It's hard to imagine how the XFL's debut in Seattle could have gone any better. A bigger, more livelier crowd than anyone expected. Weather as warm and dry as you could reasonably hope for on a February afternoon in Puget Sound. And a thrilling 17-9 victory for the hometown Dragons over the visiting Tampa Bay Vipers that came down to the very last play. What more could you ask for?
OK, it might be a stretch to call the entire game "thrilling," though the outcome was in doubt until the final snap. Both coaches and both starting quarterbacks admitted the on-field product was often ugly, particularly in the first half, when the teams combined for 141 yards in total offense and 84 yards in penalties. But there were fireworks on display in the second half -- most notably Keenan Reynolds' 68-yard touchdown reception and a pair of defensive scores -- that sent the crowd home happy and gave every indication this new league can succeed.
The game was played before 29,172 fans who packed the lower bowl at CenturyLink Field. That's over 11,000 more than any other XFL game has drawn so far this season, and that's in a city that already hosts more than a dozen big-time football games a year between the NFL's Seahawks and the University of Washington Huskies up the road.
|Dragons Attendance vs. Other Seattle Sports|
|UW Men's BB||NCAAM||7,720|
|UW Women's BB||NCAAW||1,946|
|* Average attendance, home games only, most recent completed season.|
The size of the crowd may have caught stadium officials off guard -- a lack of open vendors led to long lines at concession stands, making it difficult to buy nachos during the XFL's truncated halftime break -- but those are the kinds of things that businesses refer to as good problems. It certainly helped that the weather was mild -- 46 degrees at kickoff with little wind and slight drizzle that had disappeared by the final gun. Not exactly swimsuit conditions, but a far sight better than what Seattle was going through a year ago at this time.
But this is Football Outsiders after all, and you as a reader are likely less interested in attendance figures and temperature grades than you are in what happened on the field, and whether it's the kind of football you would enjoy. And the answer to that question largely depends on how much you enjoy offense, because for the bulk of the game there was precious little to be found. You can get a few specific breakdowns in my Twitter thread covering the game, but the first-half numbers largely tell the story. The 12 drives in the game's first 30 minutes led to six punts, two field goal attempts (one made, one missed), one interception, one fourth-down sack, and one meaningless handoff to mercy-kill the final seconds of the second quarter. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between bad offense and good defense, but as a professional football analyst who witnessed all this first-hand, I assure you it was almost entirely the former.
The first drive of the second half was no better, as Dragons quarterback Brandon Silvers threw a pass to Connor Hamlett that … well…
— Tampa Bay Vipers (@XFLVipers) February 15, 2020
This play is so horrible that it's hard to tell exactly what went wrong -- I'm not totally convinced that Silvers wasn't trying to hit Ben Johnson (84) out of the backfield -- but it resulted in a touchdown for Tarvarus McFadden, the first (and, so far, last) in the history of the Tampa Bay Vipers.
To that point in the game the Dragons offense had gained 80 total yards and given 78 back on the interception return. They turned things around quickly, however. On the second play of their next drive, Keenan Reynolds got the Dragons on the board with a long touchdown on a deep post:
— Seattle Dragons (@XFLDragons) February 15, 2020
As Reynolds noted in a mid-game interview, Vipers corner Jalen Collins had also given up a long touchdown on a similar play against New York in Week 1. More than one-third of Seattle's total offense on the day came on that one play. They gained only 50 yards on three drives after that, but fortunately one of them started on Tampa Bay's side of the field and at least led to a field goal.
Even more fortunately, the Vipers offense were having their own troubles, most notably this "pick-six" from Taylor Cornelius to Marcell Frazier that looked more like a handoff:
— Seattle Dragons (@XFLDragons) February 15, 2020
The Vipers finished without an offensive score for the second straight game, rotating back and forth between Taylor and Quenton Flowers at quarterback with little success. They did get a first-and-goal at the Seattle 1 early in the fourth quarter, but two Jacques Patrick runs resulted in a net loss of 1 yard, and Cornelius' third-down pass fell behind his receiver incomplete. Down by five in the final frame, Tampa Bay coach Marc Trestman made the curiously conservative choice to attempt a field goal -- but even then the Vipers failed to score due to a fumbled snap. Later, trailing by eight with a few seconds to go, wide receiver Dan Williams appeared to catch a potentially game-tying touchdown, but the score was nullified by Williams' pass interference penalty. On the game's final play, the Dragons intercepted Cornelius again to end things:
— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) February 16, 2020
So, no, this was not the cleanest football I've ever seen. Beyond "not as good," however, was XFL football different from the NFL? Most notably, with a 25-second play clock, the game moves way faster. After years of contributing to Audibles, I've gotten pretty good at recapping multiple football games at the same time, but I was often struggling to keep up with this one on Twitter. However, after the two-minute warning the rules change drastically, basically giving teams a mini-timeout on every play. The Vipers started their last drive with 55 seconds left in the game and no timeouts, and they were still able to run 10 plays, including four tackles in bounds. That makes it much more difficult for teams with the lead to kill clock, and much easier for trailing teams to rally. All in all, it seems like these rules should lead to more snaps per game, though we're going to need a lot more games to study before we can say that for sure.
As for the XFL's other significant rule changes, what they have done with kickoffs strikes me as ingenious. By starting both teams near the receiving team's end zone and levying hefty penalties for kicks that aren't returnable, the XFL has made the kickoff worth watching while simultaneously making them far, far safer than the traditional version. Without exaggeration, I would encourage all leagues in all levels of football to adapt a kickoff ruleset similar to this as soon as possible. It's certainly more entertaining than the NFL's parade of touchbacks. The elaborate rules for PATs, however, still leave everyone flummoxed. Though the evidence suggests teams should almost always go for two- or three-point conversions, most coaches go for one by default. And when they do get aggressive, they do so at the wrong times. Frazier's pick-six put Seattle up 12-9 late in the third, and Dragons coach Jim Zorn had his offense line up at the 5 for a two-point try. At that time, a single extra point would have left Seattle with a lead even if they had allowed a field goal on the ensuing possession, while a three-point conversion would have given them a six-point cushion and a chance to stay tied even if they went on to give up a touchdown. But Zorn went for two, which carried more risk than the one-point try without the reward of the three-point attempt.
I was hoping to ask Zorn about the point-after attempt in his postgame press conference, but my voice was lost in the crowd. I did get to ask Trestman about his comments about his defense wearing down at the end, and if the faster play clock might have had a hand in that. Here is how he responded:
I asked Marc Trestman after the game about whether the faster play clock in the XFL wore down his defense. Here’s my Q and his A: pic.twitter.com/YmpVIl0653
— Vincent Verhei (@FO_VVerhei) February 16, 2020
In the end, what I got most out of the XFL in 2020 was simply a football game. Aside from a handful of mid-game interviews with players and coaches, and a goofy pre-game ceremony with Seahawks legend Steve Largent lighting an "eternal flame," there was none of the original XFL's circus atmosphere. The Rock did not come out before the coin toss to cut a promo, and Vince McMahon was nowhere to be seen. (I did spot his son Shane McMahon in a luxury suite. Perhaps not coincidentally, the WWE is in the midst of a West Coast loop -- if you see me at NXT TakeOver: Portland on Sunday night, come say hi!) And in a city looking for something to do between Seahawks wins and Mariners losses, a simple football game was more than enough.