Roughnecks QB P.J. Walker Joins Panthers (UPDATED)

By Terrance Turner

March 23, 2020 (Updated Nov. 23)

Former Houston Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker is signing with the Carolina Panthers, according to ESPN. He is the first XFL player to join an NFL team.

The move comes just three days after the XFL announced that it’s officially canceling its entire season due to the coronavirus outbreak. (XFL players are now free to sign with NFL teams, pending physicals.) The move also reunites Walker with Panthers coach Matt Rhule, who coached him at Temple University. According to the Houston Chronicle, Walker shined with the Temple Owls: “The 5-11, 214-pound New Jersey native played for Rhule at Temple, setting records for wins, passing yards, passing touchdowns, completions, attempts, total yards and total touchdowns as the Owls went to consecutive bowl games.” At Temple, Walker passed for 74 touchdowns and rushed for nine.

He was even more successful with the Roughnecks, leading them to an undefeated 5-0 season. Walker led the league with 15 touchdowns and 1,338 passing yards. In his most recent game, he helped the Roughnecks overcome their largest-ever deficit (14 points) and rally to beat the Seattle Dragons on March 7. His star-making performance led some to say that he should be the league’s MVP. When asked about that at the postgame press conference, Walker modestly demurred: “I’mma vote for Cam [Phillips],” he said, praising the Roughnecks wide receiver seated next to him. “I ain’t gonna vote for myself. I’m gonna vote for Cam.”

Watch the moment below.

BREAKING: The Carolina Panthers have traded QB Kyle Allen to the Washington Redskins. The team recently gave quarterback Cam Newton permission to seek a trade. This latest move indicates that Walker may be competing for the starting job with another recent signee: former New Orleans Saints QB Teddy Bridgewater. Stay tuned for further updates.

UPDATE: Tonight, P.J. Walker made his debut at quarterback for the Carolina Panthers during tonight’s game versus the Falcons. Starting QB Teddy Bridgewater was hit in the head by Falcons pass-rusher Charles Harris. The refs threw a flag. Harris was ejected for unnecessary roughness; Bridgewater exited the game. Walker, who has become the No. 2 backup quarterback, entered the game amid pouring rain. He took a shot right away, launching the ball across the field for a touchdown attempt. It didn’t take, but the drive resulted in a field goal.

Teddy Bridgewater just re-entered the game. Apparently he cleared concussion protocol. Stay tuned.

Update (Nov. 22, 2020): After Bridgewater suffered yet another knee injury, he was ruled inactive for today’s game versus the Detroit Lions. The Carolina Panthers named P.J. Walker the starter for today’s game. He delivered. Walker got his first NFL touchdown when he connected with Panthers receiver Curtis Samuel.

Despite two interceptions, Walker went 24-of 34 for 258 yards and a touchdown. The Panthers overwhelmed the Lions in a shutout, winning 20-0. This gives Walker a win for his first NFL career start. He is now undefeated as a pro football starter (5-0 in the XFL; 1-0 in the NFL).

“I didn’t actually envision this start; my mom did,” Walker said in a press conference. He said his mother called him a year and a half ago to tell him she’d dreamed he was on the Panthers. Walker didn’t understand at the time, as he was then with the Indianapolis Colts. Now, Walker’s on the Carolina Panthers, and he’s won his first game as an NFL quarterback. It’s the culmination of a lifelong dream: “This is something I’ve been dreaming about my whole life,” Walker said.

Roughnecks Remain Unbeaten After Wild Finish

By Terrance Turner

March 9, 2020 (updated Nov. 15)

Despite three turnovers and a wildly controversial fourth quarter, the Houston Roughnecks survived Game 5 on Saturday afternoon to remain undefeated. The Roughnecks beat the Seattle Dragons 32-23 at TDECU Stadium yesterday. They remain the only unbeaten team in the XFL.

After a near-scoreless first quarter, the Seattle Dragons’ offense took off. After a fumble by the Roughnecks, Dragons quarterback B.J. Daniels led a 7-play, 18-yard, three-minute scoring drive. On 4th and goal at the one-yard line, Daniels ran in and scored the touchdown. The two-point conversion, however, was unsuccessful: a gaggle of Houston defenders prevented the Dragons from scoring.

Following an 18-yard kickoff return by cornerback Charles James II, the Roughnecks began their drive. The first quarter ended just as Houston running back Andre Williams achieved 1st down with a nine-yard carry. After the second quarter began, the drive stalled. A field goal by kicker Sergio Castillo was no good. After a near-fumble on first and 10, the Dragons recovered. Dragons running back Trey Williams scored the touchdown with a 17-yard scamper. This time, the two-point conversion was good: Daniels threw a successful pass to wide receiver Austin Proehl.

That made the score 14-0 — the largest deficit the Houston Roughnecks have ever faced. But they quickly cut the lead down. On 3rd and 1, Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker connected with wide receiver Nick Holley for a stunning 50-yard touchdown.

The Roughnecks decided to go for a three-point conversion but couldn’t make the play, so the score remained 14-6. After the Dragons went three and out, receiver Sam Mobley had a 16-yard return, which was negated by a holding penalty. But Mobley rebounded with a 42-yard catch.

Following the two-minute warning, a 14-yard play by wide receiver Blake Jackson took the Roughnecks to the one-yard line. A false start penalty moved them five yards back. Running back James Butler scored a one-yard TD run, jumping into the stands to celebrate. But the celebration was short-lived: the on-field ruling of a touchdown was reversed when referees said Butler was short of the goal line. Worse yet, Seattle Dragons player Godwin Igwebuike was injured on the play. He laid on the ground for several minutes but eventually was able to walk off the field.

On the very next play, Butler scored again:

This time, the touchdown was upheld. Walker connected with Holley for the successful two-point conversion. The Houston Roughnecks’ eight-play, 90-yard drive evened the score. The game was tied 14-14 at halftime.

The Dragons got the ball back to start the second half. On 3rd and 5, B.J. Daniels fell to the ground for a four-yard loss. Roughnecks linebacker Edmond Robinson was credited with the sack. Seattle settled for a field goal, which kicker Ernesto Lacayo nailed to make it 17-14.

They would add to that lead after a costly mistake by the Roughnecks. On 1st down, Walker was intercepted by Dragons cornerback Marko Myers, who returned the pick 52 yards. It was Walker who tripped Myers up to keep him from scoring. But Myers landed inside the one-yard line, which set up B.J. Daniels’ touchdown run. The two-point conversion attempt failed, but Seattle still held a commanding 23-14 lead.

Walker rallied the Roughnecks with a four-play, 64-yard drive, highlighted by a dramatic 48-yard pass to Cam Phillips. That set up 1st and goal at the 10-yard line. Butler ran through Seattle defenders for his second touchdown of the day. The Roughnecks went for a three-point conversion in hopes of tying the game, but Walker’s pass was too high for Holley. Still, the Roughnecks had narrowed Seattle’s lead. They trailed 23-20.

The Dragons took over. Just when it seemed like they were headed for a three-and-out, a defensive pass interference call (on Houston) gave them an automatic first down. But they still failed to convert, as #97 Gabe Wright stuffed Daniels for a seven-yard loss. Seattle was forced to punt on 4th and 16. Then, a promising Roughnecks drive ended with another turnover. As Walker launched a pass to receiver Sam Mobley, Dragons safety Jordan Martin jumped up and grabbed the ball. He appeared to land out of bounds, but referees reversed their initial ruling to say that Martin had intercepted the ball.

Seattle was unable to convert the pick into any points. The end of that fruitless drive also marked the end of the third quarter.

In the fourth quarter, Walker helmed another scoring drive that culminated in a 6-yard TD by Cam Phillips. The two-point conversion attempt was no good. But with nine minutes left, the Roughnecks had taken their first lead of the day, 26-23. The Dragons were unable to score any points on their next drive and punted on 4th down. With 3:33 remaining, Walker fired the ball to Cam Phillips for an 11-yard TD. Roughnecks went for 1 extra point, but running back Andre Williams was stopped in the backfield. However, the Roughnecks had scored 18 unanswered points and taken a 32-23 lead.

The game would end with two major controversies. On the Dragons’ drive, Daniels was running when he tumbled to the ground and disappeared inside a mass of red and white jerseys. A pileup ensued, with players stacked on top of each other for several minutes. During that time, referees threw two flags in the air. But the reason for the penalties remained unclear.

After what seemed like an eternity, referee Tra Blake provided an answer: “The ruling on the field is a fumble recovered by the defense. It’s Houston’s ball,” he said. “After the play, personal foul: #47 on the return team for Houston — for throwing a punch. He’s disqualified.”

What had happened? Linebacker DeMarquis Gates had stripped the ball from Daniels and then recovered the fumble. But then he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and ejected from the game for throwing a punch. Remarkably, Gates was signing autographs for fans mere moments after being disqualified. He was also interviewed. “What did you get ejected for?” the reporter asked. “To be honest, I don’t know,” Gates responded. “I just had to make a play.”

Once all of the dust settled, it was 1st and 10 for the Roughnecks with 1:58 left. A 12-yard pickup by Andre Williams was enough for a Roughnecks first down. On fourth down, P.J. Walker took a knee with two seconds remaining, and the clock ran out. After the game, the XFL issued a statement saying that the ball should’ve gone to the Dragons:

“Today’s Seattle Dragons-Houston Roughnecks game should not have ended as it did. Replays showed clearly that the knee of Houston quarterback P.J. Walker touched the field, rendering him ‘down’ and the fourth-down play officially completed, with approximately two seconds remaining on the clock – effectively turning the ball over to Seattle on downs. With a nine-point differential in the score, Seattle was denied an opportunity to tie the game. The XFL sincerely regrets this error.”

Walker, however, appears to have no regrets. Asked about the game’s three turnovers (including two picks), Walker took responsibility, but didn’t beat himself up: “In the beginning, with the three turnovers, it was just… it happens. It’s part of the game, you know? So things happen. You just got to bounce back from ‘em. Great players bounce back. Winners gonna always bounce back as well. And it is what it is,” Walker said in a postgame press conference.

During the press conference, Walker was joined by wide receivers Sam Mobley and Cam Phillips. They all emphasized a team-first mentality. “We stay consistent every day. We work really hard, I would say — for the most part — as a team. So we know what we’ve got in our locker room. We just go out there and do what we do,” Walker said during the conference.

 Phillips also focused on the team. In response to a question about the game’s second half: “I just think we did a great job of sort of calming down, understanding that we just had to do our jobs better, just pay a little more attention to detail,” said Phillips. He added that “it resulted in, you know, a 32-9 run to finish the game after that point. So not just the offense, the defense picked it up as well, and props — shout out to the whole team.”

“It’s a team thing,” added Sam Mobley. “I think we all have faith in each other as a team, and we have each other’s backs, whether we’re up or down. And just us having each other’s back helped us get to the finish and come back.” 

The press conference video is presented below:

Quarterback P.J. Walker (left) and wide receivers Cam Phillips (middle) and Sam Mobley (right) answered questions after winning their game on March 7.

During the press conference, Phillips was asked about defensive coverage. His answer gave props to his teammates: “Sam had a great game. Nick Holley, you know, had another great game — made a few big catches. Like I said, we just trust in each other, man. We talk all the time, laugh all the time, so we understand that that camaraderie and sort of brotherhood is key — especially on offense.”

Brotherhood was also on the mind on running back James Butler, whom I interviewed in the locker room. “We really came alive in that second half,” Butler said. “We know how good we can be. We’re still putting pieces together, still trying to play a complete game. But yeah, it’s a brotherhood in this locker room.”

Speaking of brotherhood, wide receiver Nick Holley was outside signing autographs for fans during the press conference. (His twin brother Nate Holley, who played in the CFL before joining the Miami Dolphins this offseason, was also in attendance.) I was fortunate enough to interview Nick Holley after the game.

What was the key to his terrific performance? “First and foremostly, I give glory to God — it’s the big man upstairs. And after that, it’s just preparation,” he said. Like Butler, Holley also felt that despite the 5-0 start, the team could still improve — “we haven’t scratched our surface yet. We still haven’t put a complete game together and played up to our potential.” Butler had also mentioned the idea of a “complete game”. What does that mean for Holley? “No mistakes on offense, no mistakes on defense, and superior special teams.” The interview is embedded below.

The family theme continued when a surprise guest. Running back Andre Williams had a breakout game, with 10 carries for 54 yards. I asked him what was the key to his performance; before answering, he reached over and grabbed a small infant. It was his one-year-old son, Ka’el, whom Williams held his son as he talked. It was an all-too-rare glimpse of who these players are off the field. For all the (valid) talk about brotherhood, many professional football players have also experienced fatherhood.

“Football is family,” says a 2016 advertising campaign for the NFL. But on the field, these men — fathers, sons, and brothers — are hidden behind shoulder pads and bulky helmets. We sometimes see them with their families on the field after the game. But when was the last time you saw a man (especially a black man) caring for his child during a locker-room interview? The moment with Williams and his baby son lent an added dimension to my coverage.

Williams answered: “I just try to stay level-headed — don’t get too high, don’t get too low, stay in the game. You know, it was a great team win. On both sides of the ball. All three phases, we played well enough to win.” Our interview was crashed by receiver Jalen Saunders, who spent the XFL season on injured reserve. (He was signed by the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks in April, but opted out after the pandemic began.)

I also asked Williams why the Roughnecks don’t have a tight end.

A Meditation on the Black Quarterback

By Terrance Turner

As we conclude Black History Month, I wanted to make note of a historic feat that may have gone overlooked. Four weeks ago, Patrick Mahomes became only the third black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. (Doug Williams was the first, in 1987; Russell Wilson was the second, in 2014.) Mahomes — the son of a black father and white mother — caught fire late in Super Bowl 54 to lead the Chiefs to victory. Mahomes’ stunning fourth-quarter performance helped power the Chiefs to score 21 unanswered points in the final minutes of the game.

With his surprise win, Mahomes makes history as one of only three black quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl. But he was just one of several mobile, talented black quarterbacks in professional football this year.

Lamar Jackson earned the MVP Award this year with good passing and even better rushing. In 2019, Jackson broke Michael Vick’s record for most rushing yards by a quarterback. He led the league with 36 touchdown passes and powered the Baltimore Ravens to playoff contention. Deshaun Watson likewise animated the Houston Texans’ offense with his mobility and passing, pushing them to a playoff win against the Bills. And in the XFL, the Houston Roughnecks’ P.J. Walker has scored more touchdowns than some XFL teams combined. (He eventually finished the abbreviated season with 15 touchdowns and only four interceptions.)

Could we be in the middle of a renaissance for black quarterbacks?

Roughnecks Overcome Vipers to Remain Undefeated

Photo courtesy of XFL News Hub.

By Terrance Turner

The Houston Roughnecks survived a spirited effort by the Tampa Bay Vipers to remain undefeated on Saturday. In their first away game ever, the Roughnecks held on to beat the Vipers 34-27.

The game was held in Tampa, Florida, and the home team got out to an early lead with a field goal that made the score 3-0. But Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker threw to wide receiver Cam Phillips, who took off for an 84-yard touchdown run. After that, Houston made its first successful three-point conversion, with Walker hitting receiver Sam Mobley for a 9-3 lead.

But Tampa Bay answered in convincing fashion. Head coach Marc Trestman replaced quarterback Taylor Cornelius with Quinton Flowers, a former USF standout. Flowers fired a pass to #17 for a huge gain. That yardage was enhanced by an unsportsmanlike conduct call on the Houston defense. That set up their touchdown, followed by a successful one-point play. The Vipers took the lead, 10-9. It was their first offensive touchdown all season, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

On their drive, the Roughnecks struck back. Walker dropped a snap, picked the ball up, and ran into the end zone for the touchdown. This time, the three-point conversion was unsuccessful. But Houston regained the lead, 15-10.

After Tampa Bay went three and out on the next series, Flowers was replaced by Cornelius, and didn’t play another down. After Tampa Bay failed to score any points, the Roughnecks got the ball back. Kicker Sergio Castillo made a 28-yard field goal to make it 18-10.

Once again, however, defensive struggles opened the door for the opponent’s offense. Cornelius launched a pass to running back De’veon Smith, whom Roughnecks defenders struggled to tackle. Another Tampa Bay player ran up and pushed all three players toward the 1-yard line. That set up 1st and goal. Cornelius ran in for the touchdown, and the Vipers added a two-point conversion just as the clock ran out. Both teams were tied 18-18 at halftime.

In the second half, Walker made a deep pass to wide receiver Sammie Coates, which was incomplete. But Coates’ defender was flagged for defensive pass interference. That penalty moved the chains dramatically. It also led to a 24-yard touchdown courtesy of Cam Phillips. And the two-point play was good: running back James Butler dashed into the end zone to make it 26-18. After a fruitless drive, Tampa Bay kicker Jake Schum punted the ball to the Roughnecks. But their drive ended with a 49-yard field goal attempt — which Castillo missed!

The Roughnecks would pay dearly for that mistake. On 4th down, Tampa Bay escaped the Houston defense to go 24 yards. Then the quarterback fired a pass to #81 Dan Williams for the touchdown. The two-point conversion attempt was no good. As the third quarter drew to a close, the Roughnecks maintained a slim lead, 26-24.

The fourth quarter began, and the Vipers embarked on another drive. Early in the quarter, the Tampa Bay kicker Andrew Franks nailed a 43-yard field goal to add three more points and take the lead. The Vipers led Houston 27-26.

Down by one with 12:51 remaining, the Roughnecks needed to score. P.J. Walker and Cam Phillips worked their usual magic, combining for a 17-yard TD. (For the second game in a row, Cam Phillips finished with three touchdowns.) Then Walker threw a dart to running back Nick Holley for the two-point conversion. It was 34-27, with Houston back on top.

That lead was in danger as the fourth quarter wound down. The Vipers powered their way to the two-yard line on 1st and goal, all but assuring that they would win. But then the unthinkable happened. With the game practically theirs, Tampa Bay had four opportunities to score — but they didn’t. On 4th and goal, the Vipers failed to convert. They would eventually get the ball back after a short drive by Houston, but Cornelius’ pass was intercepted by Roughnecks linebacker De’Marquis Gates with 1:22 left.

Fans booed Cornelius (and his team) as Walker raised his hands in victory. “It’s over. It’s over!” he proclaimed. He was right. Despite a surging Viper offense and crowd noise from 18,000 fans in Raymond James Stadium, the Houston Roughnecks won, 34-27. Walker now has the distinction of leading the XFL with 11 touchdowns — more than any other team in the league.