The short-lived Alliance of American Football tried to satisfy mobile gamblers to an absurd degree, a strange move for an organization which marketed itself as a viable farm system and prospective life-partner with the NFL. There is still a strain of social conservatism behind The Shield’s love-hate relationship with Sin City, and maybe it would have been best to cast a handicapper’s dream league as a competitor to the NFL, FBS, and Canadian Football League, not as a wanna-be club member.
Bigger issues were evident on the AAF gridiron. Gamblers don’t want to feel like lonely addicts, and the product on the field last spring was so average, so generic, that it was like betting on the “demo” mode from an old version of Madden’s. Those AAF live streams with a camera behind the QB only made the action feel even more video-gamey.
The XFL – in its “1st” or “2nd” season depending on who you talk to – is accommodating football bettors in subtler ways. Releasing the rosters, coaches, and schedules at a nice early date allowed handicappers to get out ahead of “futures” lines for potential XFL Championship Game winners. College-style timing and shorter TV time-outs allow for faster scrums, which helps speculators spend less of a weekend afternoon watching to see how our wager shakes out. But most importantly, XFL games were lively and entertaining in Week 1. ‘Cappers would always rather speculate about real drama between the sidelines than be forced to conjure-up our own.
Not every XFL team carved-out an identity in Week 1 of the 2020 campaign. After all, it’s 8 brand new franchises introducing themselves.
— Vince McMahon (@VinceMcMahon) February 8, 2020
Most of the league’s innovations involve common-sense rule changes and fixes, some of which are destined to become NFL rules someday. XFL kickoffs, in which tacklers line-up at the opposing 35-yard line and wait for the ball to be caught (to avoid high-speed collisions and injuries), have garnered praise for reinvigorating a huge part of the sport without sacrificing player safety. TV coverage is offhand, relaxed, and intimate with players along the sidelines.
Some of the clubs are playing dull, drab, minor-league football. The Dallas Renegades look more like the “Dallas Conformists” under Bob Stoops, running a garden-variety NFL spread attack rather than Stoops’ multiple power-rushing formations from Oklahoma. St. Louis beat Dallas 15-9 in Week 1. But there were bright spots too, like QB P.J. Walker leading a fun-and-gun June Jones offense in Houston. 2 time-zones away the Seattle Dragons actually looked good running the ball, but the passing game sunk as the D.C. Defenders lived up to their name with 2 interceptions and a 31-19 victory.
My working thesis on handicapping the XFL at this early juncture is that coaches putting their hearts into it will have better-motivated squads than those phoning it in. AAF coaching was so bad that Mike Singletary appeared to be losing on purpose, passing-up easy FG attempts to run out the clock. There isn’t likely to be a gaffe that bad in the newest pro-pigskin alternative. But if we can quantify which coaching staffs are creative, restless, and driven enough to create a winning culture under challenging circumstances, we can start to get a feel for who’s hardest to beat on home turf.
Then again, home turf won’t even make a difference if XFL crowds are lousy. The biggest task for any new team is to whip-up some kind of buzz in 1 of the giant cities Vince McMahon has chosen, and putting Ws on the board is the only way to do that. Let’s try to handicap which direction the snowballs of XFL momentum are rolling in…without pretending like they’re already mountains.
New York Guardians at D.C. Defenders
New Yorkers who were paying attention breathed a sigh of relief when the Guardians whipped Tampa Bay’s Vipers 23-3 to begin the season. The last thing New York needs is another losing pro football team attached to its name. Heck, even Army and Syracuse have been struggling, and don’t get me started on Rutgers – the Big Apple and surrounding communities (save Boston) could use a bushel of home-team touchdowns. Touchdowns came at MetLife Stadium in Week 1, but curiously, the more-efficient rushing team was again shut down in the 2nd half.
Tampa Bay blocked New York just fine when running with the ball. Viper QB Aaron Murray, on the other hand, was running for his life, as the Guardians destroyed the pocket with 5 sacks.
Is the Guardian edge-rush for real, or a fluke brought on by a weak Tampa OL and the excitement of playing at home? One thing’s for sure – Murray’s supporting cast could hear his signals on 3rd down. New York’s sacks were not “crowd” sacks. Plenty of tickets were sold for Sunday’s win, but it wasn’t exactly CenturyLink Field during an NFC Championship Game. Meanwhile, Guardian QB Matt McGloin looked steady despite behind behind the sticks often.
The impressive New York performance is apparently lost on bookmakers and sportsbook clientele, who have the 1-0 Guardians sitting at (+210) on the moneyline and a (+6.5) point-spread underdog for this Saturday’s match-up at D.C. Obviously “6.5” points is not as sharp of a spread for an XFL game as an NFL game, since 6 and 8-point touchdowns are so common in the former start-up league. Still, it seems a little premature to anoint the Defenders as solid favorites in Week 2 considering that the hosts are fortunate to have faced a generous opposing QB last weekend.
Tampa Bay Vipers at Seattle Dragons
Speaking of CenturyLink Field, the Seattle Dragons are (+3) underdogs against the visiting Vipers on Saturday afternoon, just 1 of a few betting lines on the contest that seem to defy sound reason. Another is the (44.5) Over/Under total, too high for what may turn into a ragged, choppy game of short drives and pre-snap penalties.
There are 2 methodical, scientific ex-NFL head coaches in Jim Zorn of Seattle and Marc Trestman of Tampa Bay. Each skipper’s QB struggled to move (and protect) the ball last week, and both defenses have looked stingy against the run. That’s 3 ingredients of a low-scoring football game.
But the moneyline is tempting as well – the Dragons are debuting at home and we know that Seattle is a town in which new clubs are welcomed heartily. It didn’t take long for the Seattle Sounders to acquire a strong supporters’ base and it’s not impossible for Zorn’s club to do the same. Tampa Bay scored 3 points in Week 1, so tell me why the Vipers are a favorite on the road?
Pick: Dragons (+120) or Under
Dallas Renegades at Los Angeles Wildcats
If there’s a football town that needs a fat dose of fun, it’s the Dallas metroplex. Southern Methodist slowed down at the end of the 2019 season, and a promising campaign for the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys turned into a dreary descent with lame-duck leadership. The XFL’s Renegades – coached by Bob Stoops of Oklahoma Sooner fame – promised the fans in Big D something to cheer for.
They didn’t get it, at least not in Week 1. Stoops’ new team played like a stinker. The offensive line looked OK, but play-callers were content to go without a tight end and let QB Philip Nelson chuck short passes from sideline to sideline. It was the ultimate in failed West Coast football. Nelson completed about 3 out of every 4 throws but was sacked 4 times, produced only 1 or 2 explosive plays, and finished with 0 TDs and a pick. Dallas was out-motivated on its own Arlington gridiron, and out-classed in fundamentals by a St. Louis side that oozed teamwork and positive vibes.
Once again the Week 2 odds don’t go in the direction you’d think. Dallas is a (-180) moneyline favorite against (+135) for the host Wildcats on Sunday. What is the logic behind those numbers?
L.A. did have a bad time of it in Week 1. Houston’s Roughnecks – whose logo makes it look like their name should start with an A – roared back to beat the Wildcats 37-17 last weekend after falling behind in the 1st half. But if there’s a “Kansas City Chiefs” of the XFL this year, it’s likely to be the Roughnecks. June Jones is a founding father of TE-less spread offenses in the NFL, and he knows how to install a more sophisticated and QB-friendly 4-wide scheme than Stoops.
Houston’s power has no direct bearing on a Los Angeles handicap. L.A. is a promising team that’s had a good half and a bad half so far. Chad Kanoff didn’t have a lifeless or miserable outing at QB (his WR Nelson Spruce had the 1st 100-yard outing of any XFL 2.0 receiver) and the Wildcat secondary will look better against an inferior, traveling offense this weekend.
St. Louis Battlehawks at Houston Roughnecks
Don’t expect a long-winded pick on Sunday’s late XFL scrum. By the 2nd game on Sunday, you’ll have either been charmed by the new league – in which case you’ll probably keep betting on it – or you’ll be so bored with it that watching, let alone playing the markets, is out of the question.
But I can’t let it go at the old “Take the XYZs on the moneyline” either, because it’s interesting how the Battlehawks’ odds could play out in Las Vegas (and offshore) over the next few weeks. Houston looks like the best team in the league to my eyes, and certainly has its own proud identity just 10 days into the regular season. St. Louis is not so distinguished on the talent side nor in tactical wares, though the coaching staff is nurturing and confident, and the OL and DL are packing a punch.
However, the ‘Hawks have had to begin the season with an arduous road trip through Texas, not allowed a home opener until Week 3. That’s a low blow in a sports division with 8 teams in it.
I’m thinking the Battlehawks will run out of gas, temporarily, until regrouping for a tilt with the New York Guardians under the Gateway Arch. If Houston prevails in another high-scoring romp on Sunday, St. Louis could become an excellent underdog pick in Wk 3 or in Wk 4 vs visiting Seattle. Meanwhile the O/U totals for Roughneck games will shoot through the roof, giving wiseguys the opportunity to counter the bookmaker with low-side point total action when Houston runs into burly defenses like Tampa Bay or New York on the road.
Pick: Houston or Over (50)
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.