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Yes, the NFL Needs the XFL

From the AFL to the USFL to even the first iteration of the XFL, more football has always been a good thing for America’s preeminent football league

A photo illustration of Vince McMahon and Roger Goodell Getty Images/WWE/Ringer illustration

The new XFL is probably a bad idea. And it probably will not work, as it appears to be a league more focused on addressing the concerns your angry uncle posted on Facebook about the NFL than actually being its own serious football league.

This is great news for the NFL—and not just because the league inexplicably will become the progressive football league. No, it’s a boon for the league because the past 70 years suggest that no one benefits from more football quite like the NFL.

The history of the NFL is that its good ideas often start somewhere else. The two-point conversion was cribbed from rival leagues. The NFL liberally borrowed from XFL broadcasts. And without the AFL and USFL, teams would have far fewer and less imaginative schemes on both sides of the ball.

Most ideas in the conservative NFL take years to come to fruition—as they’re either blocked by coaches who fear change or by league executives who table everything during the voting process. The NFL is averse to change—so, historically, the league waits for other leagues to change things for it. As disastrous as it probably will be, the XFL’s planned 2020 launch can only be a positive for the league it’s trying to rival.

A few years ago at Redskins practice, I met a young position coach who’d worked in Orlando in the mostly forgotten UFL. We talked about my hometown for a while and how valuable it was to coach in pro football at a young age. The coach? Sean McVay. He was on a Florida Tuskers (really) staff that included future Washington head coach Jay Gruden as offensive coordinator. Today, young minds like McVay are helping the NFL, and the professional reps he got in the UFL helped get him there.

I doubt Vince McMahon does much of what he said he would do on Thursday—his reimagining of football will probably not be that revolutionary. The marketing point that all players will stand for the anthem will probably be less relevant in 2020 than it is at the moment. McMahon also said that one of the failures of the XFL was not putting enough emphasis on the quality of play, and unless McMahon invests hundreds of millions of dollars into player salaries, that problem will remain in this version. The NFL is in the midst of a season in which Blake Bortles made a conference championship game—it seems misguided to think that there’s so much talent in the NFL that the runoff will make its way to the XFL for less money and things will still look good. Football is not the most popular thing in America. Good football is.

NFL ratings are falling, and two major reasons for that are the oversaturation of the weekly schedule and a lack of absolute superstars playing big games for popular teams. The XFL can’t avoid either issue: The league will only add to the oversaturation, and, well, good quarterbacks are obscenely expensive.

Over the past six years or so, the NFL has not had any competition at all. It makes sense when you consider how much of a stranglehold the league has on its audience and the recent era of great quarterbacks—any league launching now will not have Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees. Good luck matching that. Historically, though, there have been a lot of attempts to topple the NFL. There was the XFL in 2001, the USFL in the ’80s, the World Football League in the ’70s, the Canadian Football League’s brief American expansion in the ’90s, and by far the most successful upstart, the AFL in the 1960s, which later merged with the NFL. Without any semi-legitimate second option, there’s been no serious place for NFL players to develop in the offseason since NFL Europe folded in 2007.

While none of those rival competitions had staying power, plenty of their ideas still exist in the league today. There is a long history of the league borrowing ideas from its rivals, so let’s start with an idea the NFL took from McMahon’s league: their television production.

If you enjoyed the SkyCam angles this year, you can thank the XFL on NBC. A few months after the league folded in 2001, Monday Night Football approached the NFL about using a variety of the gimmicks XFL execs bragged about last season.” The main “gimmick” in question was SkyCam. Interestingly, MNF chief Fred Gaudelli, who later went to NBC to run Sunday Night Football, mentioned in 2001 that he also wished to put microphones on quarterbacks, which the XFL invented. And that was later adopted in a different way in 2011, when the NFL placed microphones on interior offensive linemen. (It’s why “OMAHA!” is heard now and not 20 years ago.) The XFL’s “let’s have the guys sort of brawl to see who gets the kickoff first” idea is probably never going to be mainstream, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater—the league did some smart things.

One of the biggest gripes NFL general managers have is the lack of places to play for guys on the fringes of the sport. When teams trim their rosters to 53 in early September, 1,184 players are cut, and there is nowhere for them to get any game experience. Since the NFL is still resistant to starting a minor league, these players are either relegated to practice squads or retreat back to their hometowns, work out as much as they can, lift weights, and generally try to find any way to get better at football other than, you know, playing football. Players can develop outside of the NFL; they just need a place to play. The USFL and AFL, both of whom competed financially for NFL-caliber talent, had a parade of future superstars on their rosters. Jim Kelly, Reggie White, and Herschel Walker starred in the ’80s in the USFL.

The XFL wouldn’t dream of such a competition for top college players—they’ll instead have to settle for the fringes—and that works just fine for the NFL. The best guidepost for a league like the new XFL would be the old XFL, which rejuvenated careers of players long forgotten and turned them into decent NFL starters. Tommy Maddox, a former first-round quarterback, had been out of the NFL for five years when he joined the Los Angeles Xtreme. A year later, he joined the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he started 32 games and led the team to the playoffs in 2002. At a time when there’s undoubtedly a shortage of great quarterbacks, a Last Chance Saloon where one or two passers could work their way back into the NFL would help. Other American leagues routinely pluck players from other leagues—most of them in another country—and the sports are only better for it. Canadian football has given us Cameron Wake and Warren Moon, but an offseason league in America with essentially the same rules would be even better for NFL rosters.

However, the most influence upstart leagues have had on the NFL is in the way the game is played. The more you study the history of football schemes the more you realize the influence that secondary leagues had on them. Hank Stram, famed coach of the Kansas City Chiefs and one of the innovators of the odd formation and the 3-4 defense, talked extensively about how open the AFL was to new ideas as opposed to the staid NFL. This included the “odd” front and a variety of offensive formations—things quickly accepted into the NFL mainstream after they proved to work.

”I favorited a variety of formations over the mere two used in the NFL, and I liked to use a lot of motion on offense,” Stram wrote in his book They’re Playing My Game. “Also, I didn’t think much of the 4-3 defense. ... I preferred a lot of odd spacing, with a man on the nose of the opposing center. This 3-4 defense or a 5-3 alignment were much more familiar to the AFL people. There were none of the prejudices among us about their being amateurish or substandard—unprofessional. We incorporated what we knew and taught it well.”

The original XFL didn’t leave us with many schematic legacies—although Orlando Rage quarterback Jeff Brohm is now one of college football’s brightest coaches at Purdue, and highly regarded Cowboys executive Will McClay was director of player personnel on the team. But the USFL’s legacy, which includes up-tempo, spread offenses, has helped shape the modern NFL, as have plenty of other innovations.

“Few may realize it,” the New York Daily News wrote in 2008. “But among the USFL’s innovations since adapted by the NFL were the two-point conversion, the review via coach’s challenge and the salary cap. The Houston Gamblers ran a run-and-shoot offense that is not unlike many of the spread attacks so in vogue today.”

The NFL needs good ideas. The XFL may never be a roaring success, but it should at least have a couple of them.