PLANT CITY — Just one game into their inaugural season, the Tampa Bay Vipers already face a quarterback controversy.
Starting quarterback Aaron Murray, the former Plant High standout who threw two ill-timed interceptions in the Vipers’ 23-3 season-opening loss to New York on Sunday, was a spectator during Tuesday’s team walk-through.
Former USF star Quinton Flowers, who provided the offense a spark in the second half, took first-team reps, sharing practice snaps with Taylor Cornelius.
Murray watched not because he lost his job, but because he was out with lower foot injury sustained in the first half Sunday. Murray’s absence makes him uncertain for Tampa Bay’s next game Saturday in Seattle, but Vipers coach Marc Trestman said Murray will retain first-team reps when he returns.
"That's the way we expect it to happen," Trestman said.
Still, the unsteady play of Murray in his XFL debut, combined with the energy Flowers provided off the bench, made for a postgame quarterback debate.
The Vipers’ offense wasn’t without its merits. Tampa Bay had nearly 400 yards of total offense, including 150 rushing yards, and was 7-for-15 on third downs.
But Murray’s two interceptions were game changers — the first a ball into coverage in the right corner of the end zone that ended the Vipers’ first possession and another in the in the final minute of the first half that killed another promising drive in Guardians territory.
“For Aaron, he’s been great all camp of listening to his feet, getting the ball out of his hands and not trying to force things," offensive coordinator Jaime Elizondo said. "And that’s the biggest thing, just not forcing things and when the throw’s not there, moving on in his progression.”
Flowers offered the Vipers a different dynamic with his feet, averaging 6.8 yards a carry. He threw just two passes, his only completion a 34-yard deep ball down the sideline to the New York 2. But the team remains committed to also lining him up at tailback and receiver where he can be utilized in motion as a ball carrier or as a decoy.
“He brings a different segment to this team and I thought he did a really good job of stepping in there. He got some momentum on some drives,” Elizondo said. “For us to be able to use him as a quarterback, and then give him a speed sweep and line him up at different spots is a huge advantage.”
The debate is an intriguing one. Murray is a hometown hero in Tampa at the high school level, a former five-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American who helped established the long-lasting football legacy at Plant High School. He went on to star at Georgia, leaving as the SEC’s all-time passing leader, but failed to stick with four NFL teams.
Flowers, a three-year starter at USF, also has a local allegiance. A three-year starter for the Bulls, he was the American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year as a junior and left as the conference's all-time leader in total offense with nearly 11,800 yards. NFL teams saw him as a running back, but stops with the Bengals and Colts ended with him getting cut.
“It’s different flavors of offense,” said Dan Williams, who led the Vipers with 123 receiving yards on Sunday. “With Quinton coming in there, he can run, he can pass. He’s a dual threat. Aaron, he’s more of a pocket passer. But all those guys are unique in their own way.”
In the Vipers’ scheme, there might not be a true No. 1 quarterback, as the coaches made no secret that both players would be on the field. On Sunday, the Vipers were forced to make adjustments when their helmet communications system failed in the first half. Even if Murray is able to play Saturday, Cornelius will likely play a role in at least some passing downs.
Murray appeared to get injured just before halftime. Fox sideline reporter Jenny Taft asked Murray about getting his foot treated by the team medical staff with 2:39 left in the half. After that, Murray was 4-for-9 for 50 yards and one interception and was sacked twice.
“Anytime you get a little nicked up or stepped on or any of those issues,” said Elizondo, when asked whether the injury affected Murray’s play, “whether its a quarterback or a lineman or a receiver or a DB, it’s going to affect you, and it affected him a little bit, but we’ll see. He’s improving every day.”