This weekend was the first after the Super Bowl, and therefore the first of 2020 without any NFL games. Normal people, previously fettered by the chains of football fandom, probably had a lovely time doing all the things they may have skipped during the playoffs: taking their dogs to the park, or scheduling brunch with friends, or going ice skating with a loved one. The true weirdos, though, hunkered down in front of our televisions, our skin crawling after five whole days without exposure to professional football. It was time to watch the XFL.
This is the second straight year in which a league has launched to fill the February football void. In 2019, it was the Alliance of American Football, which briefly captivated us before folding midway through its inaugural season. (I choose to focus on the good memories, like the time that a quarterback forgot to strap his helmet on properly.) However, the XFL seems more likely to thrive than the AAF. While the AAF and XFL posted similar Week 1 attendance figures and TV ratings, the AAF disappeared from network TV after a pair of opening-week games broadcast on CBS, subsequently retreating to TNT, CBS Sports Network, the NFL Network, and Bleacher Report’s streaming service. The XFL, conversely, is booked on Fox, ABC, and ESPN for most of its inaugural season, with a handful of games to appear on ESPN2, Fox Sports 1, and Fox Sports 2. That should keep it from fading from the public eye. And while the AAF struggled with financial issues throughout its brief existence, the XFL is funded by WWE owner Vince McMahon, who has billions of dollars and might be willing to spend all of them to get this league off the ground in hopes of erasing the embarrassment of his failed first attempt to launch the XFL in 2001.
The XFL also seems more likely to thrive than the 2001 version of the XFL because, well … the football is watchable this time around. The 2001 XFL focused on bringing the showmanship of pro wrestling to football, but often failed to bring the pro football element. In 2020, the XFL clearly focuses on building a football product with reasonable talent, decent coaches, and a well-thought-out infrastructure. The players look like they have practiced; the referees know what they are doing.
The original XFL was defined by over-the-top displays of violence and machismo, with montages set to the finest nu metal 2001 had to offer. (Here is the original XFL’s highlight montage for “Hit of the Year,” celebrating a quarterback getting demolished while blasting a song by the band Disturbed. The 2001 XFL: Ooh ah ah ah ah ah!) The 2020 XFL is focusing intensely on the football part, with myriad broadcasting decisions aimed at appeasing the nerdiest of football nerds. And yet, it takes itself less seriously than the NFL. In the opening week of action, we got a player cursing on a live microphone, a player vomiting on the field, a fan eating an American cheese single and staring deeply into the camera as befuddled announcers wondered why he had just eaten an American cheese single, and a quarterback shotgunning a spiked seltzer to celebrate a victory. (I cannot fathom how painful the carbonation must have been going down.) There was more quirky fun in four games than in a full 16-game NFL slate.
As a proud football weirdo, I watched the entire first week of the new XFL. Here’s what’s working and what could use work.
Winner: The Revamped Rule Book
I’m not going to lie and say that the XFL’s quality of play is as good as the NFL’s. This weekend featured no dominant performances—between the eight teams, there were no 300-yard passers or 100-yard rushers—and few close games, with just one being decided by a single-digit margin. To be fair, it was Week 1. Maybe the XFL teams will eventually find a rhythm.
However, the league clearly surpasses the NFL in one category: the rules. It is a rite of passage for alternate football leagues to revamp the sport’s rule book in an attempt to differentiate themselves and to explain why their product is worth watching. Even the original XFL did this, eliminating fair catches and using a game of steal the bacon to determine who got the opening possession. Most of these attempts have felt half-brained. I can’t remember a set of rules as useful, considered, and well executed as the new XFL’s.
The most notable change is the kickoff, which barely resembles the NFL version. That’s a good thing: The kickoff is football’s most dangerous play, causing a disproportionate number of traumatic injuries as teams sprint into each other at full speed. It is also football’s least exciting play, resulting in a handful of big gains on thousands of kickoffs every season. The most common result of an NFL kickoff is 22 players taking almost a minute to line up before a ball is kicked into the end zone for a touchback. There were 2,603 kickoffs in the NFL last season, resulting in 1,585 touchbacks and seven touchdowns. On any given kickoff, there was a 60.8 percent chance of nothing happening, and a 0.2 percent chance of a score.
The XFL aims to cut down on kickoff injuries by lining up both teams only a few yards apart. The kicker stands at his own 30-yard line, the returner is in his usual spot, and everybody else lines up 5 yards apart at the receiving team’s 30- and 35-yard lines. The kicking team also isn’t allowed to break downfield until the returner has made contact with the ball (or three seconds after it has touched the ground).
This approach limits touchbacks, as there were only six on 35 XFL kickoffs in Week 1. And while there were no kick-return touchdowns, it seems likely that someone will figure out how to bust through the lone line of defenders in his path. Even if the XFL produces only one kick-return touchdown in its 40-game regular season, that will mean this safer kickoff format is just as exciting as the one that produced seven touchdowns during the NFL’s 256-game regular season. The AAF simply eliminated kickoffs from its games, which is something I’ve advocated for in the past. The XFL took an interest in saving it, and may be successful.
Another rule improvement is the elimination of the extra point. Instead of kicking PATs, XFL teams can go for conversions from the 2-, 5-, and 10-yard lines. Successful tries are respectively worth 1, 2, and 3 points. As it turns out, watching actual football plays is more entertaining than watching kicks that are converted about 95 percent of the time. And the ability for XFL teams to score nine points on a possession should keep more games entertaining for longer.
The XFL also moved the starting field position after touchbacks on punts from the 20-yard line to the 35, something that should disincentivize teams from punting once they cross midfield. And the clock stops after every play in the final two minutes of regulation until the ball is spotted; that should result in more attempts to gain yardage, and fewer scrambles to the line of scrimmage and mad dashes to get out of bounds.
Overtime is a penalty-shootout-type period in which teams get five chances to score from the opposing 5-yard line, and whoever scores the most wins. This approach may sound gimmicky, but I love it. I have thought a lot about the various proposals to fix football overtime in an attempt to eliminate the unfair advantages that come with winning the coin flip in both the college and pro overtime formats. The XFL has my favorite idea yet. It has also decided to broadcast replay officials as they make decisions in the booth, a transparency-based move that could help restore faith in a replay process many fans believe is broken. At the very least, it should explain why officials seem to take forever with some reviews—we’ll be able to hear the refs talk through their rationale.
Over the years, cracks in the NFL’s game have emerged. The league has responded by regularly clinging to the status quo, suggesting only minor tweaks to prevent repeat occurrences of hyperspecific past injustices. The XFL offers creative solutions to the NFL’s biggest game-play problems. That should simultaneously make games safer and more exciting.
Loser: Unexplained Football Jargon
One of the XFL’s highest-profile changes is to broadcast unfiltered audio from coaches and quarterbacks as they make and deliver their play calls. Poor Jim Zorn, head coach of the Seattle Dragons, still covers his mouth as he calls plays, apparently unaware his words are being aired to a national TV audience. In theory, this seems like a spectacular innovation. Instead of listening to some modestly coherent ex-quarterback bumble on about what a team should do in a given situation, we get to hear the actual call made by the actual coach. Isn’t that what we’ve always wanted? (It’s definitely what the Houston Astros would have wanted.)
In practice, however, this doesn’t live up to the hype. Most play calls aren’t particularly interesting to the common fan, unless you know each team’s play-calling terminology. You may learn that “Iowa” is a typical play call for an inside-zone run, and you may get a better feel for the dynamic of a coach-QB relationship. For the most part, though, these play calls are incomprehensible to the layman.
Remember, an offensive coordinator doesn’t tell his quarterback, “Hey, throw the ball to Steve 25 yards downfield!” He mutters a complex series of code words that identify routes and formations. Most of us don’t know how to decode those words! As a football nerd, I enjoyed following Nate Tice, who worked in the AAF last year, as he broke down the meanings behind various play calls and quarterback cadences. However, we rarely got any such analysis on the broadcast.
With context, the stream of live play calls could be a sensational addition to the XFL viewing experience. Lacking that context, the average fan just gets long strings of nonsensical words and numbers. For now, instead of getting a commentator speculating about what play a team should run, we’re getting a commentator speculating about what the words an offensive coordinator said might mean.
Winner: On-Field Interviews
The most important thing to happen in the original version of the XFL was easily the Jeff Brohm interview. Brohm, then the quarterback for the Orlando Rage and now the head coach at Purdue, was knocked out of a game via a brutal hit. Seconds before taking the field in his team’s next contest, Brohm explained his return with an iconic speech: “Is this or is this not the XFL? Yes it is. Do I, or do I not, currently have a pulse? Yes I do. Let’s play football.” If you set aside the implication that playing through a brain injury is in some way commendable, it’s the greatest pregame interview in football history. It felt like a WWE promo.
The new XFL isn’t outwardly celebratory of concussions, but thankfully it still allows reporters to interview players and coaches directly before and during games. Sometimes, these interviews are duds. Many players and coaches are boring, and would prefer not to discuss how they’re feeling as the action is still unfolding. However, the reporters covering the XFL did something I don’t think I’ve ever seen—instead of just using this access as an opportunity to talk to the quarterback who just threw a touchdown, they used it to interview people who had recently screwed up.
On Sunday, St. Louis BattleHawks punter Marquette King dropped a beautiful punt on the opposing 1-yard line before a clumsy special teamer booted the ball into the end zone for a touchback. Luckily, the sideline reporter at the game was former NFL punter Pat McAfee, who treated the development with all of the anger and bewilderment it deserved. With rage simmering in his soul, McAfee sat down with St. Louis linebacker Steve Beauharnais, the man who had just sloshed a bowl of tomato soup on the punt version of the Mona Lisa.
In the XFL’s first game of the weekend, ESPN’s Dianna Russini interviewed DC Defenders kicker Ty Rausa seconds after he missed a field goal. And in the Tampa Bay Vipers’ game, reporters interviewed head coach Marc Trestman after his embarrassing decision to kick a field goal from the opposing 5-yard line in the third quarter of a game that his team trailed 17-0. (Remember, with the XFL’s conversion rules, a 17-point deficit is technically a two-possession game.) In the NFL, coaches often aren’t brought to task for their worst decisions even after games.
But this isn’t just about embarrassing people in their low moments! Take the McAfee interview. Beauharnais explained that he believed that the Dallas Renegades return man had muffed the punt, which would have made it a live ball. In the NFL, we would’ve had to wait for the game to end, for the players to cool down in the locker room, for a reporter to find the special teamer who screwed up, and for that reporter to tweet out the player’s explanation to find out what really happened. That could’ve taken hours. In the XFL, we got an explanation for a controversial play, straight from the player’s mouth, mere seconds after the controversial play ended.
In the original XFL, sideline interviews were attempts to make the event feel more like pro wrestling. In this version of the XFL, they’re legitimate attempts to explain the mysteries of the game in real time. And yes, sometimes guys curse on live TV, which is fun for everybody.
XFL Offensive Lineman gets interviews, immediately drops an f-bomb. pic.twitter.com/XjIVTr8lAl— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) February 8, 2020
Loser: Vegas Projections
No league has done more to embrace the legalization of sports gambling than the XFL. All three networks that aired games this weekend had the spread and over-under listed on screen at all times, and announcers openly discussed which team had the best odds to win the title. Of course, that made many fans wonder … how the hell did they set those lines? Isn’t this the first week of the XFL? How did Las Vegas oddsmakers know which team should be the favorite?
As it turns out, Vegas may have screwed up. Coming into the season, the two teams with the best odds to win the XFL championship were the Dallas Renegades and the Tampa Bay Vipers. The Renegades made intuitive sense: They’re coached by Bob Stoops, easily the most famous person affiliated with the league, in his first job since retiring as Oklahoma’s coach in 2017. Stoops brought Air Raid innovator Hal Mumme along to Dallas to be his offensive coordinator. I’m not sure I understand the Vipers pick, but I guess Vegas decided that their roster talent surpassed everybody else’s. (Either that or the oddsmakers came to a very different conclusion about Trestman’s stint as Bears head coach than everyone else.)
In Week 1, neither the Renegades nor the Vipers scored a touchdown. For all of Stoops and Mumme’s offensive expertise, Dallas managed just 267 yards to go with nine points. The Renegades lost to the BattleHawks, the team with the lowest projected win total of any in the league. (It remains unclear what distinguishes BattleHawks from normal hawks. Their logo is a flying sword, which does not help.) The Vipers looked like the league’s worst team, losing 23-3, tied for the XFL’s largest margin of defeat.
There’s probably a big money-making opportunity here. I just have no clue what it is.
Winner: Cardale Jones
Fans of the DC Defenders deserve credit for their eagerness. Within minutes of kickoff of the team’s inaugural game, the crowd broke out an “M-V-P!” chant for quarterback Cardale Jones.
It was the first drive of the first game of the first week of the league’s first season, and they had already made up their minds on who the league’s best player was. Does this league even have an MVP trophy?
And you know what? They might have been right. Jones, a 6-foot-5, 264-pound mountain of a man who stunned the college football world by winning a national championship at Ohio State after being forced into action as a third-string quarterback, is the XFL’s most notable player. Through one week, he’s also been the best. He passed for 235 yards with two touchdowns in a 31-19 win, and led the Defenders in rushing yards per attempt, because of the sheer inability of defenders—er … players on the defensive team—to tackle him. He also showed off the bomb-throwing capability that made him a folk hero for the Buckeyes.
Jones was the only XFL quarterback to throw for multiple touchdowns without committing a turnover. XFL players are graded by Pro Football Focus—of course they are—and Jones graded out at 90.8 (elite) while the other 10 QBs who played graded out at 73 or worse. By comparison, Drew Brees had a grade of 90.6 this season; Jared Goff had a grade of 72.4.
Jones never lost a game as Ohio State’s starter. Following his win over Seattle, he remains undefeated as a starter since high school. Jones never broke through in NFL in stints with the Bills, Chargers, and Seahawks; in the XFL, he seems primed to physically dominate inferior opponents.
If we’re being honest, the XFL’s quality of play doesn’t need to be good. It just needs to be compelling. And I can think of few things more compelling than a college hero turned NFL backup emerging as a football kaiju when given the reins of a new kind of pro football team.