Takeaways from USFL's first weekend: Michigan quarterbacks struggle, plenty of big names ... not on field

·8 min read

The United States Football League jolted back to life Saturday, decades after the original USFL's three-year run. The inaugural contest pitted the New Jersey Generals against the Birmingham Stallions, with the Stallions going on to win a thriller, 28-24.

On Sunday, the Houston Gamblers raced out to a 17-0 halftime lead and it was enough to secure a 17-12 victory over the Michigan Panthers. In what ended up being the final game played Sunday, the New Orleans Breakers earned a 23-17 win over the Philadelphia Stars.

Here are a few takeaways from the spring league's first weekend:

Big names ... just not on the field

The natural problem all start-up football leagues face is that the top talent is in the NFL. That leads to a cap to the quality of football on display, and that was evident at times throughout Saturday's game.

Beyond a few players that might cause the ardent college football watcher to go "Oh, that guy!" — there was a Scooby Wright III sighting — the most identifiable people on the field might have been the coaches: Mike Riley (Generals) and Skip Holtz (Stallions) should be familiar names to college football fans. The Gamblers-Panthers game saw former Texas A&M and Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin manning the sideline across from longtime NFL head coach Jeff Fisher, perhaps the most well-known name connected with the league.

Off the field, the presentation was top-notch. Curt Menefee and Joel Klatt called Saturday's action for Fox (the game was also simulcast on NBC). As you'd expect of the two longtime Fox employees, they did a professional job and treated the action with the respect it deserves — even if it's not the NFL or the biggest college football game of the week, guys are putting their bodies on the line for our entertainment, after all.

Former Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett also made his debut Saturday as a TV analyst for NBC, appearing pregame and at halftime.

Fox used a wide variety of cameras, including neat skycam shots done via drone and the "helmet cam," which took you right into the chaotic heart of the action.

In the third quarter Saturday night, Riley spent a considerable amount of time mic'd up, which lent interesting insight into what football coaches are doing on the sideline.

All-in-all, it was a solid broadcast.

Ratings

The ratings from the first night of action are in, with nearly 3 million viewers total for the game simulcast between NBC and Fox.

For reference, the Alliance of American Football's debut on CBS in 2019 drew 3.5 million viewers. And Week 1 of the XFL in 2020 had between 2.5-3.4 million viewers.

The USFL said viewership peaked around 10:45 p.m. ET on Saturday at 3.5 million.

Panthers QBs struggle

Paxton Lynch, a former NFL first-round pick, and Shea Patterson, who played at Michigan, are the two quarterbacks on coach Jeff Fisher's roster – providing the Panthers with some name recognition.

That doesn't always translate to on-field success. Lynch threw an interception and coughed up a fumble as part of a three-turnover first half for the Panthers. Patterson came in and finished with 192 passing yards, but it wasn't enough to complete the comeback.

Michigan Panthers quarterback Shea Patterson (2) chases his fumble in the fourth quarter of a USFL football game against the Houston Gamblers.
Michigan Panthers quarterback Shea Patterson (2) chases his fumble in the fourth quarter of a USFL football game against the Houston Gamblers.

Bringing the pain (Payne)

Houston linebacker Donald Payne was all over the field for the stout Gamblers defense. He racked up 19 tackles (13 solo) in the victory.

Payne, who went undrafted out of Stetson in 2017, spent last season on the Washington Commanders practice squad.

It's still football!

Even if it might not have been the highest of quality, a big plus for the USFL's debut: It's still football!

What, are you going to pretend like every NFL game is good? Football is a deeply strange game, and beauty can be found in the sport's goofy moments — like a guy getting a sack with a floss pick in his mouth.

But that's not to say there weren't some spectacular plays.

Randy Satterfield opened the scoring for the Generals on Saturday night with a great catch, absorbing a huge blow to maintain the touchdown.

On the ensuing possession, Birmingham's Osirus Mitchell pulled in a touchdown with a brilliant one-handed catch.

The game even had an exciting finish: the Generals' Nick Rose, after missing twice earlier in the game, hit the go-ahead, 47-yard field goal with 1:54 to go. But the Stallions marched down the field and scored the game-winning touchdown on a scramble by quarterback J'Mar Smith with just 23 seconds to go.

Satterfield, a Lyon College product, was among the standouts of the first contest, ending the game with five catches for 100 yards and a touchdown. Mitchell, a Mississippi State alum, had five catches for 96 yards and a score.

Birmingham Stallions wide receiver Osirus Mitchell celebrates after scoring against the New Jersey Generals during the first half at Protective Stadium.
Birmingham Stallions wide receiver Osirus Mitchell celebrates after scoring against the New Jersey Generals during the first half at Protective Stadium.

Perhaps one of the players who took the field this weekend will emerge as a star and get a crack at the NFL. It happened for P.J. Walker, who rode a standout run as a quarterback in the XFL into work with the Carolina Panthers.

Breakers find ground rhythm, special teams doom Stars

Teams that scored first this weekend went 3-0. New Orleans jumped out to a 7-0 lead thanks to a pick-six and amassed 171 rushing yards, with its two offensive touchdowns coming on the ground.

Meanwhile, the Stars missed two field goals and had a punt blocked, which resulted in a safety. Football is still football – beating oneself is never a recipe for success.

One location an odd choice

Birmingham was the host for Saturday's contest — and technically will be for every game the USFL plays.

Protective Stadium and historic Legion Field will be the sites for all the regular-season games the league plays before playoff action moves to Canton, Ohio.

Saturday's game at Protective Stadium — actually involving the team from Birmingham — did not appear to be completely packed.

That doesn't seem like the greatest sign for the league. Is the appetite there amongst the fine people of Alabama for multiple USFL games a day? Will any fans of other teams actually travel to Birmingham to watch the "hometown" team play? Will the one-location structure of this league prevent fans from latching onto the product entirely?

Sunday's games had visibly sparse attendance, though the combination of Easter Sunday and less-than-ideal weather – the final game of the weekend was postponed "due to the risk of severe weather" – surely didn't help.

The XFL had multiple cities draw over 17,000 fans in Week 1 early in 2020 and appeared to have a solid thing in the works before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the league. The previous year, the Alliance of American Football folded amid financial problems.

Time will tell if the revamped USFL will succeed, but for at least one weekend it helped satisfy that football itch.

Rain, rain go away

The final game of the first weekend slate, between the Pittsburgh Maulers and Tampa Bay Bandits, was postponed until Monday night due to severe weather in the Birmingham area.

The game has been rescheduled for Monday at 7:00 PM ET. It will be televised on FS1.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USFL first week takeaways: What we learned in Generals, Gamblers wins