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Inside the XFL's opening weekend: Faster football and a promising start

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At 10:30 a.m. Saturday, a man and his son sat in a mostly empty parking lot in southeast Washington. The hatchback of their SUV was up. A half-eaten sub sandwich sat atop a folding table. A Yeti cooler brought promise of additional provisions.

The Lucks, Andrew and Shawn, were the very first tailgaters at the very first game of the new XFL. (No, it wasn’t that Andrew Luck.) They are lifelong D.C. sports fans. Andrew took all three of his kids out of school to attend the first Washington Nationals game in 2005, and he gave similar treatment to the XFL’s D.C. Defenders.

“There’s only one first game,” he said. “We do this for all of our teams, and these guys’ team and this league are no different.”

The XFL enjoyed the benefit of the doubt throughout its debut weekend, receiving a generally positive reaction to its innovative brand of football. Four modestly sized but enthusiastic crowds remained engaged throughout the first four games. Full television ratings are not yet available, but the first game — a 31-19 Defenders victory over the Seattle Dragons — averaged roughly the same average number of television viewers (3.3 million, not including streaming numbers) as did the now-defunct Alliance of American Football in its first week in 2019, during which it made a prime-time debut.

The AAF’s ratings famously tanked thereafter, but those involved with the XFL’s opening weekend emerged confident that its product had piqued the public’s curiosity.

In an interview aired on ESPN, normally sober-minded commissioner Oliver Luck said he couldn’t have imagined a better debut in his “wildest dreams.” The games, Dallas Renegades coach Bob Stoops said, “were competitive and good.” And New York Guardians coach Kevin Gilbride said fans were probably “surprised by how good the play is, and how good the quality of coaching is.”

After his Guardians defeated the Tampa Bay Vipers 23-3, Gilbride added: “Anybody who loves the game of football saw with their own eyes that, ‘Hey, this is something I can watch and enjoy and get behind.'”

ESPN dispatched reporters to all four games, bearing witness to the XFL’s funky kickoff, new levels of in-game access and weirdly similar numbers of fans. (The XFL’s announced attendance for each game fell in a range between 17,163 and 17,815.)

New fast-paced rules in action

The XFL’s vision calls for fast-paced games, with more scoring and fewer dead plays than the NFL version. To that end, Week 1 was met with mixed results. Only one game got close to its over-under number: The Defenders and Dragons’ 50 combined points fell 0.5 points short. Five of the league’s eight teams, in fact, scored fewer than 20 points. And the average game lasted about 2 hours, 56 minutes, shorter than an NFL game but 11 minutes longer than the XFL’s goal of 2:45.

On the other hand, the XFL’s most ambitious rule change was a rousing success. Its revamped kickoff alignment minimized touchbacks and fans caught an intriguing glimpse of how teams will adjust. Of the 35 kickoffs over the weekend, 32 were returned (91%). For context, in 2019, 60.9% of NFL kickoffs went for touchbacks and just 36% were returned. The biggest play was a 59-yard return Sunday from the Guardians’ Austin Duke.

“It’s like an offensive scrimmage play,” Stoops said. “Everyone runs the outside stretch, the inside zone. That’s what you’ve got. You’re not just putting the ball down at a certain spot. You got a chance that somebody splits it and makes a big play.”

The goal of the kickoff scheme was to ensure returns by moving the kicker back to the 30-yard line, while also minimizing high-speed collisions by moving the coverage team and blockers downfield before the kick. That funky alignment brings its own challenges, Defenders safety Rahim Moore said, but teams will soon get the hang of it.

“The kickoff and the kickoff return is harder than what you might think,” Moore said. “Everybody is pretty much down there when the ball is kicked. So there really isn’t a gaping hole. There’s no wedge. In the NFL, it’s a little different. Here, it’s challenging in a different way. But if you hit it the right way, which we will one day, it’s [to the house.]”

Meanwhile, the league’s efforts to speed up the game were on full display. One of the most visible people on the field was an official wearing a red hat and carrying two extra footballs — one in a pouch wrapped around the waist — whose only job was to spot the ball. Their efforts helped the XFL cut time between plays and start a 25-second play clock, which is 15 seconds shorter than the NFL. As a result, XFL games averaged about the same number of offensive plays per game (124) as the NFL (126) despite games that were on average 10 minutes shorter.

XFL teams averaged 5.0 yards per offensive play in Week 1; NFL teams averaged 5.5 during the 2019 regular season. Houston Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker threw a league-high four touchdown passes. Other Week 1 stars included Seattle receiver Austin Proehl (two touchdown catches), Tampa Bay receiver Daniel Williams (six receptions for 123 yards) and D.C. cornerback Bradley Sylve, who returned an interception 69 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.

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P.J. Walker throws for 272 yards and four touchdowns as the Roughnecks beat the Wildcats 37-17 for their first XFL win.

The Defenders’ Moore said the pace helped the action approach NFL-level intensity. All offensive skill players, and six defensive players, have helmets with speakers to hear playcalls, a technological effort that allows them to line up on the ball quicker. Los Angeles Wildcats receiver Nelson Spruce, who has spent time with four NFL teams and also played in the AAF, said the elevated XFL tempo was noticeable on the field.

“It’s fast-paced and I think you get winded a little bit more quicker than other leagues,” Spruce said after the Wildcats’ 37-17 loss to Houston.

Everything is on TV

The XFL worked closely with its network partners, ABC/ESPN and Fox, to allow new levels of player and coach interaction. Three innovations drew immediate interest. Sideline reporters interviewed players on the bench after big plays, a sampling of playcalls and line checks were broadcast in real time, and the viewer was brought inside the locker room and replay booth for halftime adjustments and all replay review deliberations.

Dragons offensive lineman Dillon Day provided the XFL’s first in-game viral moment, using a profanity on ABC as he talked about an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Speaking after the game, Day said he didn’t realize he cursed until he checked his phone after the game.

“You get a lot of true emotion,” Day said. “Whoever you are as a person, that’s going to come out. You don’t have time to kind of butter something up. It was a little different, but it’s cool.”

All of the XFL’s coaches have their roots in the NFL, where play terminology and in-game interactions are guarded like state secrets. But they long ago signed off on the XFL’s plans to broadcast everything and have incorporated it into their weekly game planning. Dragons coach Jim Zorn joked that he might give quarterback Brandon Silvers a wristband and just call plays by number. Defenders coach Pep Hamilton, on the other hand, said coaches will have no choice but to scout television broadcasts for trends and clues, while adjusting calls the way baseball teams change their pitch signals.

“It’s going to add time to our process of preparing for the next opponent,” he said. “Not only will we watch the broadcast of their game, but I’m sure they will watch the broadcast of ours. We have to take that into consideration and make the appropriate adjustments. And we knew that coming in. Our league has been great allowing us to be a part of setting the rule and having the dialogue with the head coaches, who are the football experts, before they ratify certain rules.”

The league also wasn’t shy about sharing off-color moments from the locker room. After their 15-9 victory over the Renegades, the St. Louis BattleHawks tweeted a video of two players, Nick Fitzgerald and Taylor Heinicke, shotgunning spiked seltzer.

New strategy and endgame math

The XFL’s attempts to change traditional strategy were evident throughout the weekend, especially in the fourth quarter. Teams can’t kick extra points and instead must decide whether to go for one point from the 2-yard line, two points from the 5-yard line or three points from the 10.

The league office provided teams with data that showed the 2-point play was the most efficient decision, but coaches chose the 1-point option after 11 of 19 touchdowns. There were eight 2-point attempts and none for three.

That didn’t stop Houston fans from chanting “Go for three” after the Roughnecks’ first touchdown on Saturday night. And the 3-point option clearly lurked deep in the minds of coaches who envisioned one possession leading to nine points. Zorn said he was surprised at the depth of the thought process required as the Dragons attempted to come back from a 12-point deficit earlier Saturday. At one point, he called for a field goal attempt to make it a one-score game. He accepted a penalty that erased the ensuing kick, but the Dragons fumbled the ball away after their offense returned to the field.

“As coaches, we talked a lot on headsets about setting it up,” Zorn said. “When you’re down 12, it’s either two touchdowns, or it’s a touchdown and possibly going for three, or a field goal. That was surprising to me. That rule change, being able to go to one, two or three with the extra point, there’s a lot of strategy in that, especially toward the end of the game. You could possibly go for three and make it a one-score game, or make it a one-score and a field goal game. That surprised me.

“That’s something we’ll work on, having more of a plan down there. It didn’t end up affecting us because we fumbled, but that was the issue: If we scored quick, were we going to go for three? And I was.”

In the end, the point-after-touchdown options combined with unique rules in the final two minutes — the XFL clock stops after every play during that period to allow teams to get back to the line of scrimmage — helped maintain interest until the end of games. Indeed, ABC’s ratings Saturday peaked to an average of 4 million viewers in the fourth quarter as the Dragons attempted their comeback. The top-rated local market in the country for the game was Seattle-Tacoma, which registered a 6.4 rating.

And even with a big lead over Tampa Bay, the New York crowd stayed through to the end.

“With this being the first game and kicking off the first XFL game in New York, we didn’t know what to expect fanwise,” Guardians linebacker Ryan Mueller said. “Even though we were winning by a lot at the end of the game, they were sticking around. Our place was rocking.”

Identifying and measuring the audience

The XFL largely filled D.C.’s 20,000-seat Audi Field and attracted an average of 17,454 by selling mostly lower-bowl tickets to the three larger stadiums used over the weekend. Interviews with those who showed up for all four games revealed them to be fans who were interested in seeing professional football at lower prices. Videos narrated by XFL officiating chief Dean Blandino, shown on the scoreboard during breaks in the action, helped explain the league’s new rules.

The XFL’s business model called for a family of four to attend games for $100. The Lucks paid $75 per ticket to sit on the 50-yard line in D.C. Meanwhile in Arlington, Texas, Todd Arnold, Jimmy McCammon and Kevin White arrived four hours before the game time to tailgate. They are Dallas Cowboys fans but don’t have season tickets because “nobody can afford Jerry [Jones’] prices,” Arnold said.

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Jamar Summers recovers the fumble from Nick Truesdell and runs 13 yards for the touchdown.

New Renegades fan Scott Scarbrough said: “It’s pretty cheap. You can get a ticket for like $30, so that’s not bad at all.”

The Renegades game, played at the former home of the Texas Rangers, drew Dallas sports royalty. Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman roamed the concourse, supporting his friend and Renegades executive Daryl Johnston. Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, who went to high school in Allen, Texas, was in attendance as well. So was retired coach Steve Spurrier, whose son Scott is a Renegades assistant coach.

In East Rutherford, New Jersey, Ron Gonzalez took his 17-year-old son, Max, and three friends to the Vipers-Guardians game for a birthday present. They paid $30 per ticket, and another $30 to park. Max said he expected hits in the XFL to be “a lot better than the NFL.”

And in Houston, fans received free T-shirts that said “HOUSTON ROUGHNECKS. HOME OPENER. FEB. 8, 2020” but were still lined up to buy gear, including jerseys priced at $89.99.

Ultimately, XFL teams attracted enough fans to create a traditional football atmosphere in the stadium and on television. Monday morning, Fox Sports reported that Saturday night’s game between Los Angeles and Houston earned a 2.3/6 metered market rating. There was anecdotal evidence of social media interest as well; the XFL topped Twitter’s U.S. trending list Saturday afternoon. But perhaps the biggest data point is yet to come.

The true measure reaction to the XFL’s debut will be television ratings and attendance figures in Week 2. Will the audience return, or even grow? Was its benefit of the doubt justified? In 2001, ratings for the XFL’s first incarnation dropped 50% in the second week. So did the AAF’s in 2019. The new XFL eagerly awaits that judgment.

NFL Nation reporters Todd Archer, Sarah Barshop and Rich Cimini contributed to this story.