How college football decision-making will shape the XFL’s chances for a 2021 season

TCF Bank Stadium, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota
An empty TCF Bank Stadium, University of Minnesota (Image credit)

Today, the Big 10 and PAC-12 conferences officially cancelled their fall sports, including football. Other FBS conferences may follow suit, though some like the SEC and Big 12 still plan on playing. The Big 10 and PAC-12 join the MAC, the Mountain West, independents Massachusetts and Connecticut, as well as many FCS conferences in postponing fall sports due to COVID-19.

The XFL league brass should be monitoring this situation closely. The dominoes may not be done falling in college athletics just yet, and the decisions made there should surely guide the XFL in whether or not to ramp up quickly to begin play in 2021 or to wait things out until 2022.

Here are three college football scenarios that we could see play out, and what its effects could be for the XFL:

1) College football conferences cancel their fall season, move to the spring of 2021.

This is the pie-in-the-sky hope for those conferences that have suspended play for the fall. Former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer has already come out and said there is “no chance” for a spring college football season. University of Wisconsin safety Eric Burrell termed the potential of a spring football season at “0%” on Twitter. Both Ohio State and Wisconsin belong to the Big 10.

There are a number of issues at play that makes a move to the spring difficult. First, many seniors will opt out to train for the NFL Draft. Entertaining a full slate of games in the spring, then turning around and asking the student athletes to play again in the fall would be too much, especially as athletes are increasingly demanding a stake in decision-making within their schools and conferences. A modified spring schedule of 6-8 games and a revised fall 2021 schedule of similarly limited contests might be the starting point for discussions.

If the unlikely wins out and major conferences do play in the spring, it limits the exposure the XFL could get. Networks like ESPN and FOX that could be in the running for XFL games have billion dollar commitments to college football conferences. Creative scheduling and midweek XFL games could work, but the thirst for college football will mean the XFL will get lost in the shuffle. Another downside here is that decisions about spring college football may not be made until deep into the winter; by that point, the XFL will have had to make a decision about whether or not to play in February. Just the threat of college football in the spring may keep the XFL out of the game for 2021.

2) Some college football conferences play in the fall, some play in the spring

This may be the toughest scenario for the XFL to navigate. Because the NCAA doesn’t have full control over decision-making of all its members, we could see some conferences playing in the fall, some in the spring, and some not at all. We could see some schools within a conference that chose not to play move to another conference for one season if they disagree with the decision of its conference. We could see some go independent for a year to pick up games. It could be chaos. We’ve seen college football players opt out of the fall season; even if their teams return to play in the spring, players could still opt out and choose the XFL if they believe the bubble that the XFL would likely play in would be a safer option for them than traveling back-and-forth across the country.

The XFL could also pick up players whose conferences did not return to playing the spring. With fewer college football games in this scenario, they could have interest from networks. There’s a difference between battling a full slate of college games on a Saturday and a few games here and there. The XFL and its television partners could choose to move contests to Fridays and Sundays, leaving Saturdays open for college games. Or, the network could market the XFL and college football piggybacking off each other, making a full day of gridiron action (college in the afternoon, XFL in the evening for example). Flexibility is going to be the key here for the XFL, which won’t be easy on short notice and without a full front office staff currently in place.

3) College football conferences whose fall seasons get cancelled don’t play in the spring

This is the only plan in which I’d endorse the XFL going full steam ahead for 2021. With no other football competition, the XFL should have no impediment to TV airtime in the spring. They’d be able to recruit players whose conferences elected not to play in the fall. While many first-round talents would likely forego the XFL and train on their own for a pro career, there are many potential mid-round draft picks who may look to improve their standing by trying their hand at the XFL. Remember too that players will be one-and-a-half years removed from their most recent game tape for pro scouts and personnel evaluators to look at; by playing in the XFL, they’d have more recent tape that would be a better reflection of where their on-field talent lies. Plus, they’d be competing against other professionals and making money doing so.

It’s worth pointing out that whatever decision the XFL makes, whether they play in 2021 or not, should be made with the long-term in mind. It may be attractive to rush into the 2021 season for many reasons listed above, but the short-term play should not be taken at the expense of the long-term survival of the league.

Five things we learned in the first week of the XFL under new ownership

Dany Garcia and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, new owners of the XFL
Dany Garcia and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, new owners of the XFL

It’s now been a week since news broke that a group led by Dany Garcia, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and RedBird Capital would be taking over the XFL. In that time, it’s been clear Garcia will be the voice of the partnership, having already done numerous print interviews with media outlets (ESPN, The Athletic (subscription required), Sports Illustrated, and of all places, People Magazine). Looking at her comments and other reporting over the last several days (via The Athletic (subscription required), Front Office Sports, and Sportico), we’ve already learned a little about the future of the XFL. Here’s what we’ve been able to glean so far:

(1) XFL 3.0 will look a lot like XFL 2.0

In almost all of her interviews, Garcia had high praise for the on-field changes brought on by Oliver Luck and his team, as well as the quality of play. She was a big fan of the more recent XFL incarnation, so it’s no surprise most if not all of the on-field innovations will be kept. Garcia did tell ESPN that she’d like to make the broadcast access more “elegant,” so that’s where you could end up seeing the most change, though I doubt it would be drastic. For those worried the new buyer would come in and make wholesale changes to an on-field product that largely worked in 2020, it seems for now those worries are unfounded.

(2) Former XFL employees will be strongly considered for positions within the rebooted league

Sportico spoke to former league employees that are yearning to still help make spring football work, and ESPN noted an estimate of fewer than 10% of those fired in the XFL’s shutdown have found permanent work elsewhere. Garcia told ESPN she’d be open to rehiring some people, and it sounds like COO Jeffrey Pollack and his team are safe. It’s been heavily speculated, however, that Oliver Luck will not return. There are many staffs at the team level that did a good job marketing locally, so it would be nice to have many of them back as well if for nothing else than the sake of continuity.

(3) The league is eyeing a 2021 return, but hasn’t committed to that

Garcia’s stance in these interviews when asked is that while their preference is to have the league up and running in 2021 (in a bubble if necessary), she hasn’t committed to it. A source close to the ownership group told The Athletic’s Daniel Kaplan that he doubts the league will be able to return as soon as 2021, but left open that possibility. With the sale of the XFL not officially closing until August 21, that doesn’t leave the group a lot of time to hire staffs, find coaches and players, secure TV deals, etc. needed for play less than six months from then. It’s also difficult to know what the landscape of sports will look like amid the pandemic early next year. One of the first big decisions Garcia, Johnson and others will have to make will be whether or not to start back again in 2021.

(4) Despite the powerhouse pairing of Garcia and Johnson, the league may struggle to get a good TV deal

FOX and ESPN have filed court documents to prevent their contracts with the league from being a part of the bankruptcy purchase. The Athletic and Front Office Sports both make it sound as if FOX is willing to play ball, but ESPN still may be on the outside looking in. Much of this will depend on the status of college football and what conferences opt to play in the spring and the XFL’s willingness to restart play in 2021. The two articles cited above also mention that representatives of the league are already holding informal talks with potential TV partners, but industry sources cited in those stories doubt the league will get any kind of paying deal, even to the level of the previous contracts which only included the networks doling out production costs. The pandemic may cause the sports TV rights bubble to finally burst, leaving behind the potential financial windfall the league was originally resurrected by Vince McMahon to cash in on.

(5) Expansion is on the menu…whatever that might mean

When asked by SI what’s next for the league, Garcia’s first response was “expansion.” She didn’t go much deeper than that, and expansion was always likely down the road had the league found success in 2020. It should tell you how much money the group is willing to spend on the league because expanding will not be cheap no matter when it occurs. The fact that the question was so open-ended and the first place Garcia’s mind went was to expansion should tell you that’s high on the list of priorities for the new ownership group. However, could Garcia have meant something other than expanding the number of teams? She followed up by saying “expansion and more storytelling,” citing the desire for the league to be in the consciousness of the fan year-round; could she mean expansion in terms of expanding marketing, social media, and engagement?

There are various major hurdles for the new ownership group to clear, more so than even perhaps Vince McMahon had when he initially brought the XFL back into existence. There were many news dry spells for fans of the league over the two year period between McMahon’s announced XFL resurrection and its kickoff; I don’t think fans will have to wait as long between news bites over the next few months, especially if things trend toward playing again in 2021.

Analyzing the potential buyers of the XFL

On Thursday, July 30, bids are due on the XFL and its assets. We should know by next week who will ultimately purchase the league in bankruptcy court, and potentially run it in the future. XFL President Jeffrey Pollack, one of the few league employees left standing after it shuttered operations in April, has tried to sell potential buyers on a “made for TV” multi-week version of the league in 2021, taking place in a single city, while operations would resume as normal in 2022.

Because we don’t know the new owner, or even who is bidding on the league, we also don’t know their intentions for the league. There are hundreds of permutations of what the XFL could look like in 2021 and beyond. Everything at this point is speculation. With that in mind, here are some of the potential bidders on the league and some of the pluses and minuses that could come with their purchase:

Disney: They were already in bed with the league via the television contract with ESPN/ABC in 2020, and are one of the most powerful media conglomerates in the country. They are one of the few who may not be affected as much financially by the COVID-19 pandemic. A Disney purchase would ensure the league remains visible on the biggest sports network (ESPN) and a major network platform (ABC). They’d have real stability from a monetary perspective well into the future. However, ESPN’s objection to its contract with the league being a part of the bankruptcy sale would seem to indicate they are not interested in the league without Vince McMahon’s backing. Could that be a hint that they won’t be bidding on it as well, or is this just covering themselves in case someone else buys the league?

FOX: The league’s other television partner in 2020, FOX comes with some of the same positives and negatives as Disney. FS1 and FS2 are not nearly the powerhouse sports stations as ESPN, and coverage of the league would diminish on Sportscenter and the like. A FOX purchase in theory doesn’t inhibit the ability for them to share broadcasting rights with an ESPN, for example. While much of FOX was actually purchased by Disney, the national FOX Sports stations and FOX network were not part of that sale. FOX also objected to their television contract with the league being part of the bankruptcy proceedings, but the language used in it revealed they are more open to working with new leadership. Regardless of who ends up owning the league, FOX may still be in play for the broadcasting of games.

Vince McMahon: McMahon reinvesting in the league could take many forms. He said during a deposition that while he once considered making a bid, he no longer will. Depositions are given under oath, so if he does find a way to land the league, he’ll be in hot water. So that could really be the end of the story. However, if WWE were to make a bid and NOT McMahon himself, could that be a way around the potential legal scuffle? Vince’s son Shane McMahon has been given odds of buying the league via MyBookie. I can’t see him buying it outright, but perhaps running it if it is bought out by WWE. Shane once wanted the company to buy and run the UFC during its trying financial times, and he has a history as a businessman. The downside of Vince having any part in the league is he has already shut it down twice and would probably have no compunction about doing it again. Also, who knows how much credibility in the business and sports world he lost by declaring bankruptcy in the first place (and his treatment of Oliver Luck, widely respected in both worlds). It could be difficult to make amends there and attract quality people. On the plus side, this is obviously a passion project of his and he seemed to steer the ship in mostly the right way in 2020. He might bring back the closest iteration of the 2020 league as anyone else.

NFL: This wouldn’t be the NFL’s first foray into minor league football, having also run NFL Europe. While XFL 2020 never competed with the NFL, it was seen as an alternative by some. That rebel spirit would be lost upon the NFL’s purchase. While the NFL is healthy from a business perspective, would they want the optics of purchasing and pumping hundreds of millions into the XFL while the NFL salary cap is likely to decrease next year and owners are losing out on avenues of revenue this season? Yet, a purchase by the NFL would make sure the XFL is relevant and solvent. NFL expansion into Europe seems fait accompli at some point, though the logistics could prove difficult; they could always dip a toe in the water by expanding the XFL there first. They could also use the league as a guinea pig, testing out potential rules and game play innovations, similar to how Major League Baseball has used its minor league system in the past. You’d get the highest quality of players with the NFL having a hand in it as well.

The Field: There are many others who could have an interest in the league. Any major network like CBS (they have experience hosting AAF games, which could be seen as a positive or a negative in sussing out their potential as buyers), NBC (NBCSN doesn’t have much outside of auto racing and soccer), Sinclair Broadcasting or Turner Sports. There are also individuals like Mark Cuban (XFL 2001 postseason media supplies quoted Cuban as saying if he was to buy another sports team it would be an XFL team – but 19 years is a long time) who could be interested, but I’d find that less likely than a major sports or media property.

For XFL fans, these last few months have been long and drawn out, much like the anticipation of the 2020 kickoff throughout the bulk of 2019. As many unknowns as there were then, there are even more now. So many fans are just holding their collective breaths, hoping for the best. In the next week or so, ideally, we’ll all be able to exhale a sigh of relief.

Analyzing Tampa Bay Vipers trades during 2019-2020

A newly acquired wide receiver S.J. Green practicing for the Vipers before heading into a Week 4 matchup against the DC Defenders. (Credit: XFL.com)

The Tampa Bay Vipers were one of the more active XFL teams when it came to wheeling and dealing before and during the season. In all, the team made seven trades in 2 ½ months. Here are the seven trades, and how they ended up working out for both sides. I’ll borrow from Pro Football Focus’s scale terminology in grading the deals: Elite, Very Good, Above Average, Average, Below Average, Poor.

December 11, 2019: Traded DT Trevon Sanders to LA for DT Leon Orr

Sanders was selected in the third open phase by the Vipers in the XFL Draft, meaning he was likely buried on the depth chart at defensive tackle as camp opened. Orr was a sixth-round pick by LA in the defensive front-seven phase. Orr, from the University of Florida, may have wanted to play closer to home. He didn’t last long in Tampa and was cut during mini-camp.

Sanders made the Wildcats and accrued five tackles prior to being placed on injured reserve on March 3rd. He played a reserve role in LA’s 3-4 defense. Given the draft pedigree of both men in terms of where they were selected, Sanders outplaying Orr could be considered a surprise. Tampa Bay could’ve used a backup DT as the year progressed with injuries to Ricky Walker that led to a late-season trade for DT Kellen Soulek.

VIPERS VALUE: BELOW AVERAGE

WILDCATS VALUE: AVERAGE

December 17, 2019: Traded CB Arrion Springs to LA for CB Jalen Collins

After acquiring what turned out to be valuable depth just six days earlier, LA went to the Viper well once again, fleecing Tampa Bay even more in their follow-up trade. Springs, selected in the first round by Tampa in the defensive backs phase, emerged from camp a starter for the Wildcats, registering 16 tackles, an interception, and a pass defensed. As far as the “why?”: Like the earlier trade, you must wonder if Springs, who played college ball at Oregon, preferred a return to the West Coast. If not, this seems awful early to give up on your first-round selection if you’re the Vipers.

Tampa’s corners had an up-and-down year. They took a chance on the troubled Collins and his NFL 2nd round draft background, but he turned out to be a bust. Selected by LA in November’s supplemental draft, Collins was buried on the depth chart in Tampa, notching just one assisted tackle and a pass defensed before being waived outright on March 3rd.

VIPERS VALUE: POOR

WILDCATS VALUE: VERY GOOD

January 12, 2020: Traded WR Freddie Martino to Dallas for WR Stacy Coley

Another high-round draft pick was exchanged in this deal. Coley, picked in the fourth round by Dallas, was sent to Tampa for Martino, whom the Vipers plucked in the second phase of the open draft. While Coley made the Vipers after camp broke, he was waived three days before the season opened to make room for a backup tight end to fill in for the injured DeAndre Goolsby. Tampa’s receiving corps was relatively deep, so Coley wasn’t horribly missed. It should be noted that no other team picked Coley up during the season.

Martino was behind a number of talented receivers in Dallas before he was put on injured reserve on March 9th. In his time with the Renegades, Martino snagged four balls for 58 yards with a long of 32. He was not the first option in Hal Mumme’s pass-heavy offense, but there were clearly enough balls to go around. Had he not been traded, it’s unlikely Martino would’ve cracked Tampa’s starting lineup. Still, a minor contributor is more than what the Vipers received.

VIPERS VALUE: BELOW AVERAGE

RENEGADES VALUE: AVERAGE

January 19, 2020: Traded G William Campbell & WR Alonzo Moore to Seattle for DT Shane Bowman & QB Chase Litton

This trade was consummated just prior to cut-down day for all eight XFL teams, and was the final trade made by Tampa before the season began. Campbell and Moore were both 10th round draft picks by Tampa in their respective positional phases. The Dragons’ starting left guard for four games, Campbell was waived by the Dragons on March 11th in one of the last transactions made before the league suspended operations for the season. Up to that point, he had been the lowest-graded Seattle offensive lineman, per Pro Football Focus. Moore was a third-string receiver at one of the three starting spots, bumped up to second-string with the season-long injury to Kasen Williams. Moore ended third on the team in receiving yards with 110 on eight catches.

Bowman was the fourth defensive tackle in the rotation for the Vipers, and his playing time may have eventually been challenged by Kellen Soulek, whom the Vipers traded for at the end of February. Bowman had two tackles and one for loss on the year. The trade for Litton was intriguing at the time, thought to be perhaps a signal the Vipers weren’t happy with their backup QB spot. But when Aaron Murray got hurt, Taylor Cornelius stepped right in and despite an uneven performance in the games he started, the Vipers never looked to Litton. In fact, Quinton Flowers would’ve been next up. Litton ended up getting waived on March 4th when Tampa needed the roster spot for another running back. Once again, Tampa’s trading partner came away with the bulk of the production in a starter and a key reserve.

VIPERS VALUE: BELOW AVERAGE

DRAGONS VALUE: ABOVE AVERAGE

February 18, 2020: Traded LB Korey Toomer to Seattle for WR S.J. Green

Toomer was a Vipers acquisition during camp, but he did not report. This trade sent him back to the west coast, where he played in college (Idaho) and where he made his biggest NFL impact (Seattle Seahawks). It didn’t seem as if he would report to Tampa, so the fact the team got anything for him is a plus. Toomer was listed as Seattle’s backup outside linebacker and may not have had enough time to get up to speed in the Dragons’ defense to make a contribution.

Green was a CFL legend who entered the XFL and was claimed by Seattle. He played for Tampa head coach Marc Trestman in Canada and played his college ball in South Florida. It’s possible that, like Toomer, he engineered a trade to be closer to familiar territory. It was thought that the 34-year old Green could step in and be a factor, but he didn’t catch a single pass. This was a trade that was significantly affected by the early shutdown of the league, as these two may have had more of an opportunity in the second half of the season once they were more comfortable with their surroundings.

VIPERS VALUE: AVERAGE

DRAGONS VALUE: BELOW AVERAGE

February 24, 2020: Traded LB Anthony Stubbs to St. Louis for CB Trey Caldwell

A coach’s decision inactive for two of Tampa’s three games up to the point of the trade, Stubbs was dealt to St. Louis for cornerback depth needed when Rannell Hall went on injured reserve. When the BattleHawks activated CB Marquez White from injured reserve, it made Caldwell expendable. Caldwell was active for both games for which he was on Tampa’s roster, playing mostly on special teams in backing up Tarvarus McFadden. Stubbs went from a team that played two linebackers in its base to another team that played predominantly a 4-2-5. Suffice to say, Stubbs’s playing time in St. Louis didn’t increase with his address change. He ended the year as a third-sting linebacker behind Dexter McCoil and Shaq Jones. It was a need-for-need depth trade that didn’t hurt either team but didn’t help them a ton in the short-term, either.

VIPERS VALUE: AVERAGE

BATTLEHAWKS VALUE: AVERAGE

February 28, 2020: Traded CB Trovon Reed to St. Louis for DT Kellen Soulek

Rounding out the third trade in ten days for Tampa Bay was another deal where you are forced to read between the lines to figure out what happened. Reed was placed on I.R. by St. Louis on January 21st. Somehow, he ended up on Tampa to be traded BACK to St. Louis. The best that I can figure is that in order to be activated off injured reserve, you have to clear waivers. It’s similar to the NFL’s process where players have to clear waivers before they are put on I.R. during the preseason. There’s a gentlemen’s agreement among teams to not claim those players, something to which the New England Patriots, in particular, have not always adhered.

Perhaps something similar is in place in the XFL. The unspoken agreement would explain why no team claimed DE Obum Gwacham, for example, when Tampa activated him off IR. But the Vipers may have claimed Reed anyway, knowing that St. Louis wanted him. In order for St. Louis to get him back, they’d have to give something up. In this case, it was backup DT Kellen Soulek. It’s a little surprising Tampa couldn’t get something more, unless Reed wasn’t intent on playing for the Vipers. Soulek didn’t notch any stats for St. Louis and was inactive in week five for Tampa Bay. On their depth chart, he was third-string DT behind Josh Banks and Shane Bowman. Reed had four tackles upon his return to active duty for the BattleHawks, indicating that he was seeing playing time on defense there. It’s another situation where Tampa got something, even if it is a deep reserve, for someone who may not have played for them. Speculation about how this came about makes attaching a grade more difficult.

VIPERS VALUE: BELOW AVERAGE

BATTLEHAWKS VALUE: AVERAGE

SUMMARY

Tampa made a few shrewd moves to get something out of Korey Toomer and Trovon Reed, but if they plan on being this active in the trade market in 2021, they need to get better value and depth from their deals. This season wasn’t a promising start for them on that front.

Scouting The Spring League: Five players who could find their way onto XFL rosters in 2021

Before the entire sports world shut down in mid-March, The Spring League completed their developmental football season in Las Vegas. Last year, the XFL partnered with the TSL to test potential rules and host the Summer Showcases. Players were able to perform for XFL coaches and scouts during this time.

More than 25 TSL alumni were in XFL camps this winter, and many more were included in October’s draft pool. In order to keep the quality of play at a high level, the XFL will turn over every stone in their effort to find the best players available.

With that in mind, here are a few prospects who stood out to me in researching TSL talent from the latest season. I combed through the entire player list to identify five who could have a future in the XFL in 2021 and beyond. Full rosters can be found here:

C Deveric Gallington, Texas Tech: Standing 6’3” and weighing 335 pounds, Gallington has the requisite size to be a force on the offensive line. He’s used to playing in an up-tempo offense at Texas Tech, which should ease his transition to the XFL’s 25-second play clock. He also played in the Air Raid system there under Mike Leach and Tommy Tuberville, a system that has found its way to the XFL thanks to the influence of Dallas assistant coach Hal Mumme. Gallington was a 2013 undrafted free agent of the Arizona Cardinals, but failed to break camp with the team. He also played in the AFL. A steady presence on the Red Raiders’ line, Gallington made an impressive 38 consecutive starts at right guard and center.

LB Aamir Petrose, Wesley: I wanted to choose five players who seemed to be off the XFL’s radar, but I cheated a little with Petrose. He was in the league’s supplemental draft pool in November but was not chosen. His production warrants another look, however. As a defensive end in college, Petrose accumulated 13 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss as a senior. He stuffed the stat sheet with three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 13 pass break-ups in 14 games. It is said that when you play at a lower level collegiately, you need to dominate to have a chance to survive in the upper ranks of pro football. Petrose did just that. Post-college, he had a CFL tryout and played in the Alliance of American Football.

OT Jeremiah Poutasi, Utah: It can be difficult to find quality offensive linemen for alternative football leagues. Poutasi stands out because of his NFL regular season experience (12 games), something afforded only a few TSL players. Still relatively young at 25, Poutasi needs to show the mobility to handle edge rushers while carrying 340 pounds on his 6’4” frame. He may be a candidate to kick inside to guard, where he does have some familiarity. Poutasi was a 3rd round pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2015. He was with the Cardinals as recently as this past season, and also dabbled in the AAF.

DT Khalil Sommerville, Buffalo State: From Division III Liberty League comes all 6’1”, 295 pounds of Sommerville. After a mini-camp tryout with the hometown Buffalo Bills in 2018, Sommerville plied his trade with the Salt Lake Stallions in the AAF. Despite playing inside on the defensive line, Sommerville was able to notch 125 tackles, 32 for loss, and 12 sacks in 31 collegiate games. Four tackles per game for an interior defensive lineman catches your eye no matter what the level or scheme you play in. His size gives him versatility to play end in a 3-4 or tackle in a 4-3.

RB Lavance Taylor, Central Missouri: At 27 years old, Taylor could be coming into his prime as a runner. He spent a short time with the Kansas City Chiefs, signing as an undrafted free agent in 2015. He also had a brief stint with Ottawa in the CFL. His college numbers are eye-popping: Taylor averaged 7.8 yards per carry on 245 rushes as a senior, including 15 rushing touchdowns. He also caught a total of 66 passes in his final two collegiate seasons. His pass-catching ability could come in handy in the XFL, where that is an integral part of many offenses in the league.

End-of-season Tampa Bay Vipers positional grades

Tampa Bay Vipers quarterback Taylor Cornelius (Credit: XFL.com)

Quarterbacks: C: Aaron Murray struggled mightily in his lone start in week one, then lost his job to Taylor Cornelius once he finally did get healthy. Cornelius had his own struggles, which makes it all the more curious Tampa Bay never did go back to Murray. I could understand if Cornelius was playing lights-out, but that wasn’t the case. Cornelius made strides over the course of his four starts, but never showed the consistency that would make him the unquestioned starter going into the 2021 season. Tampa seemed content to use Quinton Flowers as a gadget player, though Flowers himself wasn’t content with that usage. Will he get his trade wish this offseason? That won’t make the already-tenuous fanbase happy. If Murray and Cornelius both return, it should be an open competition for the job in camp.

Running Backs: A: De’Veon Smith and Jacques Patrick made for a formidable 1-2 punch at the running back position. With the QB spot in flux, the backs were able to chew up yardage on the ground and take some pressure off the signal-callers. They complimented each other well and kept each other fresh – that is, until Patrick got hurt in week five. Smith struggled with a heavier workload, and it’s part of what cost the Vipers their 17-point lead, and the win, against Los Angeles. Mack Brown and Tarean Folston, the two #3 backs on the season, were mostly relegated to special teams work. A pass-catching third back could open up a new dimension in the offense so that Smith and Patrick don’t have to carry the water in the pass game as well. With no fullback on the roster, TE Colin Thompson occasionally lined up in the backfield as lead blocker.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B: The team’s top three receivers, Reece Horn, Jalen Tolliver and Daniel Williams, combined for 66% of the team’s total targets in the passing game. They were the clear top three threats and played well despite the inconsistency at the quarterback spot. Williams and Tolliver succeeded in the vertical game, while Horn worked underneath to the tune of less than nine yards per catch. Injuries hampered Nick Truesdell’s production and he caught just nine passes. A healthy Truesdell will be key to the offense next season. DeAndre Goolsby made a few plays but he and Colin Thompson were mostly used as blockers. Only four receptions were made by wide receivers other than the top three. If Antonio Callaway returns from injury next season, he will help beef up the depth at this spot.

Offensive Line: B-: The Vipers finally seemed to settle on a starting five when the season was cancelled. The right side of the line in particular was ineffective early in the year; right tackle Isaiah Williams was eventually replaced by Marquis Lucas, and right guard Daronte Bouldin was sent to the bench in favor of Andrew Tiller, who returned from injured reserve in week four. Jordan McCray played well at center, as did Martez Ivey at left tackle. Jerald Foster was serviceable as the left guard. Having Bouldin and Williams in relief provided game-tested depth. While the run game numbers look good on paper, much of that yardage was gained by the backs on their own. Like the passing game, the pass blocking had its moments, but was not consistent enough. They tied for the most sacks allowed in the league.

Defensive Line: C: A healthy Obum Gwacham would’ve helped this unit, and he was rounding into form just as the league closed up shop for the year. His pass rush prowess was much needed as the Vipers didn’t generate enough from the edge. Gwacham registered the only sack from the line in five games, which just isn’t good enough from a four-man front. Veteran Nikita Whitlock led the team in quarterback hits and tackles for loss, and paced the line in tackles. Ricky Walker was more effective than Josh Banks at the other tackle position; they seemed to receive about equal playing time. As time went on, Bobby Richardson accumulated more playing time than Deiontrez Mount at the end position opposite Gwacham. Mount, the team’s second-round draft pick, disappointed with just six tackles.

Linebackers: C+: Jerry Glanville’s 4-2-5 defense doesn’t put a premium on the linebacker position, making that spot difficult to grade on a weekly basis. Terrance Plummer and Reggie Northrup each had a sack, but their in-game contributions came more on special teams than defense. Middle linebacker Lucas Wacha led this group with 14 tackles. Curiously, despite the de-emphasizing of the linebacker spot, the Vipers still spent four of their 10 draft picks in the defensive front seven phase on this spot. Thurston Armbrister, who has 31 games of NFL experience, was added from Team Nine just prior to the shut-down. It would’ve been interesting to see if he could’ve elbowed his way onto the defense.

Defensive Backs: B-: The defensive backfield allowed a completion percentage of just 52.8%, but also gave up nine touchdowns while picking off just three passes. Anthoula Kelly played well with eight passes defensed and 23 tackles. Marcelis Branch paced the team with 33 tackles, 10 more than the second-place tackler. Tarvarus McFadden also deserves a shout-out with two interceptions and three passes defensed. Micah Hannemann was challenged often as the nickel back but defensed three passes. The safeties offered ample support in the run game. The Vipers found a gem in the open phase of the draft, picking up starting safety Robert Priester out of Wyoming. Priester had a sack, an interception, and a pass defensed. Of the ten picks in the defensive backfield phase, only Hannemann and Branch saw significant playing time. A trade for former NFL 2nd round pick Jalen Collins prior to the season didn’t amount to anything of value.

Special Teams: C: The altered kickoff rules were supposed to encourage longer returns. The Vipers apparently didn’t get the message, as they averaged less than 20 yards per return. Punt return numbers weren’t much better, as they averaged just 5.5 per run back. This could be another area a healthy Antonio Callaway could improve. Jake Schum’s punting was fine, about average when it comes to the rest of the league in both gross and net yardage. Andrew Franks missed his only two kicks of 50+ yards but was otherwise relatively accurate. Reggie Northrup led the team with seven special teams tackles, while Gwacham had five in just two games. If Tampa Bay decides Callaway isn’t the answer, the return game could use some juice heading into next season.

COLUMN: The XFL 2020 autopsy: Four key aspects of the league’s first season to analyze, critique, and review

In 2020, St. Louis BattleHawks fans filled the lower bowl of “The Dome.” (Credit: XFL.com)

And so it ends – not with a bang, but rather a thud. Seemingly as soon as the XFL season began, it, like all major American sports organizations, was put on ice. While the decision to suspend the XFL season at the midway point was met with consternation from some fans, confirmation that it was the right call came when it was reported that an unidentified Seattle Dragons player had tested positive for COVID-19.

The XFL was unable to finish what was a promising season on many fronts. Ratings and attendance were decent, quality of play was high, and several rule changes and game innovations were lauded by the mainstream sports media. Before we look ahead to season two, we’ll take a look back at the four most important aspects of the league and how they fared.

RATINGS

Without a doubt, this is the most important metric in which to measure the league. The XFL business model will only be sustainable if they can acquire a sizeable monetary deal from a network in exchange for broadcast rights. Their three-year deal with ESPN/ABC and FOX is a prove-it contract. The hope is either network will want to renegotiate before those three years is up and offer the XFL a big-money deal, or that the product will be hot enough to shop it to multiple bidders at the end of the three seasons.

Prior to the season, The Sports Business Journal predicted a “respectable” average of 1.5 million viewers on broadcast TV (ABC and FOX); the XFL averaged 2.27 million. They predicted a “healthy” average of 800,000 on FS1 and ESPN; the XFL averaged 1.292 million.

The early weeks heavily skewed these numbers, as the XFL was closer to averaging 1.5 million on ABC and FOX in week five and was under a million for both the FS1 and ESPN games in the same week. The potential was there for the numbers to have drifted lower in the second half of the season, so the ability to walk away from year one with the numbers they did works to the league’s benefit.

From week one to week five, the ABC viewership declined 53%, while the FOX game dropped 55% in that same time span (averaging together the two FOX games in week one). The ESPN contests dropped 66% and the FS1 game from week two to week five (there was no FS1 game in week one) saw a 43% decrease in viewers.

As respectable as the numbers are, they likely won’t start from the same high-point in year two as they did in year one. The XFL needs to hope viewership sustains better in 2021. Just the fact that the league will return for a second season, when so many others haven’t, may be the tonic some football fans need to assure them it’s okay to invest time in the XFL.

ATTENDANCE

In 2001, the XFL averaged 23,410 fans per game in attendance. In 2020, that number was 18,125. I expected closer to the 2001 number, shooting for 20,000 per game. St. Louis and Seattle were the two best home draws for the league and they only had two home games on the docket. Had they ended the season with three home games rather than two, that would’ve affected this year’s average.

There are many reasons why a league that was ridiculed in 2001 would average more in attendance than the more generally-accepted version in 2020. In bigger markets in 2020, the teams are in tougher competition for entertainment dollars. The stench of the 2001 version may not have helped, nor did the tanking of the Alliance of American Football just a season before, further casting doubt on the viability of spring football. WWE used its television to steer fans to the XFL two decades ago; WWE’s audience is just a fraction of what it was then, and this time, the two entities are under separate corporate umbrellas with no crossover.

The AAF in 2019 averaged 15,292 fans per game, but they went into smaller markets than the XFL. The good news for the XFL is that of the four teams that had a third home game before the season ended, two saw their attendance numbers increase from the second game, and one (Houston) even bested their home opener.

I don’t worry about attendance for 2021. This time will give team presidents more opportunity to establish roots in the community, something each one has done a nice job with already. Like the ratings, fans will continue to come out when they sense the league and the teams are here to stay.

Facility changes could help with attendance, or at least the appearance on television. Tampa Bay and New York both play in large, NFL stadiums, which is nice for giving the perception of a major league franchise, but not so good when you only fill 1/7th of the bowl.

Hopefully the XFL looks at smaller venues in those communities during the offseason, as the fan experience would likely improve with those changes as well. Some of the best atmospheres seemed to be in those stadiums where fans were closer together and closer to the field.

QUALITY OF PLAY

The most important influence on ratings and attendance would be the quality of play. It was what the XFL in 2001 lacked amid all the other bells and whistles. From the outset, I noted that quarterback and offensive line play would be the two key positions that would determine, in large part, the on-field product.

Could the linemen keep the QBs upright long enough for them to make plays? Could they open holes in the run game for long gainers? Could the QBs provide enough of a spark so that the offenses could put points on the board in numbers that would create enough interest for fans?

While quarterback play was decent enough, with some standout performers and others who stubbed their toes (leading to coaching staffs eventually finding the right guy), it was the offensive line play that impressed me most. The lines were not sieves that some expected, and sacks were harder to come by than you’d think against lines that didn’t have a lot of time to gel together.

There were a few games where the number of penalties were an issue, but others were played relatively cleanly. Spotty QB play and laundry getting frequently tossed are both qualities we see in NFL regular season games at times, too. The referees didn’t seem to over-enforce, either, and generally let the players play. Whether that was a mandate from the league office, Dean Blandino, or just the officiating style of the men and women in the zebra shirts, it was refreshing.

INNOVATIONS/RULE CHANGES

The XFL spent over a year finding, refining, and putting into action the rule changes they wanted to enact for the 2020 kickoff. Some ideas were scrapped, others were tweaked, and still other changes need to be made for 2021 (I’m looking at you, penalties enforced on the kickoffs).

The league wanted the game to still resemble football, but to alter it to encourage the safety of its players and a more exciting game. I think they succeeded on both fronts. Starting with the kickoff, perhaps the league’s biggest triumph, one that has some sportswriters crowing that the NFL should steal it and implement it this year.

The 25-second play clock to speed up the game was met with few hiccups. The ball-spotter was a nice addition to the on-field crew. Pulling back the curtain on the replay official didn’t always provide riveting television, but it’s certainly more entertaining than staring at an official looking under a hood for five minutes. Speaking of which, replay officials were quick on their calls, too.

Most of the innovations were positive at best, benign at worst. The two issues were with the clock rules under 2:00 in each half, and the double-forward pass. As for the latter, teams simply didn’t employ it enough, a concern I had in one of my earlier columns. The XFL didn’t want “gimmicks,” yet that’s what this was. It has the potential for excitement but wasn’t in the game plan for most coaches.

The last 2:00 of each half slowed to a crawl because of the league’s Comeback Period rules, made to feel even longer when the rest of the half flies by because of the running clock. The game often had to be stopped so the referee could reset the game clock or the play clock or remind the clock operators not to start the game clock until the play clock reached 25 seconds.

I don’t mind the rules on paper, but in practice it was a little sloppy. One could argue these rules contributed to the mess at the end of the Seattle vs. Houston game, in which the time expired despite :03 remaining with time for one last play. I don’t think the timing rules necessarily need to be scrapped, as the more coaches, players, officials, and clock operators get used to the system, the smoother it should run.

CONCLUSION

It’s a shame the XFL didn’t get a chance to finish its season. Ratings hopefully would’ve stabilized; attendance would’ve continued to increase to bump the average up, including St. Louis potentially hitting the 40,000 mark; the league would’ve continued to provide exciting moments with the on-field product and the innovations it established. Not everything was perfect, but the XFL built a great foundation in which to work for 2021. So let’s not say goodbye to the XFL…let’s just say, see you later.

Tampa Bay Vipers positional grades vs. L.A. Wildcats (Week Five)

Tampa Bay Vipers quarterback Taylor Cornelius (Credit: XFL.com)

QB: D+: For the first half of the game, we continued to see the coming of age of Taylor Cornelius as the Vipers starting QB. For the second half, and especially the fourth quarter, he devolved into the guy who struggled in his first start in place of the injured Aaron Murray. Cornelius had another rushing touchdown, in the second quarter from the three yard-line, on a brilliant keeper call by offensive coordinator Jaime Elizondo. His touchdown pass later in the quarter to Jalen Tolliver was a good one: On the run, finding Tolliver in the back of the end zone. He came off as extremely confident playing with a lead. A 3rd-and-8 incompletion that should’ve been a pick-six in the third was the beginning of the downhill slide. Three turnovers in the fourth doomed Tampa’s comeback attempts, including a Cornelius sack/fumble that was returned for a TD and an interception in the end zone that ended the game. Quinton Flowers, after returning to the team, was a non-factor in the few snaps he played.

RB: C: The turning point of the game for the Vipers seemed to be when Jacques Patrick went down with a back injury. Without their two-headed rushing attack, De’Veon Smith had to carry 24 times and was not nearly as effective: He averaged just 2.9 yards per carry. It was prescient that Tampa re-signed Tarean Folston in the days before the game, but they didn’t seem to trust him to step fully into Patrick’s role, as he saw just two carries. Before getting hurt, Patrick scored from two yards out, set up by his own 24-yard run. He also converted the follow-up one-point conversion. The ineffective run game likely didn’t help Cornelius, forcing him into more obvious passing situations.

WR/TE: B-: Upon his return to the lineup after missing two games due to injury, Nick Truesdell caught a pass on the second play of the game. Unfortunately for the Vipers, he caught just one more the rest of the game. They had him lined up in an H-Back position in the backfield a few times, a look we haven’t seen much of this season. Reece Horn, Jalen Tolliver, and Dan Williams all had big games and the three starting receivers combined for 25 of the 33 targets in the pass game. Horn converted a 4th-and-3 in the first quarter and had a touchdown. Tolliver’s TD came on a great sliding catch in the back of the end zone. He averaged 23.8 yards on four receptions. Williams snagged a one-point conversion on a WR screen. It was a miscommunication on a route between DeAndre Goolsby and Cornelius that led to an interception in the end zone with under a minute remaining, sealing the Vipers’ fate.

OL: C+: Against the worst run defense in the XFL statistically speaking, the Vipers struggled to run the ball. The broadcast caught head coach Marc Trestman asking offensive coordinator Jaime Elizondo to run the ball less on first downs because of the lack of success there. In the pass game, the line allowed just one sack. According to Pro Football Focus, Jordan McCray didn’t give up a pressure in 42 pass blocking snaps from the center position. Martez Ivey had two penalties at left tackle. The line was short on depth this week with only Na’Ty Rodgers and John Yarbrough available as backups; Daronte Bouldin and Isaiah Williams, two former starters, were healthy scratches.

DL: C: With Ricky Walker inactive due to injury, Shane Bowman was up for the first time since signing and he made a few splash plays. He got good penetration (too good once; he was called for offsides) and recovered an errant shotgun snap in L.A territory. Nikita Whitlock was also flagged for offsides, but he had two tackles for loss and two hurries in addition to leading the defensive line in tackles. Production-wise, he may be playing the best of anyone on the line. Obum Gwacham played more than last week but had just one tackle. Jason Neill was called for roughing the passer in the third quarter. It appears as if Deiontrez Mount’s playing time has decreased in favor of Bobby Richardson at one end spot.

LB: C-: Running backs carried the ball just 14 times, so the linebackers didn’t have much action in the run game. They, along with the line, bottled it up whenever the Wildcats did run it. The defense did a good job swarming to the ball, which is good because there was some over-pursuit by the backers and line. Reggie Northrup had three tackles and an offsides. Terrance Plummer was hurt on a collision with L.A. fullback Winston Dimel but reentered the game later. He was beaten on a touchdown pass by the much larger De’Quan Hampton. Lucas Wacha, who relays the plays to the defense on the field, had just one tackle. Plummer and Northrup were both in on three each. L.A. had success with the tight ends in the pass game.

DB: D: While the offense stubbed their toe in the second half and couldn’t keep up with the Wildcats in terms of scoring, the defensive backs couldn’t get stops when they needed to, either. Josh Johnson threw for 288 yards and four touchdowns to lead the top passing offense in the XFL. The Vipers started off hot with Robert Priester intercepting Johnson on the first play of the game. He came off his man and read Johnson’s eyes. Priester later broke up a pass on a scramble drill, sticking with his responsibility throughout the play. It was a game to forget for Micah Hannemann, who missed an open-field tackle on Jordan Smallwood’s 54-yard gain to the one yard-line, then later was beaten deep along with Tarvarus McFadden just before halftime. The DBs defended a flea flicker well. The size advantage the Wildcats receivers had over the Vipers defensive backs seemed to play a part in their success.

ST: C+: In an effort to get Quinton Flowers into the game, he was put in as kick returner after practicing there during the week. He didn’t even reach the 20 yard-line on his lone return. Andrew Franks was good from 26 and 25 but missed short from 57 yards just prior to the half. Ryan Davis averaged less than 14 yards per kick return, often leaving the Vipers offense with a long field. Jake Schum dropped two of four punts inside the 20. The team was penalized for a block in the back on a punt return. Special teams created a turnover, with Emmanuel Beal recovering a fumble forced by Micah Hanneman deep in L.A. territory, leading to a touchdown for Tampa. Obum Gwacham made his mark on coverage teams again, leading the way with three tackles.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, three fourth quarter turnovers drop Vipers to 1-4

Tampa Bay Vipers running back De’Veon Smith (Credit: XFL.com)

The Tampa Bay Vipers had a long, cross-country flight back to the east coast to think about how and why they left the City of Angels with a 1-4 record instead of 2-3 with a chance to reach .500 at home this Saturday.

Not only are the Vipers now in sole possession of last place in the XFL East division after their 41-34 loss to the Los Angeles Wildcats on Sunday night at Dignity Health Sports Park, but they’re two games behind the other three teams with just five games remaining in the regular season.

“We worked our tails off, but the fact of the matter is we’re a 1-4 football team,” said Vipers head coach Marc Trestman after the game. Both the Wildcats and Vipers came into the game at 1-3, and both were sorely in need of a victory to keep their playoff hopes alive. Trestman referred to this game as a “gotta-have-it-win” for the two squads.

Despite the long trip, it was the Vipers who jumped out to quick lead. Robert Priester intercepted Wildcats quarterback Josh Johnson on the first play of the game, leading to an Andrew Franks field goal to open the scoring. Following a Wildcats punt, the Vipers offense put together a 65-yard drive capped off by a Jacques Patrick one-yard touchdown run. He followed that with a successful one-point conversion.

“Was really proud of our guys the way we started; coming out here from the east coast and being able to start fast was big for us,” said Trestman.  Defensive tackle Shane Bowman, active due to an injury that sidelined Ricky Walker for this game, recovered an errant snap in Wildcats territory on the next Los Angeles drive. Eight plays later, quarterback Taylor Cornelius scored on a two-yard touchdown run. De’Veon Smith converted the conversion to put the Vipers on top 17-0 in dominating fashion.

After the Wildcats got on the board to break the shutout, Emmanuel Beal recovered a fumbled punt at the L.A. 27-yard line. Cornelius found Jalen Tolliver for a 16-yard score to stretch the lead to 24-6 with 6:28 to go in the first half. That would be as good as it would get for the Vipers.

The Wildcats would score twice before the half, making it 24-20 at the break. Tampa Bay’s offense stalled for a long period, due in part to the absence of Patrick, who had suffered an injury in the first half and did not return. The normally reliable two-headed monster at running back was not as effective when De’Veon Smith was forced to carry the load himself. “We pounded the run pretty good tonight, but we didn’t get significant yardage or bigger runs after the first or second drive,” said Trestman of the team’s run game.

Los Angeles took its first lead, one it would not relinquish, when Josh Johnson tossed one of his four TD passes on the evening, to Tre McBride with 1:42 remaining in the third quarter. “He’s just such an experienced quarterback and he’s getting better every week,” said Trestman of Johnson.

Three fourth quarter turnovers doomed Tampa Bay’s comeback prospects. On the first play of the final stanza, Cornelius was intercepted by Reggie Howard, and the big man rumbled his way to the Tampa 17-yard line. With a short field in which to operate, Johnson found Saeed Blacknall for a touchdown, extending the L.A. lead to 33-24.

An Andrew Franks field goal closed the gap to 33-27. After the Vipers defense got a stop, Cornelius was sacked deep in his own territory by Cedric Reed, allowing Boogie Roberts to pick up the ball and run 23 yards for a touchdown. Needing a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie late in the game, and with the ball at the L.A. seven yard-line with 37 seconds left, Cornelius and TE DeAndre Goolsby were not on the same page, resulting in a Jack Tocho interception in the end zone to close it out. “We have a bunch of fighters, and they learned how to fight tonight,” said Wildcats head coach Winston Moss.

The 18-point deficit marked the largest comeback in the XFL this year, and the 41 points makes L.A. the first team to break the 40-point barrier. These numbers were hung on a Tampa defense that came into play this weekend as the number one defense in the league.

The St. Louis BattleHawks, tied for first in the East and coming off a loss to the D.C. Defenders last weekend, will travel to Tampa to face the Vipers. The game will be at 5pm EST on Saturday, broadcast on FS2.

COLUMN: In the XFL, NFL pedigrees are no match for youth, production

QB Zach Mettenberger
 “It kind of blows my mind that the XFL hasn’t reached out to me,” QB Zach Mettenberger recently told Sports Illustrated.

When the XFL released the names of those eligible for October’s draft, the list was dotted with recognizable names to college and NFL football fans. With the league trying to gain a foothold in the hearts and minds of sports fans, observers wondered just how much those big names would play a part in establishing the roots of the league.

Would teams opt for those experienced players over more talented, lesser-known commodities, simply to gain traction in the ever-changing sports news cycle? Would the league prioritize seeking out and acquiring those players to be dispersed among the team’s rosters, or would they be happy with a league slightly higher in quality of play on the field, even without those household names?

At the halfway point of the season, it’s clear XFL teams have eschewed NFL pedigrees in favor of scheme fit, talent, and youth. Just this past week, two high NFL draft picks were released from XFL rosters. CB Jalen Collins, a 2015 2nd round pick of the Atlanta Falcons out of college football powerhouse LSU, was waived by the Tampa Bay Vipers. It’s the second team that has given up on him as he was traded to the Vipers by the L.A. Wildcats during minicamp. Collins had been bumped to third-string corner after the Vipers acquired CB Trey Caldwell from St. Louis.

On the same day as Collins was let go, so too was S Matt Elam by the D.C. Defenders. In 2013, the Baltimore Ravens made Elam the final pick of the first round. While the release of Collins wasn’t a surprise given his position on the depth chart, Elam had just come off a game in which he led the Defenders with 12 tackles and a tackle for loss. Obviously not happy with his team’s defensive showing the last two weeks, D.C. head coach Pep Hamilton chose to make a statement this week.

The quarterback position is the one spot the league felt was so important, they were willing to pay a salary above and beyond any other position. Some quarterbacks were assigned to teams prior to the draft, again, the only position for which that luxury applied. Quarterbacks would play a large role in dictating the quality of play in the league, a major factor in the long-term viability of the XFL.

This is a spot where you’d imagine coaches leaning on those familiar names. But that hasn’t always been the case. While the Defenders built their offense around Cardale Jones and the Dallas Renegades did likewise with Landry Jones (when healthy – he was the first player signed by the league), other teams have found more production with diamonds in the rough.

Despite being assigned Philip Walker as their QB, the Houston Roughnecks selected Connor Cook with the second overall pick of the skill phase of the draft. Many outside observers expected Cook, a former 4th round pick out of Michigan State who started a playoff game with the Oakland Raiders, to beat out Walker. Instead, Walker, with zero NFL regular season games under his belt, has played like an early MVP candidate for the undefeated Roughnecks.

Matt McGloin, another former Raider, has spent time with four NFL teams despite going undrafted out of Big Ten powerhouse Penn State. He earned the starting job for the New York Guardians, but may have lost out on that spot to Luis Perez from tiny Texas A&M-Commerce.

It’s not just in-season moves that have been made that reflect the coaches showing a win-now mentality. Many high-round NFL draft picks were selected to be a part of the XFL draft pool, yet were not one of the 568 players chosen.

Running back Trent Richardson showed he still had some tread left on his tires in the Alliance of American Football last spring, but the former Cleveland Browns 1st round pick was left undrafted by XFL teams. Oakland Raiders speedster Jacoby Ford, a wide receiver out of Clemson drafted in the 4th round, met the same fate.

Robert Meachem had 103 games of NFL experience for the New Orleans Saints after being drafted in the 1st round. In October, no XFL teams came calling. The same goes for LB Arthur Brown (2nd round, Ravens, 2013), LB Khairi Fortt (4th round, Saints, 2014), and K Roberto Aguayo (2nd round, Buccaneers, 2016). Still others with similar backgrounds were a part of the XFL’s Summer Showcases, but not even invited to be a part of the draft.

QB Zach Mettenberger, a 14-game NFL veteran and former Tennessee Titan 6th round pick, is plying his trade in the Spring League this year. His name grabbed some attention when the XFL was recruiting quarterbacks for their draft. But he’s not on a roster. “It kind of blows my mind that the XFL hasn’t reached out to me,” he recently told Sports Illustrated.

The way the XFL and the teams have shown in every step of the player evaluation process, it simply means they believe they have more talented quarterbacks already in place. No knock on Mettenberger, but name value and pro experience has shown to mean little in the XFL. Talent, and what you can bring to the table today, trumps all. And given the high quality of play we’ve seen through four weeks, I’m not going to question that process.