American football leagues need more than positive headlines to generate ticket sales and TV ratings. They need negative headlines too. Controversial calls, roughing incidents, gold-rush gambling pratfalls – they all add up to office and barber-shop chatter that fuels interest in the games.
But the dark, edgy media coverage must arrive organically. It cannot be engineered as an artificial stunt or publicity ploy. The original XFL – already up to its ears in unwanted negative press – tried to hurry up and create blood rivalries by, among other things, having a macho clown-show prior to opening kickoffs that included a pair of unlucky players wrestling over a pigskin. It attempted to exploit a “heel” superstar when Rod Smart wore his iconic “He Hate Me” jersey and belittled opposing athletes and fans into the microphone. But Smart was degraded in-turn by the gridiron community, treated as an adorable underdog rather than a force to be reckoned with. “‘He Hate Me’ Returns NFL Kickoff For TD'” read a headline years later. But there were no more XFL headlines.
The new XFL may have already lucked-into an organic “heel” turn in Week 3. Following the New York Guardians’ dreadful 27-0 loss to the District of Columbia last weekend, Big Apple quarterback Matt McGloin uncorked a post-game rant for the ages, questioning the head coach, his coordinators, and the Guardian front office for choosing a playbook and a scheme from the Paleolithic Age. According to the former Penn State starter, few adjustments were made at halftime as New York passed for less than 100 yards and barely rushed for 50.
A lot of New York football nerds won’t like the insubordination and finger-pointing in McGloin’s remarks (not saying smart people are more likely to be upset about rebellion, only that a select group of pigskin addicts care about the XFL) but perhaps the QB is saying something that the entire league needs to hear. Minor-league coaches must work to avoid an inferiority complex as much as anyone – their schemes too often amount to paralysis-by-analysis as they worry about losing out on a chance to impress NFL and FBS big-shots with victories.
XFL coaches should be taking heed from June Jones’ philosophy with the Houston Roughnecks, not because Houston is winning necessarily, but because Jones (as usual) is laying it all on the line with a brand of football he knows will work. Jones is the only HC in the XFL with extensive NFL and FBS experience in the skipper’s chair, and he’s combining both disciplines into a great system in Space City.
St. Louis fell short at Houston in Week 2, but the XFL is becoming a success story in yet another great professional wrestling town. The St. Louis Battlehawks sold-out their Week 3 home opener against New York over a week in advance.
Of course, it’s s a “sell-out” based on an old grappling promoter’s trick, blacking-out large swaths of the upper deck at the Dome at America’s Center and leaving about 30,000 capacity. But hey, did you ever think Hulk Hogan was exactly 6’5″ tall and weighed exactly 303 pounds? As Jesse “The Body” Ventura would have put it on a WWF broadcast, you got the headline you wanted, McMaaaaaahon.
Let’s “weigh” the prospects of main betting lines in Week 3 of the XFL…and try to keep our scales more tied to gridiron reality than Barnum & Bailey.
Houston Roughnecks at Tampa Bay Vipers
Houston would be my #1 “Power Ranking” XFL club of the week, but it’s unwise not to investigate any moneyline as short as (-280) for a road contest. Tampa Bay is having a hard time finding the end zone, but the Roughnecks’ 2-0 record hasn’t exactly been built on crushing defense.
An unheralded St. Louis offense gave the Roughnecks issues in the 2nd half last weekend. Battlehawk RBs weren’t finding enough daylight as the visitors fell behind by 15 points at halftime. But people who say there aren’t any good QBs in the XFL are dead wrong – unless the definition of “good” is “favored to win MVP of Super Bowl 55.” In the real world, where 100,000s of quarterbacks throw footballs competitively, 8 of the 100-ish best are leading XFL teams. Jordan Ta’amu of the Battlehawks had an outstanding 2nd half on Sunday, finishing the Houston-STL scrum with 30-of-37 completions and 3 touchdowns vs a swift defense. Ta’amu’s interceptions hurt, underscoring the skill of Houston’s secondary, but the Roughnecks did not make a statement with the 28-24 final score.
With a host Tampa crowd yelling for its boys to at least look competitive this season, the point spread of Houston (-6.5) intrigues me more than either ML or the O/U of (45.5) points. The Roughnecks struggled to convert-after-TD in Week 2 but are likely to “go for 1” often, making a 7-point margin-of-victory more plausible. On the road, Jones may lean on his tailbacks (“fullbacks” or B-backs in the Run & Shoot scheme) James Butler and Andre Williams, who were overshadowed by QB P.J. Walker’s rushing ability vs St. Louis. But I’m expecting another rash of interceptions for a Houston opponent if the Vipers are trying in-vain to come back yet again. Points-off-turnovers should cover for Houston if a powerful offense doesn’t.
Pick: Roughnecks ATS
Dallas Renegades at Seattle Dragons
Bob Stoops’ Renegades came alive somewhat with a 25-18 win over Los Angeles last weekend. Landry Jones had a decent day passing the ball – apart from a 1-to-2 TD to interception ratio. But the Dallas club produced 1 of the 1st star rushing performances (from an actual tailback, anyway) of the new league when former Cameron Artis-Payne (formerly of the Carolina Panthers and Auburn Tigers) rumbled for 99 yards and 2 scores. Artis-Payne is an example of an effective tailback who’s gotten phased-out of the NFL thanks to his track speed or other tangibles. The 29-year old averaged well over 4 yards-per-carry for the Panthers and scored TDs in each of his 4 NFL seasons. The XFL can gobble up running backs like Artis-Payne and utilize them. Soon, you won’t hear so much about “bad QBs” since they’ll have better play-action games as weapons.
I’m afraid Dallas (-200) may not enjoy such a resurgence in the short-term, even though Big D could badly use some quality football at this point. Seattle, the Renegades’ host on Saturday, did not throw it around much in Week 2’s 17-9 victory over Tampa Bay, but the Dragons didn’t really need to. Seattle came prepared with a handy ground game and produced exactly 1 explosive passing play, a long TD to Naval Academy icon Keenan Reynolds on a post route. That’s enough whenever the other club can’t move the egg. The Dragon defense has kept opponents out of the end zone in 7 out of 8 quarters.
Pick: Dragons (+160)
New York Guardians at St. Louis Battlehawks
Sunday’s early-afternoon XFL tilt should provide a neat atmosphere in a ne’er-do-well pigskin city. The St. Louis Cardinals were loved by just about everyone except Super Bowl pundits and politicians in the Gateway City, and the Rams had their own love affair with Missouri that ended with another sad, jilted fan base watching a team leave town. The tri-state region could use a pro football team right smack on the Mississippi again, and STL is so happy to have the Battlehawks in orbit that tickets are – relative to other local sporting brands save the St. Louis Blues – selling like hotcakes.
But it’s doubtful St. Louis makes the best XFL wager on Sunday (or the weekend) since the betting odds have become so exaggerated. St. Louis is a (-10) point and (-475) moneyline favorite at Bovada Sportsbook.
New York skipper Kevin Gilbride has a choice to make – try to make the contentious McGloin happy as his starter or go with backup Marquise Williams? Williams was better than McGloin following the latter’s benching in Week 2, and appears promising on the scramble. QBs are generally kept on a tighter hook in scenarios like the XFL, with a limited number of games and coaches trying to figure out what they’ve got. McGloin has presumably shined above Williams and AAF-alum Luis Perez in practice, but not all good starters make terrific practice players. The uncertainty at QB means that New York can’t possibly be the true favorite on Sunday, but there also can’t be a 1-to-4.75 true favorite in a game between 1-1 teams in a brand new sports league.
Pick: Guardians ATS
D.C. Defenders at Los Angeles Wildcats
Another game, another big fat favorite. The Defenders are a (-385) moneyline wager-to-win Sunday’s late kickoff, and an Over/Under total of (44) illustrates that handicappers don’t think D.C. needs to shut down L.A. to cover an (-8.5) spread.
Los Angeles has arguably been unlucky from a scheduling perspective, much like St. Louis’s opening 2 contests slated in XFL 2.0. The Wildcats had to open at Houston, the equivalent of opening an NFL schedule at Arrowhead Stadium. No, the Roughnecks aren’t defending a championship (yet) but do the math – dual-threat QB, high-powered offense, wizard-ish veteran coach, big civic tradition of pro pigskin. After playing well for 30:00, the Wildcats fell short against the Roughnecks, and that game was followed by a tense home opener vs Dallas in which L.A. forced turnovers but couldn’t capitalize and lost by a TD.
I don’t necessarily like the Wildcats to win. But the club is a solid bet to cover nearly +9 points at home, considering that D.C. has come up aces in the scheduling department. Defender tailbacks struggled to find holes against visiting Seattle in Week 1, but the D.C. receiving corps had a big day and pulled the hosts out of jams on 3rd down. In Week 2, only 1 D.C. rusher produced a meaningful stat line (Donnel Pumphrey with 52 yards) and Cardale Jones again had to bail the team out with his arm. If the line continues to run-block badly, the lamb could bite the butcher in the Defenders’ maiden road game of the season.
Pick: Wildcats ATS
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.