In case you missed it: A brief recap of the XFL after its first month

By Pershelle Rohrer

March 6, 2020

Pershelle Rohrer is a first-year BGSU student from Logan, Utah. She is a Sport Management major with a minor in Journalism. Her primary sports interests are football, basketball, and baseball, both at the professional and collegiate levels.

The NFL season may be over, but football still continues as the XFL enters its fifth week of play. In its second stint after the original league’s failure in 2001, the XFL features modified rules and some familiar faces looking for a second chance at a football career. Through four weeks, the league has received substantial TV coverage with all games broadcasted on ABC, FOX, FS1, and ESPN (Guzman, 2020), and attendance saw a consistent rise for three straight weeks before dropping in Week 4 (Lombardo, 2020). However, the XFL’s attendance figures appear to be on track to reach commissioner Oliver Luck’s standards for its first year if fans continue to show up.

Prior to Week 4, Luck expressed approval of the league’s returns in attendance and television ratings, acknowledging that, “we’ve got a long way to go, still. … (But) I think we’ve got something that we can build on” (Schad, 2020, para. 3). According to XFL News Hub, a total of 298,259 fans have attended games through the first four weeks with each matchup averaging 18,641 spectators (Lombardo, 2020). Some cities are gathering significantly more interest than others — for example, St. Louis and Seattle averaged 29,554 and 22,060 fans, respectively, in their Week 3 home games compared to Tampa Bay’s 18,117 and Los Angeles’ 12,211 in the same weekend (XFLNewsHub, 2020) — but overall, the league is hovering above their end-of-season attendance goal, which they hope to see in the mid-teens at the end of the season (Schad, 2020).

St. Louis and Seattle have notably done well with attendance numbers, hosting the three most-attended games through Week 4 (Kercheval, 2020). While all eight teams are in established football markets, both of these cities are unique as they both lack a variety of professional teams playing during the winter and early spring months. Seattle’s “12th Man” eagerly supports the Seahawks during the NFL season, but the city currently lacks an NBA or NHL team to draw fans between the Super Bowl and the opening of the MLB and MLS seasons. As the only professional team playing during those months besides Major League Rugby’s Seattle Seawolves (Saul, 2020), the Dragons have received a strong fan turnout. St. Louis was the home of the NFL’s Rams before they left for Los Angeles four years ago (Kercheval, 2020), and they also lack an NBA team. The fans are hungry for football and flock in mass numbers to “The Dome” to watch the BattleHawks play. 

The BattleHawks are the East Division’s best team so far, currently holding a 3-1 record due to the stellar play of quarterback Jordan Ta’amu and running back Matt Jones. Ta’amu ranks second in the XFL in passing yards (876 yards) and fifth in rushing yards (186 yards) through four weeks, and Jones is second overall in rushing yards with 244 yards for St. Louis (“Stat Leaders,” 2020). The team has been receiving attention from the media in recent days due to their strong start and positive reception in the city of St. Louis. ESPN’s Brendan Meyer (2020) recently wrote a feature on the return of football to St. Louis after a 1,529-day drought. “For now, no matter what happens, the love that St. Louis has shown the BattleHawks is entertaining and real, a perfect match between a fringe NFL city and a team of fringe NFL players,” Meyer writes (para. 55). In fact, St. Louis loves their team so much that “The Dome” will open more seating in their upper deck for Week 7’s game against the LA Wildcats, according to Ben Kercheval (2020). Cody Benjamin (2020, para. 6) writes that the BattleHawks would “give Houston a run for their money,” referring to the league-leading Roughnecks.

The Houston Roughnecks are the last undefeated team in the XFL, led by quarterback P.J. Walker, an early MVP favorite, and veteran coach June Jones. Walker is likely the league’s most heavily-covered player due to his journey from the Indianapolis Colts’ practice squad to the Houston Roughnecks. Undrafted out of Temple, he was with the Colts on and off for two years before being cut before the 2019 NFL season (Barshop, 2020). Walker found a spot in Houston thanks to Oliver Luck’s son, retired Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who recommended that his father offer him a position in the XFL. Just three weeks into the season, Sarah Barshop wrote, “If Walker continues to play the way he has in the first three weeks of the XFL season, he’ll likely get another chance to compete for an NFL roster spot” (para. 19). 

Walker fits in nicely into head coach June Jones’ system. The veteran college, USFL, NFL, and CFL coach is notably a “pioneer of the run and shoot offence” (Andrews, 2017, para. 2), something that has rarely been brought up by the media. According to Ben Andrews (2017), the offense was founded by Glenn “Tiger” Ellison in the 1950s as a no-huddle offense where the receivers’ only responsibility was to get open. Darrell “Mouse” Davis introduced the run-and-shoot offense at Portland State, where June Jones was one of his starting quarterbacks, and Jones became widely known for using it with his own teams. He modified the offense to use the shotgun formation and an offset running back at the University of Hawaii, helping Rainbow Warriors quarterback Colt Brennan set the Division-I record for touchdown passes in a season in 2006. After taking over as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ head coach after the Canadian team started out 0-8 in 2017, Jones once again used the run-and-shoot offense to lead the Ticats to a 6-4 record in the final ten games of the season (“2017 Regular Season,” n.d.). 

According to Jones, the run-and-shoot offense is most effective with a quarterback with passing accuracy and speed (Andrews, 2017). Walker leads the XFL in passing yards through Week 4 with 987 yards (“Stat Leaders,” 2020). Roughnecks wide receiver Cam Phillips has also played a major role in the offense, catching 21 passes for a league-high 333 yards and 7 touchdowns through the first four games, averaging 15.9 yards per reception (“Cam Phillips,” 2020). The Roughnecks should always be favored with Walker under center in the eyes of Cody Benjamin (2020).

Excluding Walker and Ta’amu, the XFL’s quarterback situation has been a cause for concern for members of the media. Brad Gagnon claims that “the XFL’s shoddy quarterback play has held it back” (2020, para. 5). Bill Bender (2020) suggests that the league could have a “quarterback crisis” early in its existence. Through Week 3, each team averaged 216.1 passing yards per game, falling between Mitchell Trubisky and Joe Flacco’s numbers from the 2019 season. That would be good for 22nd in the league last year. In Week 4, Cardale Jones’ DC Defenders were shut out by the previously winless Tampa Bay Vipers, Brandon Silvers was benched for B.J. Daniels in Seattle, former Pittsburgh Steeler and current Dallas Renegades quarterback Landry Jones turned over the ball four times and was injured late in the game against Houston. Luis Perez made his first start for the New York Guardians in place of the injured Matt McGloin, and Josh Johnson has played well in his starts for the LA Wildcats, but both teams are sitting in the bottom half of Cody Benjamin’s power ranking heading into Week 5 (2020). Tampa Bay Vipers backup quarterback Quinton Flowers even requested a trade, hoping for a larger role in the offense (Bumbaca, 2020). 

In Bill Bender’s words, “Walker needs to be the rule, not the exception” (2020, para. 5). 

Despite the quarterback struggles that the league is facing, the XFL has received widespread praise throughout its first month. The league first game on ABC had 3.3 million viewers, topping the Duke vs North Carolina game from the night before, and the XFL Instagram account has surpassed 500,000 followers (Guzman, 2020). Television broadcasts feature mic’d up coaches, players, and officials as well as in-game interviews on the sidelines (Gagnon, 2020). During Week 1, Doug Gottlieb tweeted about the open mics and JJ Watt enjoyed the sideline interviews that occurred almost immediately after critical plays throughout the game.

Melvin Gordon and Todd Gurley even showed up to the LA Wildcats’ first home game in Week 2. 

The league features unique rules, including a modified kickoff and three different extra point options, to increase scoring opportunities and improve safety. Citadel head coach Brent Thompson likes the new rules so much that he will implement some of them in the college’s upcoming spring game (Gaydos, 2020). “During a spring game, you usually don’t do a kickoff, because it can be a dangerous play. But the way the XFL does it is pretty safe, and it was a chance to get a special teams play executed,” Thompson said (para. 3).

The XFL also uses a unique strategy to interact with its fans through social media. Their various social media pages feature highlights, memes, fan interactions, and celebrations. Social media is used to highlight player success, creating personalities for fans to support leaguewide.

Nick Holley shouted out his parents after catching a touchdown pass for the Roughnecks.

‘Mr. Excitement” Martez Carter flipped into the end zone and discussed the play with Jenny Taft during a sideline interview.

Casey Sayles made a fan’s day by trading a BattleHawks football for a box of Thin Mints.

Defenders fans put their used beer cups to good use.

And the XFL posted this video to promote Week 5’s games.

Television exposure, social media highlights, and written coverage are providing fans a variety of viewership opportunities, drawing new supporters. Despite some critiques of the quality of play, the reception through four weeks has been relatively positive. As long as players like P.J. Walker and Jordan Ta’amu continue to draw attention, attendance stays steady, and TV ratings remain positive, the XFL could look to outlast both last year’s Alliance of American Football (AAF) and 2001’s original XFL. With six weeks of the regular season remaining, any team still has a shot at the four-team playoffs. The race will continue to heat up as April approaches, culminating with the inaugural championship game in Houston on April 26, 2020 (“Houston to Host,” 2020).

References

247KevinBoilard. (2020, February 16). Todd Gurley & Melvin Gordon hanging out at an XFL game in Los Angeles. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/247KevinBoilard/status/1229166982043439105?s=20

Andrews, B. (2017, December 4). Revisiting coach June Jones’ run and shoot offence. Ticats.ca. Retrieved from https://ticats.ca/revisiting-the-run-and-shoot/

Barshop, S. (2020, February 21). P.J. Walker credits Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett for his XFL success. ESPN.Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/xfl/story/_/id/28751823/pj-walker-credits-andrew-luck-jacoby-brissett-xfl-success

Bender, B. (2020, February 28). Does the XFL have a quarterback crisis just three weeks into existence? Sporting News. Retrieved from https://www.sportingnews.com/us/nfl/news/xfl-quarterback-crisis-three-weeks-into-existence/5356ynz0fc1212qwew1suols1

Benjamin, C. (2020, March 3). XFL power rankings, week 5: Vipers skyrocket after big upset; Roughnecks remain up top. CBSSports.com. Retrieved from https://www.cbssports.com/xfl/news/xfl-power-rankings-week-5-vipers-skyrocket-after-big-upset-roughnecks-remain-up-top/

Bumbaca, C. (2020, March 4). Tampa Bay Vipers QB/RB Quinton Flowers says he requested trade from team. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/xfl/2020/03/04/xfl-tampa-bay-vipers-qb-quinton-flowers-requested-trade/4954462002/

Cam Phillips. (n.d.). XFL.com. Retrieved from https://stats.xfl.com/Player/10446

CFL 2017 regular season standings. (n.d.). CFL.ca. Retrieved from https://www.cfl.ca/standings?season=2017

Gagnon, B. (2020, February 17). The XFL is great but has a huge quarterback problem. Bleacher Report.Retrieved from https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2876654-the-xfl-is-great-but-has-a-huge-quarterback-problem

Gaydos, R. (2020, March 3). XFL rules to impact college football team’s spring game. Fox News. Retrieved from https://www.foxnews.com/sports/xfl-rules-impact-college-football-teams

GottliebShow. (2020, February 9). Cant stop watching the open mics of the #XFL. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/GottliebShow/status/1226617027223121920?s=20

Guzman, Z. (2020, February 22). The XFL may pull off something no league has before, but week 3 is critical. Yahoo! Finance. Retrieved from https://finance.yahoo.com/news/xfl-may-pull-off-something-no-league-has-before-but-week-3-is-critical-175105240.html

Houston to host 2020 XFL championship game. (2020, February 13). XFL.com. Retrieved from https://www.xfl.com/press-release/houston-to-host-2020-xfl-championship-game

JJWatt. (2020, February 8). Just turned on the XFL. Kicker missed a field goal and they immediately interviewed him on the sideline asking what happened haha. That’s tough. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/JJWatt/status/1226231665023967244?s=20

Kercheval, B. (2020, March 4). XFL 2020: St. Louis BattleHawks getting so much fan support they’re opening their upper deck to hold more. CBSSports.com. Retrieved from https://www.cbssports.com/xfl/news/xfl-2020-st-louis-battlehawks-getting-so-much-fan-support-theyre-opening-their-upper-deck-to-hold-more/

Lombardo, B. (2020, March 2). XFL week 4 attendance: An analysis of the numbers so far. XFL News Hub.Retrieved from https://xflnewshub.com/xfl-news/xfl-week-4-attendance-an-analysis-of-the-numbers-so-far/

NFL_ChrisReiss. (2020, February 8). First #XFL kickoff… It’s sick… [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/NFL_ChrisReiss/status/1226222316612390914?s=20

Meyer, B. (2020, March 5). With XFL’s BattleHawks, St. Louis gets a chance to avenge loss of the Rams. ESPN. Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/espn/story/_/id/28835239/with-xfl-battlehawks-st-louis-gets-chance-avenge-loss-rams

Saul, J. (2020, February 9). Seawolves open Major League Rugby season looking for three-peat: ‘There are no easy games for us.’ The Seattle Times. Retrieved from https://www.seattletimes.com/sports/other-sports/seawolves-open-major-league-rugby-season-looking-for-three-peat-there-are-no-easy-games-for-us/

Schad, T. (2020, February 28). XFL commissioner Oliver Luck on early attendance, TV ratings: ‘Something that we can build on.’ USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/xfl/2020/02/28/xfl-commissioner-oliver-luck-pleased-attendance-downplays-ratings/4892961002/

Stat leaders. (n.d.). XFL.com. Retrieved from https://stats.xfl.com/season/2/phase/600/leaders/player

xfl2020. (2020, February 15). BEER SNAKE OF THE CENTURY. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/xfl2020/status/1228796974226386944?s=20

xfl2020. (2020, February 23). Martez Carter said if he had “one more in the box” he’d bust out his signature backflip. He then front flipped INTO the box. Mr. Excitement @ThatManCarterIV. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/xfl2020/status/1231748191986561026?s=20

xfl2020. (2020, March 1). “HI MOM HI DAD” Gotta love a wholesome TD celebration. @FS1http://bit.ly/TXThrowdown. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/xfl2020/status/1234233137577840641?s=20

xfl2020. (2020, March 4). XFL Week 5 pulling up like. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/xfl2020/status/1235256918337257474?s=20

XFLBattleHawks. (2020, February 23). 1 Sack 1 box of Thin Mints @case_man_ will agree that Girl Scout cookies taste even better when you’re winning!#ForTheLoveOfFootball x #ClearedToEngage [Tweet].  Retrieved from https://twitter.com/XFLBattleHawks/status/1231709732408348672?s=20

XFLBattleHawks. (2020, March 4). ST. LOUIS … you made yourselves heard! We are OFFICIALLY opening up seats in the upper deck of The Dome for our week 7 game vs LA on March 21. Tickets will go on sale this Friday at 10 AM! #RockTheDome x #ForTheLoveOfFootball [Tweet].  Retrieved from https://twitter.com/XFLBattleHawks/status/1235315275576348672?s=20

XFLRoughnecks. (2020, February 16). Name a better duo… I’ll wait @pjwalker_5

hits @camphil5 for the trick. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/XFLRoughnecks/status/1229217814277492737?s=20

XFLNewsHub. (2020, February 23). Week 3 Attendance Numbers: Tampa Bay: 18,117 Seattle: 22,060 St. Louis: 29,554 Los Angeles: 12,211 Total: 81,942 Week 1: 69,818 Week 2: 76,285#XFLFootball #XFL2020 #ForTheLoveOf Football. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/XFLNewsHub/status/1231756009514905602?s=20

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