After one week of action, one thing is clear about the United States Football League: This league is fun. Nearly every game on opening weekend was a one-score game, and the first two came down to the final play.
The rules are already paying dividends for fans. With teams kicking off from the 25-yard line, the average field position for receiving teams following a kick has been near the 35-yard line.
The 35-second play clock has helped the pace of the game mightily, and the ability to stop the clock with a first down inside the final two minutes of each half led to late drama.
And don't sleep on the 10-minute halftime. There's time enough for a shot from the water bottle and quick slap on the behind, and we're back at it to begin the third quarter.
Business is brisk.
Focusing on the field, there are already teams that look better than others, and not all of those teams won their opening games. For instance, both the New Jersey Generals and Michigan Panthers outgained their respective opponents on the ground, but one team looked much better than the other in their respective losses.
It's a great example of why my USFL Power Rankings will reflect play on the field as well as wins and losses. Let's dive into Week 1.
1. TAMPA BAY BANDITS (1-0)
Pepper Johnson employed a defense that needed just 59 tackles to stop a Maulers offense that ran 61 plays over 13 drives. Twelve of the Bandits' tackles were for losses.
What’s more? The Maulers had committed to running the football unlike any other team in the league — at times running plays that did not feature a single receiver out on the numbers — and the Bandits still imposed their will.
Tampa quarterback Jordan Ta’amu threw for just 185 yards but looked in complete control of the offense. He didn't seemed the least bit rattled by a Maulers defense that caught up to him enough to stop the Bandits from scoring in the second half.
Right now, though, the Bandits look like the team to beat.
2. NEW ORLEANS BREAKERS (1-0)
Shareef Miller, Davin Bellamy and the Breakers' front seven proved to be formidable. Add to this defensive back Vontae Diggs' 10 tackles, an interception returned for a TD and a pass defended, and defensive coordinator Jonathan Tenuta has one of the top defenses in the league.
However, Larry Fedora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone still have a passing offense to sort out, as Kyle Sloter threw the ball 27 times for a total of 150 yards with an interception. With the Breakers rushing for 171 yards — getting 89 on 18 rushes from Jordan Ellis — expect teams to load the box against New Orleans until Sloter shows he can beat them.
3. NEW JERSEY GENERALS (0-1)
Leave it to Mike Riley to make a two-QB system work. With Luis Perez and De'Andre Johnson alternating at quarterback — even going snap-for-snap during the game — the Generals were able to pass and run the ball.
As the game progressed, though, Johnson became the dominant signal-caller, using his running ability to rush for just shy of 100 yards.
However, the Generals were not able to hold their lead, even as they deserved to win the game. No matter the league, you have to finish games.
Using both quarterbacks was a part of the game plan on Saturday. It will be interesting to see if the Generals continue with that throughout the season.
It’s clear, though, that the scaffolding is in place for the Generals to be successful in this inaugural USFL season.
4. HOUSTON GAMBLERS (1-0)
No team put on a better defensive performance than Kevin Sumlin’s Gamblers on opening weekend. Against the Michigan Panthers, the Gamblers forced nine fumbles, created three turnovers and sacked the quarterback three times.
If only the offense had performed like the defense, Houston would be a clear favorite to win the league crown after Week 1. As it stands, Gamblers quarterback Clayton Thorson had a day to forget, completing just nine of 17 passes for 73 yards with a TD and an interception.
Sumlin has a reputation for high-powered offenses and great quarterback play. He’s going to have to work his magic with Thorson, or the defense might not be able to win the next game on its own.
5. BIRMINGHAM STALLIONS (1-0)
The Stallions looked like they were about to get cooked in front of the hometown crowd in the first half. It was only 14-7 at half, but the score could've been stretched to two scores if New Jersey hadn't fumbled on the Birmingham 26-yard line in the second quarter and hadn't missed a field-goal attempt just before halftime.
Had QB J’Mar Smith (11-for-21, 156 yards passing and a TD) not found his moxie late in the second half after an ankle injury took starter Alex McGough out of the game, the Stallions would've lost this game. As it was, two fourth-quarter touchdowns earned Birmingham a thrilling 28-24 win.
While the Stallions' defense flashed with two players in double-digit tackles and a turnover, Birmingham gave up 222 rush yards, 408 total yards and allowed New Jersey to hold the rock for 37:55 minutes of the 60. Defensive coordinator John Chavis has his work cut out for him.
6. PHILADELPHIA STARS (0-1)
Before the season, I thought the Stars might be one of the best teams in the league. Coach Bart Andrus and quarterback Bryan Scott had been undefeated as a tandem.
And then they met the Breakers.
The Stars need to fix their issues on the offensive line to provide Scott more time to work through his progressions, and he’ll have to do a better job of looking off defensive backs.
He threw an interception early that was head-scratching, but he settled in as the game progressed, completing 25 of 36 passes for 202 yards. Scott has capable receivers in former Tennessee State wideout Chris Rowland and former North Carolina tight end Bug Howard, who caught a touchdown pass against Fedora, his former UNC coach.
A game that could have gotten out of hand for the Stars was tied at 17-17 late in the third quarter, which means the Stars played well against the team that might be the best in the South Division.
7. MICHIGAN PANTHERS (0-1)
In all, the Panthers fumbled the football nine times against the Gamblers.
Jeff Fisher and his staff will have to fix their team’s ball security issues if they hope to compete for the division crown, which is wide open as all four North Division teams lost on opening weekend.
The good news is the Panthers can run the ball. They produced 193 yards on the ground when they went to a steady diet of running backs Stevie Scott III and Cam Scarlett, who combined for 138 rush yards on 33 rushes.
However, despite those nine fumbles and three turnovers, the Panthers had a chance to win the game on the last play. That's reason enough for optimism as they flip around on a short week to play the Generals on Friday.
8. PITTSBURGH MAULERS (0-1)
The Maulers are the only team in the league that failed to score in double-digits, losing 17-3 to Tampa Bay on Monday night. Pittsburgh's next touchdown will be its first of the season, so you can see why Maulers coach Kirby Wilson and offensive coordinator John Tomlinson have some work to do.
Ahead of Week 2, expect them to sharpen what they did well — play-action, short passes to the flat — and perhaps get rid of what they did not. The Maulers hurt themselves with penalties, many of which were self-inflicted and did not reflect the brand of disciplined football Wilson hopes to showcase.
Defensively, though, there’s a lot to be proud of. Linebacker Kyahva Tezino and safety Arnold Tarpley III each flashed with brilliance. Tezino led the team with 12 tackles, including two tackles for loss, and had an interception. Tarpley III recorded eight tackles and had an interception.