Vipers’ quarterback issues are unique, but poor play at the position exists throughout the XFL

Tampa Bay knows it needs better play under center to get going, but where will it come from? Struggling teams across the XFL are asking the same question.
Tampa Bay Vipers quarterback Taylor Cornelius (4) loads up for a pass play during the first quarter of the XFL home opener between the Tampa Bay Vipers and the Houston Roughnecks last weekend.
Tampa Bay Vipers quarterback Taylor Cornelius (4) loads up for a pass play during the first quarter of the XFL home opener between the Tampa Bay Vipers and the Houston Roughnecks last weekend. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Feb. 29, 2020

PLANT CITY — It’s far from a simple solution — especially given the events of this past week — but if the winless Tampa Bay Vipers are going to turn their season around, it has to start with their quarterbacks.

Vipers coach Marc Trestman, who led dynamic passing offenses for many years in the Canadian Football League, has shuffled three quarterbacks looking for a solution. He has come under fire for not playing USF product Quinton Flowers more, especially in last week’s home opener loss to Houston, and this week Flowers left the team for undisclosed personal reasons after vocalizing his frustration with his diminishing role in the offense.

While the Vipers’ situation offers unique intrigue, they aren’t alone as a team with quarterback issues. Through the season’s first three weeks, there’s been some dynamic play by a few quarterbacks, like Houston Roughneck quarterback and league MVP frontrunner P.J. Walker, who diced the Vipers’ defense for 340 total yards and four touchdowns last week.

But players like Walker are the exceptions, and the league’s quarterback play has left much to be desired.

There’s no better example than in Tampa Bay, where Tyler Cornelius, Aaron Murray and Flowers have combined to throw one touchdown and six interceptions. Four of the league’s eight teams, half of the XFL’s clubs, have more interceptions than touchdown passes.

“Efficient quarterback play wins, quarterbacks who take care of the football,” Trestman said. "The more efficient we play at quarterback, the better football team we’ll be. That’s just the nature of football. I don’t care what level it’s in. It’s the same thing.”

Strong quarterback play has correlated with winning. Walker’s Houston team entered the week as the only unbeaten team. And efficient play from St. Louis’ Jordan Ta’amu (75 percent completion percentage) and Dallas’ Landry Jones (71 percent) has both of their teams at 2-1.

Still, just three of the XFL’s top 10 quarterbacks — in terms of yardage — have quarterback ratings of better than 75 percent. The league average in the NFL was 90.4 last season

The XFL’s overall interception rate of 3.5 percent is well above last season’s NFL mark of 2.3. And while the XFL’s completion rate of 61.2 is not too far off the NFL’s 63.5, it’s an overall mark that’s been improved by Ta’amu and Jones.

Just four of the league’s top passers have completed more than 60 percent of their passes. Vipers quarterback have completed just 52.3 percent.

“We know as a unit we have to play better and that’s in every league and every division and every age group,” Murray said this week. “From pee-wee football to high school to college to the NFL.”

The popular consensus heading into this week was that giving Flowers — who led the Vipers to their first offensive drive last week, but returned to the sideline after just two drives — more playing time was the answer.

And while Flowers definitely gave the Vipers offense a boost as a dual threat, complementing a running game that is one of the league’s best, he’s far from a finished product. He can extend plays with his feet, but sometimes keeps the ball too long. He’s been sacked four times this season, tied with Cornelius for most on the team although he’s taken much fewer snaps.

Flowers is averaging 4.8 yards per rush, and also completed two 20-yard-plus pass plays on last week’s touchdown drive. But against Houston, the Vipers went back to Cornelius and kept in him the game even on a drive in which they had first and goal at the 2 that netted no points.

The Vipers ran the ball just 16 times last week. This after they averaged 31 rushes the first two games.

Now, with Flowers not with the team — he’s officially listed as doubtful — the Vipers will be forced to develop their passing game solely with Cornelius and Murray.

“We’re still trying to find the formula for our success and I think once we perform better at that position with one individual, there will be an opportunity for that one individual," said Vipers offensive coordinator Jaime Elizondo, who took over offensive playcalling duties last week. "We just haven’t had that productivity from one quarterback that we’re looking for.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieInTheYard.