While the NFL season came to an end last week with the Kansas City Chiefs’ 31-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl 54, another pro football league began operations recently: the reincarnated XFL. Owned by controversial wrestling promoter Vince McMahon and with Oliver Luck — the father of ex-Indianapolis Colts passer Andrew Luck — as commissioner, the league’s eight teams played their first-ever games over the course of the weekend to kick off a 10-week regular season.
The four contests ended as follows:
- Seattle Dragons (19) at D.C. Defenders (31)
- Los Angeles Wildcats (17) at Houston Roughnecks (37)
- Tampa Bay Vipers (3) at New York Guardians (23)
- St. Louis BattleHawks (17) at Dallas Renegades (9)
With the XFL 2.0’s first weekend in the books, let’s take a look at five things we learned.
Some former New England Patriots made an immediate impact
There are ex-Patriots on all eight XFL rosters, as colleague Oliver Thomas outlined two weeks ago, and some of them made an early impact. Running backs Kenneth Farrow and Trey Williams — practice squad players in New England in 2018 and 2015, respectively — combined to gain 57 of Seattle’s 97 rushing yards against D.C. Special teamer and former practice squad (2016) linebacker Quentin Gause, meanwhile, registered a game-high two kicking game tackles for Los Angeles.
The biggest performance by a former Patriot, however, belongs to defensive end Kony Ealy who was acquired by New England via trade in 2017 but released just three games into preseason the same year: the former second-round draft pick notched 0.5 sacks for Houston but was disruptive throughout the game, finishing with five quarterback hits — most in the league on opening week.
The quality of play was inconsistent
If you play in the XFL teams you have been — for one reason or another — deemed not good enough to appear at the NFL level at the current time. The product on the field reflected that: it was clearly a notch below what happened on the last 21 weekends of pro football with tackling and offensive line play being shaky and quarterbacks experiencing their fair share of ups and downs. That being said, the four games still had plenty of entertainment value and talent that is adequate enough to improve as the league moves forward.
The kicking game looks quite different
Arguably the biggest difference between the on-field product in the XFL compared to the NFL’s can be seen in the kicking game. Just take a look at the point-after play which does involve place kicks. Instead, teams keep their offenses on the field after scoring touchdowns to attempt one of three possible plays: a one-point play from the 2-yard line, a two-point play from the 5-yard line, or a three-point play from the 10-yard line.
The absent point-after-attempts are not the only difference in kicking game procedure, though. On kickoffs, both teams’ special teams units line up at the receiving team’s 30- and 35-yard lines. The kicker then kicks off from his own 30 and is allowed to advance forward until the ball is fielded by the returner. In practice, this rule looks as follows:
While certainly a creative approach to making kickoffs safer, this new procedure is not without its critics. Former Patriots special teamer and current NESN and The Athletic contributor Matt Chatham, for example, had to say the following about the XFL’s kickoff rules (slightly adapted from Twitter-speech):
This is stupid. Everyone on the the kicking team arrives at the point of attack at the same time? That’s not how it works/should work — the return team has no chance. If you take out the speed and block-avoid element of kickoffs, you’ve gutted the point of the play. This is a dumb idea.
It will be seen whether or not the NFL, which has tried to change kickoffs numerous times over the last few years, will copy this “dumb idea” at one point in the future.
The presentation was unique
Whether it was in-game interviews, broadcasting coach-quarterback communication (and not limiting it to a few seconds before the snaps), or TV audiences being able to hear the officiating crews discuss penalty calls, the XFL offers its viewers an intimate look at the game. While it seems unlikely the NFL will adapt in-game interviews and having open microphones on the coaches and quarterbacks, there are some ideas that the XFL’s “big brother” should look to adapt.
This is especially true when it comes to trying to speed up the game — the XFL has tried fewer commercial breaks, for example — or giving insight into the officiating procedures via having the booth referee wear a microphone.
Audiences will decide the league’s future
As is the case with every sports league or cooperation, the bottom line will decide its fate. The XFL is still in its “honeymoon phase” at the moment, but at the end of the day (or season) finances will play a role and dictate how the league develops in the long term. TV audiences and attendance numbers will play a big role in this. The opening game between Seattle and D.C. was broadcast on ESPN and ABC and averaged 3.3 million viewers — a solid number. Now, the league has to keep its momentum going to do what the short-lived Alliance of American Football failed to do in 2019: make it through one full season.