Major touchbacks and minor touchbacks. The double-forward pass. One-, two- and three-point conversions. Beer snakes. Quarrelsome quarterbacks. A Mumme (Dallas Renegades offensive coordinator Hal) and a Pharaoh (Tampa Bay Vipers tight end Pharoah McKever). A weekly winners’ share. Ten-minute halftimes. Last, and probably least: Team Nine.
Welcome to the XFL.
Last weekend, as the latest objection to “Football should only be played in months ending in -ber” reached the midpoint of its inaugural 10-game season, I watched all four XFL offerings so you wouldn’t have to. I discovered contests that blissfully end in three hours or less. Rediscovered vagabond coaching septuagenarians such as Norm Chow and Jerry Glanville. I’ll give you my laminated playsheet when you pry it from my cold, dead hands! And smiled as I listened to Shane Falco surrogates brimming with gratitude for the opportunity to forestall getting a real job. “It’s entertainment; it’s fun,” Houston Roughnecks running back James Butler told ABC sideline reporter Dianna Russini after scoring his second touchdown on Saturday. “We playin’ a child’s game.”
(As you may already know, an earlier incarnation of the XFL made its debut in 2001. At the time, one Sports Illustrated writer warned in print that “Men who watch regularly may soon be known as XHusbands.” The league would shortly thereafter disappear. As would the writer. Now both are back.)
Four games. Two days. One chronicler. Off we go. For the love of football.
Seattle Dragons (1-3) at Houston Roughnecks (4-0)
ABC, Saturday, 2 p.m.
Steve Levy, Greg McElroy and Dianna Russini
Words that may disturb some of you: Steve Levy is exceptional. Fun. Engaged. Informed. All in on the XFL. Whatever you may have thought of the inveterate ESPN personality before, he has taken to this assignment with gusto.
Levy, a 26-year vet at the Worldwide Leader, is attacking this assignment as if it’s his first marquee gig. We are reminded of his ABC predecessor, Howard Cosell, who as the play-by-play voice for Battle of the Network Stars called the Randi Oakes dunk-tank moment with all the gravitas he’d lend to an Ali-Frazier bout. That’s Levy this afternoon. “The shortest halftime in all of sports anywhere,” Levy proudly proclaims as the second quarter ends. “Ten minutes!”
Levy and McElroy do not throw back to the studio at the half—no one will in any of the four games. One wonders how bathroom breaks are negotiated on XFL broadcasts.
The 10-minute halftime is one of a few wrinkles the XFL is tinkering with that big brother should consider adopting. Another? In-game sideline interviews, which allow players to emerge as people from beneath their helmets. After Seattle’s Marko Myers makes an interception, Russini finds him on the sideline wearing unlikely apparel over his face. “What is that?” she inquires.
“This is our turnover mask,” Myers explains of his balaclava. “We robbers.”
Access is paramount. After Roughnecks linebacker DeMarquis Gates is ejected in the second half for throwing a punch, Russini catches up with him at the entrance to the tunnel. “What did you do?” Russini asks.
“I don’t know,” Gates says, smiling. Then he returns to autographing footballs for fans.
The inverse power arrangement between the networks and the XFL, as opposed to with the NFL, encourages a temerity among announcers not seen on autumn Sundays. Early in the third quarter Russini approaches Houston’s head coach, June Jones, during a stoppage in play.
“What are you trying to do here?” Russini wonders, referring to an upcoming third-down play.
“First downs,” Jones stoically replies.
Russini is not having any of his jejune Jones act. “You gotta give us more than that,” she says. Imagine a sideline reporter saying as much to Bill Belichick.
An XFL broadcast is all about transparency—and eavesdropping. Every mike is a hot read. When replay official Saleem Choudhry refers to a running back who clambered over a pile of lineman as “surfing bodies,” while trying to discern where the ball should be spotted, Levy is impressed by his turn of phrase. “Making Saleem Choudhry a TV star here on ABC,” Levy observes.
Another tributary of transparency? Wagering. Betting lines are openly discussed, displayed in graphics and updated throughout. In the XFL, gambling is not a dirty little secret—no need to hide behind an “our friends in the desert” reference. This might be expected from a league whose president, Jeffrey Pollack, is a former commissioner of the World Series of Poker. (He’s also the stepbrother of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.) As Levy says, putting a 2020 spin on an ancient Yogi Berra line, “It’s never over in the XFL, unless you hit the over, which we have.”
Ironically, events make a liar out of Levy. The game is not over when it’s over. With Houston up nine and facing a fourth down in the waning seconds, Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker inexplicably takes a knee with 0:03 on the clock. Moments earlier viewers heard Jones imploring his quarterback to simply toss it halfway to Galveston and allow the clock to run out. Walker knelt.
The scoreboard operator runs the stadium clock to zero. ABC’s replay clearly shows at least two seconds remaining, though. Seattle is owed one play from Houston’s 22 in what is, for the XFL, a one-score game. (There are no PAT kicks in the XFL; the offense can place the ball at the 2-, 5- or 10-yard lines and attempt to go for a 1-, 2- or 3-point conversion, respectively. As an aside, the NFL's AP calculus-level PAT math may drive “Go for two” Twitter insane.)
Upstairs, Levy and McElroy are apoplectic. “This is unbelievable!” Levy says as an ABC camera catches two referees walking up a ramp toward the tunnel. “Clearly two seconds are left in the game.”
Because this is the XFL and, at least for now, the networks retain leverage, ABC swiftly puts Wes Booker, the supervisor of officials, on camera for his own Waterloo moment. Booker, looking like the guy stuck holding the check after the rest of his party has scurried off, lamely offers, “There’s nothing we can do to get everybody corralled back.”
Levy, exasperated: “Why is that?”
Why, indeed? Perhaps the referees are anxious to, if you’ll pardon Levy’s well-worn catch-phrase, “Get outta town!”
One day later the XFL league office will announce that Booker has been “reassigned.”
Roughnecks 32, Dragons 23
New York Guardians (2-2) at Dallas Renegades (2-2)
Fox, Saturday, 5 p.m.
Curt Menefee, Joel Klatt and Cameron Jordan
Unlike its 2001 namesake, the XFL assiduously avoids the He Hate Me-type stunts that tend to overshadow the play itself. “We are gimmick-free,” says Pollack, the league president. “And we don’t even have cheerleaders.”
This saddens me, not so much because I yearn for cheerleaders but because “Guardian Angels” would have been perfect for New York. Imagine the ladies decked out in red Curtis Sliwa-inspired berets.
The nearest thing to a gimmick this contest offers is sideline reporter Cameron Jordan, a five-time Pro Bowl defensive end—he’s still active!—for the New Orleans Saints. Jordan is excited. Super excited, in fact. He says, “excited” six times during his first on-air hit. In the first quarter Jordan interviews Guardians linebacker Ben Heeney. At the end of the interview, Jordan hugs Heeney. Emphatically. I wonder if Jenny Taft is watching.
Again: Jordan is excited. He’s making me excited. Meanwhile, there’s a woman in a Burberry coat on the Guardians’ sideline standing directly behind head coach Kevin Gilbride. That’s something you do not often see on a pro football sideline: Tartan fabric. At least not since the Scottish Claymores folded.
At halftime, the same lady in the same coat is spotted in the Guardians’ locker room, a few steps behind Gilbride. The Fox team never identifies her; we assume it is Guardians president Janet Duch, one of two female team presidents in the league (along with Heather Brooks Karatz of the Los Angeles Wildcats).
The Renegades are not the only XFL team stationed in Dallas; they’re just the only one that plays games that count. The city is also home to Team Nine, a 40-man contingent that serves as the league-wide taxi squad. Team Nine practices regularly and has a full coaching staff. I have decided to pledge my unwavering loyalty to Team Nine. What the XFL is to the NFL, Team Nine is to the XFL. How can you not root for that? After watching one of the plentiful XFLshop.com ads that pepper these broadcasts, I am moved to hop on the site in search of Team Nine gear. ...But none exists. A Burberry Guardians T-shirt, perhaps? Again, no luck.
A word about the XFL's level of play. While there are a few standouts, particularly at the skill positions (e.g. 6’ 4” Guardians receiver MeKale McKay), the overall level of play is somewhere between MAC-tion and a middling Power 5 school. After yet another wayward shotgun snap in the second half, Menefee laments, “We’ve seen a high snap several times. Is that intentional?”
“No, no,” Klatt replies. “At least he’s consistent.”
A few minutes later, Menefee, sounding not unlike a food-court employee staring at his watch with 15 minutes remaining in his shift, says, “As we reach the midway point of this fourth quarter…”
He does not sound excited.
Guardians 30, Renegades 12
St. Louis BattleHawks (3-1) at D.C. Defenders (2-2)
FS1, Sunday, 3 p.m.
Kevin Burkhardt, Greg Olsen and Jenny Taft
The original XFL had founder Vince McMahon’s imprimatur all over it. Team names were colorful. Perhaps it was only coincidence that a few seemed inspired by the most popular TV show of the time, The Sopranos. How else to explain an eight-team league that had franchises named the Rage, the Outlaws and, a little too on the nose, the New Jersey Hitmen?
The current iteration of the league appears committed to bland-name recognition: Wildcats, Guardians and Defenders are the types of mascots only a focus group might conjure. If the XFL is dedicated to having nothing grab prospective fans’ attentions other than the play on the field, then it might do well to procure better players. In the meantime, it would do well to embrace the league’s first viral sensation: D.C. 's beer snake.
The beer snake, a.k.a. the Anaconda on the Anacostia, is a creature composed entirely of empty plastic cups. Its natural habitat is in the north end zone of Audi Field, where the Defenders’ most Falstaffian fans nurture its growth via their own inebriation. To contribute too profligately to the elongation of the beer snake is to risk going from being a fan of the Defenders to being in need of a public defender. But they’ll worry about that later. If you’re looking for a 2020 zeitgeist moment, it’s this standing-room-only section quaffing beers and placing empties one on top of the other as they chant, “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
The game itself has drama. In the first quarter Tyree Jackson replaces Cardale Jones at quarterback and leads the Defenders to a touchdown on his debut drive. Kicker Ty Rausa, after missing a 40-yard field goal in the opening stanza (“God almighty! Such a buzzkill,” laments coach Pep Hamilton), kicks a 51- and a 52-yarder into the “12 Pack” section where the beer snake is uncoiling.
Taft, the consummate sideline reporter, interviews the snake’s handlers. League commissioner Oliver Luck buoyantly contributes a cup of his own as the snake winds toward the top row. The game ends, D.C. wins and in his post-game interview Hamilton mentions the 12-Pack and the snake. He then heads off to visit them.
By Week 9 the beer snake will likely have its own Instagram page and more Twitter followers than any player in the XFL. It is pro football’s most infamous serpent since Ken Stabler.
Defenders 15, BattleHawks 6
Tampa Bay Vipers (1-3) at Los Angeles Wildcats (1-3)
Sunday, ESPN, 9 p.m.
Tom Hart, Joey Galloway, Molly McGrath and Cole Cubelic
The Wildcats trail 16-0 in the first half when quarterback Josh Johnson picks up a sideline phone call. Let’s listen in:
“Calm down,” Johnson says. “Calm down. … Just calm down!”
Johnson, 33, slams the phone down, then emits a “Damn!” Is he talking to his agent? His girl? His offensive coordinator, Norm Chow? Could be any of them. Johnson isn’t one to sweat a two-score deficit. He has played for 13 different NFL teams since graduating from the University of San Diego, where his coach was Jim Harbaugh. And, sure enough, before the first half ends he threads the needle on a few beautiful throws—only two years ago he started and won a game for the Redskins—completing two of them for touchdowns. Johnson is cocky. The Wildcats are cocky.
McGrath catches up with L.A. 's De'Quan Hampton after he hauls in Johnson’s second scoring throw of the first half. “What did you see on that touchdown?”
“The opportunity to dog someone—period,” Hampton replies.
Galloway is enjoying himself. When his partner, Hart, informs viewers that Wildcats defensive tackle Boogie Roberts is 289 pounds, he scoffs, “Yeah. Right.”
“Are you saying—?”
“Look at him,” Galloway says. The ESPN crew provides a closeup of Roberts, who appears at least four bearclaws north of 330.
A veteran of calling college games or sitting in a studio to opine on them for ESPN, and likely being reminded not to mention point spreads outright, Galloway seems bemused by his network’s sudden fealty to the sharps. It’s like John Boy Walton coming home from school and finding out that Ma and Pa are headed out to a key party. Galloway suggests placing a camera inside the room in Las Vegas where linesmakers set and constantly readjust the odds during games. Where’s Brent Musburger when you need him?
Halftime finds Cole Cubelic roaming the Wildcats’ locker room. L.A. coach Winston Moss, a former NFL linebacker, makes himself available. Cubelic asks what halftime adjustments Moss will make, and all I can think is, What team will become the Astros of the XFL? I mean, is this feed available in the Vipers’ coaching box?
In the fourth quarter, Jack Tocho, a safety for the Wildcats, intercepts Vipers quarterback Taylor Cornelius in the end zone. Hart tells us that Tocho has an accounting degree, which reminds us of the XFL rule that after each game the players on the victorious squad are allotted $100,000 to split amongst themselves. Across four games this weekend, no announcing team has expounded on this. Which is odd, because there are so many questions to ask. Do they parcel it out evenly? With 52 players on each roster, why not make the math simpler and award $104,000? Is this more or less than players in the SEC make after a win? So many questions.
The Wildcats take the lead in the fourth quarter, but Johnson is no less obstreperous. “Gimme the play! Gimme the play!” the QB shouts from the field, sounding somewhat annoyed, as he waits for the chronically clinical Chow to make a call.
Later, with the outcome well in hand, Johnson again marches to the phone to place a call. “Stop complaining!” we hear Johnson tell Chow. “Y’all doing too much arguing and complaining. Stop that. Call plays.”
Johnson slams the phone down. You have to love him, though. His Twitter handle is @head8cke. At least he’s self aware.
He’s also a survivor. As for the XFL: Time will tell.
Wildcats 41, Vipers 34