St. Louis Battlehawks 2024 UFL Season In Review | A.J. McCarron

St. Louis Battlehawks 2024 UFL Season In Review

For the first time in franchise history, the St. Louis Battlehawks clinched a playoff berth. This led to the return of postseason professional football to the city of St. Louis – something they hadn’t seen in two decades.

Unfortunately, the UFL season would come to a bitter end at home. The Battlehawks managed to score just nine points on offense as they fell to the San Antonio Brahmas.

That said, this group has a lot to be proud of from the 2024 UFL campaign. They were one of the best spring football units we’ve seen yet, with some of the top talent in the league. Ultimately, they fell short of their goal of a Championship.

Let’s take a look at what defined this season for the St. Louis Battlehawks, as their 7-3 record earned them the regular season title in the XFL Conference.

Early Success

St. Louis opened up their UFL season with a loss, upset by the Michigan Panthers. It was a game that the team felt like they should’ve won, as Jake Bates hit an improbable 64 yard field goal (twice) to seal the deal for the Panthers.

After getting through the week one jitters, though, St. Louis went on a run the next five weeks. It all began with their home debut, as Mataeo Durant burst onto the scene with over 100 rushing yards as Andre Szmyt walked it off for the Battlehawks at The Dome. They fed off the energy of 40,000+ fans in the stands, and it made for one of the UFL’s most electrifying moments of the year.

The positive momentum continued, as St. Louis looked exactly like the team we’d expect them to be. A.J. McCarron was playing elite football, and with all of their offensive weapons, they were tough to slow down. The Battlehawks stunned the Brahmas on the road in week three, before taking care of business against the Showboats at home.

It felt like their season peaked in week five, as they finally accomplished something they hadn’t done yet in the XFL or UFL: beat the DC Defenders. This Battlehawks team erupted for 45 points on the road, as they danced and dazzled their way to a 45-12 win at Audi Field. With a four game win streak at the halfway point of the UFL season, Battlehawks fans were preparing for what appeared to be a Championship run.

Week six told a slightly different story. While St. Louis defeated the Houston Roughnecks at home, it wasn’t an entirely convincing win. The offense showed some true flaws for the first time all year, and it wasn’t until the late 4th quarter that they were finally able to put the game on ice.

That said, it was week seven that would ultimately define the rest of the season for St. Louis.

An Injury That Changed Everything

With a 5-1 record, the St. Louis Battlehawks traveled to Birmingham to take on the undefeated Stallions. Many viewed this matchup as a Championship Preview, and it lived up to the hype. Both teams went back and forth throughout, as neither could really pull ahead.

However, in the fourth quarter, one play would change the course of the entire season for St. Louis. DT Carlos Davis tackled A.J. McCarron, going low which rolled up his ankle. McCarron said on the broadcast that his ankle “was broken”, and while we never got a detailed analysis of what the injury actually was, it plagued him throughout the rest of the year.

St. Louis would end up losing this game, falling to the Stallions 30-26 in McCarron’s return to Alabama.

Regular Season’s End

To close out the season, Manny Wilkins started in two of three games for St. Louis. Due to A.J.’s injury, Anthony Becht decided to roll with Manny for a couple of games. In week eight, he led the Battlehawks to victory over DC, clinching a playoff berth. It wasn’t a perfect game for Manny, but his dual threat capabilities added a new layer to this St. Louis offense.

In week nine, though, Wilkins had an ugly outing. In the fourth quarter alone, he threw three interceptions, as St. Louis fell to the Arlington Renegades. It was clear that, in order to make a legitimate Championship push, the Battlehawks would need McCarron to return to the field.

A.J. did exactly that in week ten, and while the Battlehawks snuck away with a 13-12 win over the Brahmas, something didn’t feel quite right. McCarron had little confidence in his foot, and was blatantly restricted from full movement in the pocket.

Had it not been for a shanked field goal by Ryan Santoso in the final seconds, San Antonio would have won this football game.

Playoff Failure

This would all come to a head the next week, as St. Louis had to face off against San Antonio for a third time. The Battlehawks were completely outmatched and outcoached by this Brahmas organization, as they fell 25-15 at home.

McCarron, once again, couldn’t find much of a rhythm with his injury. The confident poise he had as the Battlehawks’ QB for the last two years wasn’t present, as San Antonio stifled their offense to just nine total points in this game.

It was a rather anticlimactic ending to what was supposed to be such a special season. There are a few factors that played into this; as St. Louis had some flaws that were simply hidden until injuries and unfortunate circumstances exposed them.

Questionable Play Calling

Something that stood out in St. Louis, especially down the stretch of the season, was the decision-making by Bruce Gradkowski at the OC position.

The most glaring example of this came in the playoffs – a must win game against San Antonio. Despite McCarron playing on one foot, he involved A.J. in not one, not two, but three trick plays – each of which ended up horribly.

Additionally, they called one of the strangest trick plays you’ll see in spring football. It involved McCarron only having a couple of blockers in front of him – and resulted in A.J. having to take the football himself, tackled for loss.

Bruce has called some fantastic games for the Battlehawks across his two year career as Offensive Coordinator. The team did, in fact, average 26 points per game (2nd). To be clear, he’s done an impressive job working alongside Anthony Becht with this team.

However, they managed just 21 points of offense across the final two meetings, with none of their stars making much of an impact. To call so many trick plays, out of the blue in the playoffs, with an injured quarterback, made little sense.

It also felt like certain playmakers simply weren’t getting the ball. For example, when Jahcour Pearson returned from injury in week four, he had ten receptions in that game. Pearson proceeded to have just 16 catches the rest of the year – a number far too small for someone of his caliber. Bruce utilized Jahcour in a couple of excellent packages, but his name wasn’t called often enough.

To put it in perspective, the Battlehawks only had one WR make on the top 25 list (Hakeem Butler, 1st). Darrius Shepherd, Marcell Ateman, Jahcour Pearson, Steven Mitchell – none of them finished top 25 in receiving yards. To be fair, Ateman and Pearson both missed time this year; but so did plenty of other receivers who still landed in the top 25.

Third Down Struggles

Something that was an issue all year long for St. Louis: converting on third down. They were statistically the worst team in the UFL on third downs, at 34%. In the big games late in the year, they got even worse in this category. Against San Antonio in the playoffs, they were just 2/11 – with both first downs coming on the final drive as the Brahmas looked to play more prevent defense.

Coach Becht spoke on their emphasis to create better opportunities on first and second downs throughout the year, to improve that number on third down, but it never fully came to fruition. In the end, this thorn in their side was the final nail in the coffin preventing them from making a Championship run.

Defensive Improvement

On the bright side, something that greatly impacted this season for St. Louis was the improvements made defensively in the offseason. General Manager Dave Boller went out and acquired quite a bit of talent through the Dispersal Drafts and through free agency. These pieces fit seamlessly into Donnie Abraham’s defensive unit, and turned the Battlehawks into one of the top defenses in the UFL.

In fact, for a time, St. Louis was leading the UFL in most defensive categories. They finished the year allowing just 259.8 yards per game (3rd), and 20.2 points per game (4th). St. Louis generated takeaways efficiently, with 14 on the season.

Something that plagued the Battlehawks – which they managed quite well – were the injuries. They were missing star LB Mike Rose for long chunks of the year. Additionally, starting CB Brandon Sebastian was placed on IR a couple of weeks before the playoffs began. Safety Ben DeLuca also missed time on IR, alongside DT Austin Faoliu who was inactive for multiple weeks.

Despite this, they still pushed through and played outstanding football. Travis Feeney, Dravon Askew-Henry, Kameron Kelly, Chris Payton-Jones, and plenty of others stepped up week in and week out.

Standout Talent

QB A.J. McCarron: McCarron was clearly the glue that held this team together. He’s arguably the top quarterback in all of spring football when healthy. His injury changed the course of the entire season for St. Louis. McCarron finished the regular season with 1,582 passing yards and 15 touchdowns, to just four interceptions.

RB Jacob Saylors: Saylors proved to be a revelation in the backfield this year; earning All-UFL honors. After little production across the first two weeks, Jacob led all running backs with 461 rushing yards, posting five touchdowns. He was a factor through the air as well, with 152 yards and three scores. Saylors just signed with the New York Giants – which isn’t much of a surprise given his UFL success.

WR Hakeem Butler: Butler won UFL Offensive Player of the Year, and for good reason. He led all receivers with 652 yards, scoring five touchdowns in 2024. Hakeem The Dream was one of the most dominant wide outs spring ball has seen yet. After another impressive outing, he should be back on an NFL roster sooner than later.

WR/KR Darrius Shepherd: Shepherd, the XFL’s Special Teams Player of the Year in 2023, was spectacular once again. He made an impact through the air with 240 receiving yards, but was second in the UFL with 1,313 All-Purpose Yards. His versatility is key to the success St. Louis has seen over the past two years.

LB Willie Harvey Jr.: Harvey was tremendous all season long, being a leader defensively. He led the UFL in tackles with 78, stuffing the stat sheets with nine TFL’s, four sacks, six PBU’s, and two forced fumbles. Harvey has since signed with the Dallas Cowboys – a worthy accomplishment after dominating the UFL this year.

S Kameron Kelly: Kelly made a name for himself, especially late in the season. He ended up having three interceptions (T-1st), with 44 tackles and five PBU’s to his name.

DE Travis Feeney: Feeney is a fan favorite in The Lou, and for good reason. He was a star yet again this year, with 39 tackles, seven TFL’s, and five sacks. Every game, he was putting pressure on the quarterback, making his presence known in the backfield.

DB Chris Payton-Jones: Payton-Jones joined St. Louis after playing with the Seattle Sea Dragons a year ago. He had plenty of success in the UFL with the Battlehawks, proving to be one of their top corners this season. Chris had 37 tackles and five PBU’s in 2024.

K Andre Szmyt: Szmyt replaced Donny Hageman this offseason, which proved to be an excellent move for this organization. He made 19 of his 21 field goal attempts, with a long of 61 yards. He was spot on all year long.

Final Thoughts

For the St. Louis Battlehawks, this offseason could prove to be quite interesting. One of the reasons why they saw a lot of success in 2024 was their ability to retain so many key pieces from 2023. For example, they brought back the entire starting offensive line, which is why this offense was so potent. Both C Mike Panasiuk and OT Jaryd Jones-Smith were named to the All-UFL Offense. Without their elite protection, McCarron and Saylors would not have had the seasons that they did.

However, St. Louis will have to pick a direction heading towards 2025. It’s up in the air as to if A.J. McCarron will return to the team, especially with the injury he dealt with the last few weeks. Additionally, this core has not been able to make a Championship for two straight years, despite a 14-6 regular season record across that span.

The biggest frustration for this organization is their inability to get over the hump in the big moments. In 2023, they lost a must-win game to Seattle at home, which ended up dashing their postseason hopes. This year, they dropped a dud at home in the playoffs. Something has to change, as this current group hasn’t proven that they can get it done when it matters the most.

One final note before wrapping up this article: someone who deserves some recognition is RB/Special Teams Coach, Kyle Caskey. He helped push Saylors to an All-UFL year, while orchestrating some of the greatest special teams play we’ve seen (multiple blocked punts and field goals in crucial moments). If there was an Assistant Coach of the Year award, he would have my vote. Caskey was an incredible addition to Becht’s staff this year.

For Anthony Becht, and this entire St. Louis Battlehawks organization, some serious reflection will need to take place in order to pick a direction to go towards in 2025.

What are your thoughts on the St. Louis Battlehawks season? Will they make major changes in 2025? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!

 

Fubo
  1. Being what I had read about AJ McCarron commenting on the play calling earlier in the season and then the injuries later in the season, my guess would be that if McCarron stays Gradkowski goes. I wonder if that mean Becht goes. He seems like a REAL footballer and if he feels Gradkowski is his man, he may leave the team too. I think he deserves another job. As I said he is a real footballer. He likely needed more experience before this job and still performed admirably. As I had commented on a previous article, I wonder what would happen with McCarron if he played for Mike Riley or Mike Martz. Kurt Warner would never be considered nimble and Luis Perez led the USFL in passing under Riley. Although Riley likes mobile QBs, he can get the job done with a very Kavonte Turpinlike Jahcour Pearson. He loves a good o-line and would put them in a great place with all those receivers and btw before Sheppard was a Battlehawk he was a General and performed well enough to be signed by the Broncos. One last thing I would say. There were a couple of things I noticed from AJ McCarron that lead me to believe he was maybe not the brightest football player, but that he did have the best talent of any QB in the league and a really good and competitive heart and he is into his 30s. After watching him though and I did hear him whine a bit, but I must say he is a true team player. From what I saw he followed the game plan even when he didn’t believe in it. I would love to see him get at least one more chance with Riley or Martz.

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