The XFL debuted to a surprising buzz over the weekend. The games were well attended (all around 17,000), the product was better than expected, and TV ratings were solid.
The Houston entry, the Roughnecks, were one of the most impressive teams over the weekend, led by quarterback P.J. Walker, whose escapability and playmaking gave local fans something to cheer about.
Disclaimer: The games are being broadcast live on our station, ESPN 97.5, with the incomparable John Granato on the call. So I hope the league succeeds, because that is good for business. Having said that…
New leagues always do well opening week. Fans are curious and tune in. Sustaining it is always the issue. The first night of the original XFL drew a TV rating of over 10. The AAF had almost three million viewers in its debut and barely lasted a few more weeks. The new XFL topped that, but can it continue to keep fans interested?
I can't speak to the in-stadium experience, but plan to attend this week's game. However, the TV broadcast was terrific. Hearing the refs talk through the reviews and the transparency that came with it was fantastic. The coach interviews and playcalling were interesting too. There is always a chance the TV product is so good people do not go to the games.
The quality of play was pretty solid and clearly better than the AAF, although only one of the four games was close. That's to be expected with a startup, though.
The embracing of gambling is a good thing, although the announcers clearly have little knowledge in that regard and were just pandering to the audience. That, too, is to be expected.
The rules changes had surprisingly little impact on scores. The kickoff rule is interesting, as are the extra point options. But in general, teams stayed conservative and it was a lot closer to traditional football than some weird hybrid.
So what happens next?
Sustaining the crowds and TV ratings is a must. The league itself has solid coaching, which should make for more competitive games down the road. It also has Oliver Luck running things, which is a positive. Luck knows what he is doing.
But none of that matters if they can't keep people engaged. They have a smart model; they aren't trying to be the NFL, or hope the NFL subsidizes them like the AAF. They are trying to be a fun spring football league.
Can it work beyond Week 1? That remains to be seen, and it is easy to be skeptical. People have short attention spans, and March Madness is around the corner. Will people still be interested then?
A lot to learn
One of the criticisms is that most people don't know many of the players. That's fair. The league is hoping stars will emerge and people will get to know them then. P.J. Walker is clearly off to a good start in Houston. It's safe to say no one in Houston had heard of Nick Holley before Saturday. Players will need to emerge so fans will buy jerseys in addition to generic gear.
Judging from TV, there was a surprising number of fans in that gear at the game. Whether it was curiosity, the throw back to the Oilers with the name and logo, Bill O'Brien fatigue or the combination of all of the above, it went over well with a fan base that was engaged. They seemed to have fun. Our SportsMap coverage of the opener was well received.
Like them, as a football fan and a person who likes to wager, I enjoyed Week 1. But I'm also like a lot of people; will I stay interested in Weeks 4 and 5?
That is the XFL's multi-million dollar question. And we won't have an answer after one week.
“Another one!”- DJ Khaled
That's the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news of Tytus Howard being shut down for the season because of a knee injury. They've had more injuries on the offensive line this season than Nick Cannon has Father's Day cards. Almost every member of the offensive line has spent time on the injury report. Howard went down in the same game in which Juice Scruggs was finally on the active roster. He missed the first 10 games due to a hamstring injury. The irony of next man up has never been so in your face.
The other thing that came to mind was the soap opera As the World Turns.
Howard had just signed an extension this offseason. So did Laremy Tunsil and Shaq Mason. They drafted Juice Scruggs, and signed a few guys too. Those moves, along with other holdovers, were expected to fill out the depth chart. Then a rash of injuries struck. At one point, only one of the original five guys expected to start was playing! In fact, they beat the Steelers 30-6 with that backup offensive line!
One can't have the expectation of backups to perform as good as the starters. They're professionals and are on an NFL roster for a reason. However, the talent gap is evident. One thing coaching, technique, and preparation can't cover is lack of ability or talent. The Texans have done a good job of navigating the injury minefield this season. While the Howard injury will hurt, I have faith in the guys there still.
As of this writing, the Texans are in the eighth spot in the AFC playoff picture. The Steelers, Browns, and Colts are all in front of them at the fifth through seventh spots respectfully. They've beaten the Steelers already. They play the Browns on Christmas Eve and their starting quarterback is out for the season. The Colts are relying on the ghost of Gardner Minshew to steer their ship into the last game of the season vs. the Texans with a possible playoff trip on the line. The Broncos and Bills are the two teams immediately behind them. They play the Broncos this weekend. Even though they're on a hot streak, this is the same team that got 70 put on them by the Dolphins. The Bills are the old veteran boxer who still has some skill, but is now a stepping stone for up & comers.
To say this team should still make the playoffs would be an understatement in my opinion. I believe in them and what they have going on more than I believe in the teams I listed above. That includes teams around them in the playoff race that aren't on their schedule. The one thing that scares me a little moving forward is the sustainability of this line. When guys get up in age as athletes, it becomes harder to come back from injuries. The injuries also tend to occur more frequently when it's a knee, foot, ankle, shoulder, elbow, or another body part critical to blocking for C.J. Stroud.
I know they just re-signed three of those guys and drafted one they believe can be a starter, but depth and contingency plans are a way of life in the NFL. We see how important depth was this season. Why not plan ahead? Don't be surprised if the Texans spend valuable draft capital on the offensive line. By valuable, I'm talking about first through third or fourth rounders. Those are prime spots to draft quality offensive lineman. Whether day one starters or quality depth, those are the sweet spots. The only guy on the two deep depth chart for this offensive line that wasn't drafted in one of those rounds was George Fant, who was an undrafted rookie free agent. While I highly doubt they spend any significant free agency dollars on the group, I'm not totally ruling it out.
The bottom line is, this team will be okay on the line for the remainder of this season. The only way that doesn't happen, more injuries. Stroud is clearly the franchise guy. Protecting that investment is a top priority. I don't care about a number one receiver, or a stud stable or singular running back if the quarterback won't have time to get them the ball. If the pilot can't fly the plane, you know what happens. So making sure he's happy, healthy, and has a great crew is of the utmost importance.