On February 4, 2001, I covered an XFL game between the Birmingham Thunderbolts and Memphis Maniax – played on the second day of the league’s first weekend. When it was over, I left Legion Field with a negative opinion of the fledgling spring circuit.
Nineteen years later (from the comfort of my futon), I watched the league rise from the dead – and rise to the occasion.
Over two days and four games, the new XFL has already surpassed the old XFL in my eyes. The organization is better, the football is better, and the prognosis is better.
No domestic spring football league has ever experienced long term survival, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with having a positive attitude after such a positive start.
XFL commissioner Oliver Luck talked with NPR’s Michel Martin last week and described how things will be different this time around.
“I think there are three things,” he said. “One is our founder, Vince (McMahon). He’s got the resources and has given us because of those resources a long time to plan. The second one is all of our games are going to be either on Fox or ESPN or ABC. So no other league has ever started with the visibility that these two media companies will give us. And the third thing is the game has really been elevated, and as a result, the players that are available to us – sort of the 500 best players in the country not under contract to another professional football league – these guys are good.
“Now, having said that, we know it’s a challenge, and we’re going into this eyes wide open. But we think we’ve got a pretty good shot at establishing a league that people want to watch.”
As someone who has spent more than 30 years spreading the gospel of alternative football leagues, I was pumped when McMahon announced XFL 1.0. But my enthusiasm waned once I saw all the World Wrestling Entertainment influences, and it was almost all gone after just one weekend.
So much time was spent on gimmicks the game was overshadowed, and by the time it limped to the end of its only campaign the league was little more than a punch line.
McMahon obviously learned his lesson.
Although I’m still not sure why he wanted to revive a brand that flopped in its original incarnation, this XFL is most definitely new and improved.
For starters, these are good football players who had plenty of training camp time and scrimmages to get better. The 2001 version was rather rushed, and it wasn’t until late in the season when most of the teams started looking cohesive.
I was impressed with the quality of play and quality of players last Saturday and Sunday.
The rap, of course, is that the XFL “isn’t the NFL.”
No, it isn’t.
And high school football isn’t college football and college football isn’t pro football, but any level and every level can be entertaining.
If you insist on comparing a spring league to the sport’s strongest league, you’ll always be disappointed.
That being the case, I’m taking it for what it is, which is – to date – a solid, professional product.
From a casual fan standpoint (me being the casual fan) I thought the DC Defenders’ 31-19 victory over the Seattle Dragons was the most fun game to watch. Winning quarterback Cardale Jones (235 passing yards and two touchdowns) played like he was having a good time, and his enthusiasm rubbed off on his teammates.
The Houston Roughnecks and quarterback PJ Walker really wowed me with their 37-17 takedown of the L.A. Wildcats. Walker finished with 272 yards and four TDs through the air and made his case as the XFL’s top QB to watch in 2020.
The New York Guardians’ 23-3 rout of the Tampa Bay Vipers was one-sided and never really in doubt, while the St. Louis BattleHawks’ 15-9 decision over the Dallas Renegades was a bit sluggish.
Yet a mixed bag of the good and the bad is to be expected. Obviously there were mistakes and miscues across the league, but anyone dwelling on that is simply looking for something to complain about.
This year’s Super Bowl had four interceptions, three fumbles (though none lost) and 69 yards in penalties. Point being, turnovers and infractions are part of the game.
From the standpoint of rules innovations, I like the non-collision kickoffs the best. The lords of football have been slow to deal with the CTE risk, and this is a step in the right direction.
It looks odd for the kicker to line up at his own 30 while the kicking team sets up at the opponents’ 35-yard line – five yards across from the receiving team – but it grew on me quickly.
Not allowing players on the line of scrimmage to be released until the ball is punted is also a positive change.
The tiered conversions, on the other hand, didn’t quite have the drama I’d hoped for.
Teams can go for a single point from the 2, two points from the 5 and three points from the 10, and I guess I was expecting far too much gambling.
I think it’s apparent the three-point conversion will be confined mostly to desperation situations, and I’m not convinced the two-point conversion will be utilized as much as I thought.
But I’m just quibbling; I like running and passing for points much better than the PAT.
TV ratings for opening weekend were quite good and ticket sales are reportedly brisk for this week’s slate, so XFL officials have a right to feel good about things.
Sure, the novelty might wear off and XFL 2020 – much like its 2001 namesake – could flame out by the time the season ends in late April.
Yet for now all is well, because this is football done well.
Heading into week two, that’s all you can ask for.
For more information on the league go to XFL.com.