The Super Bowl is over and the Kansas City Chiefs have been crowned champions of the NFL. For football fans, we get to endure the first weekend of the year without the prospect of any real football. There are no meaningful games until September.
Except this year is different. This year the XFL kicks off the week after the Super Bowl, so tonight we get to watch football again. The fledgling XFL kicks off tonight with 2 games, the league’s inaugural game seeing the Seattle Dragons at the D.C. Defenders followed by the Los Angeles Wildcats at the Houston Roughnecks. Tomorrow will see the second half of week one’s action, as the Tampa Bay Vipers at the New York Guardians and then the St. Louis BattleHawks at the Dallas Renegades.
So, what is the XFL and how will it work? The league is made of eight teams split between two divisions; the East and the West. The East Division is made up of the D.C. Defenders, New York Guardians, St. Louis BattleHawks and the Tampa Bay Vipers. The West Division includes Dallas Renegades, Houston Roughnecks, Los Angeles Wildcats and Seattle Dragons. Much like the NFL, each team will play the team in its own division twice. Its remaining four games will be against each of the four teams in the opposing division.
Old Game, New Rules
The XFL will look a lot like the game of football we all know and love. Perhaps the most radical change is to do with forward passes. Teams can make as many forward passes behind the line of scrimmage as they want. However, once the ball passes over the line of scrimmage there are no further passes allowed. This rule will allow for a lot mor creative play design. For example, a quarterback may drop back, drawing the coverage before passing to a wide receiver behind the line who then passes 40 yards downfield.
While there will be no extra-point kicks, there will be more options after a touchdown. The scoring team will be able to attempt to gain one-point by advancing the ball into the endzone from the two-yard line. The second option is to attempt a two-point conversion from the 5-yard line. Finally, the team can attempt a three points conversion from the 10-yard line. Once again, this rule gives more flexibility and could see more comebacks.
Along with slight changes to kick-offs, onside kicks will also be less of a surprise. This is because onside kicks must be announced to the official before the play.
The XFL is looking to produce a quicker game without all the stoppages and TV. To aid this, the league have added an eighth official whose sole responsibility is spotting the ball. This is paired with a 25-second play clock. Additionally, , incompletion passes and going out of bounds will not stop the game clock, except when there’s less than two minutes left in a half.
Who To Watch Tonight
Fans of the ill-fated AAF will recognise several players from the league. Also present are several NFL players whose careers have stalled for various reasons. So who should we look out for?
Once the toast of Ohio State, things in the NFL didn’t exactly work out for Cardale Jones. He’ll now quarterback the D.C Defenders, where he will get his chance to start under center. D.C. Defenders coach Pep Hamilton was bullish on Jones’ potential, saying, “(He’s) a rare physical talent that ultimately needs just more time on task, playing the position — in particular in games but he has the potential to be one of the best 32 quarterbacks in professional football.”
He’ll be handing the ball to running back Jhurrel Pressley, who flashed potential as he rushed for 431 yards for the Arizona Hotshots in the AAF. Given the rotational nature of modern football, we may also see college star and Philadelphia Eagles’ flop Donnel Pumphrey.
The DC receivers are perhaps less heralded than some but will feature a former Penn State receiver and kick returner, DeAndre Thompkins. Thompkins speed could be huge and he seemed to make a name for himself in training camp
On defence, the Defenders will showcase a former first round pick. Matt Elam was the thirty second pick in the 2013 NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens. Although he looked good as a rookie, he struggled to repeat this performance and wasn’t retained by the Ravens, perhaps in part because of a drugs arrest. He did spend time with Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2018 and 2019 but made little impact.
In addition to Elam, the Defenders will feature a former Heisman candidate in Scooby Wright III. Wright starred for the University of Arizona Wildcats for three years, amassing 270 tackles (159 solo) with 43.5 tackles for loss, with 17 sacks, an interception, a pass deflection, five forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He was winner of the Bednarik, Lombardi and Nagurski award after his 2014 season and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
The Dragons will have their own list of recognizable players. At quarterback we’ll see Brandon Silvers who completed 80-of-125 passes for 799 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions whilst playing for Memphis in the AAF.
Also from the AAF is Ja’Quan Gardner, who seemed to be developing into a star before being placed on injured reserve. Gardner amassed 311 yards on 64 carries and was also a receiving threat out of the backfilled, chipping in with 107 yards on 12 receptions. He’ll be backed up by another AAF veteran, Kenneth Farrow.
Starting at receiver for the Dragons are Kasen Williams, who played at the University of Washington for four seasons, Austin Proehl son of St Louis Rams Ricky Proehl. Williams totaled 16 touchdowns in college and hopes to make an impact. Proehl has bounced around the NFL since being selected by the Bullalo Bills in the seventh round of the 2018 draft. He’s spent time with the Bills, Titans and Rams.
Defender Will Sutton was drafted by the NFL’s Chicago Bears in the third round but failed to make an impact. Can he show up here?
Los Angeles Wildcats
The Wildcats will have to wait for their first look at NFL journeyman Josh Johnson as he’s out with an injury. That will mean that the Wildcats opening day starter will be former Princeton star Charles Kanoff. His starting receivers will be Jordan Smallwood, Adonis Jennings and Nelson Spruce, formerly of the AAF, who showed some skill for the San Diego Fleet. Spruce stands out her, primarily thanks to his last two games in the AAF, where he caught 20 balls for 225 yards.
On defence, the Wildcats will give a chance to Shawn Oakman. The former Baylor star was projected to be a 1st round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, He was subsequently charged with sexual assault but was later found innocent.
While many expected former Raiders quarterback, Connor Cook to start for the Roughnecks, the Roughnecks officially named former Temple star P.J. Walker their starter Wednesday. At 5-foot-11, Walker follows the NFL’s interest in smaller quarterback. His play at Temple was impressive. He left there as the all-time leader in virtually every passing statistic, including yards (10,668), touchdowns (74) and completions (830).
Walker is an interesting case who’s looking to prove himself. He stated on the Roughnecks website “I’m an undersized QB, so I’m always going to carry a chip on my shoulder. I am always going to walk on the field like I am the best player on the field.”
He’ll have an NFL veteran to pass the ball to in former Pittsburgh Steeler Sammie Coates. Also lining up at receiver will be Cam Phillips, Kahlil Lewis and Nick Holley. Starting at running back for Houston is Andre Williams, who was a finalist for the Heisman during his 2013 season at Boston College having rushed for 2,000 yards.
Kony Ealy is a former NFL second round pick. Selected by the Carolina Panthers in 2014 draft, had an impressive career at Missouri. However, he was never able to produce consistently and saw his playing time decrease. Despite time with a handful of NFL teams, the 28 year-old will now look to make his name in the XFL.
Whether you’re an NFL die-hard or a casual fan who stumbles on to the coverage when flicking through the sports channels there’s plenty to watch for. BT Sport will be covering the league and it will be interesting to see the quality of the visuals as Vince McMahon tries to build an NFL rival.
Photo Credit: Steve Helber/Associated Press