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Vince McMahon’s XFL 2.0 is far better than when he tried to revive Degeneration X or NWO (for the third, fourth or fifth times) in WWE. But just like those famous wrestling factions, his professional football league could have lasting repercussions long after it fades from the spotlight.
The XFL’s opening weekend excited fans with a faster-paced, offensive-driven and all-access brand of football. Interest in the product is very real.
“Less stall, more ball” is the league’s tagline.
Both the DC Defenders and Houston Roughnecks drew over 17,000 fans for their home-opening wins. According to Action Network’s Darren Rovell, the XFL surpassed last year’s upstart organization—the Alliance of American Football—in total ticket sales before its first official kickoff.
“For us, if the fans who attend and watch at home feel as though it was a good football game and they had a fun time either watching or being in this awesome venue with us, that’s success,” XFL chief operating officer Jeffrey Pollack said, per the Associated Press. “We’re taking a long term view in this. Success ultimately will not be measured in the first game or the first weekend or the first season.”
A downturn in attendance and overall interest is inevitable, of course, because curiosity will wane. That’s true with any new endeavor.
“Our expectation for this first season is for football fans to simply give us a look, give us a chance, sample us,” Pollack said. “We understand that fandom is earned. It’s not given. … We think that if you love football, you’re going to love the XFL.”
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The XFL’s greatest asset isn’t just providing an exciting brand of football with semi-recognizable talent; the league also serves as a petri dish for professional football as a whole.
Ironically, McMahon’s stranglehold over professional wrestling underwent a similar evolution last year. The WWE is iconic and ingrained in American culture. Yet, it grew stale in certain areas. Tony Khan—co-owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars—started All Elite Wrestling alongside five exceptionally talented and exciting performers. AEW now serves as an alternative. The WWE still dwarfs AEW’s reach, revenue and overall interest. But fans can now see something different in how the business operates, while simultaneously keeping one eye on the more established product.
Everything the XFL does will ultimately circle back to the NFL. In a strange twist of fate, the XFL can have some influence over the NFL if the 100-year-old giant considers and implements some of the more practical innovations found within McMahon’s product.
The biggest talking point from the opening weekend’s slate revolved around a play that’s become an afterthought at the NFL level.
Two years ago, the league made significant changes to kickoffs in an attempt to decrease the likelihood of collisions. Running starts by the kickoff team, wedges and blocking within the first 15 yards from the line of scrimmage were all eliminated.
The idea was to create less momentum by stunting velocity attained by runners who reached full speed prior to initial contact. These preventative measures were meant to decrease the likelihood of concussions, and they worked to varying degrees.
In the rules’ first year of implementation, the NFL reduced its concussion rate on kickoffs by 35 percent, per the Washington Post‘s Mark Maske. The progress made that year became a significant step in the right direction regarding player safety.
“It seemed to have the result that the competition committee wanted,” NFL executive vice president of health and safety Jeff Miller said.
Unfortunately, the new rules also incentivized special teams units to not return kickoffs since a touchback now results in the automatic ball placement at the 25-yard line instead of the traditional 20-yard startup, thus effectively neutralizing the play in most instances.
Last season, 24 of 32 NFL squads had more than 50 percent of their kickoffs result in touchbacks, according to Team Rankings. A once-exciting play became routine. Seven kickoffs turned into touchdowns in 2019. Ten years prior, 18 touchdowns occurred via kickoff returns.
What if the NFL can have the best of both worlds, increased safety without kickoffs becoming an afterthought? The XFL showed how this is attainable by shirking long-term accepted practices.
When an XFL team lines up for a kickoff, the alignment can be jarring for long-time football fans, because all of the players, except for the kicker, are beyond the line of scrimmage. The coverage team lines up on the return side 35-yard line, while the return team lines up at its own 30-yard line.
None of those players can move until the returner receives the kick. As such, collisions are held to a minimum because of the short starting distance between the two sides. Plus, strategy plays a part to make kickoffs far more interesting. Now, XFL return teams can run set plays like traps, X-blocks or whatever to try and create a crease for the returner.
Furthermore, the league penalizes kicking teams that attempt to place the ball in the end zone for a touchback. A “major” touchback in the end zone will result in the ball being placed at the 35-yard line. Any ball kicked out of bounds or falls short of the 20-yard line, since it’s originally booted from the kicking team’s 30-yard line, automatically results in a ball placement at the kicking team’s 45-yard line.
Basically, the XFL made sure kickoffs are a significant play while still making player safety a priority.
Thinking outside of the box isn’t the NFL’s strong suit, but the XFL’s kickoff setup shows how the play can remain part of the game instead of abolishing it altogether, as Commissioner Roger Goodell once suggested.
While the idea of adding extra officials to both the on-field crew and up in the press box isn’t groundbreaking, their utilization continues to show how the NFL clearly hasn’t done enough to improve in this specific area.
The XFL employs both a ball judge, whose primary job is to speed up the placement of the ball, and sky judge, once made famous by the failed AAF.
Due to a number of recent retirements by established referees coupled with an ever-expanding and more complicated rule book, NFL officiating often serves as a point of contention, especially as the speed of the game increases.
Obviously, no one wants the game to be over-officiated. The old cliche still rings true, “The best officials are those who you never notice.”
At the same time, consistency and transparency are crucial to the process. Both can be helped tremendously with extra sets of eyes on the field.
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A ball judge helps with the pace of play. The XFL expects the position to place the ball within five to seven seconds after the end of the previous play. More accurate spots will also help in a game that’s been adverse to adopting certain technological advancements (Will we ever see a football with a computer chip in it?).
A sky judge in NFL stadiums makes too sense not to eventually happen. In fact, the league already considered the possibility last year.
“When we walked out of the room, there wasn’t dissension,” NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vince said in March, per Pro Football Talk’s Charean Williams. “It was, ‘This may have some merit.’ It had the most interest.”
But the potential addition didn’t gain much traction through the Competition Committee. Even so, the possibility needs to be revisited this offseason.
In both the AAF and XFL, a level of transparency existed because the communications with an official in the box and down on the field were part of the telecast. The NFL many never go as far with the idea, but an overseer to correct oversights would be a vital addition.
In the end, everyone just wants to get the calls right.
Everything is available for the fans to immerse themselves in the XFL gameday experience. This is both a positive and a negative.
The NFL will never allow broadcasts to air play-calls or conversations between a head coach/offensive coordinator and his quarterback in real-time. Too much of a competitive advantage can be gained from these unique interactions.
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At the same time, a more open atmosphere could add to the drama and intensity of professional football.
The XFL is still finding the right balance with its in-game player and coach interviews, but the overall interaction is fascinating. The ability to put a microphone in front of a kicker right after he missed a field goal attempt or discussed what just occurred on the field after a skirmish is great television.
Access is everything in a world dominated by social media, immersive games and innumerable entertainment options.
Some of the more extreme rules and ideas will never be implemented at football’s highest level.
For example, the choice between one-, two- and three-point conversion attempts after a touchdown feels far more like a group of friends playing a pickup basketball game than professional football.
While many would love to see the NFL’s overtime rules tweaked to some degree, the possibility of five shootout rounds from the 5-yard line with once chance to score is a bridge too far from actual football play.
There’s nothing wrong with a new league being creative and trying to add exciting features. Not all of them are winners, though.
“It was definitely an adjustment for some of the stuff,” Seattle Dragons wide receiver Austin Proehl said, per the Associated Press. “It’s something we’ve got to get used to.”
Eventually, some of the XFL’s advancements will become customary, as long as the league continues to build upon its early success and doesn’t crater. This will allow football fans to adjust and demand more from the NFL.
Once America’s most powerful sports league sees how it can benefit, McMahon’s influence will expand throughout the entire game.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.