2023 XFL DC Defenders Season Summary

D.C. Defenders quarterback Jordan Ta'amu in a game against the Vegas Vipers at Audi Field on March 12th, 2023 in Washington, DC. (© Abigail Dean/XFL)
D.C. Defenders quarterback Jordan Ta’amu in a game against the Vegas Vipers at Audi Field on March 12th, 2023 in Washington, DC. (© Abigail Dean/XFL)

This is part seven of what will be an eight-part look at each XFL’s team’s 2023 season. 

Part One: Orlando GuardiansPart Two: Vegas VipersPart Three: San Antonio BrahmasPart Four: St. Louis BattlehawksPart Five: Houston RoughnecksPart Six: Seattle Sea Dragons

What went right

The Defenders finished the regular season with the best record in the XFL at 9-1 and were undoubtedly the most consistent team in the league. RB Abram Smith led the XFL in rushing, QB Jordan Ta’amu was named the Offensive Player of the Year and Reggie Barlow was selected as Coach of the Year. Veteran defensive coordinator Gregg Williams lived up to his Dr. Heat nickname by dialing up the pressure against opposing quarterbacks, leading DC to finish second in sacks. Director of player personnel Von Hutchins made a series of deft in-season moves to supplement DC’s roster in acquiring players like RB Cam’Ron Harris (two rushing touchdowns in the XFL North Division Championship game), S DJ Swearinger (former 2nd round NFL draft pick who logged 15 tackles and an interception), and RB Pooka Williams (finished the season as the team’s primary kickoff and punt returner).

What went wrong

Being the best team in the regular season didn’t translate to an XFL Championship victory, as the team fell short in the finale against the Arlington Renegades. The normally reliable Ta’amu threw three interceptions and the pass-rush managed just one sack and six tackles for loss. DC’s perfect season came to an end in week seven against the winless Orlando Guardians, the first major cracks shown in the team. They were able to win out their remaining three games, but only by a combined four points. They weren’t putting away teams as handily as they had earlier in the season, evidence that teams may have been catching up to what DC was doing on offense and defense.

Offensive MVP

Far be it for me to disagree with XFL personnel and coaches who voted QB Jordan Ta’amu the league’s Offensive Player of the Year. For what it’s worth, I had him third in my own final race for the MVP column. He leaped his teammate Smith for this award with a late-season surge as defenses keyed in on stopping the run. Ta’amu put the team on his back in the second half, finishing the season with a shining 14-to-3 TD-to-INT ratio while also leading the league in yards per attempt at 8.3. He ran Fred Kaiss’s offense to near perfection, helping that side of the ball to gel more quickly than other teams in the league. DC ended up finishing first in points per game thanks to that offense.

Defensive MVP

Though his statistical production dropped off as the season progressed, CB Michael Joseph was a key cog in DC’s hot start. His two interception returns for touchdowns came in the first three weeks, but he still managed four total picks. He was also fifth on the team in tackles with 51 and led the team with six pass breakups. Per Pro Football Focus, he was DC’s highest-graded defender. By the end of the year, teams seemed to avoid throwing Joseph’s way. That’s the ultimate compliment a defensive back can receive.

Special Teams MVP

He wasn’t called upon very often, but when he was, P Daniel Whelan delivered the goods for DC. Over the ten game season, Whelan only punted 29 times. He managed to land 11 of those punts inside the 20-yard line and had just two touchbacks. Whelan was known to boom his punts – he finished third in the league in gross punting average. The NFL took notice of Whelan’s success in 2023: He became the first Defender to sign an NFL contract this year, inking a deal with the Green Bay Packers.

Most likely to succeed (in getting NFL opportunities)

By virtue of playing in the championship game, DC and Arlington players were shut out of NFL’s rookie minicamps, where several XFL players from the other six teams were able to try out. While Whelan is one of only two Defenders player to sign into the NFL as of now, expect more to come as we get nearer to training camp. Tops on the list: RB Abram Smith, C Michael Maietti, WRs Lucky Jackson and Chris Blair on offense; Joseph, DE Davin Bellamy, and S Santos Ramirez on defense. Conspicuous by his absence from this list is Ta’amu. He’s already cycled in and out of the NFL, making various short-term stops along the way. Leading the USFL in passing yardage and touchdowns in 2022 didn’t get him a sniff; I’m afraid his performance in the XFL this season may not get him back in the NFL, either.

QB concern level for 2024 (1-5)

Now a veteran of spring football, Ta’amu has carved out a nice pro career even if the NFL never comes calling again. He’ll certainly be welcome back to DC in 2024 and at just 25 years old, his best football could yet be ahead of him. Ta’amu and the Defenders have to figure out whether or not the rest of the XFL figured THEM out as the season wore on. Wholesale changes are unnecessary, but a full offseason and training camp in ’24 will give them an opportunity to add wrinkles to keep defenses on their toes. D’Eriq King proved to be an intriguing backup who had a package of plays per game for which he’d be utilized. He threw just 25 passes in 10 games, so there’s still uncertainty about how he’d perform if called upon to play a full game or multiple games in place of Ta’amu. Eric Dungey, who ended the year on IR, and Geremy Hickbottom could battle in camp for the #3 job. As long as Ta’amu is around, and with quality depth, this is a 1. 

Head coach hot seat rating (1-5)

Way back in March 2022, a local Virginia sports reporter broke the news that Reggie Barlow had been hired away from his job leading Virginia State University’s football team to become the XFL’s first head coach for 2023. The hire was met with a collective shoulder shrug from fans who seemed to be underwhelmed with the hire against the backdrop of some of the big names who were on-board as head coaches in 2020. Barlow made all of those doubters look silly this year in leading the Defenders to the best regular-season record and an appearance in the championship game. He’s gotten enough buzz to where it would not be a surprise if an NFL job awaits him in the future. While the XFL season is accommodating for players looking to move up to the NFL level, for coaches, it could be a little more difficult as all assistant positions are filled by the time the XFL season ends, and hires are usually made during the time the XFL is in its training camp. This is also a 1.

Offseason needs for 2024

The only need for sure right now is punter given Whelan’s signing with Green Bay. DC was able to acquire more offensive line depth than most teams in the league in 2023, but several players there could end up on NFL teams this summer. If Abram Smith moves up as expected, running back would be a need position. On defense, there were some real struggles late in the season. DC could seek an infusion of youth and talent along the defensive line. Pooka Williams shined when taking over kick return duties; however, a more potent punt returner could be sought.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.