7 things I liked (and a couple I didn't) about what I saw from the XFL's opening weekend
With one weekend in the books, the XFL already looks promising. Then again, that’s what I said about the AAF and we saw how that turned out.
So let me tweak that. Barring any headlines about how Week 1 salaries can’t be paid, the XFL is indeed looking promising.
Why? There are a few things, but mainly because it hit on a lot of weaknesses that both the NFL and college football are currently dealing with (I’ll hit on more of that later). It was evident watching that play out and how it seemed like a lot of the unique elements made people say, “Oh, the NFL should totally do that.”
I wasn’t necessarily a fan of every tweak, but many of them seemed like they were made for the better. Let’s dig into some of those with what I saw from the league’s rebirth:
1. The gambling graphics are way overdue
Yes. Yes. Yes.
If you’re going to be a new league in 2020, you’d better recognize the importance of gambling and its ability to sell your sport. Instead of pretending that the gambling fan doesn’t exist or that they do and they’re sitting in the corner, the XFL actually talks to them face-to-face.
If you missed what that looked like, check it out:
The XFL scoreboard has betting lines on it 😍😍😍 pic.twitter.com/zWvJ4zuag2
— Morgan Moriarty (@Morgan_Moriarty) February 8, 2020
I love the fact that we can see the spread and the over/under throughout the entire game. Better yet, I love that announcers actually talk about it. It’s no longer Brent Musburger hinting at why an otherwise meaningless play in garbage time carried significance. Steve Levy talked repeatedly about how the missed field goal in the opening game that prevented the over from hitting, and it prevented Seattle from covering a 9.5-point spread.
The legalization of gambling was game-changing for how we consume sports. Some leagues (the NBA) have embraced that. Others clearly haven’t yet. At least not in a mainstream way. It was refreshing to see the XFL acknowledge that.
2. The kickoff tweak is revolutionary
If you haven’t seen the new kickoff rules, here’s what you need to know:
- Receiving team starts on own 30
- Kicking team is on receiving team’s 35
- Neither line can move until ball is received
- Kick must go between 20-yard line and goal line
- Kickoffs that go out of bounds before the 20 put the ball at the kicking team’s 45-yard line (!)
It’s the XFL’s way of trying to reduce injuries on kickoffs while also leaving it in the game. Dare I say, the NFL will adopt this tweak in a matter of years. Why? Because there’s still the possibility of an exciting kickoff touchdown, and it’s safer than giving the kicking team essentially a 40-yard running start. That’s a win-win.
Oh, and the league essentially bans you for life if you kick the ball out of bounds (not really but it felt like it). The penalties are severe. The good thing that’ll come from that is coaches won’t be as eager to punt the ball in an opposing team’s territory because when a ball is punted into or through the end zone, it goes to the receiving team’s 35-yard line. In other words, go for it on fourth down, XFL coaches.
3. The pre-snap audio of offensive coaches calling plays is a different kind of informative
I knew that the XFL was going to shoot for transparency. But I guess I didn’t realize that I’d be able to hear a coach literally call in the play before it happens. Like, I heard June Jones call “trips left, 88 divide special.” A couple seconds later, you hear the mic’d up quarterback make the call in the huddle.
The wild dynamic is that you can have color commentators like Greg McElroy and Joel Klatt then draw up Spider Y Banana before it even happens. It’s almost like you’re watching a replay. It’s a completely different way to watch a game for the casual fan. They get to see these calls made in real time.
One thing I also liked was seeing how quickly coaches would have the next play locked and loaded. There’s no time to react. Even after scoring a long touchdown, they’d have the next play in before the scorer left the end zone.
Will the NFL adopt this? I highly doubt it. The idea of broadcasting plays for the world is too transparent in a high stakes environment. But for the person consuming the XFL, it certainly invites more understanding into what actually goes on in those headsets.
But I wasn’t crazy about the dynamic of color commentators talking over it
That’s the tricky thing. They’ve got to figure out what that balance is because when 2 people are talking, nobody is talking. That happened several times throughout the weekend where the color commentator didn’t realize that a mic’d up coach was calling in a play. It made for some awkward moments when I wanted to put the game on mute.
In the color commentator’s defense, that’s a totally different dynamic. You know how announcers always go quiet when an official is announcing a penalty? They’re going to have to adapt that same mindset, but they’ll have to have a sense for when these calls are coming in.
That’s something that can be cleaned up a bit in production meetings. But will XFL color commentators always be stepping on the toes of coaches calling in plays? Yes, to a certain extent. It’s somewhat unavoidable. It’ll take some getting used to.
4. The in-game interviews with players and coaches are enjoyable for the viewer
Love it. I love that Pat McAfee or Diana Russini can interview players at any time. Oh, you just dropped a punt? Tell me why that happened. You just recovered a fumble? How are you doing?
This sequence would never happen in the NFL. You had a sideline reporter (McAfee) give live commentary to a play, and then instantly interview the guy who messed up:
— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) February 10, 2020
It’s interesting because I tend to think that the halftime interviews with coaches are horrendous. This is such a fresh take on it that adds to the running commentary of a game.
But I wonder how much players and coaches will get sick of it
You can tell that it was a bit of a “get that camera out of my face” moment. You could also see that there’s going to be some awkward moments with this. Players aren’t used to having to answer questions in the heat of battle like this. It’s different than a postgame setting for the simple fact that there’s still a job to do.
I can see coaches and players offering some pushback on this because nobody wants to look foolish on national television. Not having time to compose their thoughts could lead to some interesting exchanges.
But it’s wild to think that sideline reporters essentially get to do whatever they want, whenever they want. From an access standpoint, the league is going to continue to win if it allows that, even if there is some resistance from players and coaches.
5. The league’s overall vision of increased access is something I’m here for
What fan would scoff at increased access? It’s long overdue in this booming era of cable television that we were treated to an experience like that. Hearing a quarterback call a play in real time was entertaining, as was seeing how he and his coach would talk about things like whether or not to go for it on fourth down.
But the biggest winner of perhaps anything the XFL did was allow for the TV audience to hear the entire conversation that goes on during the replay process. The replay official has a mic and a camera on them, and you can hear them communicate with the head official. That’s EXACTLY what football fans need. The transparency is there.
It’s a step above having a Mike Pereira come talk the fan through what a replay official should be looking at. This is how we should be handling replay across all levels:
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) February 8, 2020
There’s something that’s refreshing about that even if the call isn’t right. We, as the fans, at least get to see that there’s a process to this. It takes some of the edge off.
The NFL should absolutely implement this for 2020.
But I have no IDEA how they’re going to work around all the cursing picked up by the live mics
Yeah, I’m an adult so I don’t mind hearing a couple F-bombs dropped. But I’m sure the FCC might have a few things to say about that.
If you watched the game, you saw that it’s on a bit of a delay so that they can cut the audio when they hear cursing. It’s noticeable. But there are times when it’s going to fall through the cracks and be painfully obvious. Like, even more obvious than when a field mic at an NFL game picks up cursing.
I’m not sure if the XFL has someone in production whose job is entirely devoted to taking out cursing from the live mics, but if there’s not, it would probably be in their best interest to prioritize it. The last thing the league wants is for parents to say they won’t let their kids watch the XFL because of stuff like that.
Again, production meetings can help clean that up, but I’m not sure if it can be totally eliminated.
6. The inside 2-minute stuff is awkward, but I like the net result
It takes some getting used to. The clock stops on every play inside 2 minutes at the end of each half. But on plays in which a player is down in bounds, the clock stops for 5 seconds, and then it starts again. It’s not the way we’re programmed to watch football at all.
But the overall objective was a positive one. The rule does a couple things. It allows for more comebacks in a game, which with the way the scoring is set up with a potential 9-point touchdown, there should be more late drama. It also prevents a leading team from kneeling the ball 3 times inside the 2-minute warning to win.
The play clock is already only 25 seconds compared to 40 for the NFL. That means with the 5-second stoppage, 3 plays with 20 seconds of actual game time coming off the clock allows the leading team to burn just 60 seconds compared to a full 2 minutes.
These are both good things. It’s a bit like the old “NFL Blitz” video game in that regard. It fuels down-to-the-wire excitement and it reduces blowouts. This is incredibly smart from the league’s perspective because it’ll keep the audience engaged for longer. Fans will stay in their seats, TV viewers will keep it on their screens and gamblers will sweat out games until the very end.
I don’t see the NFL making this exact switch. I do, however, see the XFL at least forcing the NFL to rethink some of its late-game procedures.
7. It didn’t feel corny
Have you watched ESPN’s “This is the XFL” documentary from when the league first existed back in 2001? A lot of the elements will make you cringe. They tried selling sex and violence like it was wrestling. They tried to appeal to their main demographic — 18-to-45 year-old males — by having cheerleaders wear scantily clad uniforms and hint that they’re dating players. They also tried selling the league with bone-crushing hits by not allowing fair catches and making it look more, dare I say, “extreme” than the NFL.
In other words, they did a bunch of stuff that wouldn’t fly today for a second.
This time, they didn’t do any of that gimmicky stuff. Yeah, they had team-wide celebrations that showed personality, but they didn’t have players putting nicknames on the backs of all of their jerseys. Yeah, they took you into the locker room, but not for some staged shot of cheerleaders. They took you into the locker room in real time to see coaches offering up their halftime speeches.
Thanks to the XFL for an inside look at a Marc Trestman halftime speech. pic.twitter.com/yEnU56KIrr
— Chris Emma (@CEmma670) February 9, 2020
It felt like the XFL took measures to correct the things the NFL can improve upon, and it also felt like the XFL made a major effort to improve on the corny nature of its product 2 decades ago. This didn’t feel corny. Nothing felt forced.
Could the product on the field have been better? Sure. It was Week 1 for a league full of guys who weren’t getting NFL run. Of course there was going to be some rust. The product will never look as dynamic as the NFL, and it won’t excite fans in the same way that the college game does.
But based on what we saw from the XFL’s opening weekend, there’s much more good than bad. That’s a win.