Scramble for the Ball: An XFL Football-Like Substance

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Bryan: Welcome back to a very special edition of The Bryan and Vinny Sh… Wait, no. Scramble for the Ball. That’s what we do here. Scramble.

Vince: That’s right. While I do have another gig where I critique a Vince McMahon product notorious for its incompetent officiating, today we are here to discuss … oh, dammit.

Bryan: Yes, we’re going back to this column’s roots to talk about the latest season of the XFL! The original scramble for the ball, of course, did not make the transition to the new league which has been … pretty good so far? Mostly? At the very least, I think both the quality of play on the field and the presentation are leagues above where we last left this thing back in 2001.

Vince: You of course are still a young man, much younger than myself, so I don’t know how much you remember about the original XFL, but it was a complete circus, if anything a bigger circus than McMahon’s wrestling league. It was clear they had no idea what football actually was or how it worked, and thought they could put together something that was part NFL Blitz, part Debbie Does Dallas. Football fans were turned off in droves, and wrestling fans were turned off because … it wasn’t wrestling, so you were left with a product that appealed to approximately nobody.

Bryan: I was huge into the Attitude Era at the time, and into football, so yeah, I was all-in on the original XFL … for about five minutes, when I realized it combined the worst of both worlds into a highly unappetizing package. I mean, when one of your announcers is saying, during the games, that he does not care about or really understand football, why should we care? Putting Jerry Lawler on the mic was just one of many disasters in that original league. And do you remember the halftime skit where McMahon tried to bust into the cheerleader’s locker room, and then they played out, like, a strange fantasy sequence? I’m not entirely sure who that was for, other than Vince McMahon himself.

No, the new league is clearly leaps and bounds better than all that. It turns out, treating a football game like football, and pitching it towards an audience that wants to watch football, works better. Who would have possibly predicted that?

Vince: The other key, besides the simplicity of the presentation, is that this XFL has no illusions about what it is: it’s minor league football, hoping to attract an audience with spare time on its hands in between the Super Bowl and March Madness. That’s it. The original XFL — and this took a lot of balls, even by McMahon’s standards — actually tried to convince you that it was a superior football league to the NFL. This is real football! These guys really care! No cowardly fair catches or coin flips here! It was completely insulting to put on a minor league product and try to convince viewers it was anything other than that.

Bryan: I had some worries about that when McMahon originally announced the new XFL, as the initial talk was all about how this league would be distraction-free — no politics, no kneeling for the anthem, et cetera et cetera et cetera. Fortunately, none of that has really been a thing, and instead, what the XFL is quickly becoming known for is a sort of off-field shenanigans, and embracing a sense of fun? I can get behind that as a reason to watch a minor league sport.

WE ARE DEALING WITH AN ALL-TIME BEER SNAKE FOLKS.

THIS IS WHAT LEGENDS ARE MADE OF.

THIS IS THE XFL. pic.twitter.com/UYrDS7ut1I

— XFL (@xfl2020) March 8, 2020

What I’ve enjoyed most about the league so far are these side-bits. I’ve really enjoyed hearing the replay official walk us through the calls and explain why a call is or is not reversed. I have surprisingly enjoyed the off-field interviews; while I would hate, hate, hate to be interviewed mid-game as a player, they’re fun and unscripted and kind of fascinating at times.

As for the on-field action … it’s mid-tier college, at best. Again, minor league. The Roughnecks are actually fun to watch, period, with P.J. Walker and the run ‘n’ shoot and all that good stuff. The quality from the rest of the league is … well, it’s a mixed bag.

Vince: Indeed. I was curious what the actual football would look like in this league, and halfway through the year, it appears the bad defenses have the edge over the bad offenses, at least compared to the NFL. The average NFL team scored 22.8 points per game in 2019; that average is down to 20.5 in the XFL. Yards per game has dropped from 347.9 to 312.7; yards per play, from 5.5 to 5.1. Interceptions are up, from 0.8 to 1.1. In general, passes are completed less often, for fewer yards and scores. That is to be expected with a league full of practice squad quarterbacks.

Bryan: And it’s pretty much exactly what we saw out of the old AAF, too — they averaged 20.0 points and 314.2 yards per game. The lack of quality quarterbacks is a real issue. The XFL allocated a special quarterback to each team before the season started; only two of those eight players will be starting for their teams this week. Walker is the MVP of the league so far this year, and I’ll be very surprised if he doesn’t get NFL offers once the season is done. St. Louis has Jordan Ta’amu doing an Alex Smith-ian game manager thing; they’re really led by Matt Jones and 155.8 yards per game on the ground. Everyone else has swapped quarterbacks as they’ve struggled to find some consistency anywhere.

Los Angeles has hit on Josh Johnson — remember, the reason we got a David Blough start for the Lions this year was that the XFL prevented Johnson from signing with them — but everyone else is iffy, at best. Cardale Jones was just benched for throwing a zillion interceptions; Matt McGloin got hurt and then replaced by Luis Perez in New York; Seattle finally — finally! — went to B.J. Daniels over Brandon Silvers; Landry Jones and Aaron Murray are hurt. If we can’t find 32 quality starting quarterbacks for the NFL, it’s not really surprising we can’t find eight quality quarterbacks for a minor league.

Vince: It’s funny that Walker is getting all the press as the XFL’s best quarterback when Johnson has him beat in yards per pass (8.1 to 7.3) and passer rating (106.8 to 104.4), but then Walker’s Roughnecks are 5-0 and Johnson’s Wildcats are 2-3. And yes, the dropoff after those two is staggering — Silvers is third in the league in touchdown passes, and as you noted, he was benched in Week 4!

Bryan: And rightfully so. It’s a testament to how good Seattle’s fans are that they keep coming out in droves for what may well be the worst team in the league. Dragons games average nearly 26,000 people per game! For a 1-4 team that has allowed the most points in the league and has yet to win away from home! That’s some commitment.

Vince: The Wildcats have actually given up a few more points than the Dragons, but Seattle does have a -32 margin in point differential, nearly twice as bad as any other club. But yes, attendance in Seattle and around the league has been strong. I think that’s especially true in St. Louis, one of the no-brainer cities for an XFL franchise, given that they recently lost their NFL team and had a perfectly good stadium (well … a stadium, anyway) ready to go.

Bryan: I’m going to slightly quibble with that. Attendance in St. Louis and Seattle has both been strong. St. Louis was a no-brainer choice for sure, and they lead the league with nearly 29,000 fans a game. Elsewhere, however, there have been some dips, especially in New York, Los Angeles, and Tampa Bay, all of whom failed to break 13,000 fans in their latest home game. Attendance is on a downward trend in general.

New York’s situation is made worse from playing in the cavernous MetLife Stadium, and they’re already talking about moving them to a smaller venue just to avoid a little bit of embarrassment from all those empty seats. It’s been reported that the decision to play in MetLife rather than the smaller Red Bull Arena was a Vince McMahon decision due to the cache and his long-standing relationship with the building, and, well, it’s kinda dumb.

Los Angeles and Tampa Bay have good backup options, however. Part of the reason the XFL chose the cities they did was to avoid competing head-to-head with the AAF, which had teams in San Diego and Orlando — and die-hard fans in those cities. Attendance for the Fleet and the Apollos both topped 19,000, which would make them the third- and fourth-biggest crowds in the XFL. We may see the San Diego Wildcats and Orlando Vipers, assuming the XFL continues to survive (never a sure thing!)

Vince: My favorite XFL venue for sure is Globe Life Park in Arlington, home of your Dallas Renegades. It’s a football field shoehorned into a baseball park, like something you would have to unlock in Madden. Maybe coincidence, maybe not, but the Renegades have some bizarre home-road splits. The road team has won every game the Renegades have ever played. In every other XFL game this season, the home team has gone 14-1!

Bryan: The Renegades were preseason favorites to win it all, too, with Bob Stoops being the most decorated coach in the league, and Landry Jones knowing his offense from college, and Cameron Artis-Payne and Lance Dunbar in the backfield, and Derron Smith bringing AAF cred to the defense … it just hasn’t come together for them. Again, probably because of that quarterback problem; Jones has been hurt. They still may grab the second playoff spot out West — the undefeated Roughnecks are running away with things out there, but one of the other three losers has to squeak into the playoffs somehow. I’d probably pick Johnson and the Wildcats at this point in time, but maybe Stoops can petition to play the rest of Dallas’ games on the road and thus ensure victories.

Vince: Jones’ injuries are definitely among the worst things in the XFL so far, because the Air Raid offense with a quarterback who would be, what, a seventh-stringer by NFL standards? That’s hard to watch. Philip Nelson completed 66% of his passes in Jones’ absence … and still averaged less than 5 yards per pass! There are only so many 2-yard completions on third-and-8 a man can take before turning the channel.

Bryan: Over in the East, we actually have a race. The Vipers are probably out of it — if the Dragons aren’t the worst team in the league, it’s the Vipers, which is a betrayal of the legacy of Burt Reynolds and the Tampa Bay Bandits — but the other three teams are all 3-2 and fighting for the two playoff slots. The Defenders have played the extra home game and, with home-field advantage being basically gospel so far in the league, you’d expect that to be to their disadvantage over the back half of the season. That’s good news for the BattleHawks and Guardians, both of whom have gotten one of those rare road wins, taking care of the Renegades both times. The BattleHawks are probably in the driver’s seat, just getting to play the Vipers twice down the stretch, but the three teams play a round-robin in the last three weeks of the season. So, yeah, we actually have a real playoff race to see who ultimately gets to lose to Houston in the championship game!

Oh, and the championship is in Houston’s home stadium, too, so yeah. Not sure anyone is stopping P.J. Walker, Cam Phillips and the rest of the Roughnecks this year.

Vince: Yeah, if you’re looking for a breakout XFL star who could make any kind of impact in the NFL, Phillips is probably your guy. Nine touchdown catches in five games is pretty phenomenal at any level. Only two players have done that to start a season in the NFL: Calvin Johnson and Julius Thomas when he was Peyton Manning’s preferred red zone target in one of the quarterback’s best seasons.

Bryan: That may end up being a problem for the XFL this offseason. If you’re a team needy for a wide receiver, don’t you make a run at Phillips before the season starts? I mean, I could see Kliff Kingsbury deciding Phillips is perfect for a flier in Arizona. And, of course, Walker will get some looks as a halfway-competent quarterback. The XFL has to not only create these stars, but keep them if they want to continue being A Thing.

Vince: Well, I agree, but I think that fits under the category of “good problems.” The very best thing that can happen for the XFL is that Phillips or Walker or somebody else will hit the NFL and be a productive starter, like Tommy Maddox after the original league folded. “Come see the stars of tomorrow” is a better tagline than “come see football’s answer to Crash Davis.”

Bryan: And that would be great, except Oliver Luck and the rest of the XFL has tried to make it quite clear that no, the XFL is not an NFL feeder league, perhaps to distinguish themselves from the AAF which desperately, desperately wanted to attach themselves to the NFL and never let go.

… this might be the difference between scrounging for cash and having an owner who is both wealthy and not one to readily shut down a project, no matter how badly it’s doing.

Vince: Which brings us back to the business side of things. XFL ratings were high in Week 1, dropped a bunch in Week 2, and have steadily slipped ever since. Pretty much anyone with a brain could have predicted that pattern. But that’s not a disaster — in Week 5, they were basically middle-of-the-pack in cable TV viewership.

Bryan: The question is where they end up bottoming out. They’re helped by being on broadcast TV rather than way down at the bottom of the dial like the AAF was, but they do need to eventually stop bleeding viewers from week to week. Yeah, they were always going to drop down some, because a lot of people tuned in just for the novelty of the thing. We just don’t know where their true fanbase ends up sitting at, and how March Madness and whatnot will affect their bottom line.

Vince: Yes, March Madness will likely put a serious hurt on the XFL, that’s for sure.

One thing we haven’t talked about yet is the new rules the XFL has introduced, especially on special teams. I mentioned this in my in-person review of the Dragons game, but I am a huge fan of the XFL’s kickoff rules, and I still believe that some version of these rules should be adopted at every level of football right away. It’s plainly safer than traditional kickoffs, with no half-field sprints into head-on collisions. And it’s certainly more exciting than coming back with a touchback following every commercial break. The XFL has more twice as many kickoff returns as the NFL, 4.3 per game to 1.8, even though scoring as a whole is less frequent.

Bryan: The kickoff rules still feel very, very strange to me — but they don’t feel bad, or gimmicky, like I was afraid of. I still do not particularly care if the kickoff lives or dies, but if it’s still going to be a thing, the XFL rules do seem to be an improvement over the current NFL ones. I was not expecting to say that before the season began! To me, that’s one of the big benefits of a league like this; as an experimental test case for rule changes and alterations.

And with that in mind, I love the one-, two-, and three-point conversion options, even if I continue to hate the decision-making shown by the XFL’s mostly retread coaches. Sometimes, giving coaches more decisions to make just means they make more bad decisions.

Vince: Yes, but at least XFL coaches have been learning. In the first two weeks of the season, they went for one-point conversions 58% of the time. In the three weeks since, that rate has plummeted to 28%, as the risk/reward nature of going for more points is plainly obvious.

XFL PAT Statistics, Weeks 1-5, 2020
Type Made Att Rate Avg. Pts.
1-point 16 39 41.0% 0.41
2-point 18 47 38.3% 0.77
3-point 4 13 30.8% 0.92

Bryan: I also give kudos to the league for giving their coaches some data. Before the season, they gave each team a sheet with optimal decision-making on fourth downs. After all, part of the reason behind their strange touchback rules is to encourage teams to go for it on fourth down. And, all in all, the XFL hasn’t done a terrible job of sticking to the chart, though they’re still a little punt-happy.

Here is what 4th down decision making looks like half way through the @xfl2020 regular season. The background colors are what the league suggested teams do pre-season and each dot represents what the teams actually did. pic.twitter.com/vPzLr1OqiE

— Anthony Reinhard (@reinhurdler) March 9, 2020

I still would like to see what some more creative minds would do with the XFL’s rulesets; they haven’t found their Sid Gillman or Hank Stram, someone who’s going to innovate and experiment outside of the NFL’s more rigid system, man, but I continue to hold out hope. The closest we have is June Jones, who continues to have no regard for down-and-distance and keeps flinging the ball all around the field. Again, Houston is 5-0. These facts are not unrelated!

I’m also eager to see the XFL’s overtime in action, as I think it’s going to be a terrible, disastrous cluster, and that’s really what I’m here for. So far, we’ve dodged having to see it play out at any point, but it’s going to happen eventually. I’m hoping for it to first pop up in the championship game, and for everyone to be massively confused over just what the hell’s going on.

Vince: The shootout! I forgot all about the shootout! I think I was the only one on staff excited about the XFL’s overtime format, but halfway through the season it hasn’t come up even once — which is funny, because teams have been so bad converting point-after-touchdowns. The one-, two-, and three-point conversions were supposed to eliminate ties. Instead, no matter how many points teams shoot for, they most often come away with zero, and most touchdowns result in six points. So far, obviously, that hasn’t affected any final results. There has only been one game decided by a field goal or less, and none that went into overtime.

Bryan: I fear that the shootout is going to make the XFL look like the gimmicky mess that the original XFL sort of turned out to be. I suppose this groups me with the soccer fans who prefer replaying games to penalty kicks, and thus I need to go be old and grumble into some warm beer about kids these days and their vidya games and their overtime shootouts and whatnot. Then again, I thought the same thing about the kickoff rules, and no, they’re fine! I guess we’ll have to see what happens when the shootout rolls out. Eventually. One of these days. Surely.

Vince: How do you feel about the XFL’s timing rules? In a nutshell, the game moves super-fast for 28 minutes, then super-slow for two. This makes the game, overall, go faster — I don’t think there has been a three-hour game yet — while still giving the viewer about the same amount of football: 61 plays per game in the XFL, compared to 63 in the NFL. But it can make end-of-game scenarios confusing, and it led the league’s biggest blunder so far, the botched call at the end of last weekend’s Seattle-Houston game.

Bryan: I’m digging the overall pace — I’m not sure I could sit through a three-hour minor league football game. But yeah, the post-two-minute warning period needs a few tweaks, I think, and I don’t like that the last two minutes almost feels like a different game entirely. I know that the rules change in the NFL in the last few minutes as well, but it doesn’t feel nearly as sharp or as stark as the change the XFL has. I think we’ve learned that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if the NFL shaved down time from their 40-second playclocks or allowed the sideline radio communication to last for longer — I see you nodding your head, Jared Goff — but the “comeback” period isn’t really working for me.

But it’s not the playclock or the radio I want the NFL to steal. If there’s one thing I want to see the NFL yoink from the XFL for 2020, like they did with the SkyCam from the old XFL, it’s putting a camera in the replay booth. There is no way that everyone is ever going to be happy with every single replay review. Simply not possible. But hearing and seeing the referees go through the process, looking at what they’re looking at and hearing their explanation, is leaps and bounds better than hearing Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland try to guess at what happened on the field. More access in general would be nice!

Vince: Well, almost anything would be better than Tessitore and McFarland. (Come to think of it, there’s also no Joe Buck … maybe this is one area where the XFL really is better than the NFL!) But yes, the in-game referee explanations, in the booth and on the field, are certainly nice. I don’t think we’re learning a hell of a lot from coach or player conversations, but the discussions between officials do offer some insight.

So, five weeks to go in the season, seven if you count the playoffs, and unlike the AAF, it looks like we’re going to get there. It should at least be exciting — as we write this, seven of the league’s eight teams remain within one game of a playoff spot. (The Vipers, as you’ve mentioned, are toast.) Anything in particular you’re looking forward to? I’m interested to see how things change after so many quarterback switches. B.J. Daniels in Seattle, Tyree Jackson in DC, whatever the Guardians are doing in New York — some teams may look totally different in the second half of the year than they did in the first.

Bryan: The lack of continuity makes it really tough to handicap things going forward, aye. I think what I’m most looking forward to is the round-robin in the East in the last three weeks of the season; I’m always big on playoff scenarios and whatnot, and it’s rare that you get things so clearly decided on the field in the final weeks. And, because of how much the quality of these teams continue to change and fluctuate, the fact that they all play each other in the last few weeks means we’ll get the clearest picture of just who actually is good as the season ends.

Assuming the games get played, after all. We had this same article go up last year, hyped about the AAF finish, and, well…

Long live the Apollos.

Source: footballoutsiders.com

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