Let's try this again, shall we?
For the second offseason in a row, a brand-new football league kicks off this week. Last year's AAF season ended in disaster, with the league running out of funding and cancelling their schedule halfway through the year. On the bright side, I suppose, that opens up an unopposed and uncontested lane for the return of the XFL.
For those too young to remember, the XFL was a minor league in 2001, run as a joint venture between NBC and the World Wrestling Federation (now known as World Wrestling Entertainment), and was everything you'd expect a minor league football run by a wrestling organization to be. WWF announcers served on commentary teams, and The Rock cut a promo on the NFL to open up the first game. Public address announcers trash-talked their opponents. The presentation emphasized the same sort of sex and violence that permeated WWF programming during the Attitude Era. The action on the field was almost an afterthought, though they hyped up allowing cornerbacks to hit receivers and all defenders to hit quarterbacks -- rules that were softened after four weeks because, surprise surprise, bringing back '70s era defensive rules led to '70s era offensive production.
All in all, it was kind of a mess, with WWF owner Vince McMahon and NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol leaning in different directions about the presentation and the quality of play on the field. It ended up folding after one year as a fairly massive failure, losing $138 million, though it did provide launching points for the careers of useful NFL players like Paris Lenon, Tommy Maddox, Mike Furrey, Bennie Anderson, and Kelly Herndon. It was ridiculous enough that there's some nostalgia for the league which, combined with the general public's never-ending desire for more football (remember the AAF's strong ratings?), could lead to a much more successful attempt this time around.
The 2020 XFL is shaping up to be a much more professional league. While still managed by WWE's McMahon, the league shares a lot more in common with last spring's AAF than with its 2001 incarnation. With Oliver Luck on board as commissioner, ex-Bills general manager Doug Whaley as the vice president of football operations, and former NFL officiating honcho Dean Blandino, the 2020 version of the XFL is an actual, factual football league, as opposed to the 2001 version's spectacle and glitz.
And if you're still looking longingly at your Orlando Apollos championship merch, you can rest assured that the XFL is more likely to be able to finish their opening season. Unlike the AAF, the XFL's money is coming from inside the league, from a billionaire with a long history of seeing things through to the bitter end. Vince McMahon gladly dumped millions of dollars into the World Bodybuilding Federation, a Times Square restaurant, and yes, the original XFL. That sort of stubbornness doesn't guarantee a successful product, but it comes close to guaranteeing at least a championship game, and that already puts the XFL a step ahead of its rival from last year.
— XFL (@xfl2020) August 21, 2019
While the AAF mostly focused on placing teams in close proximity to one another, the XFL's teams are in some of the biggest markets in the country -- Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, and Seattle make up the XFL West, with New York, Washington, Tampa Bay, and St. Louis in the XFL East. It's an interesting strategy, partly forced by not wanting to stick teams where the AAF was playing. These are very large markets compared to the likes of Birmingham, Memphis, or Salt Lake City, but seven of the eight already have NFL teams. There are more potential fans in these cities, but their allegiances may already be spoken for. How this translates into fans at the games and eyeballs on television will be very interesting to watch, and crucial for the league's chance of surviving more than one year.
The XFL has eight teams playing a ten-week schedule -- 40 games in total, and with a wider broadcast reach than the AAF had a year ago. Both FOX and ABC will broadcast at least one game a week, with ESPN, ESPN2, FS1, and FS2 filling out the schedule. For most of the season, there will be two games each on Saturday and Sunday, with a pair of Thursday night games on FOX in April. Each team will play every team in its division twice, and one game each against teams from the opposite division. This will end in a four-team playoff, with the championship on ESPN on April 26.
One of the stated goals of the new XFL is an attempt to create faster, simpler play compared to that of the NFL. Looking at their rulebook, however, it's clear that one of us doesn't understand what the word "simpler" is supposed to mean. If you like overly complicated versions of standard football plays, then by golly, the XFL is the league for you.
Like the AAF, their biggest rule change comes on kickoffs. Unlike the AAF, who eliminated it entirely, the XFL is trying to make the kickoff matter again, borrowing rules from the old Fall Experimental Football League.
Kickoffs will be from the 30-yard line, rather than the 35. However, all members of the kicking team other than the kicker will line up at the receiving team's 35-yard line. All members of the returning team other than the returners themselves will line up on the 30-yard line -- the idea being that leaving less room for a running start will eliminate some of the massive collisions on a traditional kickoff. Only the kicker and returner can move until either the ball is caught or three seconds after it hits the ground.
If a kick fails to reach the 20-yard line, it's a penalty, just like kicking out of bounds -- no squib kicks in the XFL! Furthermore, if you kick the ball into the end zone on the fly, it's a "major touchback," with the ball placed at the 35-yard line. If the ball bounces into the end zone, it's a "minor touchback," with the ball placed at the 15-yard line. The idea is that neither team should want a touchback, and that returns should be the most common play. This seems to be a massive boon for the return team; the returner basically has one plane to break, and then they'll have just the kicker between them and the end zone. This is likely a feature rather than a bug; touchdown returns are exciting, touchbacks are not. Of course, the rules as written would prevent onside kicks, so teams can request to attempt an onside kick under standard NFL rules, basically ignoring all of the above.
The new XFL kickoff rules in action pic.twitter.com/Vsqm14ig0A
— XFL (@xfl2020) January 11, 2020
Similar touchback rules are also in place for punts, only every type of touchback is a major touchback. Coffin-corner punts are also banned, with any punt that goes out of bounds being ruled a major touchback. The punting team isn't allowed to have anyone release past the line of scrimmage until the punt is kicked -- no gunners running downfield to meet the returner as the ball arrives. These changes are designed to both encourage offenses to attempt more fourth-down plays and to increase the number and effectiveness of punt returns themselves. Devin Hester would probably still be the MVP of the XFL, even at age 37.
There will not be any extra point kicks, borrowing a rule from the original XFL's playoff games. Instead, teams will choose to line up from the 2-, 5- or 10-yard line and run a standard offensive play, worth one, two, or three points. This should help make comebacks more exciting, with nine-point plays at least a possibility.
But overtime is where the real wild stuff begins. If you think the NFL is unfair, with the possibility for one team to never touch the ball, you at the very least won't have that complaint about the XFL's rules. If you think the college system is too minigame-esque, then you may not want to watch the XFL's attempt.
Overtime in the XFL is a five-round shootout of two-point conversions -- an original idea when it was proposed, though the FBS did snatch it last season for games that reached at least five overtimes. A defensive penalty is not half the distance to the goal here. The first penalty will move the try from the 5-yard line to the 1, and a second penalty on any subsequent play will count as an automatic score. If someone lines up offsides on the first two-point conversion, and then does it again on the fifth two-point conversion, that's an automatic success for the offense, even though it came four tries later. The team with the most points after five rounds is the winner, with extra rounds added as necessary until one team is leading. The double-defensive foul rule is potentially awkward, especially if extra round after extra round keeps piling up; it seems quite possible for an overzealous ref to end up deciding a game in overtime with a questionable flag. Still, we'll have to see it in action to see how it ends up working out.
Most of the other rule changes for the league are clock- and officiating-related. To create a faster-paced game, clock stoppages will be minimized before the two-minute warning; incomplete passes or plays that end out of bounds will see the clock restarted once the ball has been spotted. After that comes the "comeback period." During the comeback period, the game clock will stop on incomplete passes and out-of-bounds plays, and will pause on plays that end in the field of play; the clock will resume once the ball has been spotted and five seconds have run off the play clock.
The play clock will be 25 seconds from the spotting of the ball, as opposed to the NFL's 40 seconds from end of the previous play. Each team will be given only two timeouts, and instant replay reviews will be limited to 60 seconds, initiated by only the replay official.
The XFL will have two extra officials -- the replay official sitting in the booth, and a dedicated Ball Spotting Official solely responsible for, uh, spotting the ball. The idea is to standardize the time for non-football acts and keep everything moving at a brisk pace.
That is a lot of rule changes, and we didn't even mention the fact that teams are allowed two forward passes behind the line of scrimmage, or the lack of an opening coin toss, or the proposed one-way radios in all skill position players' helmets (not yet implemented, but "still in development"). Just how much these changes will be noticeable, jarring, or welcome is a really interesting question. I personally feel that a lot of these changes will be rather gimmicky, but some of them are very intriguing and, hey, gotta swing for the fences if you want people to pay attention to your league, right?
The XFL is an eight-team league, filled with names you may find familiar. Unlike the AAF, there was no regional allocation; players from your favorite college or practice squad are divvied up throughout the league. In addition, the XFL's coaches don't quite have the combined pedigree of the AAF's bunch; there are quite a few names getting their first opportunity to run a team in the new league.
We start with the overall favorites to win the XFL Championship Game, assuming they ever find a site for it. Bob Stoops, longtime Oklahoma head coach, has assembled the best collection of talent in the league, and he has a familiar face leading his offense: Landry Jones, who started for Stoops for four years with the Sooners. Jones is one of five NFL-drafted quarterbacks in the league, and you have to think that having at least one of those guys on your roster is a huge step up -- especially one with familiarity with your offense. The only thing stopping the Renegades from getting off to a great start is Jones' lingering knee injury, which may sideline him for a week or two early on.
Dallas has an interesting running back duo in Cameron Artis-Payne and Lance Dunbar, a pair of NFL veterans themselves. While Dunbar is the local favorite, having played at North Texas and for the Cowboys, I'd expect CAP to be the more useful player; he was someone I liked a lot coming out of Auburn who never found a role with the Panthers. The receiving chores will mostly go to Jeff Badet, a tiny (5-foot-11!), speedy (4.39-second 40!) receiver whom Stoops coached at Oklahoma. You might recognize his name from last offseason's 40 Yards of Gold offseason speed event, or you may recognize him from being unable to make the Vikings' roster last season. Speed kills, and it looks like the Renegades will try to run a very fast offense. Safety Derron Smith, who was arguably the AAF's top defensive player, should lead the defense.
Also, the Renegades' home uniforms, while very Titans-esque in color scheme, might be the best in the league. That's worth a point or two. (I should clarify, because the XFL rules are weird -- it is not literally worth a point or two.)
— Dallas Renegades (@XFLRenegades) December 3, 2019
If you're strictly an NFL fan, the last time you thought about June Jones was when he was the Falcons head coach in the mid-1990s; your primary memory of him might be the profanity-filled shouting match with his own quarterback on the sidelines of his last season. Since then, he has bounced around a bit, going to four bowl games with Hawaii and three more with Southern Methodist, and bringing the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats to the playoffs once as well. Now he brings his run 'n' shoot style back to Houston; it's hard to think of a more fitting city for it.
The Roughnecks have a couple options at quarterback -- either Phillip Walker, Temple's all-time leader in pretty much every passing stat there is, or Connor Cook, most notable for making his first career NFL start in the Raiders' 2016 wild-card game. Whoever wins the starting job should see plenty of action; the Roughnecks went heavy on receivers in the skill player portion of the XFL draft, including Sammie Coates. On defense, NFL vets Deji Olatoye and Kony Ealy and AAF star DeMarquis Gates should lead the way.
Also, their logo is totally the Oilers' with Texans colors, with the Astros' star on top in a shameless attempt to get the attention of Houstonites.
— Houston Roughnecks (@XFLRoughnecks) August 21, 2019
Los Angeles Wildcats
If someone from the West is going to topple Dallas, it'll likely be the Wildcats. They're led by Winston Moss in his first ever head coaching opportunity (though he did coach in the 2016 Pro Bowl); he's a longtime linebackers coach for the Saints and Packers and served as Mike McCarthy's assistant head coach for over a decade.
More to the point, the Wildcats have plenty of intriguing talent on their roster. They're going with the uber-NFL journeyman Josh Johnson at quarterback, making this Johnson's 15th professional team, and making him one of the few XFL players who played in the old UFL from the turn of last decade. Johnson was last seen spurning the AAF to start three games for Washington after all their quarterbacks were hurt in 2018, and putting up … well, a -25.8% DVOA, but Washington was an injured mess at the time, and he did manage a 50.1 QBR, which probably counts as elite by XFL standards. He's also one of the more mobile quarterbacks the XFL has to offer. Johnson has a lot of talent to work with on offense -- Nelson Spruce, the Pac-12 receptions record holder; ex-North Carolina running back Elijah Hood; top tackle draft pick Storm Norton; and so on and so forth. The defense leaves something to be desired, with the Wildcats' top pick opting to stay on a CFL practice squad, but perhaps Moss can get the best out of talent like former Auburn linebacker Tre Williams.
The best-named team in the league, with the best road jerseys in the league and a Trogdor helmet logo … are pegged to be the worst team in the XFL by Vegas. Such is life. Seahawks Ring of Honor member Jim Zorn takes the reigns for his second stint as a head coach; his time with Washington in the late 2000s did not go well, but he's much more fondly remembered in Seattle for his work developing Matt Hasselbeck.
Zorn will be pegged with developing quarterback Brandon Silvers, who fought off NFL veterans Christian Hackenberg, Zach Mettenberger, and Johnny Manziel to end up as the Memphis Express starter by the time the AAF folded. He's joined by another AAF veteran, running back Kenneth Farrow of the San Antonio Commanders; his 142-yard rushing day against the undefeated Birmingham Iron was probably the best rushing performance anyone had in AAF. Keenan Reynolds is another intriguing piece on offense; the ex-Navy quarterback switched to running back and then wide receiver in the pros, spending a couple years on the Seahawks' practice squad. They also have ex-Seahawk Isiah Battle on the offensive line, and former Arizona Hotshot Will Sutton leading the defense. In fact, the Dragons might be the most AAF-heavy team in the entire league, targeting them early and often throughout the draft. The backfield alone has three AAF veterans in Farrow, Ja'Quan Gardner, and Trey Williams. A Seattle-based football team focusing on its backfield and committing to run the ball? The XFL truly is a bold new world.
They may also have some -- some, mind you -- logo similarities to Alabama-Birmingham. Just a couple.
— John Sabol (@John_Sabol) August 21, 2019
One of the co-favorites in the East, the DC Defenders are led by Pep Hamilton, most notable for being the offensive coordinator for David Shaw's Stanford teams and Chuck Pagano's Colts teams, as well as an assistant head coach for Jim Harbaugh at Michigan from 2017 to 2018. This will be Hamilton's first head coaching job.
The Defenders' quarterback is Cardale Jones, who won the National Championship with Ohio State in 2015, starting just 10 games for the Buckeyes over two years before going to the NFL and doing essentially nothing. He's joined by running back Jhurell Pressley, who led the AAF in rushing yardage and is one of the best players from that league to move to the XFL, considering many of their biggest stars were snatched up by NFL practice squads. The Defenders boast plenty of talent at the skill positions besides just Pressley, though -- Donnell Pumphrey is the NCAA's all-time leader in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage, although he could never find a way into the Eagles' lineup, and Rashad Ross was another AAF standout with 36 catches, 583 yards, and seven touchdowns in just eight games. Add in NFL veterans like Matt Elam and Jay Bromley on defense and the Defenders are set to make some serious noise.
I also think they have the most professional-looking uniforms in the league, which is either a major plus or a major minus, depending on how goofy you like your minor league football. I prefer goofy, myself, but your mileage may vary.
— XFL (@xfl2020) December 3, 2019
New York Guardians
Wait, the Guardians and the Defenders are the two top teams in the East? Who are the other Eastern teams, the Avengers and the Howling Commandos?
Kevin Gilbride was last seen as a head coach for the Chargers from 1997 to 1998, but is better known in the New York area for being offensive coordinator from 2007 to 2013, picking up a pair of Super Bowl rings in the process. Add in his time with the run 'n' shoot Oilers and Gilbride has maybe the most extensive professional resume of any coach in the league -- plus, he leads all XFL coaches in "times punched by Buddy Ryan." As far as we know.
The Guardians have the most complete quarterback depth chart in the XFL. Matt McGloin put up a respectable -11.9% DVOA with the Oakland Raiders in 2013; he'll be backed up by a pair of AAF veterans in Luis Perez and Marquise Williams. Developmental quarterbacks at this level are such a hit-or-miss commodity; having three guys with starting experience may pay off in the long run. On defense, they boast Jamar Summers, who had three interceptions with Birmingham in the AAF, as well as NFL vet Ben Heeney. Other than that, however, the Guardians do not appear at first blush to have the deepest of rosters, to the point where I'm a bit surprised that betting odds have them favored to win the conference; the combination of a veteran quarterback and a veteran coach is probably pushing them over the top. A lot of teams are trotting out first-time head coaches and untested quarterbacks, so having an advantage at those positions might end up being huge early on. Hey, it worked for Steve Spurrier and the Apollos.
St. Louis BattleHawks
Football returns to the We No Longer Have A Sponsor Dome in St. Louis, as the BattleHawks are the only XFL team to play in a city with no direct NFL competition. And, in proud St. Louis Football tradition, they're already complaining about their stadium, hoping that MLS gives St. Louis an expansion team and allows the BattleHawks to play in that stadium instead of the cavernous, dated dome. Their head coach is Jonathan Hayes, who was a tight ends coach at the University of Oklahoma and then with the Cincinnati Bengals since 1999. This is his first head coaching gig, though he did run a team in the 2018 East-West Shrine Game.
The BattleHawks are generally considered the weakest team in the East by pundits. Their starting quarterback appears to be Jordan Ta'amu, an undrafted quarterback out of Ole Miss. There, Ta'amu was throwing to A.J. Brown and DK Metcalf, and he still didn't put up humongous numbers. He'll be challenged by Taylor Heinicke, who has bounced around the NFL as a third-string and emergency quarterback; it's not exactly the most exciting competition we've ever seen. They're stronger at running back, where Christine Michael and Matt Jones bring significant NFL experience. They reportedly want to be a run-first team, and you can see why just from the talent disparity alone; they also made sure to use a high draft pick on NFL veteran tackle Matt McCants. Wide receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El was an AAF standout with Salt Lake, forcing a lot of missed tackles and racking up a ton of YAC; he should also benefit from the XFL's kickoff and punt rules. Their one defensive name of note is Terence Garvin, who has NFL experience and three interceptions with Orlando in the AAF.
They also have the best logo in the league, for what that's worth -- flip it upside down, and it spells STL. How cool is that?
BattleHawks logo upside down says STL pic.twitter.com/ceuRfsSyjH
— reiss (@reisswegman) August 22, 2019
Tampa Bay Vipers
The best team in the old XFL was the Orlando Rage, but the new league didn't end up placing a team there, to avoid competing with the AAF's Orlando Apollos. So instead, we go to Tampa Bay, home of arguably the best team in the old USFL. The Vipers won't have Burt Reynolds showing up to games as co-owner or anything, but Florida has shown a willingness to support their minor league football teams. So, while the Vipers are predicted to finish pretty solidly midtable, don't be surprised if they're the ones that end up with any kind of home-field advantage before the year is through.
They'll be led by Marc Trestman, the two-time CFL Coach of the Year who showed very little of his extensive offensive skills and quarterback guruness as head coach of the Bears or offensive coordinator for the Ravens. Still, he's definitely in the upper half of XFL coaches, at least by reputation, with a proven success record dominating competition in sub-NFL quality leagues. His quarterback this time is Aaron Murray, still the SEC career leader in touchdowns. Interestingly, the Vipers will often have a second passer in the backfield with Murray, QB/RB Quinton Flowers. Trestman has said that Flowers will play a Taysom Hill-like role for the Vipers -- and remember, the XFL allows two forward passes behind the line of scrimmage. There's definitely room for some shenanigans there. The other most notable name on the roster might be receiver Tanner McEvoy, who spent some time with the Seahawks and always seemed to be on the verge of breaking out in preseason before ultimately settling at the bottom of a roster or on a practice squad. Other than that, their roster isn't that deep -- two of their top picks, Obum Gwacham and Antonio Callaway, are already on injured reserve -- but come on, I just told you about a team that's going to feature the double pass as a regular part of their offense. You've got to be interested in that, right?
Finally, we come to the oft-rumored and mysterious Team 9. The XFL is actually doing something rather clever here -- rather than each team having their own practice squad, the XFL has gathered all their farm league talent and put them in one place to practice together. This prevents the pool of talent from being diluted; when you're talking about the practice squad for a minor league, the pickings would be fairly slim. Team 9 provides a resource for teams to get game-ready players to slot into their roster immediately. After Week 2, in fact, that will be mandatory -- teams won't be allowed to plug their roster spot with street free agents and must instead take someone from Team 9, which will constantly be restocked. The initial team will only last until Week 5, and then rosters will expand for the eight main teams, with the best Team Niners heading throughout the league. The league will then reload Team 9 to finish the season. It's an intriguing idea, although I suspect some of the reasoning is to keep backup players around waiting for an XFL slot, rather than trying their luck in Canada, or with the Indoor Football League.
Week 1 Schedule
If you want to try the XFL out, there will be four games this weekend, all nationally televised.
Saturday, February 8
Seattle Dragons @ DC Defenders (ABC, 2 p.m. Eastern)
Los Angeles Wildcats @ Houston Roughnecks (FOX, 5 p.m. Eastern)
Sunday, February 9
Tampa Bay Vipers @ New York Guardians (FOX, 2 p.m. Eastern)
St. Louis BattleHawks @ Dallas Renegades (ESPN, 5 p.m. Eastern)