XFL Week 2 Review: Battlehawks Rally vs. Sea Dragons

St. Louis Battlehawks K Donny Hageman
St. Louis Battlehawks K Donny Hageman
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

XFL - Week 2 of the XFL is in the books, and we're beginning to see some separation. We have three undefeated teams, each of whom have a claim to being the best team in the league. We have a wishy-washy middle, with inconsistency and blown chances putting a ceiling on some on-paper talented teams. And then we have the Orlando Guardians, whom we are reliably informed had seen at least one football game before the season began. We're waiting for confirmation on that, of course.

We also saw a few more growing pains for the league at large. After a fairly solid Week 1, we had one embarrassing game in Vegas: a terrible field with minor-league level conditions in front of a miniscule crowd. We had another sloppy blowout, as Orlando games are becoming must-miss events. But we also had a thrilling comeback on Thursday night and an exciting, competitive game to round out the week. Call it a mixed bag, though probably a bit of a step back as a product from Week 1's action.

And with two weeks in the books, it's time to run some actual stats!

Team Rankings

We're not doing DVOA for the XFL this season, but that doesn't mean we can't take a look at team strength beyond the realm of wins and losses. We just have to turn to a simpler solution.

Pro Football Reference uses the Simple Rating System to rank teams. SRS is a rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule—like any good rating system, the better you play and the better your opponents, the higher your overall rating. For example, the Philadelphia Eagles had an average margin of victory of 7.8 points in 2022. Their opponents had an average SRS of -1.3. Therefore, the Eagles' SRS was 7.8 - 1.3, or … well, 6.5 because of rounding, but you get the idea. That means that the Eagles were 6.5 points per game better than an average NFL team in 2022.

We're going to do the same thing here for the XFL to produce our own rankings, generating an overall SRS as well as offensive and defensive SRS for all eight teams. And because this is Football Outsiders, we can also roughly convert those stats into their DVOA equivalents, using the same system we used to estimate NFL team quality before 1950 during our Dynasty Project. It's not DVOA, but it's the next best thing—Estimated Value Over Average, or EVOA. EVOA has about a 0.9 correlation with actual DVOA at the NFL level, so while it is an over-simplified estimation, it's good enough for a ballpark figure.

Both SRS and EVOA measure the same thing in the same way, as it's a direct one-to-one conversion from one to the other. SRS is just scaled in terms of points above or below average, while EVOA is scaled as a percentage above or below average—and on the same scale as DVOA, which will be interesting if the XFL grows large enough to the point where we start doing actual DVOA calculations for it

We did this for the USFL last season, with the eventual champion Birmingham Stallions coming out in first place with an EVOA of 15.9% and the Maulers bringing up the rear at -22.8%. It's not quite an apples-to-apples comparison between the XFL and USFL, but the baseline level of play is similar enough that we can make broad comparisons between teams that way.

Of course, doing this after two weeks should come with several heavy grains of salt—there's not a ton of data to work with just yet. To get around this problem, our NFL numbers use DAVE, mixing in our preseason projections to help smooth out the effects of variance early. Well, we don't have projections for the XFL, as we're not considering this to be a direct continuation of 2020 in any meaningful way. We'll just have to let the early numbers stand for themselves two weeks into the season. Just remember not to take these ratings too seriously early. Offensive EVOA is an approximation of the offensive portion of total EVOA, which is itself an approximation of the teams' actual DVOAs, which is itself an approximation of a team's total quality, all based on a sample size of two games each.

2022 XFL Rankings, Week 2
1 D.C. Defenders 2-0 6.9 -0.7 6 7.6 1 19.0% -1.7% -20.6%
2 Houston Roughnecks 2-0 5.6 1.2 2 4.4 3 15.3% 3.3% -11.9%
3 St. Louis Battlehawks 2-0 5.2 -0.2 5 5.4 2 14.3% -0.3% -14.6%
4 Seattle Sea Dragons 0-2 3.1 5.7 1 -2.6 6 8.6% 15.4% 6.9%
5 San Antonio Brahmas 1-1 2.3 0.4 4 1.9 4 6.6% 1.3% -5.2%
6 Arlington Renegades 1-1 -3.3 0.8 3 -4.2 7 -8.6% 2.4% 11.0%
7 Vegas Vipers 0-2 -5.2 -4.1 8 -1.1 5 -13.6% -10.8% 2.8%
8 Orlando Guardians 0-2 -15.6 -3.7 7 -11.9 8 -41.5% -9.7% 31.8%

Subjectively, I might have Houston first, but the Roughnecks, Defenders, and Battlehawks are all close enough to one another to be considered more or less in a dead heat. The Guardians are so bad that they're pulling Houston and San Antonio's numbers down more than perhaps is warranted, but we'll see how that ends up shaking out as the season goes along.

Houston is the league's best passing offense at the moment, averaging 5.9 yards per attempt and 11.1 yards per reception—the second number is respectable, even at an NFL level, while the first number is very much not, if you want to try to judge the overall level of competition here. They also lead the league with 12 sacks and five interceptions—numbers pumped up by playing two of the bottom three teams in the table so far, but good numbers notwithstanding.

The other top teams can't quite match up to that record, statistically, but the Defenders are more than 100 yards clear of any other team with 313 rushing yards; they may not have much in the way of a long passing game at the moment, but they have the second-, third-, and fifth-leading rushers in the league in Abram Smith, Ryquell Armstead, and Jordan Ta'amu.

As for St. Louis? It'd be hard to argue against AJ McCarron as the best quarterback in the league so far—40-for-62 for 374 yards, three touchdowns, and most importantly, zero interceptions, not to mention 53 yards on the ground. Any one of these three have arguments for being the best team in the league; we'll start to get some clarity next week as the Battlehawks and Defenders go head-to-head.

The Sea Dragons are next despite being 0-2. Both of their losses have been agonizingly close, with a fumble at the goal line costing them in Week 1 and a final-drive Battlehawks comeback knocking them out in Week 2. They have, by our numbers so far, the best offense in the league by a substantial margin. Ben DiNucci leads the league with 478 passing yards and is tied for the league lead with four completions of 20-plus yards. Jahcour Pearson and Blake Jackson are first and second in receptions, while Pearson and Josh Gordon are both in the top four in receiving yards. Seattle's run game, while not as impressive, is still in the top half of the league at 4.1 yards per carry, and they're 4-for-6 on fourth-down conversions; the rest of the league is a combined 7-for-20. Starting out the season against the Defenders and Battlehawks is a tough slate to deal with; the Sea Dragons will get a chance to claw their way back into things with some easier matchups over the next two weeks.

Oh, and then there are the Guardians. Second-worst in the league at 4.3 yards per pass with a lot of failed completions; they have a first down on just 18.6% of their passes while everyone else is at least at 25.5%. They have been sacked a league-worst nine times. Even when they do complete a pass, it's for a league-worst 8.6 yards per reception. They're the only team not to convert a fourth down yet. They are just terrible in nearly every measurable way. So, buy your tickets today, Orlandoans!

St. Louis Battlehawks 20, Seattle Sea Dragons 18

I get wanting to establish a solid, definable brand for your team right away, but really? Two weeks in a row where the Sea Dragons choke away a late lead? Two weeks in a row where the Battlehawks storm back in the final seconds to pull out a come-from-behind victory? Guys, wait a minute before recycling your scripts.

The first ever XFL Thursday game was in front of a bit of a sparse crowd—just 10,386 people, down about 15,000 from Seattle's opener in 2020. An odd choice to hold a weeknight game, even odder when you consider the Seattle Kraken were playing at the same time; surely, some of those 17,000 fans packing Climate Pledge Arena would have come to see the Sea Dragons. It's decently impressive to get 10,000 fans to come out in freezing weather on a weeknight, but there's no reason to up the degree of difficulty that high.

Had they come out, they would have seen the Battlehawks once again overcome a double-digit deficit to win in the waning seconds. And they would have seen Seattle continue to mix highlight plays with boneheaded mistakes, once again losing despite being significantly more efficient on offense. The Sea Dragons averaged 6.0 yards per play to St. Louis' 4.2, but two fumbles and a muffed punt, all in the second half, kept the door open just enough.

Ben DiNucci threw for 196 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 54-yard bomb to Jahcour Pearson to give Seattle a 12-8 halftime lead. DiNucci also showed off some mobility on the ground, rushing for 38 yards. In fact, the entire Sea Dragons team found room to run against the Battlehawks, with Morgan Ellison adding 50 yards of his own—Seattle averaged 5.0 yards per carry a week after averaging just 3.0 against D.C. Giving Ellison more work over Brenden Knox may have paid dividends.

The Battlehawks were able to cut that lead to 12-8 after a 14-play drive ending in an AJ McCarron sneak, but for most of the first half, they were in trouble. McCarron put the ball on the ground twice, and while St. Louis was able to recover both times, the fumbles still knocked them out of field goal range; taking passing, rushing, and sacks into account, McCarron had a net 73 yards of offense at the break.

Seattle could have put it away in the second half, but then the mistakes started happening. Pearson muffed the punt after the defense forced St. Louis to go three-and-out on the opening drive—that turned into a missed field goal. Ellison then fumbled on the very next drive—that turned into a successful field goal, cutting the lead to 12-11. And on the ensuing drive, DiNucci fumbled inside the red zone, taking away at least a field goal attempt for Seattle there. That's three mistakes in one quarter, and the chances to extend the lead lost—a loss amplified when McCarron hit Hakeem Butler for a 44-yard strike to put St. Louis in front.

But Seattle wasn't going down without a fight. With 1:21 left, DiNucci found Jordan Veasy for a go-ahead touchdown … and a decision.

The touchdown makes it 18-17. You are Seattle, you have a one-point lead, and you have options. A one-point conversion does you nothing. You can attempt a two-point conversion from the 5-yard line, which would extend your lead to three and make it so a field goal would send things into overtime. Or you could attempt a three-point conversion from the 10, which would mean a field goal would do nothing for St. Louis. Adding in to your decision? Battlehawks kicker Donny Hageman is 1-for-3 on the night, coming up short on a 50-yarder just a couple minutes ago and whiffing on a 36-yarder in the third quarter. A kick is no gimme. What do you do? Our model isn't really tuned for this yet. I suspect I would have gone for two and challenged my opponent's kicker to make a field goal; those extra 5 yards are huge.

As it is, Seattle opted to go for three and failed. McCarron then marched St. Louis right down the field, rushing a couple times for 23 yards and hitting big passes to George Campbell and Austin Proehl. That set up Hageman for a 44-yard chance at redemption…

Kick is good, Battlehawks go to 2-0. Hell of a finish!

D.C. Defenders 18, Vegas Vipers 6

It took six games, but we finally had a minor league football game break out in the XFL—an ugly game in poor conditions in an unimpressive stadium in front of a sparse crowd. If you wanted to come up with a case for the XFL imploding, this would be your example one.

The Vipers are playing at Cashman Field, a baseball stadium renovated for soccer and notorious for a number of issues. There have been questions in recent years about whether or not the stadium is even fit for Triple-A baseball; the Las Vegas 51s pulled out after 2018. Painted dead grass, an awkward seating layout, slippery turf, players leaving and entering the field through the dugout—it wasn't ideal. Cashman is maybe the third-best football stadium in the Las Vegas area, and it made things feel cheap.

The 6,000 or so fans who braved the rain to see the game didn't exactly see a barnburner, either. The three quarterbacks—Jordan Ta'amu for the Defenders, Luis Perez and Brett Hundley for the Vipers—combined to go 22-for-46 for 191 yards with three lost fumbles. Neither team hit 5 yards per play, though the Defenders did find some offense in the slop during the second half to hold their up high a little bit on the way out.

We sat at a 6-0 Vipers lead at the half, with two Defenders fumbles being the big plays. Ta'amu was sacked inside his own 5-yard line, allowing the Vipers to plunge in for a touchdown a few plays later. And then, just before half, Abram Smith was stripped inside the Vegas 5, keeping the Defenders off the board. Those are some huge swings; the score easily could have been flipped the other way.

The Vipers needed the gifts because they weren't going anywhere. Perez was pulled after starting 1-for-5 for zero passing yards, and Hundley was brought in to try to provide a spark. It didn't really work. The Vipers had 77 yards and three first downs in the first half as they remained firmly in neutral. The Defenders weren't much better for most of the half, though that 11-play, 65-yard drive that ended in the Smith fumble at the goal line at least hinted that one team could get things together.

And after halftime, the Defenders did in fact put things together. With the rain coming down and the offenses not going anywhere, they made the choice to swap Ta'amu for D'Eriq King. King did not attempt a single pass. Instead, he and the D.C. run game just started manhandling their way through the Vipers defense. King rushed four times for 32 yards. Ta'amu, before he was benched, had 12 carries for 68 yards. Smith had 11 carries for 71. Ryquell Armstead had 15 for 58. That's 229 yards on the ground at 5.5 yards per clip, with both Smith and King finding the end zone. The ground game led to 18 unanswered points and the D.C. win.

The Defenders at least found something in the second half, and while it's an ugly 2-0, it's still 2-0. The Vipers, meanwhile, have to lick their wounds at 0-2 and hope that the weather is what shut down their offense this week. They play the Dragons this Saturday in what is rapidly looking like an elimination game.

San Antonio Brahmas 30, Orlando Guardians 12

I think Guardians head coach Terrell Buckley sums this one up quite nicely:

Or perhaps quarterback coach Shane Matthews:

Or even Guardians quarterback Dendre Francois:

The Guardians are an unorganized mess, lacking in talent on the field and discipline around it. They are, by leaps and bounds, the worst team in the league, and they are playing like it.

The weekly tradition of benching Paxton Lynch continued, as Lynch went 9-for-19 for 79 yards before being sent to the bench. Not that his replacement did any better—this week, it was Deondre Francois instead of Quinten Dormady, and Francois managed to go 6-for-13 for 8 yards. The shame is, the Guardians are actually not terrible at running the ball; they just fall so far behind because of their terrible defense, have to ask their nightmare of a quarterback room to play catchup, and just fall further and further behind. They had one good play—a draw to Jah-Maine Martin that fooled the Brahmas outright, gaining 38 yards and setting up an Eli Rodgers touchdown. That was it, and it wasn't reproducible. The only reason the Guardians are eighth in the league is because there isn't a lower spot to place them in.

As for the Brahmas, they had some struggles early—some low snaps, some poor protection, a non-existent running game that managed negative yards in the first half—but they were able to snap out of it fairly promptly. Quarterback Jack Coan didn't rack up huge yardage numbers, but three touchdowns and no interceptions is going to be a good day on any level.

Coan spread it around, too, with four different players having at least three receptions. Tight end Alize Mack was arguably the most impressive, with four catches for 48 yards and a score—and fairly impressive catches, at that.

It wasn't just an offensive showcase, either, as San Antonio had 10 tackles for a loss, two sacks, and an interception in what may become expected totals against a struggling Orlando team. Even special teams got in on the action, blocking a punt to turn a lead into a rout.

I don't know how many plaudits you want to give a team for beating the Guardians, but the Brahmas took care of business, so points there.

Houston Roughnecks 23, Arlington Renegades 14

Someday, a team is going to play Arlington and not turn the ball over multiple times. That team is going to win by roughly 10 zillion points. As it was, the Roughnecks were able to get away from their self-inflicted wounds enough to pull out the victory, going to 2-0 in 2023 and 7-0 all-time in the XFL. Someday, a team is going to play Houston and is going to win, right? Presumably?

This one was more competitive than the final score indicates—and remember, a nine-point margin in the XFL is a one-possession game, so this one wasn't put away until late. The Renegades had the lead at the half and had the ball with a chance to lead in the fourth quarter before a big defensive play and a clock-killing drive salted away the first of six Battles of Texas.

But yes, the competitive portion of the game for Arlington both began and ended with turnovers. The very first play from scrimmage saw Drew Plitt get picked off by a leaping Ajene Harris. Considering the Renegades were talking all week about wanting to be more consistent on offense after failing to score an offensive touchdown in their Week 1 win, this was not precisely the ideal start they had in mind.

Things got worse from there for the Renegades as Wade Phillips' defense continued to make themselves heard—they ended the night with five sacks and had Plitt under fairly constant pressure throughout. It looked, for a while, like Houston was going to win this one in a laugher. Brandon Silvers didn't have the most efficient night, but he threw for a pair of touchdowns—he's tied with Jack Coan for the lead league with four now. He also ranks first among players with at least 20 passing attempts at 6.4 yards per attempt, and he's just a bit behind Seattle's Ben DiNucci in terms of raw yards. His prime targets this week? Ben Putman, who had four catches for 65 yards, and Jontre Kirklin, who had two for 56 including a big 40-yard catch-and-run.

Bu the Roughnecks ran into some trouble in the second quarter. Will Likely fumbled two punts, each of them leading to an Arlington touchdown; he was notably replaced by Dejoun Lee in the second half and will likely not be returning any more punts anytime soon. Deontay Burnett fumbled inside the red zone later in the half, and while Arlington couldn't cash that one into points, that was still an opportunity lost for the Roughnecks. That's how an 11-0 lead turns into a 14-11 halftime deficit.

Still, when they had the ball, Houston was doing a better job moving it all-in-all; 4.2 yards per play isn't great, but it was significantly above Arlington's 2.3. With neither team able to average even 3 yards per rush, it came down to quarterback play, and Silvers outdueled Plitt, not turning the ball over and averaging an extra 2 yards per attempt. A Cedric Byrd touchdown gave the Renegades a 17-14 lead midway through the third quarter and Arlington never could quite respond. They only crossed midfield once more in the game, but Plitt was picked off for the second time.

Houston scored off of that and pulled away for the victory. The Renegades are left scratching their heads, wondering if it's finally time to switch to Kyle Sloter.


1 comment, Last at 27 Feb 2023, 10:30am

#1 by Pat // Feb 27, 2023 - 10:30am

What do you do? Our model isn't really tuned for this yet. I suspect I would have gone for two and challenged my opponent's kicker to make a field goal; those extra 5 yards are huge.

The other advantage with going for 2 is that an opponent is likely to play for a field goal, meaning that your chances of losing in regulation are probably lower than you'd expect, and you likely don't have to play riskier defense.

Points: 1

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