XFL Week 1 Review: Comebacks, Blowouts, and Lemons, Oh My

Arlington Renegades DB De'Vante Bausby
Arlington Renegades DB De'Vante Bausby
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

XFL - The XFL is back and it's … pretty good? Mostly?

Sorry, that wasn't intense enough. Let's try this:

Not the Rock's greatest promo ever, and the quality of play wasn't the best we have ever seen, either. But for a spring league with five weeks of practice before this, it honestly wasn't bad. There were the expected early-season struggles as defenses are far ahead of the offenses at this point in time. Quarterback quality is going to continue to be an issue, especially now that there are 16 spring teams that need to find a starter. Ball security was apparently not a particularly stressed aspect of the five weeks of practice, with 16 turnovers in the four games. And there were some dropped passes and missed tackles that indicate something of the lower talent level in this league compared to what we all were watching last week.

But overall? These were pretty good games. Three of them were close and competitive, with tight finishes coming down to the final minute. The teams combined for 160 points with everyone scoring at least a dozen, a mark the USFL didn't hit until Week 5 a year ago. Five of the teams successfully converted a fourth down to keep the chains moving; we saw three-point conversion attempts and fourth-and-15 onside kick replacement attempts and attempts to play with the XFL's odd timing rules. It felt like sloppy good football, as opposed to sloppy bad football, if that makes sense.

And that was helped by the crowds. All four games drew at least 12,000 fans, which is a mixed bag leaning towards positive for the league. There's some indication that the novelty of spring football is beginning to wear thin. Arlington, Houston, and D.C. all had 12,000 fans after averaging between 16,000 and 18,000 in 2020. The three teams that fell to 12,000 fans back then—Los Angeles, New York, and Tampa Bay—all got replaced for the revival. San Antonio drew 24,000, but they have been waiting for a team since the AAF's Commanders folded in 2019, and that 24,000 number is below the 28,000 average the AAF drew back then.

But 12,000 people can create a hell of an atmosphere, never mind 24,000. The Alamodome was electric. The D.C. fans in Audi Field took over the game—for good and for ill, as we'll discuss in agonizing depth shortly. And even the 12,000 fans in Arlington and Houston braved fairly cold temperatures to watch minor league football on a Saturday. The good games for the USFL in 2022 were the ones with fans—the Birmingham home games and the championship game in Canton. If the XFL can maintain tens of thousands of fans coming out, it's going to make for a much more enjoyable television product, and this is before the notoriously loyal fans in St. Louis or Seattle have had a chance to make some noise. I'm sure the XFL would have loved to have completely packed all four stadiums, and we will wait and see how these numbers continue over the course of the year, but all in all, the atmosphere for all four games was pretty damn good. It's a tall order to repeat that this Thursday night, but they'll try.

The broadcasts were also very good. It didn't have some of the gimmickry of the USFL broadcast—no drone cams or helmet cams. Whether or not that's a good thing depends on how much you like gimmickry, but ESPN produced a more visually familiar product. They also continued the spring football trend of more access—mic'd up highlights interspersed between plays, sometimes letting you hear the teams radioing in play calls directly to the players, on-field interviews during the action, and so forth. Those provide a few interesting moments, and at least the XFL announcers were generally wise enough to not try to talk over the helmet radio, but that does feel more like a gimmick than something that adds a ton to the game.

The live camera of Dean Blandino on replays is more beneficial, though. Hearing the referees in real time talk about what they're looking at and what the ruling is seems more beneficial than hearing announcers guess at it, and while I didn't agree with every call they made (Paxton Lynch touchdown, I'm looking at you), being able to hear their reasoning live is something I want the NFL to adopt immediately. Transparency! I love it.

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised at the XFL's first weekend. It didn't feel like a new league kicking off with all the struggles that entails. They feel like they know what they're doing from the off, and that includes everyone from the players to the administration to the broadcast. Is it NFL-quality? No. Is it SEC-quality? No. But it's perfectly acceptable football in front of hot crowds, and that's all I really need.

Arlington Renegades 22, Vegas Vipers 20

The third-ever XFL inaugural game was about the expected combination of sloppy and entertaining, and we at least got an exciting finish out of it. It may not have been quite the introduction to the league the XFL was hoping for, and wasn't quite as exciting at the USFL's opener from a year ago, but it was Perfectly Acceptable Football.

It didn't look like it was going to be that in the first half. The Vipers had a 14-3 halftime lead over the Renegades thanks to their superior offense. Luis Perez (a first-ballot Spring Football Hall of Famer if there ever was one after spending time in the AAF, XFL 2.0, USFL, and XFL 3.0) hooked up with Jeff Badet twice in the opening half for touchdowns. The Perez-to-Badet connection might end up being something, as Badet had six catches for 81 yards, while Perez was 14-for-17 for 177 yards and a pair of scores in the first half alone, both very respectable performances against what we're anticipating to be a strong Arlington defense.

Meanwhile, the Renegades made a curious choice—Drew Plitt got the start over all-USFL quarterback Kyle Sloter. I'm not sure that was the right choice; while Plitt wasn't terrible, the Renegades offense struggled to consistently move the ball. The first half, leading up that deficit, was particularly ugly, with Arlington repeatedly failing on third downs. Tight end Sal Canella looked good, with seven receptions for 70 yards, but Arlington's offense never reached the end zone, settling for a trio of field goals, three punts, three turnovers on downs, and one interception. That's something they're going to have to work on going forward. Neither run game was doing much of anything—the Renegades only averaged 2.7 yards per rush, but the Vipers were held to 1.7. It looked like this was going to be Perez picking apart the Renegades on the path to an easy win.

So how did the Vipers lose? Arlington's defense came to play in the second half. They scored a pair of defensive touchdowns, with Tomasi Laulile and De'Vante Bausby both taking Perez back to the house. The big-man touchdown from Laulile was the more impressive of the two, reading the screen perfectly and rumbling -bumbling-and-stumbling, but the Bausby pick was the more important one in terms of how this game is going to be played. It came with Perez deep in his own end zone, thanks to Arlington opting to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the 1-yard line with 5:43 left in the fourth quarter, holding a one-point lead. It's nice to see aggression on fourth downs here, and the field position allowed Arlington to bring the pressure and force the Perez pick.

All in all, the Vipers ended up turning the ball over four times in the second half—the two interceptions, a fumble, and a failed fourth-down conversion. This was far more the Renegades defense causing it than Vegas making mistakes; Perez was sacked three times in the second half as his offensive line looks more theoretical than anything else.

We did get an exciting finish, and one that took advantage of the XFL's specific rule set.

Down eight, the Vipers opted to punt with two minutes to go. In the NFL, that's a terrible decision, and I'm fairly sure it's the wrong decision in the XFL too—but the timing rules are different, with a shorter play clock. So with two timeouts remaining, Vegas was able to get the ball back with 49 seconds left after forcing a three-and-out. From there, Perez dealt, hitting Martavis Bryant and Cinique Sweeting multiple times to score. That left the Vipers down two, and they opted to try the two-point conversion and the tie rather than going for three and the win. But that's a two-point try from the 5-yard line in the XFL, meaning that it was basically a guaranteed pass, and the Renegades were able to bring Perez down despite only rushing three guys on the play. That set up a desperation fourth-and-15 in lieu of an onside kick, which was broken up at the last minute, preserving the Renegades win.

A better ending than an onside kick falling into a swarm of arms, though I have my doubts the Vipers could have stopped the clock to get a shot at the end zone even if the conversion had been successful. Still, a successfully exciting ending to the opening game. The Vipers can console themselves with a strong offensive performance, while the Renegades get the win, a tough defense, and … well, some work to do when they have the ball.

Houston Roughnecks 33, Orlando Guardians 12

Paxton Lynch still ain't it, boys.

Lynch is most famously a first-round bust in the NFL with the Denver Broncos, but that's not where it ends! Lynch couldn't stick in the CFL as a third-string quarterback for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. He was benched last season in the USFL for the Michigan Panthers. And he lasted three whole quarters for the XFL's Orlando Guardians before being pulled, putting up a 15-for-21 line for 136 yards, a questionable touchdown (to fellow ex-Bronco Cody Latimer!), and a fairly awful interception, not to mention four sacks. It may be unfair to call it a full benching, as the Guardians listed all three of their quarterbacks as potential first-stringers, but it's not a good look. I'm not sure we have ever seen a quarterback fail in four separate major leagues, though I suppose that depends on what you consider "major."

Lynch's replacement, Quinten Dormady, threw two picks of his own as Wade Phillips' Roughnecks embarrassed the Guardians. Seven sacks in total, including four from Trent Harris, as Phillips just sent pressure after Lynch and Dormady all night long. It didn't always work—both Lynch and Dormady did find at least one deep shot apiece for scores—but on a per-play basis, the Guardians had no answer.

It wasn't quite as perfect a game on offense, though Houston never looked in danger of relinquishing control. Roughnecks quarterback Brandon Silvers threw a couple of second-half picks, but overall was 26-for-42 for 272 yards and a pair of scores, hooking up repeatedly with Jontre Kirklin and Deontay Burnett. Burnett had the catch of the season so far through two whole games, this one-handed grab on a free play:

The Roughnecks also showed life on the ground, with Max Borghi and Dejoun Lee both averaging over 4 yards per carry. Admittedly, Borghi's numbers were boosted by this 27-yard run where the Guardians seemed to forget what "tackling" meant.

I'll be interested to see the Roughnecks and their two-tone helmets against actual competition. The Guardians are emitting strong vibes of the Pittsburgh Maulers—the worst team in last year's USFL, one that fell apart almost immediately and was incompetently managed from Day 1. In addition to the sloppy play on both sides of the ball, you had Lynch calling out his teammates on a live mic and just a general lack of energy and focus. And, because this is the XFL, you had a mic's up Wade Phillips calling them out.

That, my friends, is what we call a burial of Guardians head coach Terrell Buckley. The XFL is a success for that moment alone.

St. Louis Battlehawks 18, San Antonio Brahmas 15

San Antonio fans were clearly starved for football, buying all available tickets at the Alamodome for the Brahmas' first game. The 24,245 in attendance were treated to a contest that started sleepy, but had a finish that rivals anything we saw in the NFL this past season as the Battlehawks overcame a 12-point deficit in the final 90 seconds to come out on top.

Defenses have been on top of offenses in general in the early going in the XFL, but the first half here took that to extremes. Defensive battles can be entertaining, but a 6-3 game entering the fourth quarter is not exactly what we were promised with the spring league. It was especially disappointing for the Battlehawks, generally pegged as one of the top teams in the league this season; they didn't have a single drive gain more than 15 yards in the first three quarters, and their first big play, a 40-yard run by Brian Hill, ended up leading to a missed field goal. The prewrite I had for this game was all about AJ McCarron's inaccuracy; he finished under 200 yards passing on the day, took five sacks, and was generally out of rhythm for about 50 minutes.

The Brahmas weren't much better, in all honesty, but they were controlling the game and the clock behind Kalen Ballage. Ballage, looking as shifty as he was back at Arizona State, had 97 combined yards rushing and receiving. He didn't pick up much on a per-play basis, as 3.5 yards per rush isn't anything to write home about, but it meant San Antonio was controlling the clock; they held the ball for 38:17. Jack Coan was alright at times, but was responsible for the two turnovers in the game: a first-quarter interception on a tip drill, and a fumble that set up St. Louis deep in Brahmas territory in the second. It was his pass to Fred Brown, though, that had the Brahmas ready to claim victory in their XFL debut. It looked like Hines Ward was going to win his first game as a head coach.

And then the Battlehawks woke up.

All of a sudden, the Battlehawks could do no wrong. A perfect sideline deep ball to Marcell Ateman to put them deep into San Antonio territory. A scramble for a new set of downs to escape a Brahmas defense with their ears pinned back. And then a pinpoint strike to Hakeem Butler for the touchdown. And then more: in the NFL, having just cut the lead to six, you would kick the extra point there and prepare for an onside kick. But the XFL has three-point conversions, and McCarron found Austin Proehl to cut things to a three-point lead with 1:25 left—a field goal would send this thing to overtime.

With just two timeouts left, the Battlehawks could, have theoretically, kicked the ball deep and tried to force the Brahmas to go three-and-out. But in the XFL, you can try a fourth-and-15 rather than just an onside kick, and that's just what St. Louis did…

Rather than just settle for the game-tying field goal, however, St. Louis went marching. Aided by a 15-yard roughing the passer call, McCarron led the Battlehawks down the field, and once again found Proehl, this time in the end zone…

Ballgame. McCarron leads the Battlehawks from the brink. I'm not going to try to say that this game was an all-time classic or anything; St. Louis looked terrible for 57 minutes and has to figure that out going forward. But those last three minutes were amazing and worth the price of admission. And it highlighted the XFL scoring structure and its differences from the NFL, which is great too. They'll crow about final minutes all week, and just try to ignore the first three quarters.

D.C. Defenders 22, Seattle Sea Dragons 18

It was the lemons what did it.

Right, story time. Back in 2020, one of the most viral things to come out of the XFL was the Beer Snake. During home games, D.C. Defenders fans would construct a snake out of empty beer cups. It was stupid! It was fun! It was stupid fun, and that's what I'm looking for in my spring football league.

With the Defenders returning, the fans plotted to bring back the beer snake again. But stadium security apparently disagreed, and confiscated the snake!

D.C. fans, of course, took this in stride—it's just a fun little thing to do in the stands, no need to get too bent out of shape about it.

Wait, no, I'm being told what they actually did was start pelting the field with lemons, and enough to force the game to be temporarily halted.

Teams had to be pulled from the field as players were actually getting hit with the lemons. That did not slow down the fans.

Suffice it to say, they may charge a little more for beer sales at the next Defenders home game.

Oh, there was a football game, too! And the lemons did, in fact, turn the tide. Before the lemons rained down, the Defenders were having a sour time, trailing 18-8. The very next play was a pick-six, however, part of a 14-0 run which ensured D.C. would finish the game with zest.

The game was fairly entertaining before the nonsense, too! It turns out that Ben DiNucci running a June Jones offense is great for fans who like passing. DiNucci dropped back 56 times, completing 35 passes for 282 yards and a crazy flip-play touchdown (as well as two interceptions).

On the other end of that touchdown? Josh Gordon, who had six receptions for 74 yards. And while D.C. was scrambling to figure out how to cover him, the rest of the Sea Dragons started getting open—Jahcour Pearson had 12 catches for 95 yards and Blake Jackson eight catches for 51 yards. The Sea Dragons are going to throw early and often, and the Defenders were being blown off the blocks early on.

The Defenders had some quarterback troubles, swapping out Jordan Ta'amu for D'Eriq King at one point as they tried to put together a passing attack. The two combined for just 93 yards through the air as the Defenders were outgained 331 to 177. But Gregg Williams' defense eventually came to the rescue, forcing three turnovers. Two of the Defenders' three touchdown "drives" went for a combined total of 14 yards, with Michael Joseph returning one interception for a pick-six and bringing a second one inside the 20 to set up an easy score a few plays later. The Defenders defense was playing on another level in the second half, making big plays when they needed to and keeping D.C. in the football game.

It looked like it would all be for naught, however, as the Sea Dragons had one more drive left in them. This included a big grab by Josh Gordon on fourth-and-9, as Seattle marched down to the goal line—first-and-goal from the one! And as all Seattle fans know, when you're on the goal line, you definitely run the ball…

Ballgame. Defenders win, Sea Dragons lose.

Oh, and the Beer Snake won, too.


13 comments, Last at 21 Feb 2023, 11:00am

#1 by Theo // Feb 20, 2023 - 10:27am

As a Steelers fan, I'm really enjoying these advanced and creative Pro Style offenses.


Points: 1

#2 by scraps // Feb 20, 2023 - 11:43am

Since there is no Philadelphia team in the XFL, Washington fans have stepped up and said %&#@&%!!

Points: 1

#4 by Aaron Brooks G… // Feb 20, 2023 - 11:54am

I mean, it is their only professional team.

Points: 1

#3 by Aaron Brooks G… // Feb 20, 2023 - 11:54am

Stopping beer snake seems against everything the XFL believes in.

Points: 3

#7 by Bryan Knowles // Feb 20, 2023 - 1:53pm

The XFL social media team seems to agree with you!

Points: 1

#12 by KnotMe // Feb 20, 2023 - 5:44pm

I bet they start a sneaky social media campaign for the Beer Jormungandr that goes all the way around the stadium. 

Points: 2

#6 by JS // Feb 20, 2023 - 1:18pm

Wait . . . TBuck is a head coach? Of a PRO football team?

Oh dear.

Points: 0

#8 by BSK // Feb 20, 2023 - 2:33pm

Where'd they get all the lemons?!

Points: 1

#10 by Bryan Knowles // Feb 20, 2023 - 3:25pm

They were halved and juiced, so I can only assume it came from beer sales.

Points: 0

#11 by Vincent Verhei // Feb 20, 2023 - 5:10pm


Points: 0

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