Any time a sports topic touches on professional wrestling is a treat for this blogger, especially when the subject matter dates back a couple of decades. I’m not a huge fan of the modern WWE style of “wrestling,” which is really more like fighting – muscle-heads executing rigged movie-style brawls and stunts. My favorite indie grappler is the viral-sensation Orange Cassidy, whose slender size and defense-oriented comedy sets “Freshly-Squeezed” poles apart from the Vince McMahon brand of Superstar.
But the original-XFL era of Vince’s lunacy? I’m more than familiar with that.
McMahon’s maiden stab at pro football was poles apart from what pigskin fans were hoping for, and didn’t captivate many wrestling buffs to compensate. The XFL attempted to capitalize on the fad of “macho” TV in the late 1990s, a backlash to Lifetime Network and 3rd-wave feminist comedy on cable television. Salacious content had always worked as filler in-between Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair matches at midnight on the east coast, right?
Despite being linked to such a sanitized product as NBC Sports, the XFL attempted to “spice up” the boring segments of almost-NFL football with lots and lots of boobs – cheerleader boobs, the boobs of fans, and a couple of boobs on the field in pads and helmets, fighting over a football instead of tossing a coin.
The idea of an undefeated pregame scramble-king was actually pretty good (and a stroke of luck) but – of course – the XFL eventually got players hurt with the gimmick, the result of which had little impact on winning or losing the game. Meanwhile, the league waved tasteless, objectifying T&A at viewers at every turn – and we’re not talking about Tackles and Assistant coaches.
XFL 1.0 purported to “change” football on TV, but all it did – for better or worse, mostly worse – is tinker with the cosmetics surrounding the game. Camera angles. Blunt announcers. Jersey nicknames. “He Hate Me.”
The actual football suffered along with NBC’s dignity. Teams had not been given long to practice, and the XFL’s game-play resembled the worst of an NFL preseason. Players who had been cut from NFL clubs – usually in the preseason – struggled to execute plain-vanilla playbooks that were impossible for casual fans to distinguish.
In a sense, the XFL’s 2001 season bombed for the same reason the short-lived NFL Europe and Alliance of American Football each failed to produce any buzz. Producers of minor-league pro pigskin do not appear to understand why NFL exhibition games are boring to begin with. Conventional NFL playbooks are designed to be run exclusively by elite athletes, operating with split-second precision and harmony. They’re not like college concepts, in which Oklahoma’s 2nd string looks just fine scoring mop-up touchdowns against South Dakota thanks to a scheme and a numbers-advantage doing most of the heavy lifting.
There’s just nothing sadder than watching unprepared pro players trying to execute an NFL play selection. Ask the people at NFL Films in charge of Football Follies – it can cross the line into comedy pretty quickly.
Start-up league CEOs must think exhibition football is unpopular solely because there aren’t any stars on the field in the 4th quarter. (Otherwise, they’d be petrified of ever letting their product resemble the NFL preseason at all.) But that’s not all there is to it. The Pro Bowl, Senior Bowl, and Blue-Grey Game are not exactly TV-ratings bonanzas, and yet all 3 contests have plenty of 1st-string stars making plays for an entire 60 minutes. There’s something else making everybody yawn, and that’s how generic 2 teams can look in an under-rehearsed, phoned-in setting.
NFL coaches call vanilla plays in preseason because they’re keeping real-deal playbooks close to the vest. NFL Europe, XFL, and AAF quarterbacks have been asked to operate in cookie-cutter schemes because their coaches have had little other choice. That has to change if the new XFL is destined to succeed.
Lessons on Pigskin Popularity from Canada…and Baltimore
The Canadian Football League’s timing and independent status prevents a full litany of players leaving the CFL for “call-ups” (call-downs?) to the United States, but some standouts still do, and Vince McMahon’s new/old company could stand to benefit from looking not just at the CFL’s available free agents but at the northern league’s unique brand of pigskin. Canadian football looks different, feels different, and is fundamentally geared to allow its own level of athleticism to flourish and have exciting games…much like the FBS.
CFL games don’t make conversions-after-TD worth 1, 2, or 3 points like shots in basketball. There’s 24 players on the (longer and wider) field, and offensive players are allowed to run toward the line of scrimmage as the ball is being snapped. (Heck, in the NFL, only the Seattle Seahawks are allowed to get away with that.) I omit the most-widely known rules difference – 3 downs from scrimmage – as an exhibit for this editorial because 3 downs is a strategic rules difference from classic American pigskin, and not a tactical difference. 12-man, forward-motioning Xs & Os would look unique even if Canadian coaches didn’t have so many decisions to make a down early.
How important have the aesthetics and play-designs of CFL football been to the league’s lasting success? It’s crazy to think the organization could have been hosting generic “NFL-lite” contests all these decades and still carved-out such a healthy niche. And it’s crazy to think that the XFL’s latest attempt can catch-on with the viewing public unless the league – and the teams in it – establish clear identities in season #2.
The McMahons are a family bred to judge things by external appearance. It’s said that Vince often says upon signing a new WWE Superstar, “He’ll get noticed at the airport.” But it would take another wrestling promoter’s skill – an eye for “work rate” and quality “dance partners” in the ring – to rescue the XFL from another ill-fated installment.
The NFL was a better watch for football nerds in 2019-20. San Francisco played like a club from the 1970s, reminding 50-somethings of dominant Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins teams that “bored” their opponents to death in Hunter S. Thompson’s retelling. Baltimore romped through the 2019 regular season with a “Sun Belt” offense in which dual-threat Lamar Jackson out-rushed all but a handful of NFL running backs while passing at a Pro-Bowl level. RBs are in vogue and the NFL scouting community finally counts it a positive when a QB can run, just a few years after Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick were ushered out of the league.
NFL teams are now pursuing disparate styles of play. More clubs have easily-recognizable traits like Kansas City’s futuristic offense or Seattle’s scrappy and stubborn moxie at noisy CenturyLink Field. It’s helped The Shield overcome the advent of mobile streaming and fresh waves of interest in other sports. Super Bowl LIV was rated among the 11 most-watched TV programs of all time, and a big reason was that the 49ers and Chiefs each played 1-of-a-kind football. But don’t worry – the corporate CEO brains of the NFL are working on how to dial-back Jackson’s carries, regulate Mahomes like a traditional drop-back passer, and make a pass-happy “tempo” team out of the Seahawks. Baltimore’s playbook is probably the closest we’ll come to seeing a “niche” offense among the 32 franchises.
With less to lose than the National Football League, Vince McMahon’s XFL 2.0 should encourage its coaches and players to experiment on the field.
We’ve seen how exciting Boise State’s multiple offense is in Mountain West games. Now imagine how the same shift-tastic playbook would look when executed by NFL preseason players, instead of 4 or 5 guys with a shot at the NFL and a supporting cast of future office workers and gym trainers. Like watching Washington State’s Air Raid? There’s zip, zero, and zilch reasons why there shouldn’t be at least 1 Air Raid team with a daredevil QB in the new XFL – after all it’s the brand of offense out of which NFL champion Pat Mahomes was sprung. (June Jones is working on it, and has a public P.O. Box in case anyone has a spare Pat Mahomes laying around the house.)
Don’t laugh – what if the XFL borrows from High School football? Prep pigskin is the purest form of the game, a laboratory in which coaches do not worry about recruiting, stroking egos, legitimizing contracts, and/or building a fan base so much as they concern themselves with winning game plans. Anything goes in (public) High School ball because the scrums aren’t advertisements for themselves. If you can win by putting 3 or less offensive linemen on the field and scattering receivers everywhere, great. If your prep team succeeds by lining up in bumper-car-tight OL splits and letting the biggest guy plow ahead with the ball, that’s great too.
By the time Christian McCaffery was an upperclassman at Valor Christian, he had blossomed into such a talented ball-carrier and receiver that many coaches would have lined him up at 1 position and allowed the phenom to set records there, figuring that mind-boggling yardage totals would turn the heads of FBS and NFL scouts while giving the Varsity a go-to weapon all season. But because skipper Rod Sherman knew that McCaffery would get noticed anyway thanks to a dynastic NFL bloodline, the future Stanford Cardinal and Carolina Panther took few routine touches but was allowed to roam and destroy on all 3 units. The electric teenager ran kicks back for TDs, blocked other kicks, intercepted passes, sacked QBs, and every-so-often took a sweep or a home-run pass to the house. Instead of filling out job applications for Power-5 suitors, McCaffery was handing-out whole resumes. It paid off in a fat NFL contract a few years later.
What if a multi-talented athlete was allowed to play “Waterboy” in the XFL? If the Bo Jackson era produced a cross-training generation, the 2010-20 generation of football players has belonged to the intra-sport cross-trainers, safeties like Deone Buchanan who substitute as bruising linebackers and special-teams killers, QBs like Jackson and Mahomes (and Trevor Lawrence) who would have become great running backs if they couldn’t throw it a country mile, and gifted 3-way playmakers like Patrick Peterson, who are held back from scoring more TDs by the scientific decision-making of NFL coaches. (The fact that I random-flashed to a pair of born and bred Arizona Cardinals is a further hint – the Cardinals haven’t been a premier team for a while, and yet 2 potential Deion Sanders-esque “screw your platoon” names immediately come to mind out of Big Red milieu. There are probably hundreds of athletes out there who could excel in 60-minute roles for a pro pigskin team if given the opportunity.)
It’s wise for 99% of the NFL to consist of specialists and packages. But McMahon’s XFL can only succeed as an exercise in guerrilla warfare. XFL teams can’t afford to pay QBs and skill players much money, but many a jungle fight has been won by turning low numbers into an agile fighting force. If a quarterback is snagging passes all over the practice field, let him get some reps at WR…or better yet, as a ball-hawking defensive back. If a lineman runs well and holds the egg high and tight when he’s advancing a fumble, put him in the backfield on the goal line and let him rumble. That’s been a natural crowd-pleaser since Bill Walsh invented the “Angus” formation in 1984.
Or what about Pulaski Academy’s 4-down system? You can make the case that a pro team wouldn’t get as much out of the “Pulaski Press” as Kevin Kelley’s perennial Arkansas state champs, since professional PKs and punters are so much better on-average than on a prep team. Pulaski Academy isn’t giving up more than 30 yards of field position when it chooses not to punt on 4th down, and an onside kick (Pulaski attempts about 5 or 6 per Friday night) only sacrifices about 15 yards on-average in AHSAA. But suppose an XFL team manufactures an NFL-level efficiency on offense? It would be fascinating to see them try the 4-down, on-side kicking game, producing waves of points with the “9-point touchdown” allowance of XFL rules. No lead is safe against a team that always has the ball.
If XFL clubs run vastly-disparate playbooks, heated debates will break out among fans as to whether X, Y, or Z style can produce consistently over time. No one would have thought Paul Johnson, the NCAA’s senior-tenured Flexbone guru, would help the NFL’s Ravens install an option-attack in 2019. If a coach like Johnson, or say, Troy Calhoun of Air Force were appointed to lead the 1st XFL expansion team in 2022, some very old taboos could be challenged.
XFL’s Success Lies in Game Play, Not Foreplay
How might the XFL’s current coaches – themselves under pressure to show off big-league chops this spring – be persuaded to take chances with the very fabric of their teams’ systems?
The rules are a good place to start, but not the silly Points-After-TD stuff. The Double-Forward Pass rule will herald an entire new brand of trick plays and flea-flickers. Spotting the ball on the 35 – not the 25 – on kickoffs into the end zone – will encourage on-side attempts (since there is not as much field-position to lose compared to telling the PK to boom it) and create exciting kick returns.
Another rule the XFL should consider is letting teams try on-side kicks from the 50. That rule would mean that a lot of token comeback bids in the 3rd quarter get real interesting, real fast.
It might also help that some XFL 2.0 skippers are already of the persuasion to coach pro football a little differently. Bob Stoops is unlikely to be caught using a NFL scheme in Dallas – the Cowboys have fulfilled that role all-too well in the recent past – and June Jones is likely to install the Run & Shoot in Houston. Of course, Jones only became the single-minded, throw-it-around mastermind we know and love once migrating to Hawaii. In the NFL, his offenses were not that revolutionary – and avoiding old-hat game-play is the crux around which XFL ratings will revolve.
The most-important ingredient is that Stoops, Jones, and 6 other HCs and coaching staffs must be undertaking to win and win alone, not to serve as caretakers for a roster of NFL “tryout” players. Perhaps the NFL is a victim of its own success in that the league’s very makeup serves to discourage a farm system. At least the XFL has the advantage of competing with the NFL as opposed to trying to imitate it – there can only be pale imitations.
“Bad” minor-league games aren’t lousy because the players are lousy. If athletes who make the XFL are lousy and unwatchable, then the Big 12 should look like a real train wreck. Stoops has coached plenty of guys in the Big 12 who couldn’t survive cuts on an XFL club this season. The trick is letting the players’ skill sets – all of the players’ skill sets – come to the forefront across 8 teams. It’s not a training camp. It’s a football league – hopefully in which the play-callers won’t be simply going through the motions.
McMahon has learned some lessons from the previous XFL debacle. The organization now appears focused on gridiron action only, not sex appeal, comedy, or macho stunts. Fox Sports and ESPN are broader platforms in 2020 than even the NBC Network of 2 decades ago. The McMahons have placed their 8 franchises in great football cities, not secondary cities like Birmingham and Memphis which the AAF was littered with.
But I’m compelled by history to add that the WWE has always been about window dressing. An armbar is an armbar is an armbar – TV wrestling is about who’s got the armbar on who, and why. Alt-brand football is a different animal in which arm-tackles seem to occur too frequently (along with some 10-yard penalty armbars). Tinker around on the fringes all you like, but the game-play itself must be interesting to watch, or fans won’t stick around for the finale in April.
If the XFL is produced and coached intelligently in 2020, it could resemble an extension of the college football season as much as a continuation of the pro schedule. Thrills, spills, and emotional chills, with faster and more-consistent backups than you’l’ ever find in any FBS conference.
But if the XFL in 2020 resembles the NFL’s Hall of Fame Game?
In that case, McMahon’s reboot will be headed for halls of shame, all over again…and his customers will become the “He” in “He Hate Me.”
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.