XFL Week 2 Preview: Houston and Arlington Battle for Texas
XFL - Week 2 in the XFL kicks off Thursday night, and it already feels something like business as usual, for good and for ill.
When we talked about Week 2 for the USFL last year, we focused heavily on the broadcast errors they had in their opening games, or the problems with the footballs not actually spiraling and kicking straight. Week 2 of the XFL 2.0 was all about the sluggish play and slow pace of the games as early growing pains with the new timing rules reared their head. And the AAF was just "Wow! Football in the spring! What a concept!"
This year, though? No drama. No problems with the rules or officiating, which mostly remain the same as 2020. No marking out over the strange site of professional athletes playing professional football in February. No massive institutional flailing, unless you count the Brahmas already firing their vice president of business operations. I suppose the biggest controversy the league is going through right now is BeerSnakeGate, which was more funny than anything seriously concerning. The novelty has worn off, and it just feels like a third-tier sports league. That's fine. That's what the league is trying to be!
But with the novelty off, the XFL started to the lowest audience of any of the spring leagues we have seen so far.
We talked about the attendance numbers a little in our Week 1 recap, with each city seeing their attendance drop by about 3,000 fans compared to the last time they hosted spring football. But we have also now had the television ratings come in, and, well, they're a bit underwhelming.
The two games broadcast on ABC averaged 1.6 million viewers. That is an OK number, but it was dwarfed by the opening numbers for the other leagues. The USFL's opening games on FOX and NBC a year ago averaged 2.6 million viewers. The XFL's opening games on ABC and FOX in 2020 averaged 3.3 million, as did the AAF's one game on CBS back in 2019. It's possible ESPN+ cut into the ratings a little bit, but it'd be hard to argue that streaming alone is responsible for a million fewer viewers—and it's not like the USFL wasn't available on Peacock!
Overall, the XFL averaged 1.29 million viewers for its four broadcasts, compared to 1.57 million for the USFL on their opening weekend a year ago. On the plus side, the two XFL network games both outdrew the USFL Championship Game—in fact, they had more viewers than any game besides USFL's Week 1 network matchups. Their Saturday night game on ESPN, theoretically their prime broadcast slot, would crack the USFL's top 10 most-watched games from a year ago.
|Top 10 Most-Viewed Games, USFL + XFL, 2022-2023|
|1||USFL||Week 1||Generals @ Stallions||3.07||Fox/NBC|
|2||USFL||Week 1||Gamblers v. Panthers||2.15||NBC|
|3||XFL||Week 1||Vipers @ Renegades||1.57||ABC|
|4||XFL||Week 1||Battlehawks @ Brahmas||1.53||ABC|
|5||USFL||Championship||Stallions v. Stars||1.52||FOX|
|6||USFL||Week 6||Panthers @ Stallions||1.20||NBC|
|7||USFL||Week 4||Gamblers v. Breakers||1.16||NBC|
|8||XFL||Week 1||Guardians @ Roughnecks||1.14||ESPN/FX|
|9||USFL||Week 3||Breakers @ Stallions||1.11||FOX|
|10||USFL||Week 2||Maulers v. Stars||1.06||FOX|
On the whole, spring football is no longer a novelty, and the XFL didn't bring in the same level of casual fans wanting to see what everything's all about. Will that mean they avoid the size and scale of the dropoff we have seen every other spring league take between their first and second weeks? Making matters a little more complicated to compare, the XFL won't be on network television again until Week 6, so it'll be up to FX and ESPN2 to hold the line most of the way. If they can get a million viewers a pop against competition as stiff as the NBA All-Star Game and the Daytona 500, I think they'll be satisfied. But that's a big if going forwards; we'll have to keep an eye on that.
Normally, we'd also be showing our ratings for the eight teams in the league, but that's going to have to wait one more week. With only one game so far and no interconnectivity, it's hard to say if a team is good because they're actually good, or if their opponents are just terrible. While we're not measuring XFL DVOA for this season (in part due to access issues), once we have two weeks in the books we can start looking at each team's EVOA—Estimated Value over Average—and then start analyzing the league in a more critical way. So stay tuned for that!
And on to this week's matchups…
St. Louis Battlehawks (1-0) at Seattle Sea Dragons (0-1)
Odds: Seattle (-3)
Thursday, 9 p.m., FX
Thursday Night Football? In the XFL? It's something they were going to experiment with late in the 2020 season, but the pandemic wiped that out. So we get it being tried both now and in Week 5, as Seattle gets to host not one but two Thursday Night FX games. These are, in fact, the only Thursday games on the XFL schedule. No, I don't know why there are only two, or why Seattle gets both of them. Yes, it seems strange to take one of your two teams with the largest fanbases from 2020 and give them two weeknight games when you want to boost attendance. It's an odd call.
Or maybe they just wanted this game to stand alone. The capital-H BattleHawks and Sea-less Dragons were the two most rabid fanbases in 2020. Both averaged over 25,000 fans per game and have maintained fanbases even in the absence of their teams. This is especially interesting for the Dragons because, well, they were not good in 2020, finishing 1-4. Hey, passion doesn't see win-loss records, right?
The Sea Dragons are trying to avoid going to 0-2, but they were honestly the better of these two teams for most of their Week 1 games. They were really hot right out of the gate as June Jones' run 'n' shoot seemed to give Ben DiNucci plenty of opportunities and a flotilla of receivers led by Josh Gordon ran wild. The early fireworks kind of blinded us to the fact that Seattle had no running game to speak of, and the offensive line got overwhelmed by D.C. before all was said and done. Even with all that, they had the ball at the goal line with the chance to win, so it's not like they played poorly. They just look to be one-dimensional so far; we'll see if they can put together a more rounded performance coming off of a short week.
And for 57 minutes, the Battlehawks looked lifeless. They followed that up with the best three minutes for any team, coming back from a 12-point deficit to pull off the win, with the help of the fourth-and-15 onside kick replacement. That finish puts a bit of a better blush on what had happened earlier—hey, they only allowed 15 points! Hey, Brian Hill has a punch on the ground! Hey, that A.J. McCarron-to-Austin Proehl combination looked pretty good! Hey, Anthony Becht seems to understand the analytics and how to use the league's rules to his advantage! You'd hear a lot less of that had they not pulled off the semi-miracle comeback. But a win is a win, and now they need to show they can play that way for a full game. Sea Dragons 27, Battlehawks 20.
D.C. Defenders (1-0) at Vegas Vipers (0-1)
Odds: Vegas (-3)
Saturday, 7 p.m., FX
Both the Defenders and the Vipers can stand proud behind their defenses. And they can begin to go into panic mode about their offenses. So, hey, maybe they can commiserate!
The Defenders defense shut the Sea Dragons down in the second half, but they still came a yard away from losing the game. That's in big part thanks to an offensive implosion—just 9-for-21 passing for 93 yards and an interception, and only 2.5 yards per rush. No, it's not an apples-to-apples comparison, but there have only been 58 NFL games since the modern passing rules were put into effect where a team won with less than 100 yards passing and less than 3 yards per carry; it takes a lion's effort from the defense and special teams to recover from such a poor showing. And this was with Jordan Ta'amu under center—the leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns for the USFL last season! It looks like the Defenders may go with a platoon between Ta'amu and D'Eriq King from here on out, but any offense from either would be a good way to start. And we'll have to see how they perform when no longer getting an MVP effort from the lemon-throwing fans in the end zone.
As for the Vipers, they are the only team in the league yet to give up an offensive touchdown. The Vegas defense would have propelled them to victory … except Luis Perez and the offense melted down in the second half, with four miscues after halftime leading to 19 of Arlington's 22 points. Vegas was moving the ball better than D.C. did in their respective matchups, but Vegas was the one more likely to make the big mistake—a surprise, again, considering they were led by Luis Perez, who led the USFL in passer rating and completion percentage last season!
Luis Perez vs. Jordan Ta'amu should be better than this. Then again, in their matchup in the USFL last year, Ta'amu threw three interceptions as Perez's Generals won 20-13, punching their playoff berth. That's the thing about spring football—even the top quarterbacks in the league aren't going to be consistent on a week-to-week basis. Both teams are hoping Week 1 was the down portion of their respective rollercoasters. Vipers 17, Defenders 13.
San Antonio Brahmas (0-1) at Orlando Guardians (0-1)
Odds: San Antonio (-3)
Sunday, 4 p.m., ESPN
The Brahmas look to pick themselves up after a heartbreaking loss to the Battlehawks—a game they had in hand for 57 minutes before one of the league's favorites finally woke up.
Fortunately for them, they are not playing one of the league's favorites this week. We had the Guardians pegged as arguably the worst team in the league in our preseason preview, and they did very little in Week 1 to dispel that idea. Paxton Lynch's flop against the Roughnecks was the league headline on Saturday, as the former first-round NFL pick was benched three quarters into his first start. We have no clarity where Orlando goes from here—they still have all three quarterbacks listed as equal on their depth chart, so hey, that's probably fine, right? Sure, the old saying is that when you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks, but Orlando has three! Surely, that's better!
Either way, it wasn't just a one-player problem. Tackling was terrible for Orlando, especially in the first half. The offensive line was consistently beaten. And the receivers struggled to catch the passes that were thrown accurately to them. We do have the caveat of not knowing how good Houston is; perhaps the Guardians just ran into a buzzsaw. But Orlando needs to look much better right from the gun in this one if we're expecting to take their chances seriously.
The Brahmas were the better team in their loss to the Battlehawks, but they didn't do enough to capitalize on that early in the game. That left the door open for the big St. Louis comeback, with the Battlehawks scoring twice in the final 90 seconds to overcome a 12-point deficit and take the win. That hurts, for sure; there's no getting around it. And if you want an argument against the fourth-and-15 option, being up by two scores with two minutes left and then losing while never touching the ball again hurts. But the Brahmas have stuff they can build on. The defense looked very strong for the vast majority of the game before being hit in the quasi-prevent they adopted in the final minutes; they had the Battlehawks at just 2.2 yards per play before the endgame. If they can get a little more on the same page on offense—some big shots were open, but Jack Coan couldn't always connect—then they might be well-positioned going forward.
Yes, I'm taking the Brahmas in this one. I know first impressions don't always hold up, but the Guardians' first game really reinforced my priors of them having the worst quarterback room and worst defense in the league. Brahmas 17, Guardians 14.
Arlington Renegades (1-0) at Houston Roughnecks (1-0)
Odds: Houston -4.5
Sunday, 7 p.m., ESPN2
The Battle of Texas! Well, one of six battles of Texas. It's actually more unusual to have a week like last week, where the three Texas teams didn't play one another. Still, we have to start somewhere.
It's also a matchup between two of our Week 1 winners—and a chance for the Roughnecks to finally lose. This year's XFL really isn't tied to 2020's edition, but if you do consider them the same league, then the Roughnecks are 6-0 all time in XFL play. They're unstoppable, at least in a very small sample size.
And all wins are not made equal. The Roughnecks' defense was dominant, making Paxton Lynch and the Guardians look miserable in Week 1. And while Brandon Silvers and the offense took a couple false steps in the second half, they were mostly effective throughout, moving the ball through the air well. It's really hard to judge them as the Guardians do not look cohesive at all, but the Roughnecks were the team that was in most control in Week 1. And Vegas (the sportsbooks, not the Vipers) agrees. The Roughnecks are the only team in the league this week favored by more than field goal, despite this being the only clash between undefeated teams this week. They're atop basically every subjective power ranking out there, as you would expect as the only team with a net point differential above +4. They're not going to win by three scores every week, if for no other reason than they're not playing the Guardians every week. But they're the team that looked most cohesive from front to back and are your early favorites. If that means more miked-up soundbites from Wade Phillips, I'm all in favor of this.
The Renegades, on the other hand, have yet to find the end zone offensively. Thy won their game over the Vipers thanks to a pair of pick-sixes and some long, clock-filling field goal drives. So the defense is here, but the offense really looks like it will need some work. As of press time, the Renegades' quarterback situation remains unresolved. Under Drew Plitt, the Renegades were … let's call it "conservative" and be nice. Plitt only threw one interception, but that's about the best thing we can say about his performance. Kyle Sloter, the all-USFL quarterback from a year ago, is right there on the bench. Plitt's leash may be relatively short.
If both teams play to Week 1's form, the Roughnecks should rumble in this one and take the early South lead at 2-0, but again, we have no interconnectivity at the moment so it's hard to tell just how good anyone actually is. Either way, seeing Wade Phillips' defense go up against Bob Stoops' offense should make for a good battle. Roughnecks 28, Renegades 21.
6 comments, Last at 26 Feb 2023, 3:11am
#1 by Cythammer // Feb 23, 2023 - 1:58pm
I wish the Arlington Renegades had been the Fort Worth Renegades, or the DFW Renegades, or something like that. Just to continue in the goofy pattern of teams playing in Arlington naming themselves after other places, the Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboys being the other examples.
#2 by Bryan Knowles // Feb 23, 2023 - 3:14pm
They were the Dallas Renegades in 2020, and their logo very much assumed they continued to be so in 2023. I mean, tell me this isn't a DR lettermark:
#3 by Aaron Brooks G… // Feb 23, 2023 - 4:57pm
I suppose the biggest controversy the league is going through right now is BeerSnakeGate, which was more funny than anything seriously concerning.
What was really impressive is that BeerSnakeGate was in actuality an alcohol-fueled lemon party, and somehow kept that combination family-friendly.