The start of a brand new spring professional football league got underway Saturday night with one of its first games in league history being played in Orlando. And, Steve Spurrier’s club did not disappoint in a blowout win 40-6 over Atlanta
Spurrier, who once coached the U.S.F.L.’s Tampa Bay Bandits in the early 1980s, made his return to the sidelines after a four-year absence from coaching. And, his Orlando Apollos did not disappoint.
Former University of Texas and SMU college quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who’s primarily been a practice squad player on and off of NFL rosters, made Orlando’s debut an easy one. Gilbert threw for two touchdowns and caught another on a trick play, as the Apollos built a 22 – 6 lead over the Legends and never looked back.
Gilbert fired a 2nd quarter touchdown to receiver Jalin Marshall that made AAF history as the first regular-season six point score ever. And, another interesting footnote is that the play was originally ruled incomplete, as Marshall went to the ground and did not appear to hang on to the ball long enough for it to be considered a catch.
Jalin Marshall score! First TD in AAF history! pic.twitter.com/flHcQGebBH
— Arif Hasan (@ArifHasanNFL) February 10, 2019
However, upon replay review, the call was overturned and Orlando led 8-3 after a two-point conversion. The AAF doesn’t allow extra point kicks/you must always go for two points.
The Apollos capitalized on an interception of Atlanta quarterback Matt Simms and former Dolphins backup running back DeVeon Smith took it in and with another two pointer it was 16-3.
That set the stage for the “Head Ball Coach” pulling out a trick play right out of the Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl win over the Patriots. Running a similar double reverse to the “Philly Special,” the Apollos threw back to Gilbert for a touchdown catch which stretched the lead to the half-time work of 22 – 6:
— The Alliance (@TheAAF) February 10, 2019
Gilbert added a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to former USF running back D’Ernest Johnson and the issue was basically decided.
CBS TV televised the game regionally in Southern markets. The rest of the country saw the broadcast of San Antonio hosting San Diego in their debuts. San Antonio won that game 15-6. The league’s other four teams will play Sunday.
Back to Orlando. It was an overall impressive and dominant performance for the 74 year-old Spurrier’s team, as they were clearly more talented and better coached than their Atlanta counterparts on night one.
Spurrier, who won the Heisman Trophy at the University of Florida in 1966 and later led the Gators to their first-ever National Championship as coach in 1996, is no stranger to Spring leagues, himself.
Spurrier was the head coach of the Tampa Bay Bandits during the three years of the USFL from 1983 – 85, leading one of the more successful franchises in league history. That included, him winning his opening game in that ’83 season over the Boston Breakers.
All eight teams in the inaugural season of the AAF are in action on Saturday or Sunday, and the Apollos will play at San Antonio next Sunday night February 17th.
Time for concern after XFL TV ratings declined again last week?
For the second consecutive week, the XFL televison ratings continued to slide in the wrong direction. And, the troubling part is that if the trend continues, the XFL will have no leverage for sponsors and revenue to keep it going long term.
First, here are the specifics on the bad viewership news: According to Showbuzzdaily.com all four XFL broadcasts last Saturday and Sunday afternoon had lower ratings in their slot than the previous week.
That includes the Tampa Bay Vipers home debut against Houston, which was the early game on ABC Saturday. And, while that window had 400,000 less viewers than week 2, the bigger concern is ABC has lost almost 40% of the audience from the 3.3 million average that watched their Week one debut game on Saturday afternoon.
The ratings downward trend is following the same pattern as last Spring’s Alliance of American Football, where the ratings dwindled to under a million fans for broadcasts by week five and eventually the league shut down after just eight weeks. This was in part because of concerns on how the AAF could make any revenue, through television in specific, if they had very little audience for the end of year one and to sell off of for year two.
Now, WWE owner Vince McMahon, who folded the XFL the first time in 2001 in large part because the television audience plummeted over the course of the first month or so of its existence and never recovered, has the same issue in 2020.
And, as we wrote previously, this audience decline while negative is far less McMahon’s original XFL and it’s first season of 2001. That’s when, it debuted on its first Saturday night on NBC with a massive 10.1 rating, which translated 18 years ago to more than 9.5 viewers on network TV. A Smashing success.
However, the XFL’s ratings plummeted starting the following week and had fewer than 25% of that opening night audience just a month later with the games still being shown on a Saturday night coveted slot on NBC. It doomed the league from a P.R. and sponsor standpoint and McMahon pulled the plug.
Now, in 2020, McMahon reportedly has money to burn and is apparently prepared to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in year one. So, even if the XFL TV ratings continue come down significantly, it will not spell the end of the XFL (like it did nearly 20 years ago) after just a single season.
At least, that’s what we think.
Vipers better but drop third straight game in home opener
Although their play was improved offensively, in the end it wasn’t enough for the Tampa Bay Vipers after they dropped their third straight XFL game to start the season 34 – 27 to Houston Saturday afternoon in Tampa.
Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker threw for three touchdowns and ran for another, as Houston scored early in the fourth quarter to go up by seven and held off the Viper the rest of the way.
The Vipers offense came to life after they had failed to score in the offensive touchdown in either of their first two games. Both of which were losses on the road. Quarterback Taylor Cornelius, subbing for starter Aaron Murray who missed his second straight game with an injured foot, once again had modest numbers 16-31 for 193 yards 1 TD, 1 INT.
However, he did pull the game even at 18 – 18 at the half after scoring on a one yard QB sneak and Tampa Bay got the two-point conversion.
Still, the former Oklahoma State quarterbacks day was inconsistent and the home crowd at Raymond James Stadium began to chant the name “Flowers, Flowers” for former USF Star Quarterback Quinton Flowers, who played sparingly for the third straight game in a reserve role.
Flowers got Tampa Bay’s first offensive TD on the young season with a seven yard run in the first quarter, but only played QB sparingly in the game, again. He was just 4-6 for 57 yards passing with 29 yards on six attempts on the ground.
Meanwhile, the former Temple star Walker found receiver Cam Phillips for the third of their three touchdown hookups from 17 yards out to give Houston a 34 – 27 lead with just over 10 minutes to play. Phillips devastated Jerry Glanville’s Vipers defense for 194 yards receiving on eight catches with the three TDs.
The Vipers look like they were going to have a chance to re-tie the game when Cornelius (above) completed a pass to his top target on the day, Jaylen Tolliver, at the two-yard line. However just like a week ago in Seattle when a critical fourth quarter drive stalled and Tampa Bay came away with no points in a 17 – 9 lost the Dragons, the Vipers got no points after Cornelius threw incomplete on second, third and fourth downs.
Many in the crowd and observers in the media were curious, as to why coach Marc Trestman didn’t go to Flowers as the dual threat running QB to at least try something different on one of those plays? Flowers even questioned why he did not play more after the game to the media.
The Vipers got the ball one final time, but Cornelius was picked off near midfield with just over a minute left to seal the defeat.
The Vipers played the first spring professional football game in Tampa, since the closing of the USFL 1985 season. That’s when Steve Spurrier’s Tampa Bay Bandits were a popular item at Old Tampa Stadium. Saturday’s home opener drew and announced crowd of 18,117.
However it’s little consolation for former Bears and CFL coach Trestman and his team, as they remain winless on the season. The L.A. Wildcats playing Sunday are the other 0-2 team in the league, currently.
And, you have to wonder whether Trestman will be forced to go to Flowers for the start when they host the D.C. Defenders next week.