Sports

The XFL Thinks Football Is More Interesting Than It Actually Is

Defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville of the Tampa Bay Vipers stands on the sideline.
Tampa Bay Vipers defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville stands on the sideline while wearing two headsets during the first half of their XFL game against the NY Guardians at MetLife Stadium on February 09, 2020. Michael Owens/Getty Images

Today’s XFL really shouldn’t share a name with the single-season disaster launched by Vince McMahon in 2001. While the wrestling magnate is funding this new endeavor, his involvement was barely acknowledged during this weekend’s opening slate of games. In the inaugural broadcast 19 years ago, McMahon made a boisterous speech at the 50-yard line, growling, “THIS … IS THE XFL!”. Apart from the team names (Roughnecks, BattleHawks, etc.), the tenor of this XFL’s gridiron action is wholly unextreme.

That it’s nothing like the previous XFL is a good thing. Thanks to its stable of big-league television partners (ABC, ESPN, Fox, FS1, and FS2), the broadcasts have a sheen of professionalism. More importantly, the quality of play is decent—at least much better than recent professional football experiments like the Alliance of American Football. While the original XFL made a show of reviling the stodgy NFL, this iteration embraces its status as an aspirant upstart. The commentators eagerly chimed in to note that various players and coaches had NFL experience, making for a nice rendition of Deadspin’s “Let’s Remember Some Guys” bit. Matt McGloin! Marc Trestman! Nick Novak!

For the most part, the XFL’s new rules are clever rather than gimmicky. (The exception: it’s legal to throw two forward passes on a single play, so long as the first is behind the line of scrimmage. Gimmicky!) On kickoffs, the kicker stands alone on his own half of the field while his teammates line up at the opposing 35-yard line. The other team lines up 5 yards away and no one is allowed to move until the return man touches the ball. It hasn’t resulted in any scoring plays yet, but, unlike in the NFL, it at least looks like touchdowns are once again feasible on kick returns.

In other kicking-related news, the extra-point kick has been eliminated, and teams are instead offered the chance to line up from the 2-yard line for a 1-point conversion, the 5-yard line for 2 points, or the 10-yard line for 3 points. In theory, the potential of a 9-point touchdown-conversion sequence will lead to more aggressive decision-making. In reality, Tampa Bay Vipers head coach Marc Trestman elected to kick a red-zone field goal when his team trailed by 17 late in the third quarter against the New York Guardians.

There are other changes to the rules, like a 25-second play clock, but the most noticeable differences between the XFL and NFL are in what the fans get to see and hear. Coaches’ headsets broadcast playcalls to viewers at home, sideline reporters interview players in the midst of the action, and officials are mic’d up during the replay review process. This is “unprecedented access,” as Fox’s Curt Menefee described it on Saturday, and it … winds up being much too much. If you watched all weekend, like I did, you might have been driven to the brink of insanity.

Saturday’s opening game between the Seattle Dragons and D.C. Defenders, broadcast by ABC, likely set a world record for most sideline interviews during a single sporting event. Dianna Russini and Tom Luginbill were constantly on the move, asking players for their thoughts after every touchdown, turnover, penalty, or the occasional simple completion. One couldn’t help but feel bad for the players, who were noticeably nervous during this incredibly difficult test of public speaking, and for the reporters who were tasked with hounding them all afternoon.

While it made for a thoroughly uncomfortable viewing experience, it did provide at least one memorable moment. A Dragons lineman was called for unnecessary roughness in the second quarter, and Russini asked him about it as he walked off the field. “We’re trying to get our fucking job done,” he said before someone in the production truck could mash the censor button. Otherwise, these colloquies offered as much insight as your average sideline interview, which is to say little.

It should be noted that the volume of sideline interviews tapered a bit as the weekend progressed, though this wasn’t always for the reporters’ lack of trying.

There were also occasional interviews between the booth crews and the head coaches via their headsets, similar to what national MLB broadcasts do with baseball managers. These were slightly more interesting but limited by the coaches’ lack of candor. Fox’s Sunday crew asked Trestman about his baffling decision to kick a field goal—which was great!—but the Vipers playcaller gave the same kind of canned answer he would’ve offered after the game. It wasn’t worth the rush.

Mostly, it felt like the announcers were bugging a bus driver on his route. While being peppered with questions on Saturday, Los Angeles Wildcats coach Winston Moss politely told the booth, “I’m kind of managing both sides right now so it’s a little hard to talk to you.”

Other manufactured moments of access were similarly unsatisfying. The broadcasts included live feeds from the coaches’ headsets, so viewers were privy to D.C. Defenders head coach Pep Hamilton telling his quarterback Cardale Jones, “Under firm right Z flake, on Sunday. Odd wizard F Delaware.” It’s a playcall, that much was obvious, but the commentators left it at that. Earlier, after Hamilton issued another series of code words, ABC color man Greg McElroy announced, “They’re going to run this to the right.”  The Defenders ran a play to the left.

This jargon can be neat in bits and pieces. It’s like when you used to be able to listen to the cockpit communicate with the air traffic control tower from the comfort of your seat—a fun diversion that gets old shortly after takeoff. All this verbiage is tedious without the proper context, so keeping up is nearly impossible. As Fox commentator (and current NFL tight end) Greg Olsen explained on Sunday, “If you’re not familiar with the language, it doesn’t really make sense to anyone not on the field.”

Another much ballyhooed feature of the XFL is the radical transparency around penalty decisions. Referees are mic’d up on the field, as are the officials looking over replay reviews. This was enlightening, if only in a superficial sense. Turns out replay officials sound like guys muttering to themselves at a bar. (“Yeah, it’s out. Uh huh, it’s out there.”) Because we’re watching the reviewer reviewing the review, fans get M.C. Escher’s perspective of the replay process.

For some reason, XFL head of officiating (and former NFL vice president of officiating) Dean Blandino was also on hand to analyze the reviews. Because we already got to see and hear the officials’ decision-making process, in these moments the broadcast risked disappearing up its own review center.

While these innovations aren’t as revealing as the XFL thinks, they do show what the new league thinks of itself. While XFL 1.0 aimed to provide heaping doses of attitude and swagger, the new XFL wants to embrace the pure football-ness of football, even if that means magnifying the minutiae. “Football is America, America is football,” McElroy said before kickoff on Saturday. “It is synonymous with the fabric of our country.” That doesn’t really mean anything, and neither does the quote emblazoned at midfield of every XFL stadium: “For the Love of Football.” They’re not just giving us more games; they’re practically shrinking us down, Ms. Frizzle-style, and injecting us into the sport’s synthetic skin.

NFL broadcasters understand that football is inherently complicated and, at times, boring. They obfuscate the details for a reason. The XFL doesn’t actually need to give us more of a product that millions of people love. When the NFL is out of season, all fans need is a minimally effective dose.