The USFL can count itself fortunate not to be folding midway through the season. That may sound like a cruel joke at the United States Football League’s expense, but the positive step is no laughing matter for league bosses who’ve watched other minor-league American football brands start up and then give-up within weeks.
NFL Europe and other NFL-affiliated efforts have had The Shield to buoy them for quasi-successful runs in operation, but independently funded minor pigskin leagues have enjoyed a median life-span of something between 4 years and 1.5 weeks in recent eras. XFL 2.0 gets a pass due to COVID-19 coming along at the perfect time to squelch what had been an otherwise successful reboot. The same can’t be said for the Alliance of American Football, a pitiful and dishonest organization that closed its doors prior to the never-to-exist AAF inaugural playoffs. Heck, even the old USFL barely had 5 nice years in the black before eventually going away, and that’s in spite of the former USFL-branded organization drafting (and paying) over a dozen players who would have fit-in with Pro Bowl lineups.
If the new league’s going to catch on, it won’t be because of high-octane offense, at least not in 2022. Only 3 out of 8 USFL clubs cracked the 20-point mark for 4 quarters in Week 4. The victorious (and undefeated) Birmingham Stallions only scored 16 points against hapless Tampa Bay. The highest point-total produced by a team in any USFL game so far has been 34 from the New Orleans Breakers in Week 2, and even that game only totaled 37 points as Tampa Bay’s supposedly dangerous offense belly-flopped.
“Belly-flop” can additionally apply to 2 of the league’s octet of franchises, the Michigan Panthers and Pittsburgh Maulers. It’s bad luck for the USFL that Steel City is burdened with such a poor team, especially the USFL club with the worst offense in the league, and frustratingly dull and cautious game-management. Michigan is known as a football hotbed in its own right, but Panther head coach Jeff Fisher is quickly cementing a reputation as someone who finds a way to lose close games, while allowing talented players to go haywire.
Over/Under lines on the USFL continue to shrink as of a month into the inaugural season. Las Vegas is noticing that the usual “flurry” of point-scoring near the end of an NFL or FBS game simply isn’t there in the USFL. Philadelphia, for instance, took advantage of the league’s flaky 2-minute drill execution and special teams by conservatively kicking a field goal to go ahead 26-25 over Michigan with minutes to go in last weekend’s win for the Stars. Fisher’s team drove the length of the field, then clanged an easy field-goal try off an upright, giving Philadelphia what felt like a fortunate victory. But in the NFL or any reputable NCAA conference, the Philadelphia Stars would be counted as lucky as any team from a given sports weekend to have gotten away with a stolen W. In the USFL, the old-fashioned strategy of taking a slim lead and waiting for your opponent to fall short of a comeback is making a “comeback” of its own, thanks to offenses producing aerial yards on par with average NFL teams of the 1970s, and due to shaky USFL kickers whose inefficiency is also reminiscent of olden days.
Just as it was in the 1980s, though, a few NFL-level stat lines are beginning to pop up from standout players of the USFL. New Orleans quarterback Kyle Sloter passed for 397 yards and hit receiver Jonathan Adams with a late, long winning TD pass in the Breakers’ dramatic 23-16 win over the Houston Gamblers in Week 4.
Where should gamblers look for the next USFL offense to have a watershed moment? In Birmingham, of course! But with a grand total of 8 “Birmingham based” teams at the moment, that’s a tout that leaves a whole lot of wiggle room.
USFL Week 5: Capsule Previews and Betting Picks
Tampa Bay Bandits vs Michigan Panthers (Friday, May 13)
Tampa Bay’s offense has looked so impotent at times that it’s easy to forget Todd Haley is coaching. QBs Jordan Ta’amu of the Bandits and Shea Patterson of the Michigan Panthers have a lot in common this season, each having been highly-touted as potentially among the best athletes to perform in the inaugural minor-league campaign, only to play inconsistent football at best. Ta’amu and the Bandits’ poor rushing and passing stat lines from last weekend’s 6-point loss to Birmingham are what lies behind Tampa Bay’s wan (-2.5) favorite’s point spread to beat a Michigan team that’s producing a weekly montage of football follies. FanDuel’s tiny O/U line of (33.5) total predicted points scored in Friday’s game indicates that while the Bandits are the superior team, USFL odds-makers do not trust Haley’s squad to take and hold even a field-goal lead on the way to victory.
Still, our blog maintains that turnovers will be the key to further “Over” victories on well-placed high side bets on USFL games. Patterson has no viable backup with Jordan Lynch injured, and appears to be a feast-or-famine pro player who leads crucial drives downfield or simply gives the pigskin away to a DB. When a 21-17 score beats the O/U and 14+ points could come off turnovers, the high-side of (33.5) becomes a solid pick, whether the opponents are capable of successful 2-minute drills or not.
WagerBop’s Pick: Over (33.5)
New Jersey Generals vs New Orleans Breakers (Saturday, May 14)
There aren’t any “pick’em” games in the USFL this week, even though New Jersey vs New Orleans could go a long way to determine which team challenges Birmingham in late June. New Orleans is a (-170) moneyline favorite to win following Week 4’s impressive 2nd-half performance. New Jersey, however, has won 3 in a row, and the contest’s cautious (36.5) Over/Under line illustrates that the Generals will have plenty of room to plan, attack, and conquer in a tight game.
WagerBop’s Pick: New Jersey Generals (+145)
Philadelphia Stars vs Birmingham Stallions (Sunday, May 15)
There’s a question as to why the USFL scheduled a stand-alone afternoon game on Saturday instead of booking the kickoff in prime-time, and thus avoiding competition with European soccer and PGA Tour golf during the day. However, there’s no mistaking what the Week 5 Sunday schedule is all about, with midday and late-afternoon kickoffs meant to mimic the experience of watching the NFL on TV.
Birmingham is an overvalued (-270) favorite to stay undefeated against a resourceful Philadelphia Stars team in Sunday’s early skirmish. Philly may have looked scared and lucky near the end of Week 4’s win, but it’s hard to fault the utilization of cautious tactics against Michigan, given how self-destructive the Panthers clearly are. If a Bill Belichick coaching staff had beaten a Jeff Fisher team in the same way, everyone would shrug and figure The Hoodie had fooled another victim. Meanwhile, the Stars and Stallions are closer to parity on defense than Las Vegas odds-makers seem to think. Philadelphia’s offense is a fresh NCAA/pro hybrid that will keep producing yards.
WagerBop’s Pick: Over (35.5)
Houston Gamblers vs Pittsburgh Maulers (Sunday, May 15)
Houston’s (-5.5) point spread for Sunday shows that bookmakers don’t expect Pittsburgh to lose every game in hapless fashion. Not that the Maulers showed many signs of life in Week 4, falling behind quickly before losing to the New Jersey Generals in what can already be counted among the most boring, listless 2nd halves of 2022. The key to the handicap is Houston’s form, as the Gamblers have looked better in defeat than any inaugural USFL team, and are just a couple of plays away from standing at 3-1 and a TD-sized point spread.
WagerBop’s Pick: Houston ATS (-5.5)
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.