The XFL is worth watching

Maybe there is a place for spring football in my life

Howard Simon
February 10, 2020 - 4:06 pm

Photo: Jerome Miron - USA TODAY Sports

Usually when the National Football League season ends, I’m more than happy to take a break from football.

After having spent five months watching games every weekend (six if you count those silly preseason games), I gladly put football away for a while and focus in on college basketball, hockey and, of course, another fun year with my beloved New York Mets.

I’ve never really been a fan of spring football leagues no matter how long or short their life span. But I have to tell you, I really enjoyed watching Week 1 of the XFL for a number of reasons.

Granted I set the bar fairly low after the brief fling with the Alliance of American Football last year, but the XFL cleared the bar with plenty of room to spare. Generally speaking, the level of play wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but it's all the rules changes and the access to in-game communications that made the viewing experience so enjoyable.

No matter the sport, I’ve always felt the more inside access I get the more I will watch a game, even if I have no rooting interest.

In the XFL, we get to hear the play calls as they are relayed to the quarterback. The quarterback is mic'd up, so we get to hear his on-field interaction with his teammates. The officials are mic'd up so we are privy to their discussions after a flag is thrown. On top of all that, when there is a replay review we see and hear that process thanks to a camera in the video official’s booth and more microphones.

I’m pretty certain the NFL would never agree to that, but it would take away the mystery and frustration over some of their reviews and decisions.

The XFL is perfect as a training ground for technology, rules and developing players who might have been overlooked by the NFL, or are deserving of a second shot. As to the rules, you’ll notice a number of changes from the NFL game, but none of them will come off as gimmicky. You can make a case for most, if not all of them as worthy of NFL use.

I absolutely love the XFL kickoff rule. I’m all for player safety first and foremost, but the NFL has practically taken the kick return out of its game. In the XFL, the ball is kicked off from the defending team’s 30-yard line. The coverage and return teams lined up in the opposite side of the field at the 30 and 35-yard lines in an effort to reduce the number of big collisions during the blocking. Here’s the part that would have really thrown you if you weren’t aware of the rules. No one is allowed to move until the returner has the ball and starts running. Again, the intent is to reduce the number of violent hits on the returner, but it also can improve field position. I only saw one kick return that didn’t get past the 20-yard line. In the NFL these days, it feels impossible to get past the 20 on a return.

The XFL is also about pace of play. They want their games played in no more than two hours and 45 minutes. The play clock is just 25 seconds. The clock doesn’t stop on incomplete passes or plays that end up out of bounds until the final two minutes of each half. There are fewer TV timeouts and fewer timeouts for teams to use. Halftime is only 10 minutes long. When there was a replay review, it seemed to move along faster than the reviews in the NFL. There is one official whose only job is to spot the football. He always has a spare ball, so as soon as the play is done he will get to the line of scrimmage and spot that spare ball, allowing play to continue as soon as possible. Even though the play clock is only 25 seconds, I didn’t see a single delay of game. The coaches and players are trained to get the next play in and keep moving.

Here’s another rule the NFL can steal from the XFL: they can play with pace, in part, because the headset radios are used for not just the quarterbacks but running backs, tight ends and wide receivers too. Teams don’t need to huddle and the quarterback doesn’t have to explain the play to the skill guys. All he has to do is give information to the offensive line about their protection or blocking scheme and that was being done with one or two code words.  

How about this from the department of “the NFL would never think of doing it”: the XFL wants to discourage punts and encourage teams to go for it on fourth down. Any punt that goes into the end zone comes out to the 35-yard line instead of the 20. A punt that goes out of bounds anywhere inside the 35-yard line comes out to the 35. They want punts to be in the field of play and action on as many plays as possible. Love it!

And thank the football gods because there are no challenges for pass interference.

In terms of the players in the league, you will definitely notice some former Buffalo Bills players. Cardale Jones is the starting quarterback for the DC Defenders. Cam Phillips (Houston Roughnecks), Keith Ford (St. Louis BattleHawks), Austin Proehl (Seattle Dragons) and Khari Lee (Defenders) all had touchdowns in Week 1. You’ll also notice guys that you saw play in the NFL and are hoping to work their way back as well as players you would have watched on a Saturday of college football action but weren’t able to stick with an NFL roster. 

I’ll bet many of you checked out at least one of the four games that were played, at the very least out of curiosity. For the league to survive, a good number of you will have to keep coming back. I’m not sure if I will be locked in for each of the 10 weekends in the XFL’s initial season, but I will be back for Week 2.

The product is worth watching for a number of reasons, so, at this point, I’ll make room in my post-NFL season world for some more of the XFL.

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