USFL – The USFL enters the last month of its inaugural season this weekend as we begin to head towards a climax. Week 7, highlighted by the Bandits facing a must-win game against the Generals, is the last week of interdivisional matchups, with the final three weeks of the season dedicated to deciding the playoff races in both the North and South. In theory, then, this is our last chance to see potential USFL Bowl matchups before the big game on July 3.
In practice, this week sees a fairly poor slate of matchups. The top two teams in the South—the Stallions and Breakers—get the two 1-5 teams in the North in what should be fairly one-sided contests. If that goes according to form, it gives the Stars a significant advantage in their quest to lock up a playoff spot, as they get to face a 1-5 Gamblers team that seems determined to discover every possible way to lose a football game.
That’s right, we’re deep enough into the season that we can begin to see some teams clinch playoff spots already. It’s quite possible that, by Sunday night, we’ll know half of the playoff field with three weeks to go. And since all the playoff games are being held on a neutral field in Canton, there’s no real benefit in finishing first rather than second in your division, meaning that once a team has clinched, they’re pretty much done for the regular season. That would be a less-than-ideal result for the league, so I’m sure there are some suits in FOX offices rooting for at least one of the 1-5 teams to pull an upset and provide some intrigue over the last month of the season. With teams still swapping quarterbacks and adjusting their lineups, there’s always a chance that one or more of the penny dreadfuls could knock off a powerhouse this week. Here’s hoping things don’t go according to form, if only so there are more interesting storylines as we get down to the wire.
Before we get to the matchups, here are the scenarios for Week 7:
In the North, the Generals can clinch a playoff berth with a win OR losses by both the Panthers and Maulers.
In the South, the Stallions can clinch a playoff berth with a win AND a loss by the Bandits.
The Gamblers, meanwhile, can be eliminated with a loss AND a Breakers win.
None of these are mutually exclusive, so we could see three of the eight teams know their Ohio fates before the final round of divisional games even begins. That would not help the USFL’s ratings situation! We’ll talk about that at the end of the article, but first, let’s talk about the games that are actually happening this weekend.
New Jersey Generals (5-1) vs. Tampa Bay Bandits (3-3)
Line: Generals -4
Saturday, 12 p.m., USA
This is, by far, the game of the week. Not only is it the only one that doesn’t feature a 1-5 team, always a nice bonus, but it has significant implications for both teams involved. The Generals punch their playoff ticket with a win. They would have beaten three out of the four South teams, with their only loss coming to the Stallions at home in Birmingham. The Bandits, on the other hand, are just one game out of playoff position in the South despite being outscored 112-134; they need to keep pace with the Breakers if they want to earn a trip to Ohio, and to do that, they’ll have to get their first win against a team that isn’t 1-5.
The Generals needed every second of the game to pull out a victory over the Gamblers last week, but that’s more a factor of Gamblers games being massive random number generators where crazy things happen all the time. More pressing is the quarterback situation, as De’Andre Johnson had to leave in the first quarter with an injury. The Generals are better equipped than most USFL teams at dealing with this, as Luis Perez would likely start for half the teams in the league. Still, Johnson’s running ability gives the Generals their identity and opens them up to their full potential as a rushing offense; Perez is just a very solid minor league quarterback who knows what he’s doing and can keep plays on schedule
The Generals should be (and are) still favored with Perez behind center, but Johnson missing time does give the Bandits a significant chance in this matchup. It’s hard to really get a grip on the Bandits, even now, halfway through the season. Turnovers are destroying them; they are -7 on the season with six interceptions and four fumbles lost. They keep shooting themselves in the foot, ending promising drives with mistakes that you would think would have been cleaned up by this point. Jordan Ta’amu has picked up his play over the last month—he’s the league’s highest-rated passer among players with at least 100 attempts—but his passing-game heroics keep ending up with him losing the ball on a tip-drill interception, or an unfortunate BJ Emmons fumble, or something that kills the Bandits’ momentum before they can get anything going.
No team in the league needs a win more than the Bandits. A loss will likely put them two games down on the Breakers with just three weeks to play; and it’s hard to see them making that gap up without beating the undefeated Stallions in the last week of the season. Counting on the Breakers to slip up against the Panthers is no one’s idea of a sound strategy. Plus, the Bandits at some point need to prove they can beat an actual good team; they have padded their record with wins over the 1-5 dregs of the league. I don’t see it, not this week. The Bandits are better against the run then the pass, so if there was ever a week to lose Johnson, the Generals picked the right one. I have the Generals winning handily, clinching one of the two North slots with three weeks to play. Generals 23, Bandits 15.
New Orleans Breakers (4-2) vs. Michigan Panthers (1-5)
Line: Breakers -6
Saturday, 9 p.m., FS1
The banged-up Breakers keep rolling on, with their defense and running attack taking some of the pressure off of Kyle Sloter, more injury report than man at this stage. They’re no longer as good as they were at the beginning of the season offensively, but they have had more than enough defensive juice to keep rolling. They join Birmingham as the only team that hasn’t given up 100 points yet, and they still have the league leader in both passing yards (Sloter) and rushing yards (Jordan Ellis). Their priority this week is to get healthy against a Panthers team they should be able to handle, setting up a match against the undefeated Stallions next week.
Does that make this a trap game? Possibly. The Panthers managed to play the Stallions to a standstill in the first half last week before their run defense was exposed. But all is not well in Pantherville. The Panthers waived quarterback Shea Patterson this week — Patterson, of course, was the first overall pick in the USFL. The move likely means Paxton Lynch is ready to go, but if not, it will be Josh Love under center for the Panthers – and Love had been cut from the Maulers for poor play, so keep your fingers crossed for Lynch. That’s probably the first time anyone’s ever said that sentence!
Patterson has not remotely lived up to his top pick status, but he had stepped his play up significantly over the last couple weeks. But don’t worry, he’ll still be at the game – the Breakers picked him up off of waivers, so maybe Sloter will get some time to rest with Patterson striking back against his old team? At the very least, it’s a potential storyline here.
Lynch or Love, either one, will need help from a solid run game. Reggie Corbin still leads qualified rushers with 5.9 yards per carry and the Breakers are a little softer against the run than they are against the pass—not by a ton, mind you, but at least you get a little breathing room if you run forwards and let those Breakers pass rushers run past people. If you squint, you can make the argument here for an upset; the Panthers aren’t quite as bad as their 1-5 record would have you believe.
But I don’t buy it. The Panthers can be run against, as they allowed 5.6 yards per carry in the loss last week. That is going to make the one-two punch of Ellis and Anthony Jones very, very difficult to handle, and I have yet to see anything to make me believe that Jeff Fisher’s men have another gear to reveal. Even if they can slow down the Breakers’ run game, they just don’t have enough offensive firepower to deal with normal defenses, much less everything the Breakers bring to the table. The Panthers will get some garbage-time points and the Breakers will continue to grind clock and protect Sloter, which will lower the ultimate margin of victory. But I’d expect the Breakers to win this one fairly comfortably. Breakers 23, Panthers 16.
Birmingham Stallions (6-0) vs. Pittsburgh Maulers (1-5)
Line: Stallions -12.5
Sunday, 2 p.m., FOX
FOX had a tough choice. There is only one game on broadcast television, and they had to choose between a Generals-Bandits game which is clearly the best on paper but won’t have anyone show up, or a Stallions-Maulers game that is the most lopsided game of the week on paper should at least get a crowd. For all the USFL has said about not caring about the stadiums being nearly empty week after week, the fact that they picked the probable blowout over the best matchup tells you how much the broadcasts need that live crowd; you can’t replicate that kind of atmosphere no matter how much artificial crowd noise you pump in. If the Stallions were ever going to be relegated to cable or (perish the thought) Peacock, it would be this week. Crowd size defeats all.
Birmingham has a tough choice. While the Stallions have been better with J’Mar Smith under center, they keep experimenting with Alex McGough. McGough didn’t do much last week except for hand the ball off to Bo Scarbrough—and, for a moment, let’s just consider how unfair it is that the Stallions were able to go from CJ Marable to Scarbrough on top of all their other advantages this season, great goodness—but Smith could have done that just as well. The Stallions move the ball better, throw the ball better, and operate better with Smith as their quarterback, but Skip Holtz continues to insist on rotating his passers when they’re both healthy. This won’t come back to bite them this week, but taking your best players out of the game is rarely a good strategy.
The Maulers have a tough choice. They could stick with Vad Lee, who led them to their one win back in Week 5 but underwhelmed against the Breakers last week. Or they could slot in their fourth quarterback of the season, with 2019 Harlon Hill Trophy winner Roland Rivers being signed this week. The Hill Trophy is basically Division II’s Heisman (Luis Perez is another former winner, while we’re bringing up USFL players) and Rivers had a very good career at Slippery Rock. In his last season, he threw for 4,460 yards and 52 touchdowns (with just seven interceptions) while adding 700 more yards as a rusher. He’s not an NFL prospect—his arm talent is just too far below minimum standards for the big leagues—but he’s absolutely the kind of player who could excel in a minor league situation like this. The Maulers put Lee in without a full week of practice, so we could easily see them make a quarterback change. In the end, though, I think they’ll give Lee one more chance and save their new quarterback for the future if it doesn’t work out. Sorry, Rivers. Stallions 45, Maulers 0.
Philadelphia Stars (3-3) vs. Houston Gamblers (1-5)
Line: Stars -4
Sunday, 6 p.m., Peacock
How will the Gamblers lose this week? It has to be on the last play of the game as per immutable USFL law. I’m going to suggest a blocked extra point returned the other way; anything else would be below their standards as the league’s chaos incarnate.
You have to feel for the Gamblers; losing on the last play of the game three weeks in a row is heartwrenching. They are a significantly better team than their 1-5 record would indicate. Our SRS/EVOA ratings have them fourth best in the league. They’re not fully blameless for these last-minute losses, as there have been breakdowns in coverage and ill-timed turnovers and general execution disasters late in games. But they have also shown a much higher ceiling than the Maulers or Panthers have to this point; we’re just waiting for them to put it all together for four straight quarters. They have actual stars on this roster—if Chris Odom doesn’t make an NFL team this season, I’ll be shocked, and Clayton Thorson has acquitted himself quite well under center. But they can’t keep missing extra points, missing conversions, blowing coverages, and failing to capitalize on their many, many big plays. Something has to give at some point.
Will it be this week? That depends on who they’re playing. I don’t know who was out there in the red and yellow uniforms last week, but they weren’t the Stars we were used to seeing. Those Stars swore a solemn vow to never, ever win a matchup along the line of scrimmage, and yet here they were, rushing for 197 yards? Highly suspicious, if you ask me. The Stars are still averaging less than 90 yards of rushing per game, airing the ball out more frequently than any other team in the league. Nearly two-thirds of their plays are passes, which means they’re more pass-happy than the Generals are run-happy, and the Generals run a freaking option-based attack. The only NFL team that passed more than 60% of the time last season was the Buccaneers.
The Stars are missing their poor, poor, poor, poor, poor, poor, poor, poor, poor, poor, poor, poor, poor, poor man’s Tom Brady, Bryan Scott; maybe they have finally decided Case Cookus needs a little more help than their QB1 did. Either way, I think the Gamblers are the better team despite the records, and I’m picking them to finally get a win and stay alive in the playoff hunt. Gamblers 24, Stars 20.
USFL (0-1) vs. XFL (0-2)
The USFL’s ratings for Week 6 were a mixed bag. With the help of the Preakness Stakes lead-in and a home crowd, the late Saturday Stallions-Panthers game held strong at 1.2 million viewers, right in the range they have been trying to stay in all season long. The other two network games, on the other hand, disappointed.
NBC’s early Saturday matchup between the Bandits and Stars averaged 785,000 viewers; that’s down from the 1.16 million viewers NBC got the last time they had a daytime game back in Week 4, and only a few thousand above the Week 5 numbers that were depressed by the full slate of NBA and NHL playoff games. Meanwhile, FOX’s late Sunday game between the Generals and Gamblers—the most fun game of the week, I should add—ended up with only 665,000 viewers, the lowest number yet for a USFL game on broadcast TV. Perhaps the lack of crowd energy is really getting to viewers, causing them to flip away faster than they would if the atmosphere was better.
As the XFL continues to kick back into gear—rumors have team names and cities being announced June 1, so stay tuned—the USFL has fired a counter-shot to try to ensure that they can keep the benefits of being the league to launch first. They have added a new clause to their contracts, adding an “option year” provision. Before this clause, USFL contracts were for two years unless an NFL team signed the player, which voided the USFL contract. This new provision says that if a player is signed by the NFL and then released, they can’t go and sign with other “unauthorized leagues”; they revert back to the USFL and will remain under contract until the end of 2023.
This new agreement is being handed down not just to players who sign new contracts, but also all of the original USFL players as well. While it’s mandatory for new players to agree to the deal, they can’t unilaterally force players already under contract to change their terms. Rumors suggest that many players are choosing not to sign the new option-year clause which, uh, yeah, no kidding; there’s no benefit to a Chris Odom, Kyle Sloter, or Victor Bolden to signing this clause now. This only matters in the situation where someone gets an NFL tryout and fails and decides they want to go the XFL instead of the USFL, but even if the odds against that are low, why lock yourself out of all possibilities? There needs to be a carrot to go with the stick.
The XFL is trying to position itself as the better league for prospects who want to make it to the NFL. Their season ends before OTAs begin, and they’re rumored to have both larger rosters and larger contracts. The thing they don’t have is players yet, and the USFL is doing everything they can to keep it that way.
Begun, the Spring Football Wars have.