accurate as Perez has been, completing just 62.5% of his passes, but he has thrown for 1,334 yards with 12 touchdowns and five interceptions, and he’s doing it without nearly as strong of a rushing game to back him up. Since Cookus has taken over the job, the Stars are 6-1 and are averaging 28.4 points per game. The three highest-scoring performances this season has come from Cookus’ Stars against the Panthers (46), Cookus’ Stars against the Bandits (35), and Cookus’ Stars against the Gamblers (35). The Stars have topped 30 points four times; the rest of the league has done it five times. The Stars are also the only team to score more than 10 points in every game—in fact, they have hit at least 16 every week. They spread the ball around enough that they don’t have any one receiver atop the league’s leaderboards, or, indeed, anyone atop the USFL’s All-Offense team, but Bug Howard probably should have been the All-USFL tight end and Jordan Suell has been phenomenal as well.
The Stars also lead the league in yards per rush, though that’s in part because they have, by far, the fewest rush attempts in the league—201 attempts at 5.1 yards per carry. A lot of this is thanks to an offensive line that was, at the beginning of the year, a complete disaster; comparing them to Swiss cheese was an insult to cheese. They have gotten better since then, but they have still allowed 24 sacks, or one every 13.6 dropbacks. Things have gotten better as the season has gone along, but their offensive line already cost them Scott, and quite a few of Cookus’ incomplete passes have been throwaways as they have adjusted for their less-than-solid offensive line. It still adds up to a league-leading 16.0% offensive EVOA, however, and has them with the best overall EVOA over the last five weeks of the season at 14.1%.
Defensively, however, the Stars are a mess—dead last with a 13.1% defensive EVOA, dead last with 243 points allowed, dead last with 345.8 total yards allowed per game, dead last with 151.2 rushing yards allowed per game. What they do have is Channing Stribling, an All-USFL cornerback who leads the league with seven interceptions. The Stars lead the league with 22 takeaways and a +8 turnover differential. That’s the way they stop teams: they let them march up and down the field, but make big plays when the opportunity presents itself. That is not in any way, shape, or form sustainable, but when it works, it works.
Is it possible for a matchup to be bad for both teams? Because that’s kind of what we have here. The Generals run through the Stars’ soft defense like a hot knife through butter. They rushed for 178 and 264 yards in the first two matchups, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. They are difficult to get off the field, converting a league-best 43.4% of their third downs. And the Stars want to force turnovers? Well, good luck with that—the Generals have only turned the ball over eight times this season, six times fewer than any other USFL team. The Stars are simply not set up to stop the Generals.
But the Generals still only managed to win by three points last week against a Stars team that was resting Stribling and other key defensive players. The Stars didn’t hold the Generals to fewer yards per carry, but did hold them to 25 rushing attempts compared to 46 in their earlier matchup. The Stars’ best defense is a good offense, and the Cookus-to-Howard connection was almost too much for the Generals to bear. Since the Generals don’t generate much of a pass rush, that allows the Stars’ potent passing attack to find holes in the secondary. The longer the Stars can make this a shootout, the better chance they have—as good as Perez has been, the Generals are much, much more comfortable dictating the tempo on the ground. With Stribling and the other defenders back, it’s more likely the Stars defense generates a turnover than the Generals do, even if they’re significantly worse on a play-for-play basis. The Generals could find themselves lured into a nightmare matchup.
The Generals are the better team and the more complete team. They should win this game if they play to form. But I don’t at all agree with the 4.5-point line they’re getting; the betting markets are underrating the Stars. Especially with the rain currently looking like it will stay away on Saturday, the Stars have every chance to turn this into a track meet. Generals 26, Stars 23.
Southern Division Finals: New Orleans Breakers (6-4) v. Birmingham Stallions (9-1)
Line: Stallions -5
Saturday, 8 p.m., NBC
For the first time this season, we’ll get to see the Birmingham Stallions play without a partisan crowd. Is their success a matter of home-field advantage, or at least the partial advantage you can get when traveling is taken out of the equation? Or were the Stallions truly the best team in the league this season?
For that matter, are the Stallions the best team, or were the Stallions the best team? They finished the year atop our EVOA ratings at 15.9%, but that’s a very, very front-weighted rating. The Stallions have not looked good at all over the last three weeks, going 2-1 against the Breakers, Gamblers, and Bandits with a net point differential of +2. Over the first seven weeks of the season, the Stallions had an EVOA of 21.2%, a full 10 points clear of any other team in the league. Over the last three weeks and the full final set of games against teams from the South, that has fallen to 2.1%, which places them fourth and last among the four playoff teams. That coincides with them clinching their division, which could mean they just took their feet off of the proverbial gas over the last month. I don’t buy it. I don’t think the Stallions are as bad as they have been the last three weeks, but I also think some of their early success was more luck than skill. They’re a very good team, don’t get me wrong, but they’re a beatable team, as the Gamblers showed two weeks ago.
That being said, they got to 9-1 for a reason. The Stallions come out second on both offense and defense in our season-long stats. Victor Bolden is the league leader in all-purpose yards—he’s in the top five receiving yards, punt return yards, and kick return yards as he has been a massive threat with the ball in his hands. He made the All-USFL team in two spots, both as a receiver and as “special teams,” which is odd because the league handed out individual kick returner and punt returner awards, but never you mind.
Bolden’s joined on the All-USFL offense by guard Cameron Hunt, and as an offensive weapon by running backs Bo Scarbrough and CJ Marable and wide receiver Marlon Williams. The Stallions don’t lead the league in any one offensive category, but you can make a strong argument for them as the most well-rounded offense in the USFL. When quarterback J’Mar Smith is on, he looks as good as any of the other passers in the league, but he’s admittedly more streaky; he comes out to more “good enough” than “good,” but that’s working with the weapons he has to work with.
Defensively, Birmingham is led by All-USFL linebacker DeMarquis Gates, who leads the league with 11 tackles for a loss and is third with 6.5 sacks. Scooby Wright got all the attention to begin the season, though he fell behind Gates statistically while dealing with an injury in the middle part of the year. He’s back, and the Shark Dawg has continued his run of spring league success—he has now excelled in the AAF, XFL, and USFL after washing out of the NFL. As a unit, the Stallions are allowing the fewest yards per game and leading the league with 27 sacks. They’re much more likely to force a punt than get a turnover, but their front seven is just very hard to get a push against. Overall, they’re allowing just 16.1 points per game, second-fewest in the USFL.
The only team allowing fewer points are their opponents this week. The Breakers started and ended the season on fire defensively, surviving some wishy-washy weeks in the middle along the way. The Breakers have allowed 10 points or fewer in three of their 10 games, more than anyone else in the league, and every team has allowed more points in at least one game than the Breakers’ worst of 27. Three members of the front seven made the All-USFL team: edge rusher Davin Bellamy, lineman Reggie Howard, and linebacker Jerod Fernandez. Combined with their very solid secondary, they are extraordinarily difficult to move the ball against, and they held the Stallions to just 10 points three weeks ago.
They still lost that game, and now we have to talk about the Breakers offense. They end up sixth in the league at -3.5%, despite having the All-USFL quarterback in Kyle Sloter. Sloter’s pick as All-USFL passer is … controversial, to say the least. Sloter was leading the league in passing yards until he missed the meaningless Week 10 game, so he does have volume on his side. He has also fought through a lot of painful injuries that have limited him at times, finding ways to make big plays when it’s counted. But it’s hard for me to back him as the league’s top passer. He has completed just 57.7% of his passes (third among the seven qualified passers) for 1,798 yards (second) at 6.2 yards per attempt (sixth) with nine passing touchdowns (fifth) and 11 interceptions (second). Perez, Cookus, or possibly even the more prolific Jordan Ta’amu from the Bandits would have been a better choice in my book, but Perez and Cookus weren’t starting the entire season and Ta’amu didn’t make the playoffs. If those were your criteria for picking your All-USFL quarterback, Sloter was the best choice, and indeed the only choice. I commend him for playing through a very painful groin injury and for his leadership skills, but he has simply not been the best passer in the league.
Sloter was joined on the All-USFL team by tight end Sal Cannella and center Jared Thomas, both of whom have played well; we’re not talking about the Maulers or something here. But the Breakers don’t finish above average in most offensive categories. They’re fifth in yards per carry and rushing touchdowns; seventh in yards per pass and tied for last in passing touchdowns; and tied for the league lead in interceptions thrown. They’re the only team in the postseason with a negative turnover differential. They have also been trending downwards as the season has gone along and Sloter has been more and more banged up—they averaged 23.3 points per game in their first South divisional rotation, but just 9.7 points in all of the rematches over the past three weeks.
Perhaps a week off for Sloter will help him heal up and get closer to his full potential. Perhaps the Stallions’ late-season slide will continue, especially now that the venue has changed. If we get a repeat of the game from two weeks ago, with the Breakers shutting down the Birmingham offense, they only need a slight bump from their offense to come out on top. But even the half-speed Stallions from the past month have been better than the Breakers have been as both stumbled a bit towards the postseason. Stallions 23, Breakers 20.