CANTON, Ohio — Seated at the center of the table in the bowels of Tom Benson Pro Football Hall of Fame Stadium on Saturday night, Birmingham Stallions coach Skip Holtz was asked a simple question: Was the man seated to his right, Alex McGough, an NFL quarterback?
It was a fair question. McGough did not start the season as the team’s starting QB, but had taken over, crafted an MVP season, and finished it all off with a 28-12 USFL Championship victory over the Pittsburgh Maulers.
Holtz, who has spent most of his life developing high-level college football players, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, didn’t demur. He didn’t hesitate. He was measured, even amid the glow of becoming the first back-to-back champion head coach in any pro sport since the Golden State Warriors (2017-2018) and the first coach in the 21st century to win titles in his first two seasons as a pro head coach.
He sized up McGough, settled himself, and said: “I think he’s as good as I’ve ever been around, and I’ve been around a lot of NFL quarterbacks.”
But with McGough, Holtz has found a quarterback who is special — one he trusts to help him draw up each week’s game plan, swap a play at the line of scrimmage, take the pulse of a team full of men who might not spend more than this season together as teammates.
And then go win.
That’s why we’re talking about McGough this season.
He’s shown himself to be an athlete. You certainly don’t play college for Butch Davis, as he did, if you’re not. Pete Carroll wanted so desperately to keep McGough on his Seahawks roster that he tried McGough at safety before ultimately parting with him. When former Super Bowl-winning and national title-winning offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien took the measure of McGough in Houston, he tried to bulk McGough up so that he might be their version of Taysom Hill.
He was a raw quarterback, elite when the play breaks down, but too undependable to read defenses and operate at a pro level. Then Holtz drafted him, he played him nearly as much as he did J’Mar Smith in 2022. He taught him not just the Stallions’ offense, but how to play the position in a manner that could win football games, put good plays on tape, and get him a second shot at the NFL.
That’s what the USFL is for Holtz — a launch pad for talented players and coaches to find their way back. Holtz hired a 21-year-old to be his general manager. He signed USFL Championship Game MVP Deon Cain because he was a national title winner at Clemson. He allowed former All-American linebacker Scooby Wright to create the energetic identity of what has become the Birmingham defense.
“I think everybody that has made it has gotten an opportunity,” Holtz said.
And those opportunities change lives. Working for his father, Lou, who was on hand for Saturday’s title game, Skip wanted the opportunity to call plays and to be the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame. His father turned him down. When Bobby Bowden, head coach at Florida State, learned that Lou wasn’t going to elevate his son to OC, he told the Irish head coach that he would hire Skip to be run FSU’s offense. And that’s how Skip Holtz became an offensive coordinator, the kind who has a claim to a national title at ND.
Over the course of the last two decades, Skip Holtz has looked to give those chances to those who deserved it. McGough is one such player.
McGough was that player when former NFL first-round pick Reuben Foster met him in the hole, standing him up on fourth-and-1 to create a turnover on downs.
McGough was that player when he turned a broken play on third down into a first down with an 11-yard scramble. A facemask penalty pushed the ball to the Maulers’ 42-yard line. After the penalty was assessed, Holtz dialed up a 42-yard post route for McGough that found Davion Davis in the end zone for the game’s first TD.
He was that player when the Stallions were up nine — a one-score game in the USFL — and he gambled, scrambled, turned his back to the defense, ran toward his own end zone, was chased down by Foster and stripped of the ball.
Through it all — the gambles that worked and those that didn’t — McGough finished with 307 total yards and four passing TDs. McGough is that player — the one who if given a chance, could turn out to be special.
He’s special enough that he averaged 350.5 yards and 4.5 TDs in the USFL playoffs, completing 39 of 56 passes. He was special enough that to be the only QB Carroll drafted while Russell Wilson was a Seahawk. He was a seventh-round selection in 2018 — Brock Purdy was a seventh-round selection in 2022, and he led the San Francisco 49ers to the NFC Championship Game last season.
The road is there for McGough to not just earn an invitation to an NFL training camp, but perhaps push his career to a new apex.
NFL Europe, a precursor to the modern USFL, developed Jon Kitna from a Barcelona Dragon to the man who succeeded Hall of Famer Warren Moon as the starter for the Seahawks. That league also developed Jake Delhomme into a starter for the Carolina Panthers in 2003. Shaun Hill left the Amsterdam Admirals — where his head coach was current Philadelphia Stars coach Bart Andrus — and went on to play 11 seasons, and make 35 starts, at the highest level of pro football.
Brad Johnson left the London Monarchs and metamorphosed into a Super Bowl-winning quarterback with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a two-time Pro Bowl selection. Kurt Warner left the Admirals and became a two-time NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion.
But none of those men accomplished in NFL Europe what McGough has in the USFL, winning league MVP and a championship. And the game is slowing for him, still.
McGough, who has been a pro for six years and turns 28 in November, is in his prime. He is playing his best football and developed into the kind of player Holtz, a man who has been coaching football for 36 years, calls “my offensive coordinator.” He is a man Holtz trusts implicitly to make a call, make a play, win the game.
In the NFL, they have a word for that: Quarterback.
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