We're officially a week in the opening season of the XFL's new look and there is some excitement for this quirky new football brand. Vince McMahon's league consists of eight teams, new kickoff rules, three-point implementations and an abundance of side interviews. There were so many side interviews this weekend that they took an accidental F-bomb from the Seattle Dragons Center Dillon Day.
It is the second year in a row that football fans have won a spring league. Last year, the Alliance of American Football (AAF) caught the attention of the United States for about two weeks before it blew up in the air and finally went bankrupt before the opening season closed. The XFL seems to have a better plan than putting the AAF games on ABC, ESPN and Fox was a good move, as were all eight teams in the big markets instead of Birmingham and Salt Lake City.
However, it remains to be seen whether the XFL will establish itself as a permanent product that fans will deal with on a weekly basis. There were some aspects of the game that were promising, but also some issues that need to be fixed if the league wants to be successful alongside the NFL. Here's what worked and didn't work in the first week.
The kickoffs: Kickoff returns have been a sticking point for the NFL for years. For teams that span the entire length of the field, players are disproportionately prone to injury at such high speeds. The XFL changed that by placing teams at kickoffs just five meters apart, more like a regular set of scrimmages. They also provide incentives for returns instead of touchbacks, as the ball is placed on the 35-yard line instead of the 25 on a touchback. This is an impressive way to reduce health risks while maintaining an exciting aspect of football. It wouldn't be shocking for the NFL to adjust these rules somewhere later.
Gambling integration: The NFL has long hesitated to incorporate gambling into their game, but the XFL has hit the ground with a lot of content. Both ESPN and Fox showed the over / under and spread on the scoreboard bug, with several mentions of the effects in each game. A 2018 poll found that Americans are 70% more likely to see a game when they place a bet, and whether the NFL likes it or not, gambling is a massive part of football. We ask the XFL to realize this and to accept it at a high level.
Evaluation Repetition: There was an overwhelming amount of microphone access, but the best use of it was in the test booth for game scoring. Spectators listened to the officials as they went through the screening process step by step and were given a very broad view of the issues of tipping over or maintaining games. It's a level of transparency that doesn't exist in the NFL. That was the curse of the fans.
P. J. Walker: The first real star of the XFL was Houston Roughnecks QB P.J. Walker. He threw for 272 yards and four touchdowns, which led Houston to a dominant 37-17 victory over the Los Angeles Wildcats. In a week when the quarterback game was average at best, Walker stood out. The Temple product spent some time on the Indianapolis Colts training team, and if it stays strong, it could get another NFL chance in the fall.
Participation: All games were pretty well attended and the audience was thrilled. Each of the four home stadiums (Houston, DC, Dallas and New York) had visitor numbers in the 17,000s. It's something they have to maintain all year round – the AAF averaged higher values in the first week (19,210) before that number declined – but the XFL is playing in smaller stadiums, and the crowd definitely seemed to be down to amuse.
Chaos: Coaches and players are still working on the new rules, the broadcasters are still working on the gimmicks and everything about the opening week of the league was wild and chaotic. But there was a crazy beauty in chaos, and there is no denying that it was extremely entertaining to watch everything. There is a risk that the craziness and novelty will wear off after a few weeks, but at the moment it is unpredictable and fun as hell.
What didn't work?
Too much access to the microphone: It's a good idea to put the viewer further behind the curtain in the XFL than in the NFL because the stakes are lower. However, in week 1 there was so much access that it became overwhelming. In side interviews, apparently on every corner, the players were sometimes out of breath or didn't have much to say. Or what they had to say was also interesting: the part-time f-bomb was fun, but it is obviously an obstacle that the networks have to overcome when interviewing adrenaline-fueled athletes who have had a great game.
Trainers were also on the microphone and the show used many sound bites from their play calls. Which is interesting for die-hard soccer fans, but for casual observers it sounded like pointless jargon and stood in the way of the broadcasters. Access is good, but the networks may want to experiment a little with peeling it back.
conversions: It was a great idea to drop the extra point in favor of one, two, and three-point conversions (games from the two, five, and ten yard lines), both for excitement and for the league from the NFL withdraw. In week 1, however, the teams were only 7 to 19 in conversions, with four successful single-pointers and three two-pointers. Nobody tried a three-pointer. This will change in the future, but it wasn't overwhelming in the beginning.
Recognizable faces: The league doesn't have many well-known players on board, but the recognizable quarterbacks haven't had a good week. Former Bills and QB Cardale Jones from Ohio had a nice game that led the DC Defenders to victory, but former Georgia QB Aaron Murray fell for the Tampa Bay Vipers, threw two interceptions, and was replaced several times by Quinton Flowers , And both former Steelers successor Landry Jones and journeyman Josh Johnson didn't see the field due to injuries, so we still don't know if they will deliver.
Marc Trestman: He flopped as the head coach of the Chicago Bears and was released after two years. He flopped as an offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens and was released after a year and a half. And he flopped in his first game as head coach of the Tampa Bay Vipers and lost 23: 3 against the New York Guardians, even though he got on the road as a four-point favorite. He apparently exchanged and exchanged his QBs at random and killed the swing of Flowers several times. His defense couldn't cover anyone. And be locker room speech, He is captured by XFL cameras in the Vipers' locker room and says everything you need to know about his ability to inspire a locker room.
Overall quality of the game: The six months without football are a waste of time, and fans are so hungry for more of it that they'll take whatever they can get. It's hard to deny that the first week of the XFL was a success, but it's also hard to deny that the quality of the game was still well below the NFL. There were more drops, missed tackles, missed throws from QBs, and missed blocks from offensive linemen than rabid XFL fans would like to admit. It remains to be seen whether this really matters, and the quality was better than that of the AAF. But it wasn't The much better, and the gimmicks and rule changes may have to carry the league more than some hoped.